Maybe we'll meet again in Paris
I arrived in Paris with a flimsy plan. It was Seoul Korea all over again. I had very little money and one week to stay in the city before I could get my flight back to Tokyo. My plan was to go to Shakespeare and company and ask if I could stay in the bookstore in exchange for helping out. It was a well-known fact that traveling poets and artists would be granted a place to sleep as long as they were willing to work. The shop was run by an old man named George Whitman. He was born in 1913 in the United States of America. I remember walking up the creaky wooden stairs to his room. He was reading a newspaper spread wide so that both of his arms were outstretched with the edges of it in each hand. He slowly lowered the paper and examined me from head to foot. Then he said, “What are you talking about poetry? Where've you published? What kind of poetry do you do? It doesn't matter! This is not a flophouse. Do you think we just take vagrants here? Get out!” I was devastated because I really didn't have a backup plan. George's daughter, Sylvia, was a radiantly beautiful woman who had a soft kindness in her eyes. She looked very sad when she found out that I had been refused by her father. Considering there were many people my age staying at the book shop who were not writers, we both knew the real reason why I was kicked out. George was a relic from the not too distant past. I am sure his response had more to do with the color of my skin than the anthologies I have published in.
I learned early in life that I have two choices. I could let racists dictate how I was going to live my life or I could steer that ship myself. It didn't matter what color the racists came in, I am the captain of my own vessel. I had gone to Paris to be at that bookstore just like many poets who had come before me. I wasn't going to leave until I was satisfied. I damn sure wasn't going to let George ruin it for me.
On my way out of the shop, I was stopped by one of the resident artists at Shakespeare and Company. His name was Johnny Bodman He was covered in tattoos and looked to me like Mel Gibson had joined a motorcycle gang. I'll admit, I was suspicious of the dude at first. I wondered what he wanted and why he was being so kind. I told him what had happened and that I had nowhere to go. He offered to take me to an Internet cafe and work with me until I could find a place to stay. The whole time, I was watching him very closely, waiting for him to slip up and show his true motive. Fortunately for me, his only true motive was to help someone in need. He found me a vacancy that was way more expensive than I would have liked. I could only afford to stay there for one night
In the morning, I went back to Shakespeare and Company and found Johnny there with Sylvia and a few others. They were cleaning and preparing for the day's business. Johnny told me about a youth hostel he had seen near the book shop and suggested I go check it out. I went there but they were all full. On my way back, though, something miraculous happened. I ran into two close friends of mine from Tokyo, Amadou and his beautiful wife Tomoko. They had come to Paris to visit some of Amadou’s relatives from Senegal. It was as if my Guardian Angel had planned everything so that we could meet on that street corner near Notre Dame. Amadou spoke French, so he volunteered to help me call around the area to see if I could book a youth hostel. For some strange reason, every place he called was full. After many tries he finally found a place within walking distance of the bookstore. The problem was it was full too. They only had space in the storage room. Amadou negotiated for me to stay in the storage room for one night at a discounted rate and then move to a regular room for the rest of the week. He saved my life because I would not have been able to afford anything but a youth hostel. My funds were so low that for one week I ate a four euro kebab once a day and that was it. I had just enough left over for cheap wine, a book, and breakfast at the airport on the way home.
Later that evening Amadou invited me to go to his cousin’s house for dinner. It was the only proper meal I had eaten the whole week. He bought large gallons of wine for about €5 or so each. I expected the wine to be the most horrendous thing I would ever drink, but it turned out to be very nice. Tomoko had learned to cook Senegalese food. She was in the kitchen with the women making up a dish called Superkanja. It's made with beef, whitefish, okra, spices and rice. We all sat around the table, drank wine, and laughed. When the food was ready, the women brought it out in a great round serving dish. Everyone sat around the table with a spoon. I expected someone to bring some bowls or plates. I was surprised to see everyone just digging into the main serving dish. It is Senegalese tradition for families to share one single bowl. As you eat you keep a polite boundary so as not eat into someone else’s space. It was a powerful thing for me to experience because I could feel the human connection. I could also feel that I was accepted as part of the family.
