Category Archives: Reminiscence

Hitching a Ride with “the Freeway Killer”

No Nukes demonstration, San Onofre, CA, August 6, 1977

If Bonin was in jail until October of 1978 … then who picked me up?

August 6, 1977 — It wasn’t looking good. A late start, leaving the “No Nukes” demonstration on the coast at San Onofre in the afternoon, a couple short hops through most of Orange County, but now I’d been standing with my big, orange backpack at my side, alone for over two hours, on a quiet on-ramp on the eastern end of San Bernardino, California, the last outpost of civilization before the freeway ascends through the colored layers of smog to Cajon Pass, and from there, into the Mojave Desert. I was hoping for a full ride, the four or so hours to Vegas in one trip, but it was dark, there was no traffic on this ramp, and I wasn’t getting anywhere.

As I turned my head to avoid the hot sand blowing at my face, a big, dark, slightly dented, Econoline van drove by slowly. The driver checked me out and kept going. About ten minutes later, I was pretty sure, the same guy drove by again. That was weird. Most people don’t go back to pick up a hitchhiker. But it wasn’t unheard of. Somebody looking for company on a long drive might do just that. This time he slowed, rolled over the curb, and lowered his passenger-side window. He was roughly my age, a bit geeky, dressed almost formally, as if he were a waiter, or had been in some kind of performance, but frumpy in a wrinkled white shirt and black pants, with greasy dark hair. He offered to drop me up the freeway at the far end of town. Considering my current location, I hesitated. I wasn’t fond of the spot, but I knew it was near the train station, downtown, and if I got desperate I could make my way there, maybe catch a train, at least be around more people. Before I could reply, he suggested, “Tell you what, it you don’t like it, I’ll drive you back here.”

“Deal,” I said, and hopped into the passenger seat, holding my packpack between my knees.

The usual obligatory conversation ensued—he was a piano tuner—I nodded, without making any comments or asking questions that might come to mind—me, a student going to visit family in Las Vegas. I didn’t like sharing too much information, and I was already a little suspicious. In hitchhiking, it’s always a balancing act – you want a ride, you’re relying on the generosity of strangers, you want to give people the “benefit of the doubt” without being foolish, and you always should be a little suspicious. Up to that point my only misadventures had been with sloppy drivers who were drunk, or stoned, and once, the awkwardness of politely turning down an older woman who came onto me verbally.

The van was empty, the inside walls painted; I didn’t see anything unusual. I was watching the street, making sure we were staying near the freeway. I didn’t want to end up in some unfamiliar downtown, in the dark, late at night. In hitchhiking, you cling to the big busy roads like a lifeline.

We were clearly on the outskirts of town when he pulled over at a deserted on-ramp, and said, “Here it is!” I couldn’t believe there could be an on-ramp darker, or more isolated than the one I had come from, but here it was.

I made no move to get out of the van. I told him, “Ok, I’m going to take you up on your offer. Drive me back.” Maybe slightly surprised, he did.

Very shortly after that (too soon, it seemed, as if this second guy had gotten a phone call just as quick as the piano tuner could get to a phone booth at a Seven Eleven to tell him that I was there at the downtown on-ramp), a guy in a Subaru Hatchback pulled over, told me he was going to Victorville. Not all that far, but out of the urban desolation, in the desert, and with a couple of large truck stops. After the piano tuner, I was relieved that this guy wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt, like almost every other guy in Southern California, was maybe a few years older than me, but not much; he appeared to be pretty normal. I’d been stuck too long; any ride was worthwhile, and hitch-hiking into the night was okay. As long as I was moving. It was the being stuck that was awful. Waiting under some streetlight near an on-ramp with no traffic whatsoever, in a strange town. That’s the worst.

I threw my backpack in the back of the car. As I climbed in I noticed that compared to the skinny piano tuner, this guy was short and stocky. He made some comment about my build, that I was a “big healthy guy” or something like that, and asked if I studied any martial arts, which immediately raised my suspicion another notch, although I said, “No,” and I climbed in. He told me he had to make a phone call then we would be on our way. This was before cell phones. He drove a few deserted blocks into San Bernardino and parked within sight of a pay phone. He walked to the phone booth, and was there for a what seemed a very long time. Thirty minutes? He seemed to be arguing with someone. He made a lot of hand motions and kept glancing back at the car.

So many years later, I have no idea what I was doing at the time. I think I was super-focused on getting the hell out of San Bernardino, and on the road, moving, making progress toward a destination, and it seemed that this was my best chance.  Now, I imagine this guy was talking to his partner, discussing if I was a candidate for murder, what he or they would do with me. Was he trying to ascertain if I was scared? Would I hop out and try to get away? How best to subdue me? I remember thinking I had my hunting knife in my pack, if this turned out to be a really bad situation, and obviously if I was thinking about that, I probably shouldn’t have stayed there. I sat in the car, waiting, and I passed the test for gullibility.

He finally came back, and we headed onto I-15 toward Vegas. At first I was relieved to be getting underway. It was after midnight. We drove out onto the highway and into the dark empty desert night in relative silence for 30 minutes or more, passing uneventfully through progressively more deserted tracts of rising foothills.

Was he touching my thigh? Almost everyone who has a “bad” hitchhiking story will tell you about some driver putting his hand on their leg. I’d heard a few. He touched my thigh. I wasn’t sure at first that was what he was doing, and tried to ignore it. Thinking how bad I needed the ride, I was getting scared, but angry too. Jeez. I brushed his hand away, as if he did it accidentally. I looked at him, his eyes were glued to the road. Within a minute his hand was back. I told him, “Stop it.”

“Stop What?” He asked, not quite innocently.

“I am not gay, and I have no intention of becoming gay tonight,” I said firmly.

“What are you talking about?” He asked indignantly.

“Look,” I said, “It was your hand on my leg. Keep it off.”

He gave a little snort, then got very quiet, but kept driving, his eyes on the road. I was trying hard to remain calm and not panic, but I was considering how I could get out. Would I have to abandon my pack with my sleeping bag, knife, and other means of survival? Maybe I could pull the keys from the ignition and throw them out the window into the sand and tumbleweeds?

We were not yet to Victorville, I had no idea where we were, because those minutes felt like hours, maybe they were hours, I was just praying we would see a truck stop where I could get out and be visible under some light.

A cross road appeared with an off-ramp, and with a finger, he flicked his turn signal.

“I’m not going any farther. I’m going to turn around here.” He said.

I looked out the window. A narrow road snaked off into the desert at a right angle to the freeway. Way off in the darkness lights twinkled at a big house or ranch. He pulled over. I don’t think it even occurred to me at the time that he might have a pistol.

“Here?” I asked. “Where am I going to get a ride here!?”

“Maybe you can walk up there and get a ride,” He pointed at the lights in the distance.

“Ok,” I said, opening the door, and trying to climb out while grabbing my pack from the back seat at the same time so he couldn’t pull away with it still inside. But he didn’t. He was done with me at that point. He stayed in the car. I got quickly to the side of the road, watched while he turned the car around and headed back toward the freeway, and then, figuring he was still watching me, I began to walk on the asphalt toward the lights in the distance, terrified that he would come zooming back, thinking that I could jump off to the side, and into the desert, where, having grown up in the Southwest, I might have some advantage. But his tail lights kept getting dimmer, and smaller, fading into the distance.

I could hear music and voices from the lights at the house across the desert. Maybe there was a party going on or something. I considered walking all the way there. But since I had already given him the impression that was where I was going, I waited until his red tail lights were completely out of sight, and then I turned around and reversed direction.

I walked back to the big circle of asphalt where the off-ramp swung around the freeway to meet that desert road. I walked into the middle of that circle, where I was sure I could hear or see a car or even a pedestrian coming from any direction. I found a low spot, hidden by creosote and big tumbleweed, and settled there. I got out my hunting knife and slipped it into my pocket, laid out my sleeping bag. I was exhausted. I had this idea that he would come back looking for me. I probably didn’t sleep at all. Once or twice I got up when a big semi rushed past on the freeway, but there was no traffic on the side road for the rest of the night. I didn’t sleep.

