Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Day 24: Enough camel cash to purchase a Turkish Harem…my twenty year tryst with tobacco (c.)

It was the second week of June 1994 that I embarked on my second sojourn to Europe in as many years.  The previous year I had won a trip to England sponsored by Parade Magazine and Newspapers in Education titled YOUNG COLUMBUS and it changed my life, augmented my periphery of the planet, made me want to sop this atomic-pointillist experience called life in a different way.  When I left in 93  I had never flown and the furthest I had been from the social gravity that was my hamlet abutting the Illinois river was Washington DC. I attended a high school below the hill, in the lower income section of town. It was lower ACT scores, lower expectations, the sociological flotsam and jetsam, the downtrodden dregs of the 309 area code.

This trip I had paid for myself. My sisters were members of a treble choir touring Europe and I tagged along. My mother and my grandmother went as well.  I had autonomy. I had freedom. I was sixteen years old. I would aimlessly amble by myself down the cobbled side-streets of Amsterdam, lost in the labyrinthine circuitry of canals, the pine- pungent waft of cannabis hung in dissipated tufts a block past Anne Frank’s house, bicycles blitzing past in agitated vigor as if with wings. With Morrissey and Tori Amos serving as my emotional rod and staff I had just vaulted over sophomore year of high school. I had written maybe 10 poems. I was journaling. I was trying to figure out the pulse of the planet of which I somehow found myself an inveterate part. I was still an ardent athlete, reminding myself that next year was going to be my year.  I was certain  that once I graduated high school I was going to study  art history in college. I made it a salient point to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, lost in the penumbras of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. We would also hit up Germany and end with London but it was Paris I most wanted to see. I wanted to walk along the Seine and pretend I was writer. I wanted to bask in the Pompidou and the Musee D’orsay and romp around the Louvre. I wanted to ride the Metro and fleetingly fall in love with the rushed sight of the dark haired French girl of my dreams who was inopportunely riding a train one car over, her head bent over a copy of Being and Nothingness.  I wanted visit Jim Morrison’s resting place,  smiling with delight upon discerning that someone wrote Hello Morrissey on Oscar Wilde’s grave at Pere Lachaise.  I wanted to spend hours idling in café’s with guillotine-inspired lumbar wrenching chairs scratchy inky thoughts in a journal purchased from Shakespeare &co drinking string coffee in diminutive cups, not giving a care to the outside world at all.

I stayed at a youth hostel called the FIAP. It was flooded with some high school and mainly college students form all across the planet.  There were college kids studying at the Beauborg and at the Sorbonne, a beautiful girl with black hair and white skin who had the most prominent cheekbones I had ever seen who was a writer and smoked nonstop. Her friends were all artists and we sat in the lobby, smoking non-stop. I lied about my age. I told them I was a freshman at William Jewel in Kansas City, the only liberal college I was aware of since my best friend mark from the Young Columbus program studied there. Somehow there was about 100 kids on holiday from Scotland and one of them fell hard-core head over Doc Martens in love with my sister Beth even traversing to America (twice) in hopes of finding her again.

The author w. his Italian friends. FIAP hostel, Paris. June 1994

There was a bevvy of Nigerian track athletes who would snap pictures with a disposable camera and had the whitest smiles I have ever seen. Out of the International mélange it was cadre of Italian kids that I  somehow found myself hanging out with. One kid looked just like Slash from Guns-N-Roses. He had long hair. He wore tattered jeans and shirts that looked like they were culled from the latest exhibition at the Musee d’art Moderne.

The coolest kid I have perhaps ever met.

And he smoked like there was no tomorrow.

I don’t speak Italian and the Italians didn’t speak any English so we conversed in what remedial French we had both derived from our studies.  I tried telling the Italian lads that I was from Chicago only they just looked at me with a nonplussed look sewed into their lips. Finally, I said Chicago, you know, Michael Jordan , pantomiming that I was shooting the ball from above the arch. They exploded with their arms. From then on I was known as ‘Jordan!!!’ whenever they saw me and they would pantomime shooting a vicarious ball from a vicarious free-throw line as well.  One night Slash sent a girl named Deborah (pictured above) into the closet sized den of my hostel. Deborah also smoked incessantly and spoke absolutely no englais or francais. She sat on the lip of my bed for an hour and I held her palms as if reading her palms in reverse. She left and never spoke to me during the rmainder of my time in Paris, rolling her eyes in my direction the time we scrambled into each other in the lift as if she was coerced to be civil to me at a divroce hearing. 
 When Italian Slash offered me a cigarette and I amicably waved my hand back in refusal he looked at me as if diagnosed with an irrepearble social deformity.

“You don’t smoke ceeg-gar-rett? Pourqoui?”

I accepted a Marlboro Red and choked down knowing somehow my career as an inveterate smoker had convened.

When I came back to Peoria I knew I was a smoker, at least socially. Every time I fired up a cigarette I felt like I was back in Paris, even though P-town has more white trash than you could bundle up with a handful of Tazwell county Twist-ties, somehow I was pack in Paris, with my  Italian friends, in love with the classy writer down the hall, not sure what to do with Deborah who didn’t speak any English on my bed, unsure what to do, just knowing that I was going to find a café table a few blocks south of the Pompidou, flap open my notebook and  drain everything inside of me in inky poetic slants—oh, and that I’d also be smoking along the way.


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