Originally published in The Purple Journal
Yes Sister yes. I was eyeing those Python shoes and I do know an obscene number of acronyms for public institutions. This is part of being French dear sister, and though I cannot vote, I am entitled to pay taxes to about 15 different public entities. And yes sister, everyone asks me if I miss New York, and I say yes with hesitation because touching its strange mutable skin, though so familiar, is like visiting a former lover who you may still love but whom you no longer wish to bury yourself into, no longer wishing to stay buried until some chime locks you out of your forgetting and summons you back to your work and poverty. So let me give you a summary of the last ten years sister, and if ever I should die on this strange soil please let them bury me here.
The first two years were hard. As you know E. and I split soon after arriving and I found myself in a shitty room in Barbes, looking for money on the street. Now I know, as should you sister, that if you look for money on the street you will find it. After hundreds of hours of waiting for my carte-de-sejour in the fascist, people-herding architecture of the Bobigny police prefecture I was awarded the right to work. It was already 1997, and I could speak a few words of French. So the first couple of years were a down-and-out debacle of loneliness, poverty and regret which I need not rehash as it’s been done many times already.
In Brooklyn I could look from my roof garden towards the Dominican parties, speakers turned out to the backyard and even the loose chickens seemed to be dancing. In Paris, noise is not well received and though I continued my efforts to make music, a lack of collaborators and a place to play made it difficult to enjoy. If I did make any noise there was always the police to contend with.
I must tell you sister that there is a point about which the French should not be proud. Neighbours will turn to the police before inquiring into the source or reason for noise. Denouncement is an unfortunately standard technique of “problem solving.” I would welcome a bit of Rugged Individualism here if it came as Mark Twain packaged it and not as Charlton Heston does. Instead we have Rampant Egoism tempered by Class Consciousness, and a million armoured police to weigh in if the million strikers get feisty. Those strikers are not striking for you or me sister, they are striking for their Own Damn Selves and their 35 hour work week. Don’t tell Dad they are not striking for the Betterment of Humankind, he will be very disappointed and I want him to continue to enjoy his visits to the site of Jean Juares’ assassination and the Place Jacques Duclos.
But sister I want to tell you happy things, let me think, we in Paris are reputed to excel in the domains of Fashion, Food and Love. Though I am only Parisian by adoption I will attempt to report on these subjects. As you know, Fashion perceived-by-brand is something to which I was immune in NYC. It was hardly even a choice, I was simply ignorant of brands. I didn’t know that YSL stood for Yves Saint Laurent, YSL was just an garish pollution slathered over the bags carried into Manhattan by girls on the subway. Louis Vuitton’s interlocked LVs was a similar eyesore representing cheap consumerism and gross conformity. My understanding of these things has changed substantially, even if the overall point of view has not. The trade of fashion is key to the existence of half the people I know. Am I contemptuous of the people for whom I work? Not really. I am often impressed by the artistry, neo-shamanism and labor that goes into this strange liquid of Fashion. I am astonished that there are companies which make a science of the ineffable whimsies of desire and taste. I have been momentarily seduced by the sex and money thrust into a ‘new’ look or new pair of sneakers. The relentless self-assuredness of the Canonical ‘precursor’ people who make their living by decrying the virtues of trends-to-be will always bewilder and annoy me. But dear sister, it works!
Entire economies are built on this strange arbitration of taste and desire. In this city it bleeds onto other arts. DJs don’t play records at weddings, they’re superstars who ‘know what to play.’ At this moment I can name a handful of ‘famous’ Parisian DJs, and not a single ‘famous’ Parisian musician aside from people who are dead or close to dead.
And speaking of Fashion sister, did you know it was fashionable to be from Brooklyn? No one in Brooklyn used to think so, though maybe that’s changed now. So, I tell people I’m from Brooklyn, they say “born and raised?”