The next morning I walked back to the freeway as the cool air grew warm, and probably walked another mile or two to a big hillside truck stop. A line of hitchhikers with signs stood or sat at the turn off. Standard “protocol” for hitching – you get in line and take turns getting rides. “First come, first served”. And of course the driver always had veto power. “I’ll take you, but not you.” According to protocol I would have to wait until the six or eight hikers who got there before me got their rides before I could get mine. Suddenly I remembered that my folks were expecting me. If everything had gone well, and I had not been stranded in San Bernardino, I should have been to Vegas late last night. I walked past all the other hitchers to the gas station, to check it out, and use the bathroom. When I was done, I walked out to the pumps, two cars gettting gas. Fuck it. I had had enough of this shit. I walked over to a middle-aged man with a crewcut standing next to a dusty blue 4-door Maverick. “Hi, are you going to Vegas?”

He quickly sized me up, replied, “I am.”

“Would you be able to give me a ride? I’d sure appreciate it.”

“You going there to gamble?”

“No sir, I grew up there. I’m going to visit my folks.”

“Okay,” he said affably, “I just gotta finish filling my tank, and we can go.”

“Thank you, I don’t have much money, but I can give you ten dollars for the gas.” I offered, adding, “It’s been a long night.”

He shook his head no, and motioned me to get into the passenger seat.

He smoked Camel plain ends the whole way, with his window down. The smoke bothered me some, but I was so relieved that he seemed normal, chatted in a friendly way, and kept his hands to himself. I don’t remember much about him except that he was an ex-marine and had done some hitching himself.  This is true of most “rides”. They have compassion, they pick you up because they’ve done it. The rest of the trip went by very fast. I did not sleep. He dropped me off at the Sahara Blvd. exit, only a mile or so from my folk’s house, and I thanked him.

I started walking up the hill where the Wonder World store used to be, where I bought my first LPs, and I’d hardly walked ten yards, hadn’t put my thumb out, when a yellow Datsun pickup pulled over. Wow. Another ride. I was kind of thinking maybe I’d be better off walking, when I realized it was my brother Rob, hopping out of the cab. He threw my pack in the pickup bed.

I was home. After explaining why I was so much later than expected, my parents offered to pay my Amtrak fare back to LA and I gratefully accepted. And that was my last solo hitchhiking trip.


*** For years I was sure that mine was a lucky encounter with William Bonin, one of three “Freeway Killers” active in Southern California around that time. (And not to be confused with the “Freeway Strangler”, who specialized in female victims). And at the time I was hitching, I was aware of there being “freeway murders” of hitchhikers . I was twenty-one, had hitchhiked with friends and alone up and down the coast, and to Tucson, Phoenix, and Palm Springs. I was young.

Bonin was known to have several accomplices who helped him procure victims, and who accompanied him on his murderous forays in his Ford Econoline van. I figure that the first “victim pickup attempt” failed—because I didn’t like the second ramp—and after the weird piano tuner returned me to that first on-ramp, he immediately called his partner to come and get me  in the hatchback.

Other than telling this story to friends and family, I never thought much more about it. Years (actually decades) later, I was exchanging emails with the late writer and friend Anthony Bruno about his biography of “the Iceman” mob killer, commenting that professional hit men are actually serial killers who have found an accepting home. Recalling my experience brought up a wave of angst that wouldn’t go away, and feeling that the Internet gave me access to information I never had before, I began reading about Bonin and the other “Freeway Killers”. I confirmed that the timeline didn’t seem right, even though the one or two photos I could find of Bonin looked to me like the guy who dumped me out in the desert. But it was a long time ago.

I left LA after an anti-nuke rally at San Onofre, August 6, 1977. (If the Wikipedia records are correct,https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-nuclear_protests_in_the_United_States “…about a thousand anti-nuclear protesters marched outside the San Onofre nuclear generation station, while units 2 & 3 were under construction.“)

If Bonin was in jail until October of 1978 and didn’t meet his two main accomplices, Vernon Butts (whose description fits my memory of “the piano tuner”) and Gregory Miley, until after he was released from his incarceration in 1978, then who picked me up?

If it wasn’t Bonin, who was it? Or, who were they? There are a number of similar unsolved murders from the same time. The geography, Econoline van, and apparent Modus Operandi, appear to match that of Bonin, not of Kearney or Kraft, the other “Freeway Killers”. Essentially, in my case, no crime was committed, just a lot of weird, scary, and intimidating shit. Maybe the two San Bernardino “pick ups” were completely unrelated. But they sure seemed oddly related to me at the time. Even the couple of documented “failed” Bonin attempts sound eerily like my night on the road to Victorville. For all I know, if I hadn’t spoken up, if I hadn’t stood up for myself and spoken out and drawn the boundaries, I might have been one more mutilated corpse discarded by the side of an LA freeway.

I include links and notes here if you want to read more, but I must warn you that these crimes were not just “simple” murders. They consist of absolutely horrifying torture and mutilation of victims. Read at your own risk.

Patrick Kearney (also known as the “Trash Bag Murderer”), killings 1965-March 1977, shoot victims in the ear with a .22 in his VW Beetle, or truck, apprehended July 1, 1977, serving 21 life sentences in Mule Creek State Prison, CA https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Kearney

Randy Kraft (also known as “The Scorecard Killer”), killings Sept. 71 to May 1983. Drugged his victims. Apprehended 1983, on death row at San Quentin, CA https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randy_Steven_Kraft

William Bonin, “the Freeway Killer” in 1975 picks up hitchhiker David McVicker (who survives), Murders May 79 – June 80, imprisoned Dec. 75 to Oct. 11, 1978. Drives an olive-green Ford Econoline when committing abductions. William Pugh 17, picked up in 1980, survives, because he was seen leaving with Bonin. Bonin executed Feb. 1996, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Bonin

Vernon Butts, part-time magician and occultist, meets Bonin in ’78, Bonin accomplice (one of 4) – Committed suicide (hanging) January 1981

Gregory Miley, meets Bonin in ’78, IQ of 56, accomplice of Bonin, dies in prison.

James Munro, at Mule Creek State Prison, Parole hearing postponed in 2014 because of threats to McVicker. Up for parole in 2029. http://www.ocregister.com/2014/01/23/aliso-viejo-man-worries-about-possible-parole-of-freeway-killer-accomplice/

William Ray Pugh – on murder of Harry Todd Turner, serves less than 4 years for manslaughter, and is released in late 1985.

— Christo

The Lambertville Swallow Sign Decline

2017/4/23-Swallow Sign Decline-02

Whatever happened to the Cliff Swallow colony that lived under the Lambertville-New Hope Bridge??

Friday, April 19, 2019— This Spring I saw Cliff Swallows at Center Bridge (at Stockton) and Bulls Island, but are there any Cliff Swallows nesting on the Lambertville-New Hope Bridge any more?

In short, yes. At around 10:00 am today, I counted 10 Cliff Swallows plunging from the underside of the Lambertville New Hope Bridge, flying erratically and quickly out, and up, and away, as they do, before you can snap a photo. That’s good.

But as recently as 2013 there were 75-100 Cliff Swallows nesting under the bridge and following those crazy flight patterns to catch insects and return them to waiting chicks. I’ve checked a couple more times, at different times of the day, but the news is no different. There is a small colony beneath the bridge. I will, check again later in the Spring. Meanwhile check out the slide show.

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Here’s what happened in the six photos above:

  1. The Frame started to come off the sign.
  2. Someone pushed the frame back on, and stuck a brick under it to hold it in place.
  3. The frame came off completely
  4. Something happened to the sign, it was removed, and the supporting panel remained.
  5. The metal panel attracted stickers and graffitti
  6. The graffitti-ed metal panel was removed, leaving just the sign post.

May 1, 2019 — I promised an update. In March I wrote a query on the Contact form at the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission web site.

DRJTBC Contact Form – Christopher Plummer Submitted Web Contact Form

Submitted 2019/03/05 9:13 PM on:

Regarding the New Hope – Lambertville Bridge: Around 1981 the DRJTBC placed an informational sign for pedestrians on the Lambertville side of the bridge that commemorated the bridge as a home for the Cliff Swallows (birds) that have maintained a colony under the bridge, returning every Spring. (The Center Bridge- Stockton Bridge also has a similar sign.) The sign in Lambertville has fallen into disrepair in the past few years and has now disintegrated into a shiny steel rectangle plastered with stickers and graffiti. There is a DRJTBC number and barcode on the back of the sign by which it can be identified.

As a long time resident of Lambertville, I would very much like to see the sign restored with the art and information about the swallows that it once had. (I have photographs I’d be happy to share.)

