Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Tumbleweed Hotel

Sad news about George Whitman passing. Like so many people Margaret and I spent a week in Paris at Shakespeare and Company as his guests. Our thoughts are with Sylvia and her family. Here is a story from Ears on Fire about our week with George.

Every substance has a burning point at which any increase in temperature causes a burst of flame. When we travel we know the history of places that once grew to fire. We search them out hoping a little spark will be left. A glow on which to warm our hands to feel what Rome was like. To stumble into a café and find Picasso and Appolonaire. Mostly we are groping in the dark unable to feel that heat.

Paris life is fascinating. Full of gorgeous flirty people, full of stunning flirty history, statues, paintings, lights, action. Still, as a newcomer you can walk for days awed by the beauty but feel the prime is gone, a city of museums, a keeper of relics. Hemingway once drank beer in this café. This is where Sartre and De Bouliver huddled. Would you like a seven-dollar cup of coffee?

Then you turn into Shakespeare and Company bookstore, sitting on the bank of the Seine across from Notre Dame. George Whitman is at the helm and you are thrust into the thick of the book. The pages swirl, turn around you. Open your mouth let the words spill. You are a character sleeping in the Tumbleweed Hotel, the rooms above the bookstore.

I hear a voice so close to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s I have to look to see if it is he. This is when I realize how much the two men have gotten from each other and how much these two book-sellers/ writers share. Whitman handsome and sharp at 84 is holding a blackened-bottom mess kit frying pan. He comes into his bookstore. The clerk shows him his recent straightening up of the shelves, to which George replies, “Good, yes they look good.” I ask him how the Tumbleweed Hotel is doing. Sizing me up, says,
“I can book you a room for two.”
“Well we are leaving to catch a train in a few hours.”
“Where are you from?”
“San Francisco.”
“What is your occupation?”
“Then for God’s sake you have to stay, we’re having a pancake breakfast tomorrow morning, a tea party in the afternoon and a poet from Bengal is reading on Monday.”
“We’ll take it.”
The clerk hands me the keys.
“Go on, it’s two flights up; the big double bed in the back.”
“What do you think of San Francisco’s poet laureate?”
“Tell me they chose Ferlinghetti, we’ve been traveling since February.”
“Who else? You’ll be staying in his bed.”

The front room is books from floor to ceiling. Entering the back bedroom, you enter a sanctuary. The walls here are half bookshelves and half photo gallery. Copies of photos of Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durell, all with inscriptions to George. Photos of George as a young man around the blazing fire of the wishing well, where they held the readings. I pick up a book, a play by Picasso, The Second Sex, and Ginsberg’s collected poems and see that they all are signed. The feeling of the authors presence is strong, they had slept here, drank here, written here. Now it was my turn.

Where are you from? It is a question we all ask, gives us a magnet, a pull. Where? Why not? Each shard of light from the sun, each moment from the bell. I look in you, the mirror. I am from here knowing the lie. What are you made of? We ask when that fails.
I am sweet of air molecules. I am from Paris, but that will not last, the last free room in the world.

I look down to the Seine. I see a woman drawing; she includes me in her sketch. I include her in this poem. She is tiny, far away. She leans on the wall. I search for words to describe her. I wonder where she is from. She kneels down. Her paper rippling in the wind. She packs up, walks towards Notre Dame. I can still see her. She stops, sits down, looks for an angle, anything to capture with her hand, puts it down on paper, and lodges it in her memory. She has found it, takes out her tools, begins to work, gives up, ascends the steps, going back from were she came.

The light on the tour bus rests on the woman’s hair. The cobblestones. The spires,
gargoyles shinning. The cars are full of laughter. Everyone knows where he or she is going. Where they are coming from. So why is it so hard to answer? Do you need a map? Are you your job? Are you your body? Your mind?

Is this a Buddha quest? Buddha questions? What is this a maze? To hold the miniature Minotaure? Keep him in a cage. Yes, the question binds to you as well as any handcuffs. You are from where you are, we all can see that in the mirror; just look.

George is down-stairs, in front of the bookstore. He is dressed in coat and tie. He is from here. From inside these walls. He makes his home. Opens it like a monastery of the word. Why would he ever want to be from somewhere else? Paris. Here comes the mailman, another letter, four decades of mail. George watches him walk away.

I find letters to George tucked away in books from many of the writers who have stayed here, a museum of words, a temple of skill.

For over 40 years, George has presided over his bookstore. It has been his passion, his view of the world. You may be asked to stay, given a room. Thousands of people have been his guests. He never asks for a penny. All he asks for is an autobiography just a word or two about you. Wants to know where you are from? Of course sometimes he shouts at people, shouts, “Where is my damn autobiography?” or “Who left the skin on this pumpkin, I thought you said you could cook!” Once quietly he said, “You say you are a poet but even your wife doesn’t believe you.”

Ok George, here it is:
Oklahoma, Texas, New York, California, Paris.
Eighteen years I worked in a florist. Always the plan to use the money to become a poet
Now I am.
Because of you, I live here now, so this is where I am from as much as anywhere. Your kingdom of words that line up and dance, a can-can of wisdom! Showing their naked butts to the world, bare ass books, open their dresses, and flash the light of the goddess. O purple prose will you ever fail me?

Where? It is a map to your heart. A peg to hang your skin.

