I believe that one day I’ll find James. Last summer went to Paris looking for him. I found myself on the avenue des Champs Elysees. They laughed at me. “James was here, but he’s gone now.What do you want with him anyhow?” I don’t speak french, so I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying.
I kept searching.
I found myself at the Eiffel tower where thousands of people had gathered. “Is James here?” I asked a rather Parisian looking Parisian. “No”, he said in his native language ” but stick around, everyone comes to the fireworks.” I shook my head to let him know I’d understood nothing.
The first salvo of fireworks fired. I was transfixed by the crisp colorful embers burning so bright above–and by the images they formed. Marie Antoinette’s hair, and then Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides. Descending colors. Images were drawn and then washed away until the grand finale, in which a hundrend thousand tiny explosions huddled together to make the French Revolution–a field of stars,some dim and some bright, burning for something. The lights faded and I turned to the woman next to me, “that was great” I said “but what’s it all about?” “It’s our independence day” she replied in perfect English. “And who,” I asked, embarassed by my lack of knowledge, “did the French win their independence from?”. “From France, of course…” she answered, and we walked to the subway among firecrackers and children hoisted on shoulders.
The subway entrance was jammed with people trying to get home after the celebration. The police were there, guns black. They speared the crowd with orders. I asked a policemen if he’d seen James. He snickered: “I’m sure there are a million James’s here, pick one.”
I couldn’t translate, but his snicker was enough to let me know he had no idea who James was and had no respect for my mission.
I took an uncomfortable ride on a packed subway toward the Louvre where–I’d been told, beauty lives without the penalty of belonging to anyone.”If James will be anywhere” I thought, “he’ll be here. He’s very beautiful” There is a long desert before the Louvre the French call a garden, Jardin dus Tuileres. I don’t know if such misnaming is a product of French ettiquete or French irony but I arrived at the Louvre entrance parched,dusty, and waving my arms at mirages.
I entered the muesem trapped in a throng of tourist. We climbed to the second floor. The heat and smell of so many bodies made me want to give up looking, but then, thankfully, something halted us. It was spectral and dim. It was the Mona Lisa, a plump woman smiling at famine. I thought I saw something in her eyes. “James! Is that you?” I shouted.
“No!” someone kind yelled back, “James Baldwin has been dead for years now, but he did love Paris! And there’s always some young black writer wandering the streets, drunk on calling his name! They never find him, but they always find the Mona Lisa! But you, you’re a lucky one; I can see from here that you, James, and the Mona Lisa have the same sad, half empty, liquor bottle eyes. So don’t worry, James is dead but there’s still hope and purpose.”If I’d understood french, what he said would have provided some answers.
I went on calling.
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