Is it possible that DRJTBC could find a way to repair this sign?

Thank you.
Christopher Plummer

 

And then on April 1 (I’m not laughing), I got this response:

From: Joseph F. Donnelly jdonnelly@drjtbc.org
Subject: Response to your inquiry to the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge CommissionDate: 04/01/2019 at5:53PM

Christopher Plummer:
Thank you for visiting the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission’s website and using the “contact us” portal.
Please be advised that the New Hope-Lambertville Toll-Supported Bridge sign you referenced in your message no longer exists and was not produced by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC).
As I recall, the sign promoted how proceeds from the New Jersey Wildlife Income Tax Check Off were utilized to place artificial nests at the New Hope-Lambertville Tax- Supported Bridge after the bridge’s concrete walkway was replaced by a laminated timber deck walkway in 1982 (subsequently replaced with the current walkway in 2004). (Note: The formal name of the bridge in 1982 was the New Hope-Lambertville Tax-Supported Bridge since it was jointly owned by the two states until July 1987, when its ownership was transferred outright to the DRJTBC.) The Commission, which controlled the bridge at that time on behalf of the two states, cooperated in the post-project remediation efforts regarding the migratory swallows.
Please understand that there is nothing in the Commission’s meeting minutes or in our engineering department’s records that support your assertion that the sign was placed at the location by the DRJTBC. I found nothing in the official record that shows the Commission requisitioning, procuring, or paying for the sign. Regrettably, it’s unclear who exactly produced the sign.
What I can tell you is the following:

In conducting research for an historical account that I compiled on the bridge crossing’s200th anniversary in 2014, I noted that the sign had the headline “Cliff Swallows Benefit from NJ Wildlife Income Tax Check Off” and its content explained a swallow-nest remediation effort that took place at the bridge back in the 1980s (over 30 years ago). For your edification, the sign’s credit line said the illustration and design were by Doreen Curtin with a copyright of 1984, suggesting the sign was placed at some point during or after that year. It also said “Screen Printing by Aztec Graphics.” But the sign did not cite what agency or group produced it.

That said, the Commission is not in a position to repair the sign for the following reasons: 1. It had fallen into disrepair and had outlived its purpose in promoting a project that took place more than three decades ago. 2. The Commission did not produce the sign. 3. Whatever entity did produce the sign never maintained it after its installation.

While I can’t speak unilaterally for this agency on a matter such as this, it’s certainly conceivable the Commission would be open to considering installation of acceptable signage referencing the bridge’s swallows and/or swallow nests if some organization or entity were to again shoulder the time, effort, and costs of design and production.

– Joe Donnelly
Deputy Executive Director of Communications DRJTBC
New Hope, PA.

 

So…we have more information. I had forgotten the initial connection of the sign to the appreciation of the nests disturbed beneath the bridge and the careful restoration of ceramic nests in the hopes of maintainting the colony. I am quite sure that subsequent “upgrades” to the footpath over the bridge—which is now some kind of plastic-paint-covered metal—were not so attentive to the colony.
The sign disappeared mysteriously shortly after I sent my query. I don’t believe in coincidences.
Maybe we can get someone to step up and restore the sign as suggested by Mr. Donnelly? But first, I think it’s more important to restore the appreciation for the birds themselves, the Cliff Swallows of Lambertville, which appear to be in decline to the point of non-existence.
Peace Out,
— Christo

 

After Montmartre

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

France 2017-0037 – Version 2

There are times when I feel I have a pretty good handle on where I am in Paris and others when I admit that I have no clue. It’s the places in-between that prove the most difficult. Where I am neither confident that I know, but believe I have some vague idea that can’t be too far off, but which may ultimately prove to be delusional. The afternoon of our longest day was like that.

The afternoon was waning when we found a Metro stop at the bottom of the mont. We popped out as intended on the Left Bank at St. Germain Des Pres. Here Boulevard St. Germain skirts along a few blocks from the Seine. We walked North in search of a café or bistro where we could catch a late lunch.

I had on a previous trip explored the Boulevard St. Germain for a few blocks behind Musée D’Orsay, and found the area a delight—full of small cheese shops, patisseries, and such. I also harbored the vague notion that many of the famous cafés were either nearby or situated on Boulevard St. Germain. Early that same morning, while still on our coach, we had zoomed past one of these “famous” cafes, the ones mentioned too frequently in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”. Was it the La Closerie d’Lilas? Or Les Deux Magots? Or some other? Who knows? Honestly, I don’t. (By the way, the Magots? What a name. What does it mean? It means, “The two stocky figures from the Far East“. I know. Weird. It’s about these two statues that are still inside. You read about it.) I read about them, I flash by in a bus, and of course I think, “Cool! Wouldn’t it be great to sit there where Hemingway did, watching while some minor literary acquaintance blithely and foolishly cuts Aleister Crowley, ‘the most evil diabolist in all of Paris’.” Well, maybe. But the guidebooks say these places are overpriced due to their fascinating histories, not for the quality of their fare. And in the end, it’s never the right time or convenient situation to sit “there”, and so I settle for something or somewhere else.

My memories of Paris when I first visited as a teen are so dim. I wish I had written a journal of that trip! Blogs didn’t exist then. Nor did personal computers or cell phones. It would have been a paper journal. Nevertheless, some images remain—old ladies sweeping the sidewalks of the Champs’d’Elyses with wooden brooms the brush ends of which consisted of tightly bound twigs. Men stood, unself-consciously relieving themselves at open public urinals built into the street-facing sides of buildings. Luxembourg Garden, which in my memory, that July, did not have any flowers to make it seem like a “garden”. At that tender age, in my mind, this was clearly more a “park” than a garden, and should have been called “Luxembourg Park”. Or maybe it was? In memory the street names remain—two especially, Boulevard St. Michel and Boulevard St. Germain, both of which must have been quite close to the hostel where we lodged for those final nights at the end of our Grand Scandinavian Tour. (Yes, I know, France is not part of Scandinavia. The tour started in England. We traveled by ship from Newcastle to Bergen, Norway, and a month later ended up in Paris.)

Looking at the Paris map now I wonder—did we stay at some residence in or near the Sorbonne? If nothing else I must have walked past it, the grand traditional Paris Art school, home of the Academy, that so many times rejected the brilliant innovations of Paul Cezanne. Unlike Van Gogh, he lived long enough to see some success and recognition from the traditional arts community. But without the sponsorship of his friend, the writer, Emile Zola, he might have never survived. Certainly not as an artist.

In any case, you may observe that I was wandering down Blvd. St. Germaine with Deb, guided roughly West and North as if in a dream, one touched slightly by pain, one consisting of Paris memories separated as they were by years and decades and all the life in between, with the purpose of finding some decent and possibly memorable place to sit, relax, and consume a meal. Boulevard St. Germaine ended and we moved unexpectedly onto the Quai d’Orsay, next to the Seine again. We intended to walk over to the other bank afterwards, where we would take the sunset boat tour, highly recommended by our French guide Christine, who had armed us that morning with the necessary passes. But before that we still needed to find a place to eat. It was a long march.

Map location Le RecrutementWalking away from the Seine, we turned onto boulevard la Tour Maubourg and settled at last at “Le Recrutement”, a pleasant, if not historical, café at the intersection of Rue Saint-Dominique. We recovered there with a couple of beers and the perhaps cliché, but definitely fortifying tourist fare of French Onion Soup for Deb and Croque Monsieur for me. We sat facing the street in the black and tan weaved pseudo-wicker plastic chairs apparently required by law, or tradition, or both, at every small Paris eatery.

The travel and sleep deprivation headache dissolved as we chatted, my eyes slightly glazed by alcohol and jet lag, reviewing our amazing long Paris day and the plans we had for the rest of it. The street grew dark and groups of women, young, and French issued forth from offices and apartments, sometimes alone, sometimes followed by young men, presumably on their way to evening social activities of some French nature that I could not discern. It occurred to me that these were three powerful image-conjuring words, worthy of a story, novel, or film, “Women, Young, French”. But it wouldn’t be my story, novel, or film. Not that evening anyway.

We finished our drinks and made the long walk across the Seine, and then along the Quai in search of the loading ramp for our particular tour. Which we located, and where we discovered that although several large and noisy tour groups were queued at certain points, for us, there was no wait.

Yes, still to come, more of that one day.

