I never know how or when inspiration will strike. But strike it does, and I’m eternally grateful. I’ve learned to respect those moments and grab pen and paper.
This particular moment came on Labor Day. Looking at my calendar, counting the weekends left before leaving for Paris, balancing that against a long list of to-dos, I pushed panic aside. Something else settled in. What washed over me was a deep pleasure that speaks more to returning someplace rather than mere going. Not surprising. After all, I have been countless times to, and spend a lot of time in, Paris. But something more gnawed at me.
A question formed: How do we know who we are? I mean the deep-down-when-nobody’s-looking we. That self. For better or worse, these ideas float aimlessly in my head. Until something triggers their bubbling up.
All it took was reading that the Paris Theatre in New York—the iconic, art house cinema across from the Plaza Hotel on 58th Street and Fifth Avenue—was closing. Suddenly I was 16 again, seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which ran for almost a year, multiple times. I loved that movie. But it was not Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet and was about my age, I wanted to be. Two years earlier, I’d seen Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme) at the Paris. Anouk Aimée was effortlessly beautiful in the way that French actresses are. I wanted to be Anouk Aimée.
Things I hadn’t thought about for years surfaced, leaving me to consider how growing up in New York was my incubator for Paris later in life. In eighth grade I had a private French tutor, a young French woman who was a student at Hunter College. Her name escapes me, but I can see her face and recall reading Le Petit Prince aloud with her. A more puzzling memory emerges. We—who?—are sitting in a semi-circle—where?—reading La Fontaine’s Fables.The terror of having to understand the fables and speak French is all that remains.
Last September, I was in New York. I went back to P.S. 3 on Hudson Street where as a kid I’d gone to school before the City condemned the decrepit building. P.S. 3 has long since risen from the rubble to become PS3: The Charette School, a fashionable PK–5 West Village school that boasts test scores “far above the state average.” More startling was the plaque on the front of the building. Erected by a former pupil, it reads, “On September 10, 1824 Marquis de Lafayette Major General in the American Army during the War of the Revolution visited Public School 3 which was selected as the best example of the public school system established by the Free School Society of the City of New York.” Really? Lafayette, the Lafayette, had once been at my school?
Maybe I’m straining too hard to connect improbable dots, but I think Paris has been an invisible filament threading through my life. It only takes stepping back to see some things. I went to Paris, the city, for the first time more than thirty years after going to the Paris cinema. The souvenirs from that first trip are tucked away in a decorative brown box with an old-fashioned label holder. On a piece of white paper, I’d labeled the box “Paris,” in print that now looks reminiscent of the Paris Theatre’s logo.
The Paris is gone. Long live Paris.