Nine Days before 9/11


(9/11/11: second in a series)

Before I made my way to Normandy, I stopped back in Paris, which Julia and I had left on September 9. She now remained behind in Provence to teach a photo workshop. My first arrival in Paris had been ill-omened, but then the connections between our personal lives and the zeitgeist are purely – personal? We had leased a Peugeot, which we picked up at Charles de Gaulle and drove into Paris. I was happy, as we entered the city, to find my youthful New York City cabbie skills tested and up to the task. (On a later occasion, l’etoile, at the Arc de Triomphe, was the inescapable Godzilla of my driving nightmares.) From Paris we would drive through Germany to Prague, then to Vienna, Budapest and back, on across Italy to the Riviera, and then to St. Remy de Provence. Leaving Julia there, I would proceed to Normandy on my own for a visit to the D-day landing beaches and the Bayeux Tapestry. All of this went as planned, and we met back up in Paris for more time there before flying home.

We spent that first day, however, at our loaner apartment in Le Marais, just across the street from the Picasso Museum, sleeping off a sleepless flight. Come the evening, we awoke groggily to join friend Brian for a first dinner out on my first trip to Paris.

The next morning, I sent the second of my “Letters from…” to an email list I regaled over the next month with details of our travels and experiences. I reproduce it below, with its original subject line.

Renowned Photographer Saves Obscure Writer’s Life in Parisian Café

August vacation just over, the streets of Paris are full and lively.  The evening is pleasant, the night sky clear, and the beef chewy. The Obscure Writer and the Renowned Photographer have met up with the Photographers’ Assistant, who is just completing his own two months on the continent shooting photographs and studying French.  They walk the tres chic Marais district, including Paris’s gay area (rainbow flags on facades as identifiers) and old Jewish quarter (kosher pizza) and fail to draw a connection.  They stop to gaze at the immense and glowing Hôtel de Ville.

As they cross the Seine, the Obscure Writer marvels at this first sighting.  The water flows darkly luminous with reflected light, the beam atop the distant Tour Eiffel searching in all directions, the quays lonely and, yes, romantic, the city opening up in its middle to suggest its sweeping and historic expanse.  The Obscure Writer grudgingly considers that if New York is the center of the universe, it might not be historically so, for here, near Point Zéro on the Ile de la Cité (from which all distances in France are measured) one can sense armies departing or arriving to conquer, heads rolling in pursuit of, and flight from, liberty, the destiny of nations and a continent determined over several centuries.

Passing the massive Notre-Dame Cathedral (to be explored another day), the three enter the Latin Quarter, near Saint-Germain des Prés.  Hunger and proximity more than any special attraction lead them into Le Be Bop café, where photos of jazz greats clutter the walls of an establishment otherwise uncharacteristically pristine and bright.  A sole piano player keys decorous versions of jazz standards.  Far from be boppy, the air is quiet and sedate.

The meals are in progress, a bottle of St. Emillion well under attack, when the Obscure Writer, as he is sometimes prone to do, and just as the piano player begins his consideration of “Body and Soul,” bites off a bit more than he can chew.  Not, in fact, properly chewed, the less than tender beef slips into the throat prematurely, and the Obscure Writer determines, as he has on countless previous occasions, to muscle this injudiciousness down before proceeding more wisely.  Only this time he cannot, and now the difficult piece is too far down to push back up.  It is stuck, the throat completely blocked.  The Obscure Writer cannot breathe and he is, he quickly realizes, if nothing is done, and done quickly, about to choke to death.

The Renowned Photographer and the Photographers’ Assistant, involved in conversation, suddenly notice the Obscure Writer’s gagging discomfort.  Still unaware of the full seriousness of the situation, the Photographers’ Assistant instructs the Obscure Writer to raise both of his arms.  He does, and the restaurant’s other patrons search in vain for the man with the gun.  But this procedure is futile.  The Obscure Writer, panicked but clear of mind, knows he has about thirty or forty seconds of consciousness left.  If no one knows what to do in that time, he is probably lost.  He stands and tries to speak the words “Heimlich maneuver,” but without breath cannot make a sound.  He gags.  He punches with a fist at the “V” of his rib cage.  His head feels about to explode.  The Renowned Photographer is now fully alarmed, and looks to the Photographers’ Assistant for action, as she often does.  The Obscure Writer, his desperation at its peak, turns his back to them, trying again to hint at the Heimlich maneuver.  He feels a hand smack him twice on the back.  The Obscure Writer shakes his head no, locks his hands and hugs the air in front of him to show the maneuver.  Only seconds remain.  Now the Renowned Photographer understands, senses there is not enough time to allow the Photographers’ Assistant around her to perform the maneuver of which she feels uncertain.  She throws her arms around the Obscure Writer and pulls against his stomach.  The Obscure Writer, bent forward from the force of the hug, feels, suddenly, about to vomit.  But he does not vomit. Up instead, into the air, comes the sole, large piece of offending, viscous beef, a projectile arcing through space, remarkably, into the palm the Obscure Writer inexplicably stretches out for the catch.  He spins and dumps the piece of meat on his plate, gasps painfully and with relief for air.  He gulps down wine.  He gulps down water.  For minutes after, his insides convulse and shake.

Meanwhile, the restaurant staff and patrons have ignored the entire proceeding. No one looks in the direction of the three. The waiter says not a word, the maitre d’ offers no comfort. The piano player has kept on playing, committing body to soul.

Friends of the three more knowledgeable of the French attribute the reaction to native discretion and privacy. If they say so.

Soon enough, though – frozen in the Paris night that nearly altered lives in a New York minute – our three diners begin a dreadful, joking reminiscence of the present become quickly past.  Had the Obscure Writer found French cultural eminence more than he could swallow?  How does he feel about the Renowned Photographer, of whom he is, reportedly, inordinately fond, having saved his life?  He is, he confesses, all choked about it.


Nine days later, on a brilliant Prague afternoon, after a morning of ambling and discovery joyous beyond the usual reasons, past the vehicles quickly delivering armed troops to a building flying the American flag and that registered only later as the American embassy, down the hill from Prague Castle, which has been many times rebuilt, most notably after a disastrous fire in 1541, our waiter at an Old Town Square cafe, using his hands to simulate the planes over our latte and Coke, swept the air clean and told us that the World Trade Center was “no more.”


(Art by Romare Bearden)

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2 thoughts on “Nine Days before 9/11

  1. Your series of 9/11-related posts is excellent.

    The scene in the cafe is vivid, written with great verve. Its juxtaposition with what we know is coming is jolting.

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