—Christo

Summer and Fall of 1979

🍎 When we were very young

…and now for a brief diversion from The Great France Art Tour of 2017

RailroadTracksI didn’t know when to expect Richard.

He was supposed to be riding the rails across the country, to show up in Boston sometime at the end of the summer. In the letter, he described how this journey was not to be.  Just a mile or so from Davis, California, he and his friend Jamie jumped from a moving freight. Richard wrote: “This was a mistake, I thought, as I plunged headfirst into the gravel… Jamie suffered a broken collarbone.

The tentative word was that he would arrive around the middle of August on the “Gray Rabbit”, an alternative bus company vehicle.

August 18

He showed up with his Chaldean friend Ed. Ed had thick, dark, wavy hair, a thick mustache and a middle-eastern complexion.  Ed was originally from Detroit, a Psych major looking into graduate and law schools. He and Rich appeared around the 18thand spent almost a week with Pal and I, sharing the apartment. They were both looking for work and seeing sights–I showed them around a bit, but we were all together so much and I tried to be alone with Pal on my days off.

Richard got a job in no time, hired at a food processing plant across the harbor, spouting Marxist doctrine about “experiencing the lot of the proletariat”,  he became an onion man on an assembly line.

“Well, how’d it go?” I asked him, noticing the strong odor of onions that filled the living room.

“I quit.”

“Really?!”

“Yep.”

“Well, what happened?”

“I wore a hair net. The foreman told me to space onions about six inches apart on the conveyor belt. So that’s how I spaced them, until two guys down the line started throwing onions at me; telling me to slow down. A big black guy came over and told me to space them twelve to eighteen inches apart so the guys down the line would have time to do their work. So I’d space ‘em that way until the supervisor would come over and tell me to put ‘em four inches apart, and I’d do that until he was out of sight.”

“Jeez. So what happened?”

“At the end of the day I quit.”

“What did you say?”

“’I quit.’”

“Yea, but what did they say?”

“The foreman said, ‘Too tough for ya, huh?’’’

“And?”

“And I told him, ‘No, but I’d go crazy by the end of the week if I had to do it every day.’”

Richard looked around some more for work, talking with Ed now and then about going to New Hampshire to pick apples.

August 25

 It seemed like they were always hungry. Pal doesn’t eat meat and I rarely do—we’d prepare a big meal, give them seconds, have no food left, and they’d still be hungry. Mind you, they did buy groceries and chip in; I was just astounded by their appetites. I imagined they wanted huge bloody chunks of meat and we were feeding them rice, beans, and tortillas. After about six days—I don’t know, call it my own uptightness or whatever, but their stay began to wear thin. Personally, I was simply bothered by my own ignorance of Ed. Ed didn’t say much. He’d sit and listen and stare with those dark eyes, nodding his head. When he did talk, he mostly talked about going back to Detroit, where people were friendly.

“In Detroit?” I thought.

******

I just wanted to be alone with Pal. Brad offered to put up our two visitors at his apartment. We finally got them to take him up on the offer the same day that they found a place on Marlborough Street in Back Bay. They could have the place through August for practically nothing, so they took it. In no time, Richard found a baking job at the Somerville Bel Canto and Ed began work as a bar boy at the Salty Dog down in Faneuil Hall.

We didn’t see much of them for awhile. Then we saw Richard somewhat regularly—he and Ed didn’t seem to be doing much together. Ed was lonely and didn’t think people were friendly in Boston. He was going back to Detroit. In one week his departure time shrank from “a month”, to “a few weeks”, to “a week”, to “Friday”, and he was gone to Detroit without our ever being able to bid him farewell.

Seeing Richard then was no problem at all.

September 1

Richard left to pick apples in New Hampshire. He had managed to get a passport in the time he was with us. He spoke of leaving for France after a short, profitable term as an apple picker.

We spent one long evening at the Café Pamplona, Brad, Richard, Pal, and I. We had fun; we were all pretty wound up. We didn’t speak softly as we often do at Pamplona; we laughed openly at the pieces of pretentious Harvard Square conversation that came our way. We all wished Richard luck. We made him aware of the possibilities: stiff neck and shoulders, apple chowder, apple pancakes, turnovers, pies, and apple sauce in the mess, and who knows what in the co-ed bunk house. And the next day Richard was gone.

We didn’t hear from him for about a week. The letter he wrote made it sound pretty dismal. Long days, hard work, not many apples. Then a week after that we got another letter.

September 12

Yesterday and especially today, it became everything I could have hoped it to be. It was exquisite today. Two reasons. First, in a scene out of a Russian novel, I and two others make our way down our respective rows of trees shouting, singing, laughing back and forth, calling to one another from the tops of our 15 foot ladders, hands flying among the branches, picking apples as fast as we could—all the time Great Topics hovering over everything. Religion, Literature, Philosophy, History – these and more tossed back and forth. “What does it mean to seek after God?” “Is Marxism a conservative doctrine?” “How does Nietzsche figure as a character in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus?” – some of the questions.

Bedo, a Whitmanesque figure, with a great beard and a great belly and a trunk of popular songs from the gay nineties and Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, stoutly defended his adherence to an obscure religious movement founded by an American mystic.

Jean, an ex-school teacher, marathon runner, sang fifties rock standards and spoke knowledgeably of his current passion, neuro-biology.

I played the part of the brash young man who thinks he knows it all, pestering each with question after question about their beliefs.

“You have a Socratic mind,” Jean told me, and I was very flattered.

Secondly, today was an all-out bust-ass competition. Bedo is an old hand, been picking for years. Jean and I killed ourselves trying to keep up. We did until 3:30 or so, and then Bedo pulled away. “SEVEN bins!” He called out. Jean and I were at about six and two-thirds. Hour or so later, “EIGHT bins!” Jean and I at less than seven and a half. We struggled in over an hour behind him; eight bins a personal triumph for both of us.

The next month or so should be very nice, very fun.

Take Care,

Rich
Brookdale Fruit Farm
Hollis, New Hampshire

******

September 16

“Chris?”

“Rich?”

“Chris! It’s Rich.”

“Hey Rich. So what’s up?”

“It seems the Peace Corps wants me after all. My parents got ahold of me at the fruit farm. I have to catch a plane.”

“Really!? So where are you now?”

“I’m downtown. I was wondering if I could impose…”

“Hell Rich! C’mon over! We’ll be glad to have you.”

So Richard showed up a couple days after his second letter arrived. Ready for yet another adventure. The Feds would fly him down to Pennsylvania for seven days for a final intensive screening, before deciding if he and the six other candidates are prepared to spend two years in Botswana, teaching natives how to run and repair diesel powered well-pumps.

That’s where he is now. He gets back to Boston Sunday. If they liked him, he’ll be around for about a month more before he leaves.

September 23

First day of Fall, Rich gets back, ice cream with Brad at Steve’s in Somerville. I had honey vanilla with Reese’s mix-ins. Brad had coffee with mix-ins, but I forget what kind.

October 8, Columbus Day

Leaf_Yellow
Pal is changing. I’m here in the living room. We just walked Ally, and realized we’ll need more than the clothes we have on when we leave. Today we are borrowing Brad’s MG Midget and heading out of Boston on a leafing adventure.

It was too cold to put the top down on Brad’s car, but we took Ally anyway. We drove to Concord, Mass. And then headed west and north, for New Hampshire. We chose our route with only two criteria in mind: That the road be in a wooded area, and that it be somewhat untraveled. When we came to intersections, we always took the road where the most traffic did not go.

Of course, it was beautiful. There weren’t many places where the leaves had “peaked” already, but everywhere we went the foliage was turning bright orange, yellow, rust, some leaves golden, and that deep, deep red against the still present greens.

“Ally, please lie down,” was the constant comment as we toured the countryside, our large, fluffy, white Samoyed, excited by the cool air, dancing on the rumble seat of the tiny MG Midget. “I can’t see behind us! Ally!”

We stopped in Wilton, a speck of a town just on the Massachusetts side of the border. There we bought cider, some delicious Vermont cheddar, and a dog biscuit for Ally. We walked her in the cold wind, then continued. We only went as far as Hollis, New Hampshire. That of course, is the big apple town where Richard found employ. We didn’t see the Brookdale Fruit Farm, but as we sat in a diner called The Corner Cupboard, munching our western’s and sipping corn chowder and coffee, we saw an old guy hitching up the road. For the absence of a beard, he could have been Richard’s “Bedo”. Plaid shirt, heavy coat bulging with a big belly, jeans, and rubber shin-high picking boots, just like those Rich came home with.

