Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gene McCormick- Poem of Paris

C’est la Vie:
June, 2014.

1. En route
Raindrops pelt oblong, heavy-duty plastic
economy class windows, teaming with
wind, thunder and lightning to cause
a flight delay of nearly two hours.
United’s 400,000 pound Boeing 777,
more brutish than sleek, waits loaded on the
tarmac, shut down by weather and runway traffic.
As the delay wears on, small plastic cups
of lukewarm water are distributed  by the
nearly all-female crew of flight attendants.  
The plum Paris run requires seniority;
the stewardesses tend to be mature,
married, and disinclined to put ice
in warm cups of water.

Once airborne above weather’s bumps and grinds,
cocktails are purchased, payable by credit card.
Cash is not acceptable so attendants don’t
have to make change. Canadian Club
comes in a plastic cup filled with ice
and a custom imprinted swizzle stick, scarce
nowadays even at the finest of saloons.
The Tourist once had a swizzle stick collection
from such as Sardi’s, Jack and Charley’s “21”,
Jack Dempsey’s, Toots Shor’s, selling the plastic sticks
to a collector who had to be reminded
payment was required.
“Oh,” he would say, “I’m sorry. I forgot.
I have the cancer. I have the cancer in my head.”
Eventually a check was mailed, and it cleared.

2. In Paris
By Parisian standards the apartment is neither large nor small. Floor-planned like a diminutive loft, the living area has a sofa bed, large flat-screen TV, coffee table, several pots of live flowers, and a glass-top breakfast table accommodating two. An obligatory painting of the Tour Eiffel, vintage Citroen parked at its base, hangs above the table and a counter divides the living and kitchen areas. A short hall leads to the bath—shower, no tub—and front door.

A balcony just off the loft area accommodates two chairs and a table large enough for a cheese plate, a bottle of wine and an ice bucket. The balcony terrace is separated from thin air by a three-foot wall with a railing along the top. Falling or jumping would be possible but not without reflection. Leaving the sliding glass door to the terrace open for fresh air, a black bee slightly larger than a well-fed fly soundlessly zigzags its aerodynamically impossible body from a flower pot to the kitchen where The Tourist loses track of its flight. It is never seen again.

3. Raining near the Louvre
Impressive, a round umbrella
spanning one-and-a-half people
as shelter from pattering rain.
And red! Not bright red, but red
with deep scalloped edges arched
like tunnels and tines arcing
to the apex of the tunnels.
It oozes élan with its circumference,
red covering, ebony shaft
and highly-grained wood handle.

Sidewalk passersby make do with small
fold-up black polyester umbrellas,
some with prints of ducks or fish;
a few hold a soggy newspaper overhead.
Hoodies are raised and tied.

In a jostling crowd the red nylon disc
is safe harbor,
keeping things as they are not.

4. The reunion
His niece, not seen in many years, wants
to meet, traveling from London to Paris
under the channel by high speed train for a
one night reunion, arriving early enough for
a stroll along Boulevard St.-Germaine shops.
They stop at a renowned patisserie and have,
for the first time, a macaroon: hers chocolate,
his fraise, and they are disappointed.
The circumference of a quarter
(though they come in several sizes) and thick
as several euros stacked atop one another,
the confection consists of a crackly fondant
shell and a flavored soft center inside
bready layers. Gone in a crunch or two, a trifle,
macaroons will not replace beignets.
A glass of wine at Le Café de Flore
will reverse the aversion for The Tourist
while his visitor window-shops the boulevard.
They will meet later at his first arrondissement
apartment near the Bourse.

As he enters the apartment his niece is in
the middle of a tryst with the young man
who hours ago politely served  macaroons,
effetely using silver tongs and lace napkins.
Seeing his tawny body between the pasty
English-pink legs of his niece, The Tourist
realizes the young man to be less feminine
than he appeared. They slow but don’t stop
as apologies are made for his stealth
and he exits, to return in a few hours,
pondering whether to get her a separate room
for the night for two reasons:
1). To rid his mind of the image of her grasping
pale legs, and 2) Ah, well, there is no second reason.

5. Au courant Couture
Pink, according to TV fashion channels,
is the color for this season, replacing
last years rust orange: blouses, skirts,
pants, men’s trousers, umbrellas…everything,
everything was rust or Fanta-orange
but so far pink has not been evident,
especially in men’s pants.
Flouncy is also haut couture: loose, flowing,
light and translucent to allow sun
to backlight the body’s figure,
but, again, not for menswear.

Sunday church bells peal, bells as ancient as their centuries-old housing. It’s an old sound, a frail clang not authoritative as is usually heard from Sunday bells.

Across the rue a twelve story crane rests, horizontal arm still, not even nudged along by winds as has been the case previous days. Occasionally a high-flying bird alights, flutters then flies off. The crane is huge: a yellow/orange skeletal stalk rising well above The Tourist’s balcony eye-level. Its arm is painted red, an alert for daydreaming pigeons, and is the length of a city block. Both the crane and its project are out of place among the old first arrondissement district but no more so than the Ivo Pei glass house pyramid in the Louvre courtyard, a five minute walk from crane to Mona Lisa.