After dinner, I returned to the train and made my way back to Notre Dame, which was the landmark closest to my youth hostel. Shakespeare and Company was right across the road from the iconic cathedral. My room at the hostel was shared with five other people. We basically used it as a place to sleep so I never got to know them. I spent most of my days hanging out at the bookstore with Johnny and the other people that I had met. Despite the racist old man’s rejection of me I made it a point to be present. I had short pleasant talks with his daughter about life in Paris and the bookstore. I goofed around with Johnny and the other residents. At night we all got together and walked along the Sene with our bottles of wine. People were always there playing instruments, smoking weed, drinking, and having some sort of party. We've sat in on a few jam sessions and enjoyed the night. It seemed like every few 100 meters or so we'd pick up a new friend.
The bookstore was having a poetry reading session in a few days. That is why I had traveled to Paris. The man who was in charge of the session was a tall, pale British man. When I asked him if I could participate , he gave me the same up and down stare that George had given me the day before. He then preceded to make a litany of excuses as to why I would be unsuited for the poetry session. It was plain see that he and George were from the same era and that they shared a certain allergic reaction to people who looked like me. Although I was disheartened, I certainly wasn't ready to give up. It would be a few more days before the poetry event. I spent the time having adventures with Johnny and the other residents. We visited the Sene and ate baguettes along the River. We almost got into a fistfight with the homeless who often came to harass Sylvia. And we met many travelers who came by the shop to hang out with us and have a chat. George even let a few new people stay in the bookstore. Of course, all of them were white and none of them were poets.
On the day of the poetry event, I saw the organizer. He looked at me very mockingly and said in front of the entire room,“I see you are here today. It's such a shame that you did not bring any papers with you, otherwise I might have let you read.” His accent was high posh and dainty, as if he was born of British nobility. I knew he had only made that statemeant because he saw I was empty handed. He wanted to seem fair and unbiased to the many people who were packed into the bookstore. Unfortunately for him, his comment backfired. I had several poems memorized and was ready to go. I quickly stood up and said,“ I don't need papers I have mine in my head. If you don't mind I'd like to do one now.” The shriveled old man stammer and tried to stop me, but the crowd started to applaud. There was no going back. To save face, he had to honor his own words and allow me to continue. I delivered my poem with the usual affliction of stage fright. My hands and legs were shaking with my voice as I called down my power from the heavens and bellowed forth my verse. When it was over, everyone in the room stood up and gave a loud round of applause. The old shriveled man looked surprised. He did not expect me to deliver the goods. He might have even said something if he wasn't already chewing on shoe leather.
After the event, many people came to shake my hand and pat me on the shoulder. Johnny came from the bookstore with his mischievous grin and tattoos ready to drink and celebrate. We went to a cafe near the bookstore where they served absinthe. Although the drink was illegal in the United States and Japan, it was quite legal in Paris. It packed a very powerful, almost hallucinogenic punch. I drank so much of it that I somehow ended up wandering the city with a girl I had met from the bookstore. She was a customer who kept coming back to hang out with us. After our night with the green faery, she invited me to go back to her flat. I followed her like a child following the Pied Piper. I think she just didn't want to go back through the city alone at 4:00 AM or 5:00 AM. As I was sitting in the train waiting for it to go, I'd suddenly had a moment of clarity. I remembered that I had a flight back to Tokyo later that afternoon, and that I needed be at the airport by 12:00 PM. I knew that if I had gone with her, I would not have made my flight. When I told her that I had changed my mind she was upset. She pleaded with me to stay, but I jumped off the train just before the doors closed and watched as she looked at me sad and rejected through the train window.
It was 5 or 6 am and the absinthe was still running strong through my body. My directional dyslexia was amplified by the fumes of wormwood coursing through my veins. I could not find my way back to the youth hostel even though I had gone down the same road several times a day for a week. I think it took me about 2 hours to finally stumble upon the correct route. That might have also been how long it took me to sober up. I went to my room where the other occupants were sleeping, quietly stuffed my things in my suitcase, and rolled it out into the street. I was able to make it to the airport just in time to catch my flight. On the way, I felt bad because the night before, Johnny, who had been so helpful to me, needed money to buy a book from the store. I had €20 in my pocket but that was all I had. I could have shared it but I wasn't sure if I would need the money later, so I told him that I was completely out of cash.
I was sad to say goodbye to Paris. The week I spent there was one of the happiest times in my life. There was something very very magical about it. I still keep in touch with Johnny, who now spends his days helping recovering addicts get their lives in order. Maybe we'll meet again in Paris as old men. We'll sit on the bench in front of the bookstore with our baguettes, avocados, and bottles of wine, reading poetry and laughing about nothing at all.