October 23?

Richard was leaving Saturday afternoon. Friday night Brad had Rich and Mary over for dinner. Pal and I just couldn’t make it. I was tired and Pal was trying to get the house cleaned up for the arrival of her friend Tom Smith.

Mary brought her Lebanese boyfriend, who has some shady past connections with Christian terrorists. He told them some interesting stories, I guess, they seemed most impressed by his belief that Henry Kissinger would be murdered “on general principles”.

Pal and I argued and fought and yelled violently at home before Tom came. There were reasons I suppose…but mainly because we were both exhausted. We left to meet Tom’s train at the Back Bay Station. It was late, so we went to the Half Shell, a small waterfront bar on Boylston Street, for a beer.

In the morning Tom and Richard accompanied Pal and I to Cardell’s. Cardell’s is a cafeteria-style restaurant. Tables are shared with Buddy’s Sirloin Pit (est. 1964), which luckily doesn’t open that early. Bran muffins, OJ, and coffee can be had for the best prices. The place is really a dive, but the sawdust on the floor and good prices, and certainly the unhurried atmosphere make it worthwhile.

“Well, this is it.” I kept telling Richard. Trying to get us both to realize that he was about to leave for two years.

***

Ally and I are in the backyard at Bigelow while I write. She is tromping around in the leaves, exploring, tied to a chain which is connected by a pulley to an overhead cable that spans half the length of  the yard. A good arrangement, I’m not sure that it was originally intended for a Samoyed, but more likely – to dry clothes. Vito’s marigolds are still blooming by the side of the house, yellow orange and orange tinged with red. The way things are going they’ll soon be covered by leaves.

Today is the day that the leaves fall from the trees. They’ve been sitting there looking beautiful in the cold crisp, bright and alive in their death throes for over a month. The warm Indian Summer came and seemed to put them out of place. They’re falling now like lasting snowflakes in the warmth, like teardrops on the wind, they flutter downward, covering the earth with rough golden rust.

Yesterday I got a letter from Rich. I guess it was the last thing he wrote from Las Vegas, saying he was on his way and he’d write when he got to Africa.

LeafRedThe afternoon has grown quiet as the sun stepped behind the buildings. Fluffy white clouds are passing rapidly overhead, moving against a grey, blue. Ally is lying on my leg now, beneath the picnic table. She stirs, and the deep dusty smell of leaves fills my head.

— Christo

Why Montmartre?

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Why Montmartre? This neighborhood is on most “must see” lists for Paris—often with little explanation. Even on my first trip to Paris, at age sixteen, I remember our Foreign Service League guide suggesting an optional trip to Montmartre on one of our “free” days, explaining that it was a funky, “artsy” area of narrow streets and open shops and stands. I imagined bearded men in berets, sitting on wooden stools, with their charcoal and drawing pads, easels, and thumb-tacked examples of reasonably accurate portraits and funny caricatures. (Actually, you will find those, even today in Montmartre and along the Seine.) I assume, more than I remember, that as a young man I was that day distracted by a young woman named Maritchu, who had her own plans, and she was not on her way to that part of Paris. I didn’t enlist for that side trip. I didn’t go to see Jim Morrison’s grave either. As I’ve mentioned, as is the case with any grand and ancient city, you can’t see it ALL!

And even on the Great Art Tour, I didn’t know much about the Impressionist connection. In my mind, I was thinking that the steps where Gil (Owen Wilson) is first picked up by T.S. Eliot in a Peugeot in “Midnight in Paris” had to be somewhere in Montmartre. I kept looking for those steps, but I never found them. (Probably because that first trip into the past occurs on the steps of the cathedral of Église Saint-Étienne du Mont on the Left Bank, definitely on the other side of Paris far from Montmartre.)

Bal du moulin de la Galette

“Bal du moulin de la Galette” by August Renoir

Nevertheless, the Moulin Rouge and Moulin de la Galette, are (or were, in their glory) located in Montmartre. If  someone mentions those names, somewhere in the back of my mind I conjure the memory of slides on a screen with vague colorful absinthe-blurred bar and club scenes by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas.  These are fairly accurate recollections. Renoir painted the festive, “Bal du moulin de la Galette” here. (Remember the men in their straw hats and the woman in the foreground in the blue and white striped dress?) And Degas painted “L’Absinthe” at café Nouvelle Athènes in the Place Pigalle at the foot of Montmartre in 1876. In the same year Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, brought him to Paris. Here he was neighbors with Georges Seurat and met Paul Gauguin, Lautrec, and others, and through their influence, and the influence of Paris scenes, his style became much more impressionistic.

"Windmills on Montmartre", 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Windmills on Montmartre”, 1886, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh painted many images of Montmartre, Paris, and the windmill and surroundings of the Moulin de la Galette, (the tall windmill, you can still see, although you can’t get very close). Without his paintings, it’s hard to imagine the hills of that district with a quarry, open fields and gardens. From the clock window of the Musée D’Orsay you can make out Montmartre, and Sacre Couer at the top, and the hill appears, like much of Paris, to be covered with buildings. Which it essentially is.

🚇A brief aside: Usually at the Metro station there is someone of some official capacity in attendance, usually in some kind of a booth, and usually that FRENCH person is there to provide assistance to travelers. Despite the reputation that Parisians are by nature hostile to Americans, I found this to be largely untrue. Although the difference in languages can be an obstacle, usually by pointing at maps, images, and familiar geographic names, and the patience of these attendants, you will get to the information needed to board the right train. I was most impressed one morning when we were leaving Bercy and I was asking the attendant for help, as I pointed on the map to the tiny image of the Musée Marmottan Monet. At least, that’s what I thought I was pointing at, and thought I was saying in my feeble French. We slid the map back and forth across the counter a few times, and as he was tapping on a blur that I think was the Metro Station that he thought should be our destination, I said, “Excuse me”, unfolded my glasses and put them on. At the same time, he pushed my map back at me, with neither a word nor a grumble, pulled another from a rack, unfolded it, and flattened it out in front of us. I smiled. The scale of his map was about four times larger than mine, and soooo much easier to read. He quickly marked it, and confident then that I knew where to go, I said, “Merci!”

Still more to come…

— Christo

Montmartre: Yellow 9 to Green 12

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Basilica_Sacre_CoeurWe left the Musée Marmottan Monet fully sated and strolled with satisfaction along our previous route. It rained of course, but it was not an ugly downpour and that longest of Paris days was still young. The Muette Metro station was all tangled up with construction and pedestrian detours. Deb wanted to see Montmartre, and that was clearly our next destination. By Metro it was fairly straightforward, really, take Number 9 (yellow Metro) to some giant underground knot beneath Paris where many of the routes collided. Somewhere there we would switch to the Number 12 (dark green Metro) with the endpoint of Aubervilliers Front Populaire, whatever that is, (for us, meaning roughly “North”).

Subway travelers know the importance of these endpoints–they indicate which direction the train is going –and, just as may occur when you are flying down the freeway and take the wrong exit and end up somewhere else, somewhere you had no intention of being, a similar error in the subway will put you on the wrong platform taking the wrong train in the wrong direction. In which case, I say, “Remain calm,” and let that train go if you are not sure that it is the right one, another one should come along soon, unless it is late at night, and, you can always wait patiently, unless you have had a couple of beers and you have a full bladder, pressing, pressing you with the urgent need to empty it, on a quiet platform, well-lit, with no toilet, no obscuring panels, only a few straggling waiting families and a booth with a tired guard dutifully observing all the closed-circuit television monitors as he fiddles with a pistol in his holster, and all you can think about is the long countdown of 20 minutes until the next train arrives, 20 minutes to hold yourself, 20 minutes that never seems to be less than 20 minutes, and if you’re not thinking about the longest 20 minutes you have ever lived, then you think about how could you have chosen the wrong train and ended up way farther away from your hotel than you intended, and you have done so well on the Metro until now, why now, late at night, getting later, but still the same 20 minutes left!! How could this happen? Do the French names of the metro endpoints really all sound the same in the end?

But never mind that, we got off the dark green Number 12 on one of the several Montmartre stops.