So a new building is going up on ancient rue Bouloi, sleek and clean but to be topped by traditional red clay-colored rooftop chimney stacks.

Situated in one of those narrow old passages where trucks and vans block traffic unloading goods during morning rounds, the small—capacity twenty—restaurant, identified by a one-word red neon sign, has acquired the patina of age without charm. Still early for dinner, the restaurant is empty of customers except for the The Tourist until another man enters—white hair, gray glasses and a red face wearing a suit jacket and mismatched trousers too heavy for the season—and sits at the adjacent table. A friend of the waiter, they converse at length, in French, of daily matters. Once his meal arrives the man becomes quiet, sometimes whistling to himself; sometimes humming as he eats and works on a crossword puzzle, stealing an occasional furtive glance at The Tourist or having a word or two with the waiter. The only other sound is piped-in classical American rock music, fifties through the eighties. Given a complimentary dish of ice cream for dessert the man eats it all, scraping the sides of the dish with his spoon, which he licks front and back, leaving without a word to The Tourist but bumping his table on the way out.

8. Footsteps on the ceiling
Noted when half asleep, the sound seems
like footsteps in the air but no,
just steps from the above apartment
magnified by hardwood flooring
and night stillness.
There seems to be a pattern to the
footsteps: feminine though with
shoes of solid heels and soles; not slippers.
Late at night, footsteps are
the only sound in the building
and are easily, off-handedly, followed
on The Tourist’s under-side of the ceiling:
Here, there, finally to bed, the sound of a
woman as she walks alone.
Curiosity has The Tourist noting the time
she leaves for work but it would be creepy
to dash to the elevator as she descends.

It develops that the tenant is a female
in her late thirties or well-kept forties
who speaks no English but appreciates
the elevator door held for her as she exits.
Merci, monsieur.

9. Watch your step
Yes, there is the occasional bit of dog shit
on Parisian streets as dogs, chiens,
travel the rues, as welcome in restaurants
as a VISA Black card. It’s a trade-off:
Casting eyes downward some see chien feces;
others see fine legs jacked-up by the latest
French fashion stiletto shoes.
For every reminder that the occasional canine has
an owner unwilling to clean up for him
or is a companion of a street person
unable to do so, there are 10,000 shapely,
groomed and fit sets of female legs unadorned
by anything other than the sheen and coloring
brought about by a high Paris sun,
barely covered by stylish-again mini-mini’s.

Work continues on the construction project
across the rue from The Tourist’s apartment,
five hardhat workers including a female
cutting, sawing, hammering, pounding.
In an age of computerized cranes and digital
blueprints it is nostalgic to see a
tape measure pulled from a back pocket:
“Measure twice, cut once.”

11. World Cup 2014
Her face: one side is bright, almost white from
bright lights; the left half is dark, eclipsed.
Wearing only a Cameroon 2014 World Cup
Football tee shirt and shaking through a
Josephine Baker-inspired reggae dance
on the rue Rivoli, the African attracts an
enthusiastic crowd of midnight revelers.
Cameroon fans blow soccer horns;
some toss her a few euros.
Scott and Zelda would have jumped in a fountain.

The tenant in the upstairs apartment is active
this night, re-arranging sparse furniture
here, then there, then back again making
jigsaw pieces fit regardless. She seems in no
hurry, but this is speculation.

Sitting, waiting for his meal to be served, The Tourist notes nothing special about the restaurant, a pizza specialist common to the area.  The facing table, a four-top, has two girls in their early twenties and a man-child of about the same age. The girls speak non-stop French throughout their meal, usually with food in their mouth;  sharing a decanter of white table wine, the girls’ voices rise and their cheeks flush. The male companion sits quietly, listening but seemingly oblivious which was just as well because he is totally ignored, treated as though a brother. His face is inches from his plate, and if his hair were as long as his table-mates it would have been swirled on his fork like a ball of spaghetti. As it is, his hair is innocuously short. In fact, the only thing of any curiosity about him is a heavy chrome-plated wristwatch with a dark leather band about three inches wide. Digital, it eliminates the need to differentiate between the big hand and the little hand.

The Tourist’s table is jammed between a wall and a table for two occupied by businessmen wearing crisp white shirts, solid ties and black suit coats, table manners precise and meticulous. Getting up from the table is problematical for The Tourist, allowing him to rationalize two additional glasses of chardonnay  while watching the girls eat and chew and drink wine.

Like a yoyo in quarter time, the crane hefts
pre-fab building components to
the unfinished upper level then lowers
no longer needed pallets and equipment.
Wiping a sweaty brow, the lone female
removes her hardhat to allow her ponytail
to fall between her shoulders.

