French Like Me (Part 6)
A week later I gazed out at the Manhattan skyline from a darkened law office at three in the morning, my mind on Christine and Paris. And flight.
I was at a career crossroads, a life crossroads. From one perspective I was a freelance writer with a book being published in September. From another I’d been an unemployed editor for four months since media mogul Russell Simmons’s Oneworld magazine folded, taking nightshift temp agency assignments at law firms, proofreading tedious legal documents. From one point of view I was an imminent author with one foot in a Parisian expatriate life, echoes of James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the rest. From another I was sleeping on my father’s couch in Harlem, a building away from the one that evicted me two months ago over three months’ back rent. Resting in the plush chair of an empty conference room, chilled air blasting through the vents, I spent my sixty-minute break staring out at a beautiful view from the fortieth floor of a midtown skyscraper, considering what I was running from and where I was running to.
I first toyed with the idea of moving abroad in 2002 after sitting through a film screening of 25th Hour. Its closing sequence showed the drug-dealing lead character dodging his prison sentence to start an anonymous life far away from the big city, raising a family under an assumed name with his one true love. Something about the idea of disappearing completely and never being found appealed to me. I sat in my Brooklyn apartment with “Simple Kind of Life” on repeat that night, listening intently to No Doubt’s lyrics about giving up the artistic routine, settling down and having children. I wasn’t romantic enough to uproot my life to another country over a song or a movie, but personal and professional issues had me open for some radical changes.
The writing life turned out to be a lot more careerist than I expected at the beginning. I grew up on the canons of writers who lived magnanimously—Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway—and I thought that urban cultural critics were somehow destined to lead the same kinds of renaissance lives. Instead our singular path consisted of starting out in the urban press, branching out into mainstream magazines with wider audiences, hitting a glass ceiling and finally transitioning into television as talking heads. For me this meant being published by The Source in 1995, writing for Rolling Stone by the end of the following year, and eventually being passed over for a reporter-researcher spot at Vanity Fair. But I didn’t pursue the writing life to become an idiot box personality. When I got a call from MTV to appear on a show about the bling habits of celebrities’ pets, I respectfully declined. At thirty-three my lofty belief in a wave of modern-day Truman Capotes and Paul Robesons started dying on the vine. So I was eager to go away and sit on a hill someplace to think about what writing meant for me all over again. With its history as a legendary life school for writers, Paris, I thought, could be that hill.
Kicking off my shoes I thought back to the month before I left for France. I was lying on my living room couch, contemplating an eviction notice by candlelight. Earlier that day two men in blue Con Edison uniforms rang the doorbell, then knocked gruffly on my apartment door. I welcomed them in and showed them to my kitchen, bachelor bare except for a stove, a fridge and a picnic table supporting my old microwave. An electric meter hung at the ceiling; the two Con Ed workers whipped out their tools, unfolded their ladder and removed it. They handed me a past-due electricity bill for over two thousand dollars and left.
Days afterwards I sat on a padded church-pew-like bench in a courtroom reading a Zora Neale Hurston biography while waiting to see a judge. In the hallway outside court the lawyer of my landlord and I had made lighthearted conversation under the circumstances; we almost offhandedly got around to discussing the four months of back rent I owed his client. My rejecting a career in law must have seemed sort of foolish to him. (If dude had become an entertainment lawyer, this would never have happened.) Right before my case was called I alighted on the page in the Hurston bio about her eviction from a Harlem apartment in the 1920s and getting her book deal advance payment, five hundred bucks, the very same day. My story would be different. I walked out of court officially evicted. Borrowing that kind of money from friends or family wasn’t possible.
Where would I go now, I wondered.
That afternoon I headed for a Russian bathhouse to think. Late-edition newspapers sold on the street condemned Michael Jackson, a trial for his child molestation charges in the offing. An impersonator at Union Square wearing a Jheri-curl wig, fedora and highwaters grabbed his crotch and spun himself dizzy to “Billie Jean.” Buying bottled water at a deli I heard “Beat It” pumping from a radio. Feeling guilty over my financial irresponsibility I remember thinking, We’ve got to grow up sometime Michael, you and me both. Later at the hammam—nirvana like, hazy as a cumulus cloud—I sat in the sauna, sweat stinging my eyes, and made the fateful decision: I would move. To Paris.
Why not? I didn’t have a mortgage, a place to live, a car note, a permanent job… or a girlfriend. The last woman in my life was Nikki, a free-spirited music lover from Newark. We met in Brooklyn at a BAMcafé show and spent nine long months together: sprawled out on the shag rug in my home office smoking weed and having sex to jazz fusion, raiding the open bars of record industry parties and catching all the concerts we had the energy for, even meeting each other’s parents. We talked of moving to Paris together. But I started choosing women more for their marriage potential after I turned thirty, and Nikki had to deal (probably unfairly) with my figuring out just what I wanted in a wife. I ended things over a year ago and was slightly bored and somewhat lonely afterwards.
Copies of Christine’s house keys jangled in my pocket as I stood to return to work; when I left, she didn’t ask for them back. In our two weeks together we got more of a true adult sense of each other than we ever had before and we liked it. I already missed her sense of humor, her distinctly non-American perspectives. I promised her I’d return as soon as possible, after saving up money for a month or so. I focused on living in Paris, not finding another magazine job or a new apartment. Following the lead of adventurous writer heroes was a much more attractive career option than applying for a fellowship grant, going back to college for an MFA or defending 50 Cent on Real Time with Bill Maher.