A moment monsieur!” Let’s look at the word “Montmartre”. I don’t comprehend it all, but half of that name suggests a hill, a steep hill, a mont. So upon exiting the metro and following the signs in the narrow, tile arched tunnels we are warned several times in Anglais, no less, that to exit here, we had better be able to climb up the 67 steps. Or was it 167? Or 617? Whatever, it was a matter of climbing many upward steps to the exit. Eventually we popped out in the gentle rain onto the winding narrow cobble streets of Montmartre.

Can any “touristy” part of Paris be more touristy than Montmartre? I don’t know. Which is not to say it’s bad. It is old, it is windy, it is higher than the rest of the city. Every little street goes either higher or lower. If it travels on level ground for a time, don’t grow complacent, and don’t be surprised, that little road will soon go either up or down. And by the way, just because the roads are narrow, don’t expect them to be for pedestrians only. There is not a great amount of traffic, but watch for the trucks and vans and motorcycles! Now, continue up and eventually, above the faded red terra cotta rooflines, you catch a glimpse of the cathedral domes of Sacré Coeur, which is about as high as you can go. We arrived at the base of the main entrance, below a pair of wide steps. At the top of these vast staircases, a road circumnavigates the temple, bordered by a few wide sidewalks covered with throngs of tourists enjoying the expansive views of Paris offered from that height.

We were delighted to discover that our Metro passes enabled us to skip another climb and ride the funicular up the hillside. While we waited, I spent a few minutes trying to assist a Japanese gentleman who did not seem to comprehend that the funicular was not free, it required tickets and payment. With English, a word or two in French, and wishing I knew more Japanese, I said, “Hi!” (Yes!), and finally got him to go to the ticket booth to ask for assistance.

I guess Deb has seen enough of the gaudy gold glitz and bleeding Jesus interiors of churches that she did not want to see this one. Which was fine by me. At the top, after taking in the panorama, we circled around and down, reviewing the restaurants and brasseries, many of which were not yet open. I stopped for a selfie at Chez Plumeau, for obvious reasons, and then found an open window crêperie where I ordered a breakfast crepe to go.

BreakfastAnd so we wound our way down, tripping down the cobblestone, stopping now and then to peek in little shops and absorb the changing views. To Deb, I mentioned that the Moulin Rouge was in the vicinity, and which from my last visit seemed almost like a wax museum–unless you took in the live burlesque I guess. No need to see that. We tried not to look at any maps, hoping that we would sooner or later come upon a metro stop. And it was later, later and many steps down before we, that is, I, resorted to Google maps to be sure I was taking us in the right direction.

I didn’t know it then, but our little expedition to the heights and long journey downward foreshadowed similar adventures in Eze, and Vence, and finally in Nice, where we wandered down the back of the mountain into the old city, where the houses and restaurants were all pushed tightly together, and shaded and cooled in the hot afternoon by their own height and shadow and the shadow of the mountain.

More fun to come…

— Christo

A day it was, and what a day it was!

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

It was the longest day in Paris, starting with a grand tour, followed by Monet’s Sunrise and so much more. What a joy it is to travel with an agreeable and flexible companion. That was my thought as Deb and I, now back at the Hotel Bercy, planned the remains of the day. It was a great plan! A magnificent plan! We were in Paris. How could it be anything less than a wonderful and successful plan?

"The Raft of the Medusa", by Eugene Gericault

“The Raft of the Medusa”, by Théodore Géricault

She had no great interest in the Louvre. Nor did I. A decade before, in my fifties, I had stumbled there upon the enormous and magnificent “Raft of the Medusa” by Théodore Géricault. I stood speechless, with tears embarrassingly welling in my eyes, a reaction inspired partly by the monumental size of the work, but more from its significance as a time portal, for I had stood at the same place, in the Louvre, forty years before that. In 1972, I had been overcome by waves of emotions: awe at the work, wonder at my fortune in being there seeing it, the loneliness of an adolescent far from home and family for the first time, experiencing something that ought to be, but due to circumstances, and the formidable magnificence of the art, could never be clearly communicated, much less shared, an experience condemned to always remain deeply and intensely personal. Thrust backward, then suddenly, flashing forward in time, instead of seeing more of what I wanted at the Louvre and processing that adolescent visit, instead, I spent way too much of that day dragged by an acquaintance through the endless sandstone monotony of Egyptian and Middle-Eastern architecture, of which I had in comparison to the Impressionists, no interest whatsoever.

MuseeDeOrsayThis time, I was in no hurry to enter the Louvre. If I were to pass through a time portal it would be at my choosing, and with opportunity to process the odyssey. Musée D’Orsay, was a possibility, although on yet another Paris trip, a redeeming one, alone, and only a few years before, I had made a thorough survey and with great satisfaction sought and found the Van Goghs, and so, even Orsay I could forego for something previously unseen, perhaps the gardens of Giverny? Or Musée Marmottan Monet?

MonetsGardenMercerville

Giverny replica, “Grounds for Sculpture”

An uneventful 45 minute ride from Bercy discharged us from the train at the La Muette Metro station. We walked through a few typical urban Paris streets, then with the assistance of our paper tour map and Google Maps—for neither by itself seems sufficient until you can get them both to agree—we passed thru the Jardin Du Ranelagh—on the map, a small isolated green blotch before all the grey and white of Paris is surrounded on the western flank by the very green Bois de Boulogne – so very much green!

What is the “B-d-B”?? I don’t know. Don’t think I have ever been! It incorporates the Hippodrome de Autreil – which appears to be a horse track. Was this where Hemingway so smugly bet on horses, bragging about his successes, while living in supposed poverty on Hadley’s trust fund? And there on the map(s) in bold print is the A13, the route to the Chateau de Versailles. Is that the same as the Palace of Versailles? But I digress…

The Jardin was walkable in the overcast and humid late morning, slightly green, but suffering the trampled haggard look of excess foot traffic as only a city park can. Gravel walkways lined with green wooden-slatted benches. A few couples with long black umbrellas, more children with mothers nearby and nannies rolling the small ones in blue prams, and us stopping at the intersections of every odd-angled street, re-checking our orientation and looking for signs to the Musée.

It began to rain softly before we arrived at the steps to Marmottan, an unimposing old building of brick and faded white trim.

bdbinparis.pngThe Bois de Boulogne, as research has now revealed, is the second largest public park in Paris – bordering the west side of the 16th Arrondissement and containing not one, but two horse tracks. And yes, the Chateau de Versailles is in fact the one and same “Palace of Versailles” to us Americans. No, like the Louvre before it, and to the dismay and puzzlement of some, the Chateau de Versailles was rapidly discarded as a destination for “The Great Art Tour” – we had no interest. Been there, stood in line for hours, inside and out, and agreed with myself to never return. Never. Lavish, extravagant furnishings and homes of the royals and super-wealthy, past or present, do not do much for me, nor warrant a second visit.

WaterLilies

“Water Lilies” by Claude Monet

While we sidetrack the narrative with our decisions-not-to-see, a more difficult decision was the potential visit to Monet’s Giverny. The garden documented in books and film, and memorialized in uncountable blurry-until-viewed-from-the-proper-distance “Water Lilies” painted by the aged and near-blind Monsieur Claude. Definitely a place worthy of an Art Pilgrimage, but from our perspective requiring a Full Day traveling and touring outside of Paris with the strong potential for RAIN. We chose to hang closer to the City of Lights.

An excellent choice as it turns out. The next morning we learned that our traveling nemesis “Donald” and his long-suffering wife, hired a car with the aid of our excellent and very French guide, Christine, and we would likely have spent the day with them. From their anguished reports, it was a day mostly memorable for “Impressions of Rain and Mud” as opposed to Water Lilies.

What did we choose? As previously disclosed, a visit to Musée Marmottan Monet, which by chance included a selection of Sisley and Pissarro (among others) in addition to our target of “Impression: Sunrise”. And from there? Well, how about Montmartre? And the Latin Quarter? The Seine. And I have yet to get to the near disaster on the late night Metro.

Oh there is so much more. So much more. Such a long day. The longest day in Paris, with more to come.

…to be continued.