I ran into a girl recently: French, fashionable, DJ… with two American guys. DJs from NYC apparently, though in reality from Jersey or some rich suburb of Philadelphia. Home-boys thought I, and said something of the sort. But sister, they didn’t believe I was from NYC! With baseball hats high and askew, they tell me I’m making it up to appear cool. With mullets and tiny John Galliano moustaches (see, I know who John Galliano is) they, the impostors, tell me that I’m faking my origins. They, trying so hard to be Brooklyn, cannot swallow that I am a Brooklynite. Maybe if I applied a Bensonhurst accent and lugged a skateboard around with me I’d have more pull with the expats on the Parisian street. I shouda throan dem candy ass muthafuckers a beatin’.
I should have told them all about the times I popped speedballs with Harley and Richard Kern’s ex-wife in my Williamsburg basement before Williamsburg became a hipster museum. I should have told them how I took my decrepit, beautiful ’73 Plymouth Scamp, V8, gleaming chrome, down to the abandoned house in Bushwick, which was the only house on the whole damn city block, the rest being rubble and trash, to go in and buy Crack off the Dominicans while the boys in the front room were too fucked and nodding to lift their guns off their laps and frisk me. Damn its sexy and fashionable to be from Brooklyn.
So here in the bar (or Café dear sister), where I am writing this right now, when I enter the boss says “Hello ‘Rican!” meaning not hello Puerto Rican but hello American. Here I am the American and not the Parisian. I pay taxes to fifteen different public entities but I still can’t vote.
So let’s turn to Food, my sister. I’m thinking… I’m thinking of the food in NYC. I’m thinking of the Castillo de Jagua on Rivington Street and their Sopa de Mariscos on Thursdays. I’m thinking of the baked pork chops at the Taza de Oro on Eighth Avenue. I’m thinking of Jamaican Beef Patties and their mysterious innards and $1.25 price tag, I’m thinking of the Bigos at Theresa’s and the Crispy Squid at the Chinese place facing the Centre Street Jail, fuckin’ pizza, one-dollar Mango Lassis, three course Indonesian meals for under $6.
Forget it, NYC has Paris beat food-wise, hands down. Ten year in however, and I really dig Andouillette and St. Marcellin. What is perceived elsewhere as an erudite kind of knowledge of French cuisine has come my way, which is handy, because I live here, but no more interesting to me than knowing where to buy fresh lemon grass. I’m appreciative however that I can read menus.
So my dear sister, I think I’ve covered most of what I intended to cover with the glaring exception of Love. I’ve shown this text to Eleanor and Joseph who seem to think that I’m trashing Paris and that I ought to restructure the text to critique and redeem which will give it a crescendo and release, and they asked me if I intended to trash Paris. I do not intend to trash Paris, I live here, and the Purple Journal has forbidden me from writing fiction and, because I do not know how to write non-fiction anymore, I had to write a letter to you sister, even though I know it is destined for the pages of a magazine and not an envelope with your name on the outside.
There is love here sister, it is slow-moving and cautious. It moves like the buildings, imperceptibly growing into the environment. It is thick-skinned, old and rigorous. The culture eschews the disposable, despite the injuries it has suffered from American industry and ever-shifting fashion. Whereas NYC sheds its skin every other Thursday, Paris permits the grime to accumulate until sand-blasters reveal and renew all it has already known, and I must admit sister, I appreciate the ingenuity we find in slow, so slow. Even in the cold damp which is actually the weather here, warmth drifts up from somewhere as I move out onto the street. It is warm to move quickly and contrapuntally in a slower tempo of grand ideas and illusions. All the self-importance can, by moment, be justified by the lingering origins of humanistic ideals which, for lack of a better place to start, are applied first to the self. The selfishness could be found to be rooted in selflessness, and the posturing in the damp ground where the buildings have managed to take hold without sinking for centuries. I have known trickery here, dear sister, but I have not known false love. I have known passing fancies here but I have not known fickleness. Loves and lovers follow me, not like shadows but as advisors illuminating my path, past and present. And in Paris, my sister, I welcome myself as a stranger.