Maxwell Street Follies
“The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is: ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”
Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks
Just past midnight on a muggy night in 1984, three Parisian squatters stood around a kerosene lantern plotting adverse possession in the leaky third floor of a tenement building in Montmartre.
“Where did you put the sign up?” asked Valery, tugging on his young, dark black beard as his elbow rested on a stack of several antiquated law books.
“I put a sign on a shopping cart in behind old number seven, that says that I own the property,” said an old folk artist with a cracked voice named Papa Gounod.
“Good,” said Valery, rattling his fingers on the scarred barrister’s bookshelf that served as a tabletop. He inwardly wondered whether the good Old Man had used the appropriate legal description, ‘Lot 17 of
Parcel 225,’ or latitude and longitude, or some other method to identify the exact location of Gounod’s adversely possessed parcel. He inhaled a lungful of marijuana and breathed it out voluminously. The vapors hung in the mildewy darkness as the lamp puffed fumes across the open brick room and toward an open window, through which a pale moon shown wanly through scattered clouds over a carnival skyscape.
“Well, your sign most likely won’t change the matter very much for us,” Valery said at last. In English law countries, that might make a difference, but in France, alas, it’s different,” explained Valery. “There is no reference to this problem in either the Salic Law, or the Napoleonic Code, of course. However, since we have been here for much longer than two days, our settlement cannot be considered a breach of the public order; therefore, the police cannot evict us, unless the City first resorts to the civil courts. That’s why old Gounod received his eviction notice. And while any eviction proceedings may be lengthy, the outcome could never be in any doubt, as his mere possession does nothing to establish his ownership to the property,” said Valery. “Ordinarily, we could be reduced to the usual settlement: agree on a bail precaire with our building’s rightful owners, or perhaps reach an agreement to legalize our settlements with the Minister of Culture,” he said. “But in our case, our situation may be even graver.”“What do you mean?” demanded Jean-Claude.
“They may even try to dissolve our organization ex nunc,” said Valery ruefully. “The aim that was connatural to the association when it was registered in 1960, the raison d’être for the coming-together of its members, was the operation of ‘Livres de Conscience’- the bookstore now operated by Heathcliff Waite- by the Committees of Conscience, on behalf of political prisoners. But the Committee stopped meeting in the early ‘60s, and Heathcliff Waite turned the bookstore into a conventional business.”
Weakly, dreadlocked old Papa Gounod tapped the lantern. “But I think I fixed that problem,” he wheezed, wiping off his dirty finger and pointing it at an open law book. “Since you told us that adverse possession \is the law in English countries, I put my sign up on Guy Fawkes Day.”
Suddenly, out of the darkness reared a fourth bearded man, Bougard, whose beard had grown yellow with lamp oil. “Connard!” he roared. “You heard him! You won’t last another year in this neighborhood, Old Man, ever since you took Clarence Darrow and her kittens. You’ve let the water run from the tap in that yard for almost two months now, and it’s breeding mosquitoes in the tire collection. You won’t last another month, with your shopping carts and your onion boxes! They say Butterfly Bill’s coming back!
The foursome grew quiet at the mention of the adopted son of Heathcliff Waite, the bookstore operator. The smoking kerosene lamp swung silently in the smelly shadows.
Early the next morning, a grim young man with a red beard and wearing a backpack debarked from a train at the Gare Montmartre. He passed the other travelers, en route to their morning espresso or to the metro. During his seven-year absence, the platform had been renovated in late 1940s style, and a loudpseaker blared the Rolling Stones version of ‘Love in Vain.’ Without pausing or turning, Bill Waite vomited into a waste can, and left the station. As he marched robustly along the boardwalk that ran beside the amusement park rides lining the Normandy shore, Bill gazed over the ocean, like some modern-day Constantine, at an image that seemed to hover above the horizon: the adoring face and long blonde hair of Dian Fossey. He had just left his mentor, murdered and now buried on a Rwandan mountain, a week before.