— Christo

Four nights in Nice (Parte un)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Nice With Las Vegas Interlude

View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

I knew vaguely of Nice by way of a Frenchman, George, who I worked with at a men’s clothing store on Fremont Street in Las Vegas when I was sixteen. George was a flamboyant character; an excellent salesman with a heavy accent. It was the early seventies, and George almost always wore the brightly colored, tight fitting, and highly flammable acetate shirts with long pointy collars that we sold at the “Knight and Squire”. In his mid-thirties with hair in long dark curls that trailed down his neck, a slightly large rounded nose, full lips and a prominent chin, he had an annoying habit of patting me on the ass. With his rich accent he spoke often of his vacations in Nice, explaining that Nice was a stylish, elegant, beach city in France, where the wealthy dined at fine restaurants, played on their yachts, and in clubs, and in the casino in nearby Monte Carlo. But unfamiliar even with beach towns in California, I was too young and naive to be impressed—which was a great disappointment to George.

He was eventually let go for some reason or other. Maybe for the long unscheduled vacations? Or his tendency to return after long lunches with alcohol on his breath? Through a gossipy co-worker I heard that George had fallen on hard times and was working maintenance, “cleaning rooms and emptying garbage cans at the MGM Grand Hotel”. But never one to fall too far, George, who appeared nearly the same—except for his nose, which was taking on the size and veined red glow of one belonging to an alcoholic—explained to me one afternoon some years later when we ran into each other at a gas station on Flamingo Road, that he now worked for “Lee”.

“Uh, sorry, I don’t know Lee. Who is Lee?” I asked, holding a bright yellow helmet under my arm with one hand, and with the other clenching the gas pump handle to fill the tank of my Suzuki 250cc “Champion” dirt bike.

Preceded by a classic nasal snort of French disdain, George patronizingly explained, “Liberace of course!”

I had no reason to think George’s relationship with Liberace was a lie. George was wiping gas-pump-grime from his hands with a dainty white handkerchief, standing outside a huge limo with the Nevada vanity plate “88 Keys”. This was Las Vegas, and as I did live in the neighborhood, I had driven past the Liberace house many times, around the corner from the one where Redd Foxx was occasionally seen in his driveway shouting at his neighbors to “…get your car washed! You’re givin’ the neighborhood a bad name!”, the house with a black grand piano cutout on the garage door, where everyone local knew “Lee” lived.

He told me he was Lee’s “personal dresser”. I didn’t know what that meant, and didn’t care to ask, although I was a little curious if Liberace himself was sitting in back behind the heavily tinted windows, half dressed. But it didn’t matter, because George made it very clear: I was far below his station in life now, and he could hardly admit he had ever worked retail, selling clothes on Fremont Street, much less waste any more time on a lengthy conversation with me at a gas station. That was the last time I saw him in person, and it was many years before I ever heard anyone mention “Nice” again.

Monday, In France, On the Road to Nice…

Nice was a surprise. I had little idea of what to expect, even having read about it in the tour books. This was after all, the “French Riviera”–whatever that means. Christine informed us the name is anathema to the French, mostly because it was coined by the Brits, who discovered and bought and built up much of Nice as a resort for who else? Themselves. The wealthy Brits. For the French, this was the Côte d’Azur.

We arrived by coach after a few hours on the sunny highway from Avignon. Descending into the mountainous dry east, catching occasional glimpses of the Mediterranean to our right, dark blue slivers between the hills, or as we got closer, silver shimmering behind the enormous sprawling developments and skyscraping townhome complexes. As we passed, Christine pointed to the vineyard of “Brangelina”, remarked that the wine was in fact reputable, despite being owned by Hollywood moguls, (with a few of us wondering what happens to it after the divorce), and she mentioned Cannes, St. Tropez and a few other well-worn and familiar names of communities we would not visit on this trip, advising us of the models and movie and rock stars who frolic in this Southern sun, enjoying the lavish homes and splendid company their fame has purchased. But not to worry, she advised, we would be taking a day trip to Monte Carlo, the capital of Monaco, where she would tell us the real story of the tragic death of Princess Grace.

Eventually we emerged on the Promenade Des Anglais, the main drag, at least four lanes of traffic that runs the length of the Baie des Anges, along the tremendous beachfront crescent from the airport, past all the hotels and resorts to the hodgepodge of bars and restaurants that mark the perimeter of “the old city”, where the road changes its name to the Quai des Etats-Unis, and where the beach abruptly ends, severed by the intrusion of Port De Nice on the right, and steeply on the left, a very old hilltop ruin the Parc de la Colline du Château.

The road continues wrapping to the left around the base of this mountain, with a massive monument to the war dead embedded in the side, and on the right, luxury liners, yachts, or other vessels parked at the Port De Nice before moving on to Monte Carlo or other Mediterranean destinations.

Did I mention surprises? Oh yes. First, the water is the bluest you can imagine. Deep, not exceptionally dark, but luminescent. Next, Nice is huge. An enormous beach city. Not a town. City. With dirty steaming streets and tiny cafés, restaurants, computer stores, plumbing supply shops, architectural and real estate offices, the ubiquitous artisanal ice cream, pizza joints, and every imaginable type of storefront you might find in New York or Los Angeles or Taipei. The “old city” nestled between the beach, Parc de la Colline du Château, and the hotel row of “new” Nice, gives the opposite impression. Not of a city per se, but of an ancient, but large, village, pungent in the mornings on certain days with the fruit, vegetables, and baked goods of the open market, its old concrete, plaster, and brick buildings fronted tightly with bars, restaurants, brasseries, patisseries, charcuteries, and other “ies” that face onto the walking streets and squares.

Saint-Paul de Vence

Saint-Paul de Vence

Though for many the beach is the main attraction in Nice, we put it off a few days, it wasn’t until after we saw the castle town of Eze, and the one time home of Matisse, St. Paul de Vence, and yes, Monte Carlo—which as far as I can tell, consists of one gaudy casino, one hairpin turn, and one big bay for oligarchs and their pretentious yachts—that we ventured to the beach. Having both proclaimed, for reasons I can’t recall, that we would not be swimming in the Mediterranean—even if it was the Côte d’Azur—we found a path down from the wide pedestrian walkway and the Quai des Etats-Unis.

This busy way, straining with pedestrians of all colors, shapes, sizes, and ages, bicycles, Segues, tours of out-of-town tourists, skateboarders, roller skaters, and punctuated by the constant attention of fully dressed French commandos in green fatigues or camo with dark bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles and capped in their classic burgundy berets, always traveling two or more, never walking alone, reminded us that to the French we were heroes. We were tourist heroes, crazy Americans foolish enough to brave not just France, but the Riviera, and the same stretch of Nice beach front road where almost exactly a year before, an angry terrorist had squashed sightseers and locals alike, indiscriminately, with a truck, on his mis-guided journey to what any sane person would agree will be his own hell, Islamic or otherwise.

The wide sidewalk, this busy parade route, borders the beach for the length of its crescent, the beach itself broken into public and private subdivisions, the latter discernible by the presence of umbrellas and chaise longue, fenced or walled in, much desired, especially on the hottest, sunniest of days, and which of course must be rented. These private spaces sometimes also have bars or restaurants with expensive and exclusive views of the beach.

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Public beaches frame the private, with public outdoor showers and toilets, and concrete indoor buildings embedded in the hillside and presumably (since I can’t say that I investigated one..) running under and supporting the walkway above. Instead of sand, the beaches are notoriously covered with round hard gravel: gray, white, black, mottled stones of mostly 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, but present in many sizes. To enable approach to the beach, authorities, or someone(?) provides a faded, maroon, walkway carpet.

On this aging rug we left our sandals and stepped carefully onto the stones near the lapping water. The feeling was as one might expect. Unfamiliar, prickly although not painful, and with the shifting gravel, a bit unstable. Stepping gradually into the water we found it surprisingly cold.

Its touch was magical.

Standing there, my feet shifting as the waves sucked at the rocks beneath, I felt quickly transported to another place. Or perhaps more accurately, to a realization of where I was, actually standing ankle deep in the Côte d’Azur, the breeze cooling me, the bubbling rasp of a motorbike fading away, my arms comfortably baking in the sun. Far off to my right, a huge plane lifted itself from the Nice airport, like a giant raising its head, upper body, and finally arching sharply over the sea, pushing off the runway, into a sky of blue more faded than the sea and free of all but the most distant clouds.

The  morning bustle slipped away along with all sounds but for the hissing water as it wandered through the rocks, and the giggles of two small children who we’re working hard to bury my sandals, pouring wet pebbles and water onto the rapidly disappearing Keene’s. Standing next to me, Deb appeared to have fallen into a similar reverie.

