My last morning in Paris.
I took the metro down to Père Lachaise. It was late in the morning, but my flight didn’t leave until early the next morning. I planned on spending the night in the airport, not only to save a hostel fee but also because the metro wasn’t up and going until early in the morning, and it would be bad to miss my flight- though I thought about it.
I threw my luggage into the storage closet at the hostel, and took off on foot with the iPod Abe gave me and a few Euroes, enough for a bite to eat and a handful of metro trips.
It is a morbid pursuit to visit the graves of those among the dead who inspire you. There were three graves I put on my short list when I was 20: Ella Fitzgerald, Jim Morrison and James Baldwin. It hasn’t really changed in almost 15 years.
In 2002, I visited the grave of Ella Fitzgerald with my fiance at the time. It was a little anti-climatic. She was in a the Sunset Memorial Garden Mausoleum in Inglewood. Surrounded by marble walls and a few drifting strangers, I found her in a drawer on a wall. I brought a flower for her and took a moment to tell her how her music carried me. In my big move from home, Washington state to Orange County, she was all I played.
Somewhere behind that wall, whatever was left of the greatest voice on the planet, was rotting, legless, inside a tomb.
“Man, woman, or child, Ella is the greatest.” -Bing Crosby
The deeper question is, if we have spirits, would she hear my prayer to her, and if she did, would it matter? Does it need to matter to her? I never knew her. I never felt her, embraced her, spoke to her. She was just a voice I found on a soundtrack once, and it led to one CD then another, then three more, then everything I could find.
I want to say there was a great satisfaction in finding her and speaking to her flesh, suspended three feet off the ground. I can’t say there was. We are always looking to connect to greatness, whether it be to acknowledge it changed us for the better or to become a part of it ourselves.
Whoever Ella Fitzgerald was on this planet, during that time, she is gone now.
In “Midnight to Paris”, Woody Allen creates the ultimate fantasy scenario of a writer going back in time to meet artists he loved in Paris. He brushes elbows with greatness, but the most influential person he meets is his muse, a beautiful woman who mingled with artists, was the lover to many, but is otherwise anonymous in the folds of history. She herself doesn’t exist in his time, and he has to let her go in the shadowed corridors of time.
As much as I love Ella, my love affair with her is only half in time as the one I carry with Jim.
The moment I saw him on television at 12, he ignited a kind of fascination. When I was 14, I listened to a whole album of “The Doors” for the first time while laying on my parents living room floor, wasting time to avoid a block party. When I listened to “The End” for the first time, my eyes were closed and my head was spinning on our off-white carpet in a sterile, manufactured home in Vancouver, Washington.
When the last chord erupted and the tape popped off the play button with a plastic ‘clack’, I opened my eyes and knew the music got inside of me in a way nothing had before. Few things reach you on a holy plane, some people might describe their relationship with Jesus or the birth of a child. When I fall in love, and a boy buzzes around my mind, violently fluttering in memories despite any reason or restraint, I say to myself, “The boy got inside of me.”
When I was 14, there on my parents’ floor, Jim got inside of me. And unlike the boys I have fallen in and out of love with over the years, there he remains.
(I always love finding images of him smiling, it is a beautiful smile, isn’t it?)
I give myself breaks from the music, to keep sane. I force myself to go on fasts and sometimes fall in love with other music, like the Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses, Janis Joplin, Nirvana, Bob Dylan or Fiona Apple. Like a jealous lover, in a bar or on the radio, Jim will find me again to remind me of our commitment. And I fall all over again.
In the last 20 years, for a girl who drifted from her family and can’t hold on to a lover, his voice has grown to become the most familiar, over any anyone else in the flesh.
“Music is your only friend, until the end.”
So I pranced into the cemetery with a map in hand. My family warned me that his grave was difficult to find, so when I walked in, I said aloud, “Ok, Jim, guide me.”
Père Lachaise is a very old cemetery, and has walls built around it, enclosing all the stones and bodies in a sacred circle. Tall stones, flat stones, grandiose tombs, spectacular sculptures, names worn down by time and weather with fresh and dying flowers, they all reach above the ground like a hand grasping for life.
In a matter of minutes, I knew I was close to him. Searching for people, I saw a few heads gathered together over a few tombs to my right- so I headed over and immediately saw him. The bust was stolen, I am told. Now, the poor dead guy in the small tomb next to him has to take the brunt of it, advertising handwritten love notes to Jim and Doors song lyrics.