From the train station, Bill heard the refrain of the song: “All my love’s in vain.” Strutting past the rats that scurried among the abandoned carnival prizes, Bill came to a small concrete plaza at the end of the boardwalk. Peering over the guardrail at the end of the plaza, he could see some distance into the outlying reaches of Paris. There, in the distance on the side of Montmartre, lay the street on which Bill had grown up. Yes, there he could see it, just behind the Place Pigalle: Rue Maxwell, the birthplace of northern Europe’s electric blues scene.
Peering at the side of the hill in the distance, Bill began to wonder for the first time if he were well. He thought he spied an elf, in a powdered white 18th century barrister’s wig, standing atop a 200-foot-tall ladder, carrying two hefty boxes, one beneath each arm, at a great height. A bearded troll stood at the bottom, pelting the elf and cursing.
The troll spoke, and snatches of his words came obscurely to Bill’s ear, but the word ‘harlequin’was the only word he made out. Then the troll threw back his right arm and hurled a square object to the top of the ladder, which struck the wigged figure, who wavered, still clutching the two heavy plywood boxes, as the ladder began to vibrate. Bill ran breathlessly the last mile-and-a-half to the Rue Maxwell.
But when he arrived, it was not the faerie village of his childhood, both synthetic and whimsical, but a smoking ruin of hovels. The field of sunflowers had been razed, and the goldfish pond filled with motor oil. The street where he had been raised as a child was turned into a skeleton, like a set of punched out and broken teeth, blackened with tobacco smoke. In a corner of the lot Bill spied a very fresh-looking tombstone. The immense ladder that had been perched against the side of the ancient warehouse at 5112 Rue Maxwell had fallen to the ground. Books littered the ground, and Heathcliff was nowhere to be seen.
“Dad?” Bill said.
At that moment, his ex-roommate and fellow communard, Bougard, who looked like a troll, lunged around the corner with a fresh armload of books. “Ca va, citoyen?” Bill asked.
“Your putain father, that’s what, ‘Butterfly!’” taunted Bougard. “Think you’ll take all my books, eh? It looks like you forgot one last book, Jacobin. En garde!” He hurled a pocket size version of the Audubon Society’s ‘Field Guide to Butterflies,’ with its sturdy plastic cover, which struck Bill in the forehead, knocking him unconscious.
He always hated to be called ‘Butterfly,’ so much so that in his adolescence he changed his name to ‘Bill.’ It reminded him of his Mere, Bianca, who left Marseilles in 1962 on a tour of European communes. She fell in love with the Rue Maxwell, but tragically, when she drove out of town on an errand a week after her arrival, she was killed by one of the freak tornados that occurred in that year. Mirabile dictu, her three-year-old son, Butterfly, was left sitting unharmed in the middle of the freeway. Butterfly was left with no memories of her.
You see, this is not a story about the Paris, France of ‘the Lost Generation’ or the Jazz Age, but it begins not far from there, on a small declining side street on the rear of the Montmartre slope. Have you ever been there? If you ever stood at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and looked over the City of Lights, then you were, as they say, within spitting distance of the Rue Maxwell. Down at the base of the hill is the ancient Market, and beyond that one of the city’s oldest learning institutions. Near the top of the hill is the block where Butterfly grew up, and if you’ve ever been to the Basilica, then you were only three short blocks from the corner containing the hot dog stand where he got a black eye from a squatter and decided to change his name to Bill. When he was growing up, Bill always blamed his abuse at the hands of the squatters on his gentle but incompetent father, a Quebecois immigrant named Heathcliff Midlothian Waite, who had himself only recently moved to Maxwell Street.
Heathcliff had arrived carrying nothing but a broom, a powdered white barrister’s wig, and a few sundry belongings. He had returned one spring morning in 1962 to a steam pipe in the bridge running over the Seine at the Isle de la Cite, which had been his long-time abode, only to find that the City had welded it shut. Thence, he wandered through the city for several days, until he came, by chance, to the Rue Maxwell, where he made himself at home in the commune that had sprung up in the abandoned buildings that surrounded a bookstore, ‘Livres de Conscience.’