There was nothing else, just us, the beach of rocks, the warming sun, and the lapping waves of the sea.  Just these.

Still to come, Van Gogh, Avignon, Arles, Matisse, Chagall—the road goes ever on!!

…for Dick Kocher

— Christo

 

In Las Vegas When I was Growing Up

…and now for a brief diversion from The Great France Art Tour of 2017…

In Las Vegas when I was growing up, the Atomic Energy Commission was always blowing up the desert with underground nuclear blasts that would roll through town at dinnertime, making you feel a little dizzy, until you’d see the chandelier slowly swinging and remember, oh yeah, bomb today.

And the mob was always blowing up somebody–generally a competitor or someone that wasn’t playing by their rules I guess. They’d blow up cars, or a motel, maybe a house. But I didn’t know much about that or pay much attention to it.

Then there were the planes. There was the military plane that famously crashed into Mount Charleston. And the small one that blew up in the desert way out past Rainbow Road on the way to Red Rock.  Where we used to hike, looking for rattlesnakes and Collared Lizards. It was pretty eerie out there, tiny little dime sized pieces of aluminum sheet metal, sometimes bigger, with rivets, scattered across the desert when you stood in the middle of it crunching under your feet and visible as far as you could see in any direction. Sometimes we’d find something bigger, like a wing strut or a piece of landing gear, once, even a briefcase, but it was warped and sunbaked, and if it ever had anything interesting in it, it was long gone. Pretty much all that was left out there was tiny little pieces. It must’ve been some explosion.

Seemed like things were always getting blown up in Las Vegas. Pet World, the store where I bought mealworms to feed my lizards and worked briefly, cleaning dog cages and aquariums, went up in a weekend fireball supposedly from a gas leak, although I had my suspicions. Two goldfish survived.

There were blasting caps at the construction sites, which were all over town, and ads on all of the daytime TV shows warning kids not to touch them or pick them up, which made kids really want to find one, and kids always getting blown up when they did.

And fireworks of course. Cherry bombs and M-80s and kids blowing off their fingers when they tried to throw an M-80. Whoops. It went off too soon.  Like that kid Ken Revis who only had four fingers on one hand. In high school he showed me the photo he always carried in his wallet. A Polaroid of his bloody hand spread out on the  surface of a table and the blown off middle finger on the table separated from its previous home by about 4 inches. Why did he always keep that picture? Did his dad make him keep it, to torture him for the rest of his life? He smoked a lot of dope that guy. He smoked more dope, more dope than anybody I’ve ever known.

I wonder if he is still alive.  I wonder if he still has that picture in his wallet.

If I were him, and I was still alive, and I still had that picture in my wallet, I’d blow up that picture.

—Christo

At Last Monet

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Musée Marmotan Monet, 2, Rue Louis Boilly, Paris

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I was there, at last. Standing in front of Monet’s finished “Impression Sunrise”.  This was after all, the painting that started it. The seminal work of Impressionism and much of what followed.

I had after all, painted it. I was, after so many years, pleased with the manageable size of the canvas I had chosen. If I had attempted it on anything much larger—say a canvas as big as “The Houses of Parliament”, or any of the later “Water Lillies”, it would never have happened. I never would have completed it. It was large enough to capture that foggy ephemeral sea moment, that passed quickly, more quickly than brush and oils would have done for anything even a bit larger or a touch more detailed.  No, it was the perfect moment, right down to the smudge of pinkish white on the edge of the sun and the clearly silhouetted figure of the boatman and rowboat in the foreground created with a casual but somehow precise flick of two brushstrokes.

It was simple. If you got the colors right, then the light would be correct, and all the emerging details would follow. It was simple. But not easy.

The painting was treated harshly by the critics. “Impression Sunrise” was supposed to be an insult, but it became an anthem. The banner work and namesake of the whole movement. No one remembers the name of the critic, except in telling this story, but the artist? The whole world knows his name as well as the names of his friends, colleagues, contemporaries–Renoir Pissarro, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, later Picasso, Chagall.

Critics. Bah!

I was 14 when I painted it.

With some minimal awareness of Art History thanks to my hobby of philately, and a year or two of Horizon magazine lying around the house, exposure to art as part of Western Civilizations opened a new world for me. In our very special ninth grade class, the brightest of us were assigned together in a room where the teacher told us to “brownbag” our lunches (meaning, to bring a lunch with us), so instead of dispersing to the cafeteria when the bell rang, we would stay, and he could expand his lectures through our lunch period. We grumbled at first, but delighted in the extra attention to historical and cultural details we would have missed otherwise.

Mike Van Wert, extroverted, sometimes loud, provocative, frequently passionate and nearly always entertaining, was in his mid 30’s with slight temporal baldness, brown curly hair and pork chop sideburns appropriate for the times—the early 1970s. He dressed as a college professor—although this was in junior high school—black or brown wingtip shoes, wool pants, a button-down shirt with a tie, a sweater vest, and a tweed sport coat. That was his uniform. I can hardly remember seeing him in anything else–blue jeans if I caught him by chance at the 7-Eleven on the weekend. But otherwise, no, it was that uniform. He was the teacher, our teacher, and a damn good one, and there was no diverging from that image, from that standard.

He had high expectations of himself and he applied those same expectations to his students, not just to our “Special” class but to the other four classes he taught as well. It didn’t matter who you were, he believed you were capable of learning important, wonderful things; he had fascinating remarkable stories about America, and other nations and cultures throughout history, and he would share this treasure with you, trusting you to pay attention, and listen, and ask questions, and even occasionally challenge him, but above all to participate.

For these classes he purchased or made his own slides of art and architecture. Hundreds, probably a thousand slides from Sumatran mounds of earth, to Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase” and the constructions of I.M.Pei.

We learned them. Learned the style, artist, title.

And for our “special class”, he imported the local art teacher to instruct us in the basics of drawing, sketching, and painting. We were invited to purchase required art supplies because each student in our class was expected to choose a work of art and create a reproduction of it.

I chose Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” because it was simple. It was beautiful and simple.

“Are you sure, Plummer?” He asked, with that  gravelly voice, and a wink to the rest of the class as if he were amused that I would choose such a daunting task.

But I was confident. “There’s not that much variation in the colors. If I can get that… and it is simple. Look at that boat in the foreground. It’s just two brushstrokes.”

“Okay…” He said with a smirk, making a note in his grade book and mumbling, “Impression Sunrise for Plummer”.

I worked on it after school for days. And it went well. At least I thought it went well. When I got stuck, the art teacher suggested I borrow the slide and project it on the canvas. “Isn’t that cheating?” I asked.

“You’re doing art. Artists use tools. It’s just a tool.” He told me.

The projector helped get the proportions right, and it seemed like it helped with the color, but after a week I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell if it was good or not, or how good. My eyes were blurry from turning the projector on and off, seeing the complete image on my canvas disappear, and then my own unfinished one. Matching paints to colors that turned to white when the lights came on. My friends from class would stop by and check it out. They were mostly quiet. Were they quiet because it was a good reproduction? Or because they didn’t want to tell me it was not so good? As anyone who has worked on something with great intensity and at great length can tell you, after a while, you just don’t know.

We brought our work in to share with each other, and I could see there were a couple of other works that were “good” —meaning that they looked much like the originals that we copied. Maybe that was part of why I wasn’t sure. It was a copy; it wasn’t like I had done anything original. And Van Wert didn’t lavish any great praise, I think he was being moderate with everyone, because some were bad, some were just awful, with bad proportions or whacky color. And we had compassion for each other, we knew we were just a bunch of kids trying to copy great art. But eventually I believed some of my classmates when they told me they thought mine was really “good”. And I was pretty sure then, when we displayed all our art at a PTA meeting and one of the adults asked if he could buy it. Buy it? A copy? When I told my Mom, she was appalled. I told her, maybe for fifty bucks? I considered that. But no way was some other parent going to have Plummer’s “Impression Sunrise”! She made that clear. And when I brought it home, she promptly framed it in a thick, classy, wooden art frame and hung it in our hallway, outside my bedroom where it remained for many years.

France 2017-0035

I lost track of it eventually. That’s what happens with art sometimes. It travels; it gets away. But I was very happy to find it again. There on the wall of the Musée Marmottan Monet. Just as I remembered. Just as I had painted it.

—Christo