People crowded around a waist high fence that blocked him from us. They took pictures, smiling at the camera, holding a lighter or posing like they are on the face of a postcard. I found that to be somewhat nauseating. That is a dead person, not a landmark.
His grave had a few flowers, a porcelain angel on top, laying on its belly, with its face in its hands. It seemed bare compared to the photos on the internet.
Jim’s dad engraved a stone that reads: “ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟY or “true to his own spirit”.
People stood around, chatted in various languages, drifted in and out. I waited. I was going to climb that fence and give him my present; a brief love note folded over two flowers I plucked from the heart of Paris.
A guy stood off to the side, we spoke a little.
I said, “This is a little disappointing. I was hoping to have a personal moment.”
He said, “I know . . . I came from his apartment in Paris. It’s not far from here, you know where Beautreillis is?”
I said, “I think so, its a stop on the metro, right?”
He said, “Yeah, just get off there. Its on Rue Beautreillis (he took out his iPhone and showed me a photo)”
“Here is his window where he died. And (scrolling) here is the pub across the street. Once you see that, you know you are there.”
I thought about it, but was not sure I needed to go there.
He said goodbye, and I moved around the front of the gate to sit down on a swollen tree root reaching under the foot of the fence. The tree was proudly bound in more notes for Jim, pictures glued on of his face, more song lyrics. I pulled out the iPod and played “The Severed Garden”. Then I just sat there.
As people left, more people came. There was never a moment alone, and I grew irritated.
An American guy with carob skin and a baseball hat stood in front of me, looked down and smiled, “Are you listening to Jim?”
I forced a smile and nodded.
He pulled out a beer and popped it open. He took two swigs and then offered it down to me. I nodded and took two swigs myself.
“The End” came on.
I handed the beer back to him and said, “This is a bummer, man. I can’t be alone with my dead boyfriend. I have a note to give him.”
He said, “Yeah, lots of people. You are going to have to hop the fence.”
I said, “I know, I was waiting, but there is always someone here.”
He shrugged his shoulders. His girlfriend was standing behind us, obviously not a fan.
After a few minutes, he shook my hand and left.
“LA Woman” came on.
I sat there and waited longer.
My heart was beating. A little golf cart with the groundskeepers whizzed by. Could they arrest me for jumping the fence? People must do it all the time. I wished I had woken up earlier so I could have been there and talked to him.
Several people drifted away, and all that was left was a young Russian couple. So I slowly hoisted my foot up and stepped over the fence with ease. My legs are so long, it was no obstacle. I felt the couple staring at me as I dropped my note on the bed in front of his tombstone, I kissed my hand and laid it on the cold stone, then stepped back over and walked away.
I won’t say that I felt Jim. I wish I could say I did. He wasn’t there.
“L’America” came on.
The song starts with Jim hissing like a lizard and then has a great chord progression that sweeps up your heart and brings it to a march. I know it well, and started dancing . . . in a cemetery.
I skipped over the cobble stone and winding curbs, singing.
♫♪ C’mon people, don’t ya look so down
You know the rain man’s comin’ ta town
Change the weather, change your luck
And then he’ll teach ya how ta…find yourself
A few people looked at me strangely, but I couldn’t stop my feet from hopping and jumping up and down the narrow walkways. Whatever life stirred among the empty bodies of all those artists shook from the ground, through my tattered feet and up my legs. I spun towards the end of the song, losing my breath, “♫♪ L’America L’America L’America L’America L’America L’America ♫♪”.
I let the playlist Abe created for me play on, and kept my headphones in, only taking them out for the occasional tourist looking for Jim’s grave. I directed them, and danced on.
The sky was overcast, but it was warm. Everyone there fought through English to help each other find someone they were looking for, or act as a guide. We were all there for the same reason, and over us a blanket of respect, all the mourners and fans, one in the same really.
The next grave on my list was Chopin. It was hard finding him, since he was on the cusp of a complicated round-about. When I was near, I saw more people crowded around, and a stone filled with fresh flowers. A woman sat next to him, holding her head in her hands. My father told me he receives fresh flowers on his grave everyday.
Then, I danced on.