Where is George from? Once he was from Panama, as he writes in the Panama American on April 3, 1938:
“Panama! It has a sonorous sound for an Indian Word. In aboriginal language, it means the land of bountiful fish. To the Spaniards, it meant gold. But to me Panama is a tiny dot on a map of the earth, which I have drawn at odd moments. Between this dot and other similar dots there stretches a red line. This line represents the trajectory of the journey I am working around the world. It twists back and fourth from Greenland to Tiara Del Fuego, from Cape Town Africa to Urga Mongolia. Through all six continents and seven seas.”

But where is he from originally?
“I was born in New Jersey, lived 15 years in Salem Massachusetts. Home of the daring sea captains who sailed the famous clipper ships to China and India. I spent a year in China, where my father taught at Nanking University. I traveled through Turkey, Greece, and Europe, when I was a boy of 12. Studied journalism at Boston U: I am now roughing it around the world in order to get a background for journalistic work later on.”

Later George would fall in love with books. Would root, grow into Paris. Cut him open count the rings. See this year was good for poetry. This is a translation, a transcription a neurotransmitter crossing a synapse, a spark throbbing inside.

Today the bookstore is closed. The movie crew is making the inside of the bookstore look like the inside of a bookstore! Catherine Deneuve is nowhere in sight. I am an erect baguette. I sense you looking into my pigeon eyes. A group of children walks by holding hands. Please stop reading and hold my hand. Now I feel safe. Inside this book where you have found me. Are you a detective or just lonely? So many poets have slept here it feels like an orgy, just lying here reading; “Excuse me Ferlinghetti would you please pass me Anais Nin?”

Yesterday at the tea party a woman told a story of how when she was a little girl her parents brought her to see a friend of theirs, “Now don’t be alarmed she loves a tree.”
The woman brought the little girl into the backyard; “They must have told you I’m mad, in love with a tree.” She threw her arms around the trunk and hugging it said, “When you can have this why would you want a man?” Arbor-sexual This is something like around here, Biblio-sexual. You may love books, but please be careful with your thrusting, and never use your tongue for a bookmark. That’s word from the river Seine, where all the children are tumbleweeds and the bookseller an angel in disguise.

The poet from Bengal does not show up. George asks if I would like to give the reading. Because of the film crew, we moved the reading upstairs to the writer’s apartment. Some students from Madrid, and a few regulars. I read my reply to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, called “Dear Mr. Sonnet 130”, had one of the guys read the lines from Shakespeare. Then I read in the dark woman’s voice. If the Bengali poet had showed up I wouldn’t have gotten to read. My resume would never have truly reflected where I am from poetically speaking. I am from Shakespeare and Company; I am the poet in residence.
This is my address:
37 Rue De La Bucherie, 75005, Paris France.
Please write me soon...

Shakespeare and Company is a pilgrimage, a monument, each time I look out of the window someone is taking a photo of the store. They will take it back from where they are from, put it in an album and say I was there.

Here let me show you around the place. That is were Simon touched the tip of her pen to the “Second Sex.” Here is where Ginsberg clipped his beard. This refrigerator contains food made by Sylvia Beach for Pound. Now step in here this is the bedroom so full of ghosts, I think the cockroach on my forehead at night is Henry Miller.
“Get out, I shout, I am the poet in residence!”
“Flee,” I say.
“Fleas,” he replies.
Then he starts to go on and on about the light in Greece.
“I’ve been there,” I say. “You forgot to tell them about the salads.”
He rolls over goes back to sleep. All of us who have slept here dropping like flies, back to where we came from.

Writers are supposed to be quiet, so why do I feel like shouting out of the window? Shouting out my poems? Flinging open the window, letting Paris in. Lots of Paris, all the streets, all the lobster walking poets. Letting them hear me,
“Get out of my way you language bastards! I’m trying to write.”
So I grab the metal bar, rip open the window. Spewing out my poem.
The Gargoyles start giggling. “Another poet,” they spit.
“Another poet giving a reading from an open window. Who? Who?” They chime.
“Go back to America! Go home Yankee boy writer. Zoot!”
High noon show down.
“This town ain’t big enough.”
Shouts, Gerard de Nerval
“I am the most horrible creature.”
“No, I am.”
On and on, until he jumps into a pot of boiling water. Dissolving like a snail in salt.
I notice the streetlights are on at noon. No wonder they call this place the City of Lights.

Here are the facts:
This place is a rite, a ritual. The secret to George, to the Tumbleweed Hotel, to Shakespeare and Company, is that he is empty. You must enter him. As Jonah did the whale. See the world through his eyes. Through his windows. He takes off his mask and there is the face you thought was yours. The faces of all whom have stayed here. Swallowed by the stories. Why worry about myths when you can dance? Why not take his hand? It is open. Just reach out. All he asks is to paint a self-portrait with words. Wants your memories. He houses them and they feed him. Can you imagine his hunger? Forget etiquette and precedence this is a fire. You are common that’s reassuring. We are fallen, let us enter the door together. The gates of the bazaar. Into the word department. Let’s order a full meal. Let us draw the human figure. Naked waiting for someone to offer us love. O mischievous bookseller, who holds your council? Whom have you not blessed? A sign? Of course and a caravan. Let us all pull up stakes and head off to Paris. Let us not judge. I erect a statue in your honor. I require myself to seek out your methods, your saintliness, and your glory.