04 September 2008

4 septembre

Monday the 1st--Labor Day--was the "unofficial" last day of summer. But today, the 4th of September, might be the first real day of fall, though you wouldn't know it from the weather we've had. The date sounds like the first day of fall, and you can practically see the skies growing dimmer and the days shorter when you hear of it. And the way most of the world writes it--4 September--looks and feels like the first day of fall.

In Paris, there's a rue 4 Septembre, which commemorates the date in 1870 on which Napoleon III was captured and le troisieme republique--still the longest-lasting French regime since the Revolution--was declared.

On la rue 4 Septembre, a very kind soul saved my cul. It was my second time in Paris, and I was drunk a good part of the time, as I so often was in those days. At some point during my second night there--I'm not quite sure of when--I lost my passport, traveler's cheques and some antique postcards I'd bought in Italy. And my cash, except for a few francs. Well, the American embassy couldn't or wouldn't help me because I didn't have any money or another ID. Mind you, this was long before the so-called War on Terror.

Well, I just happened to remember the number of the last traveler's cheque I cashed. And since I knew how many I'd bought and how many I'd used, I knew how many I'd lost. From there, I could figure out the serial numbers of the cheques I lost.

But being in the days before cell phones or calling cards, I needed cash to make the call--to Barclay's, in London. So I went to one of the cabines--places that looked a bit like check-cashing places but have cubicles and phones in them where you can make long distance calls and pay the attendant for them afterward. I'd hoped that someone could help me.

Inside, I met a woman who was probably about 40 and looked the way a less-glamorous, though still very attractive, sister of Leititia Casta might look. (In those days, though, nobody had heard of her yet.)

Bonjour, monsieur. Comment ca-va?

Pas bien, madame. J'en ai perudue ma monnie, ma carte et mon passepuerte.

C'est terrible! Je veux vous aider.


The call to London would have been a few francs, at least. But she offered to dial it, and I promised to pay her after I got my money back.

She even offered to call the US, if I needed it , or any place else. Pas necessaire, I said. Merci beaucoups.

So she dialed Barclay's for me, and the next day they wired new cheques to the woman at the cabines. Then she called a French employee at the US consulate and explained my situation. The next day, my checks arrived. I tired to give that kind woman a gratuite, but she would not take it. Instead, I gave her a bouquet of yellow roses. Honestly, I would've married her right then and there!

I suppose losing my stuff was some sort of cosmic, karmic retribution for what I'd done the night before: I skipped out of a cafe without paying for the seafood quiche, salad, a bottle of white wine, a religieuse and espresso I had. Many years later, I went back to that place, across the street from the Gare de Lyon. By then, I had not touched any alcohol or recreational drugs for a few years. I'd just gotten off the TGV from Chambery, and later that night I would go to see friends I had yet to meet the night I helped myself to an unauthorized free repast. I ordered that same meal--That quiche aux fruits de mer and salad nicoise were even better than I remembered!--without the wine. When I paid, I gave the waiter an additional fifty-franc note.

Monsieur, ce n'est pas necessaire. He probably thought I was a tourist who didn't realize that you don't tip in France.

Oui, d'accord. Mais, vous et ce cafe m'en traite tres, tres bien. C'est un cadeau. Actually, he was an excellent waiter and it was a nice cafe. I knew that because I was leaving it happier than I was when I walked in.


Vous me rendez tres heureuse...

Talk about the subconscious! In French, all adjectives are masculine or feminine. Which meant that in those days, to express the contentment I felt, I should have said "heureux." Today, of course, I would say "heureuse." And, believe me, I use it far more frequently than I ever said "heureux," even though I had a lot more years to use it than I've had for "heureuse!"

But if that waiter didn't think I was a dumb tourist and was too polite to say so, he didn't notice or didn't care. So, as we parted he said, Merci. Au revoir. J'espere que vous reviendra.

Oui, je reviendra. Au revoir. A bientot.

Another thing about 4 septembre: On that date in 1985, I wrote what I consider to be my first worthwhile poem--indeed, my first worthwhile piece of writing, if I've ever produced any:

The Lies of Spring

Last fall we walked
along the bank of this river.
Somebody warned you
not to come here with me.

We saw our faces, calm and clear
on the surface of the water.
You leaped and disappeared
into the mud below.
I stood, blinded, in the twilight.

I did not jump
because you told me
the water’s very cold.

Today I walk alone
on this weathered shore.
A single lily pokes through
mud that is your bones.

You once told me: This flower
Is the first sign of spring.

That poem was published in a few literary magazines. And, when my students have asked about my own writing, if I'm feeeling inclined to show it to them, this is one of the poems they see. One student wrote to me a couple of years after he was in my class--he'd graduated and was working in another state--to tell me that he was going through some of his papers and found a copy of this poem. It meant even more to him, he said, than it did back when he was in my class.

He told me that since he'd had me for that intro to literature class, he had come to understand loss and grief --and the price some have to pay in order to achieve, or simply survive-- in ways that he never could've understood before. He related the specifics, which I won't get into here, and said that even in the "darker" poems-- like "Lies"--and in my presence, he saw a sort of light that has helped him to navigate the crises he'd experienced since graduating from school.

Mind you, he wasn't some pseudo-alienated wannabe artiste/trust fund kid. He was a business major, and graduated only two years older than I was when I completed my baccalaureate degree. (He'd worked and done some other things before coming this country, and to college.) I would love to see him again.

If any of you are thinking about teaching, at any level, this is the one and only reason to consider it. The kind of pay and benefits you get from teaching or being a professor are attainable elsewhere, and with less investment. You may not have your summers off because you may need more money. And education is the only industry in which the professional--the teacher or professor--is subordinate to the white- and pink-collar office workers. And they don't let you forget it.

In such conditions, giving whatever it is I have to offer to a student like the one I've just talked about is almost an act of defiance. So is, in fact, treating just about any student like a human being. I think of that scene in Jesus of Montreal in which the director charged with putting on a Passion play trashes a studio because, he says, he couldn't stand to see the photographers, director and other film-production workers treating one of the actresses with contempt.

Sometimes I feel as if I'm helping people navigate the fourth of September. Fall and winter are on their way, but as hard as they may be, they are simply two more seasons to survive. And other people--the right ones--and our inner resources, whatever they are, are all we have to take us through them--or 4 septembre.

Le 4 septembre sera passe; en allez. Yes, it is passing; it has passed: onward to the next season, whatever it will bring.

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