I skipped around the edge of the cemetery, and after someone volunteered to help me, I found Oscar Wilde. His tomb was elaborate, white with a winged, Egyptian creature overhead. Around it was a tall glass wall with lipstick kisses and cute, witty messages all over it. You see all those kisses, and smile. How wonderful to be a writer, a gay male writer, and have millions of kisses from women all over the world and time pressed forever on your final pillow.
A few people had a band-aid stuck to the wall with a message drawn on the fleshy plastic. My mother packed a handful of band-aids in my bag, so I pulled out one, wrote a profession of love, put on a thick coat of lipstick and kissed it. (I wasn’t compelled to kiss a dirty glass wall in the middle of Paris) I stuck the band-aid on the wall, leaned back and smiled.
(not featured below for anonymity)
I said, “Thanks!”
“Crawling King” came on.
Looking for a few other writers, I grew exhausted. Walking on the cobble stone, you constantly correct your footing, so my ankles ached. I tried to stay on the smooth upside of the curbs, railing the pathway. It was getting to be the middle of the day, and the free bread roll I was given for breakfast was burning into ash. I gave up looking for Proust and Moliere.
On my way backward, I found Gertrude Stein. No one was there.
I sat down next to her to rest my feet. Little notes, some dusty and deteriorating, others fresh from someone’s notebook, were folded around her headstone and weighted down by pebbles. I took out my notebook and stared at a blank page.
And with Gertrude Stein, I felt something. There was a warmth, comfort, encouragement. I put my hand on the stone, and through the cool, polished stone, I felt her say, “Keep writing.” I smiled and felt my eyes fill with saltwater, the saltwater saved for Jim.
The artist I was most unfamiliar with, was the one who offered an appearance.
A couple saw me and walked towards me. The woman said, “Oh, Gertrude Stein.” I got up to leave, but felt grateful, and I hope she felt it, too.
“Roadhouse Blues” came on.
I danced back to Jim’s grave to say goodbye. People were crowded around, someone teetering atop someone else’s gravestone to get a better look. Another person was climbing back over the fence after dropping off a small bottle of whiskey. It is truly amazing that these artists always had someone visiting them at every minute of the day. What influence to reach all these people, many, if not all, were born after their death.
I checked to see if my note was still there. It was. No stone was weighing it down, and the wind was picking up, so it could blow away at any moment. Maybe a stranger would find it and read it, wondering where or to whom it belongs. What if it rained and destroyed it? Does someone come by and pick up all the notes, and if so, what do they do with them? Do they read them?
I knew Robby and Ray (of the Doors) were coming by in July to visit him on the anniversary of his death. Maybe they collect the notes and read them.
Jim wasn’t there. So did it matter if he got my handwritten note, made on milled wood and carved on with ink? Probably not. Deep down inside, I want him to know how much he means to me. That is a mortal impediment, to need to communicate the self to the universe for acknowledgement. We are only ourselves, as one entity, for this one fleeting moment. Then we are absorbed into the unknown, marrying other energies or fragmenting into many more.
“WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” came on.
“Out here in the perimeter, there are no stars. Out here, we is stoned … immaculate.”
There are many of you out there who feel his poetry and lyricism are pedestrian, because he is a rock star.
I can tell you as someone who learned all of his lyrics before college, there is profound reference to history and symbolism I realized only in my higher education, sitting in class, reading or hearing what he is actually singing about.
I know there are some who will say he is a self-destructive alcoholic, drug addict, and a womanizer. It took me a bottle of wine to write this blog, just so I could quiet voices. Some from the animals being slaughtered for food, or in animal shelters, their pictures posted on my Facebook feed. Or to dampen the screams of those killed in a movie theater during the Batman shootings of Aurora, Colorado. Or to hide the images of the boy I love, now, halfway across the country, who is on a camping trip and undeniably having intercourse with any woman who tempts him. So I ask you, reader, how do you do anything while opening your mind without silencing those voices using a substance? I would love to know.
I don’t consider myself an addict because when I wake up, I might be able to forget about the world long enough to walk my dogs or serve plates of bland, expensive food to the wealthy, but not when I lift the window in my mind to write, the same window that lets the Muse whirl in with the world clutching on her coattails, I can’t screen any of it out. So maybe I relate to Jim.
I left him sleeping.
Once I wrote my little prayer, I had to let it go. That is the very nature of prayers anyway, you say it, lift it to the skies, and hope it’s heard.
My prayer, you may wonder, said:
“Jim, thank you for showing me the magic. Love . . .”