At first, it seemed as if Heathcliff and the Rue Maxwell would get along famously. But at the time of Bianca’s shocking death in the tornado, he was overwhelmed with paternal feelings for the first time in his life and adopted the three-year-old boy.
Heathcliff immediately set about expelling most of the human rights activists who had founded the ecovillage and began to operate the bookstore as a conventional business, supporting the boy for 14 years by selling used books. But the vacuum was soon filled by squatters, crude and violent. With most of the activists gone, Heathcliff and the few remaining communards were powerless to prevent it. To these roughnecks, the Waites, pere and fils, were a funny pair. After all, Heathcliff was a Quebecois who wore a wig and operated a quaint bookstore, and his son was named ‘Butterfly.’
The day came when Butterfly bought a pair of dice from the boutique de conneries at 5118 Rue Maxwell, and moved out of the bookstore and into a building down the block with Bougard, a stubborn, middle-aged communard who had lived at the ecovillage since the old days.
What next? he wondered. Was he to become a cabaret singer, or a pimp? One afternoon he gazed in meditation on his surroundings, peering thoughtlessly up at the most prominent of Maxwell Street’s two murals, which occupied the entire side of the building that housed the boutique des conneries. The large mural, commemorating his mother’s death and his own arrival, read, ‘Bianca and Butterfly forever,’ in green, gothic swirls of white and aqua.
(The second, smaller mural was a wall-and-ceiling painting inside an abandoned ice cream Parlor that depicted the Count de Buffoon and Guillaume le Buffets, two physical comedians together called the Vaudeville Colleagues, who had gotten their start on the nearby Boardwalk decades prior to Bill’s birth).
Because Maxwell Street was labeled with the disfavored nominative ‘Butterfly’ so prominently, he concluded, he certainly had to leave. But where? Bill had been reading about the American zoologist Dian Fossey, and her brave and dangerous efforts to preserve the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Now there was a woman! he thought.
He would go to her. Bill Waite would become a man. He would become an activist! Bill arrived at the camp on Mt. Karisimbi in the late afternoon one summer day not long thereafter; Dian herself had gone up on the ridge with some interns to check on a band of mountain gorillas that had split off from the main family. A young microbiologist named Heinz greeted him and showed him to his tent. Bill began to chop wood.
Half an hour later Fossey herself trotted briskly from the tent up to where Bill stood with his ax. “You must be Waite,” the American woman said in the faux British accent she had adopted as an ex-patriate. “Nice chopping. It gets cold up here at night.”
He would forever remember her standing freshly washed before him in her mountain fatigues. Contrasted against the mountain, Fossey looked even taller and stronger than her photographs. She was long-haired and beautiful against the sunset, but Bill noted that her unmade-up face was that of a middle-aged woman.
Bill’s heart would forever belong to Dian, unconditionally, starting from one particularly chilly, dewy morning when she taught him how to repair an electronic weather meter. As the two of them hunched down together in the freshly mowed mountain grass, Dian saw Bill shiver, justonce. “Come closer,” she told him. Bill leaned in closer to Dian, and for the first time, breathed the powerful Charlie perfume she wore about her neckline.
She finished tightening two of the bolts on the weathervane, and then handed it to him. Bill took the device in his lap, and Dian, leaning closer yet, placed her hand on his knee, and her chin on his shoulder. Bill tightened, and instinctively drew back again, his heart fluttering.
From that moment, Dian knew that Bill sought a mother-and-child relationship. She held him like an egg. Bill’s competence grew by leaps and bounds in her care, as he came to play his dutiful role in the camp, where the study of the endangered mountain gorillas and the struggle against poaching went hand-in-hand.
