Left Bank Blues
Darryl Holter Adventures in Paris
I left Madison, Wisconsin in February 1975 for a three-month research trip to France. My dissertation concerned the coal miners and all the gory details surrounding the war, the nationalization of the industry, the strikes, and the cold war. The History department gave me an award of $500 for travel money and Harvey Goldberg, my advisor, had arranged for me to take over the little maid’s room on the sixth floor of his apartment building in Paris.
But first I had to get there. I found an outlet that specialized in cheap flights to Europe. You had to go to New York City and pay cash to fly out the next day. I had made arrangements with a friend who was planning on driving back, but those plans fell through, so I took a greyhound to Chicago and flew to New York. I carried a brown canvas bag and a beat-up but very useable red camping backpack, larger than the backpacks used by students today. I had a lot of books to carry and didn’t bring much in the way of clothes. In New York I stayed with a friend from Madison, Laura Kumin, who had started law school at Columbia. She lived on the upper west side on West End street. To get my plane tickets I hiked south to somewhere around 42nd street to small, no-name office in a no-name building. They sold me a one-way ticket for a flight leaving in two days for $176.
On the way back to Laura’s a guy tried to rob me on a side-street, or at least he threatened me, but I yelled loudly and ran away.
- Darryl Holter
I spent two days in the library at Columbia, mostly in the reference rooms and stacks looking for books and citations and bibliographical sources or aids that I hadn’t seen in Madison. I met with Milt Rosen and Mort Scheer, the top leaders of the Progressive Labor Party. They shared information about similar revolutionary parties and groups in France that had been in correspondence with PL. I went to dinner with Laura and her roommate before leaving and we went to my old favorite NY bar, the West End bar, where Kerouac, Ginsberg, and other Beats used to hang. I was hoping Ginsberg would come walking in, but of course, he didn’t.
It was too expensive to fly directly to Paris in those days, so I flew into Brussels, Belgium. The flight was uneventful and I didn’t sleep much. In Brussels I changed money for Belgian francs, took a taxi to the train station and bought a ticket for Paris. In the station, I bought a roll and some coffee at a stand and waited for the train. The station seemed like something out of the 19th century. The trains looked different then those of the U.S. They were much older in design and were painted in drab colors. It was February and pretty cold, overcast and grey. Finally the train lumbered off to the south and within a short time we crossed into France and moved through the edge of the old coal mining area in France, the Nord and Pas-de-Calais. It was interesting to see signs with the names of cities and towns that I had been reading about: Lille, Valenciennes, Douai, Cambria.
The train arrived at the Gare du Nord. I descended the train and took in the large, noisy, busy station with people moving in all directions, loudspeaker messages booming in French, engines chugging and spewing steam, giant time schedules on the wall changing continually by means of mechanical numbers. - Darryl Holter
I found a change station, bought some French francs, and found a pay phone that worked. I called Goldberg. He said, “Yes, well, bienvenue a Paris, camarade. Just grab a cab and tell them to take you to 13 Pont-aux-Choux. Then ring the bell and come on up.” I obeyed his directive and met an old hard-bitten Parisian cab driver who appeared to roll his eyes when I tried to speak French, but at least didn’t make me write down the address. Gare du Nord is located in the 10th, just north of the 3rd, so it didn’t take long to go down Boulevard Magenta to Place de la Republique and then south on Beaumarchais to a little street called Pont-aux-Choux, or the “bridge of cabbages.” The story is that Beaumarchais formed the outside wall of the city that separated ancient Paris from the rural areas. Apparently there was bridge over the wall that allowed farmers to bring their produce into the city. Goldberg’s address was 13. I tried to pay the cab driver by looking at the meter, but there were additional charges for being picked up at the station and the two bags of luggage. Then I gave him some francs that included a Belgian franc and this ticked him off. But soon he was on his way and I stood facing a tall wooden door with the number 13. I rang the bell and a concierge opened it. I told her I was here to see Professor Goldberg and she let me inside.
Goldberg lived on the deuxieme etage, what we would call the third floor. I rang and he opened the door. I entered into his apartment. It was small but functional, sparely but comfortably furnished and lined with bookshelves that extended from one room to the next and to the hallways. It was about 10 p.m. when I arrived and Goldberg heated up a little leftover dinner for me, including a piece of beef and some peas and bread. He poured me some red wine and brought out some cheese. Then we had coffee, brewed through a Melitta filter. We smoked cigarettes (Goldberg: Gaulloises; Holter: Marlboros) and talked at some length about my dissertation topic and material I had been reading since I saw him last. These discussions were very important to me because I wanted to gauge his reaction to the various propositions I was raising in my thesis.
It was a good discussion, but it was getting late. Goldberg put me up in the small guest room of his flat that night because the “chambre du bonne” on the sixth floor was still occupied, but it would be ready the next evening. It was late, but I was still pretty wired, even though I hadn’t slept much, and asked if I could go outside walking for a while. He said fine, gave me a key (not a key like we think of a key, but a thick iron key that was about four to five inches long, and shaped like a long, peculiar skeleton key. I inserted it into the right front pocket of my jeans) and out I went into the Parisian night. It was around midnight. On the corner of Pont-aux Choux a small café was closing up. I walked a couple of blocks south to the Place Bastille, a big central big spire surrounded by a circle of four or five lanes of frenetic auto traffic. It was pretty hard to see where the ancient prison ever stood when they released all the prisoners during the revolutionary events of 1789. But...
I was invigorated by the activity on the street, the number of pedestrians, even at a late hour, the relative safeness of the space, the general feeling of the neighborhood of what was loosely called “the Marais”. Goldberg had described the Marais as “populaire” by which he explained he meant that it was populated and people-friendly, but not commercial or overtaken by tourists.
- Darryl Holter
Then one of the men played a not-so-good version of Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and most of the group chimed in on the vocals. But they lost track of the lyrics in the second or third verse and I put them back on track for the rest of the song.
- Darryl Holter
Then they asked me if I could play Dylan songs and I replied yes. I hadn’t played a guitar since leaving Madison, so it was great to play it. I played a few Dylan songs and they liked it a lot and I answered, yes, I was from Minnesota too, and yes, I had seen Dylan in concert (in 1967: Dylan didn’t tour after his motorcycle accident in 1967 until 1976) and yes, I did know “Tangled up in Blue” from “Blood on the Tracks.” I played it and it felt great, but I turned over the guitar to the others, to be polite and because I didn’t want to look like a show-off. In fact, I really wanted to keep playing because I enjoyed it so much—with or without the audience. The party continued until about 3:30 a.m when Jean announced she was turning in. We left her flat and walked a few blocks down the Mouffetard, which was still somewhat “populaire”with smatterings of people still on the street. We walked toward the university at Jussieu and then past the zoological department at the Jardin des Plants.....
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