Stylish she is, with an English accent,
recently colored and coiffed hair and five rings
on her left hand, each of them gold or gilt,
three of which are set with semi-precious stones:
amethysts, garnets, citrines.
The most prominent of the rings,
on her middle finger, is set with a circle
of quartz chips which catch The Tourist’s eye
as she waves her hand about,
signaling the waiter, making a point.
A large onyx adorns her right hand,
her necklace is of pearls with half-inch
silver spacers. As she speaks, the words
are also semi-precious, referring to the server
as “that guy.” Another Chablis? she is asked
and responds “Yeah, I’ll have another glass,”
looking at him as though he were
trying to pad the check.

A lack of savoir faire is reflected by the fact
that she didn’t try to flirt with—in fact, ignored—
any male in her line of vision,
including The Tourist.

Germaine  Hillaire Edgar Degas (nee de Gas), the impressionist master of break-through paintings of ballerinas, racehorses and laundry women, reposes in Cemetaire Montmartre in an unkept crypt on Montebello path. It is one of the very few such tombs that hold open house; the door is unlocked, ajar, and entry seemingly encouraged. Inside the small foyer there is a ledge on which drawings and other sentiments have been left, homage to the Great One. There are also dried leaves about, mixed with common debris that seem to be several seasons a-laying. There is no effort on the part of the cemetery to highlight the site, nor to sweep it out, although the front door of the tomb bears a facial likeness of Degas, not as yet vandalized.

It is a short walk from the cemetery to 6, rue de Clichy, a narrow apartment building where Degas spent the final years of his life, a fact commemorated by a plaque above the front door and by an upper level window-box of flowers. Clichy is a commercial street and Degas’ Pigalle-area home is bordered by tawdry businesses of a common type he would have considered apt subject matter had they existed at the time and had he by then not been totally blind.

17. Dozing at the d’Orsay
Waking with a start, the museum guard
looks about: everything in place,
no bare spots on the walls,
no missing masterpieces.
The room is overheated,
there are few mid-week visitors.
His chin again droops to his chest,
red jacket straining its gold buttons
as he squirms to a comfortable position
on the plastic chair. By closing time
he will be well rested, and then what?
—an evening of chahut at the Crazy Horse.

18. Let them eat cake
Not a shock, but the Conciergerie,
built to be a royal residence along
the Left Bank of the Seine but in essence
the jailhouse in which Marie Antoinette
was retained for months waiting to be
guillotined, has morphed into more of a
schlock touristy destination than a
shrine to the out-of-touch king’s wife.
Her cell is not her reality cell but a likeness
with modified replacement furniture
and a black-shrouded mannequin
—its back turned to the gawkers—
representing M. Antoinette.
Two gendarme dummies stand guard 24/7.

Heading west along the Seine’s
Right Bank, the #69 bus crosses at the
Pont du Carrousel to the Left Bank,
navigating narrow rues built for horse
and carriage, not double-bodied busses,
dropping The Tourist at Auguste Rodin’s former
home and studio, now a museum and gardens.
There are paintings to be seen on the
museum’s walls along with other artifacts,
but the attraction is the statuary
throughout the gardens, chopped, hacked
and chiseled from marble blocks by Rodin
and his assistants.
The still, smooth white bodies—most with all
of their body parts intact—are frozen
in various configurations; holding, kissing, loving,
dancing and thinking, all taking place in front
of Rodin’s masterwork, The Gates Of Hell.

With the sun still high, the #69 returns
The Tourist to St.-Germaine for drinks at
Les Deux Magots, opening personal gates to hell.

Another layer has been added to the building project facing The Tourist’s apartment. Pre-fab reinforced concrete wall slabs have been hoisted by the crane, secured by the construction crew. Earlier in the morning there had been shouting followed by the sing-song (SING-song, SING-song) sirens of emergency vehicles but they flashed past the work site and the shouting soon faded, replaced by workday routine. Windows haven’t yet been added but it will require a miracle of design to convert the Saltine box look of the construction into anything more than an example of twenty-first century Bauhaus.

Along Boulevard de Clichy in the midst of
Pigalle strip clubs, do-it-yourself
sex shops, hookers and hustlers
there is an old merry-go-round,
wooden horses of the 19th century,
where for a few euros fauve-inspired
painted equines gallop about, creating
wind in the face breeze, and heard above
the wind, Fellini-esque calliope music
suggests guilty pleasures.
There is no longer a brass ring to grasp;
too many children and drunks fell off
their oak mount trying to snag the ring,
good for a free ride. The merry-go-round
offers horizontal circles which cease
only when the music ends.

For the price of a glass of house table wine,
peeling-paint wooden horses
and tired circus clown music
offer escape and fantasy,
if not a brass ring.


  1. Love these Paris sequences....wish Gene would have also sent scans of his lovely paintings to accompany each vignette! But perhaps these will eventually be published in an illustrated book? (hint, hint....)

  2. I think I see a chapbook in here, for sure. And as cool as Gene's paintings are, his words paint pictures as clear as any picture. Great stuff!