One Brief Hour of Madness and Joy

Photo Credit:Jeevan jose/Unsplash

Shakespeare & Company is the iconic bookstore on the Left Bank in Paris. We checked it out while in the city for my fiftieth birthday in 2003. There was a great little place just out of sight of the camera where afterwards we sat al fresco and ate escargot and drank a carafe of wine.

Its predecessor, the first iteration, was founded by Sylvia Beach, who was the only one willing to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses, banned in the US for its language. Hemingway was a frequent guest there, as were many of the literary lights of the age. You could feel the history when you walked in.

My wife took a photo of me in front of the bookstore and one in front of the grave of Marcel Proust in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Yet another before the stone of Jim Morrison, whom I guess we’d call some kind of an American writer.

Hemingway called Paris a moveable feast and “the town best organized for a writer to write in that there is.” I have to take his word for it, because I didn’t have the balls then to have come out as a writer.

My first journey to the City of Lights had been in the winter of 1992. Freshly divorced and single, I had been planning a solo getaway to France and my friend, whose own trip to Israel hadn’t worked out, decided he’d come with me.

I still had a ponytail and a beard from climbing in Alaska. I had a motorcycle and smoked a lot of weed and cigars. I was a serious midlife cliché divorced man, adrift and wondering how I had managed to screw up my marriage and my kids’ lives.

Photo Credit:Tim Roosjen/Unsplash

We found beers for nine francs at the Louvre and never made it to the Mona Lisa. We noticed how Parisian women would lock our gaze and seemed flamboyant in their clothes and with their sexuality. We sat in the tabacs and bars some days, just drinking and watching. We’d start in the morning with coffee, then switch to various kinds of booze in the afternoon.

I don’t know if any of them knew we were American. A lot of Parisians seemed to. I had a beer with a friend of a stateside acquaintance who told me “You just look American. Not sure if it’s the walk or what.” It made me think of the scene in Chariots of Fire when the American athletes showed up for the Olympics and how the energy seemed to change.

We had big, open, bold spirits, proud of who we were. It was kick ass to be an American in Paris during two wanderings there, years ago.

I don’t know how I’d feel now.

The New York Times recently reported that “amid the pandemic and in the run-up to the presidential election, much of the world is watching the United States with a mix of shock, chagrin and, most of all, bafflement.” Our reputation, it was noted, seems to be in a free-fall.

Our American spirits are taking a beating, there’s no doubt. I’m certainly down a pint. This is no time to quit, however, brothers and sisters. There is food to nourish our American souls, grown from our American soil.

Whitman’s Leaves of Grass calls us —

To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate soul!
To be lost if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fullness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.

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