He was jealous nevertheless when he saw Dian flirting playfully with the other young men in the camp, including Heinz, Burton from the U.K., and even old Dr. Herwiger when he visited. She would ask any one of them to accompany her to the swimming pond, or to help her wring out her long underwear. The female interns and other women in camp seemed to ignore it, but the men present would giggle and exchange knowing looks, and then, when in Bill’s presence, would avert their gaze and fall silent.
One weekend in early fall, Bill had been instructed to serve as look-out for Twa poachers, encroaching with the change in season, from an observation post on a mountain across the valley. This was an annual event, He returned ahead of time, just before dusk, to exchange a damaged telescope, and to his surprise, heard muted screams from one of the storage tents, which was ordinarily off-limits and seldom visited. What was going on? Had someone been injured?
Bill stepped around a blazing fire pit, and pulled aside a thick leather curtain and a mosquito net. They hadn’t been there before. He saw Dian leaning forward, sweating in a maroon brassiere, her back turned to him. The shed was unlit save for a glowing brazier, which occluded part of the scene from Bill’s sight.
“I feel a heartbeat!” Dian said. “Is he breathing?”
Was she treating some wounded activist or poacher? he wondered. Maybe she was even performing heroic wilderness veterinary medicine on an injured gorilla. At length, Heinz appeared above the brazier, in spectacles and wearing a white smock.
Bill heard the creak of rusty wheels. Dian walked from behind the brazier with an ungainly step, fanning herself energetically. In fact, she was wearing nothing but a leopard print G string and a pair of black stiletto heels. Her hair, illuminated by the brazier, glowed like coils of the finest copper, and they spilled down her back in ruddy ringlets. There was not an ounce of cellulite on her body. She didn’t see Bill.
Bill was dumbfounded. Why was his icon traipsing around a shed, like a stripper nearly crippled by severe bunions, who is so clumsy she cannot even walk down a runway?
“Are they bringing the next one?” she asked. “Alright, hold on.” She donned a plastic American Halloween mask, depicting a green-skinned, warty witch. “Bring him on.” Dian hesitantly picked up a whip, woven of thorny nettles, flexed her toned arm muscles, then put it down, instead taking two handfuls of green American dime store slime in her hands.
Heinz wheeled in a vertical scaffold, on which was chained a Twa poacher. Dian lunged at the man, who immediately began screaming. She held the slime before his face, and let it ooze from her hands. The slime’s viscous verdure was opaque and seemed unholy in the light of the brazier. The Twa’s tonsils glowed from behind his sharpened, pointed teeth as he shrieked.
Dian put the slime down and wiped her hands on a towel. “There, there, little fellow,” she said. “That’s not really the slime I want on my hands, is it?” As she removed the mask and tossed her curls about her, she caught site of Bill.
“Aren’t I every inch of me a whore, Bill?” she asked him.
“Non,” said Bill.
She looked slightly surprised. Heinz stood in a corner of the shed looking uncomfortable in his round glasses.
“Well, then,” Dian said, reverting to her expatriate accent. She reached behind her and removed the bra. “Now do you love me, Bill?” she asked, cupping her breasts in her hands.
“Non,” said Bill.
Dian pouted. Suddenly she looked at him sharply. “Go to the water tower, and return with two large buckets of warm water,” she told him. “And take your time about it.”
Bill took a step backward out of the shed and toward the fire, still holding on to the curtain.
“I hope you understand that if you ever return to hurt my gorillas,” she told the Twa, as she stepped closer to him, “I’m going to cast these private parts of yours into the blaze.”
Bill stood in the doorway a moment, as he turned his head into the darkness and lowered his gaze, holding on to the mosquito netting and the leather curtain. I guess it’s easy to get conned into doing the wrong thing, he thought, when you're thousands of miles away from home, and accompanied by some unusually confident, highly-principled person whom you adore.
He turned again to the doorway, suddenly tore down the curtain and rushed back into the shed, shouting, “Sainte Mere de Dieu, ma femme, attendre!” He threw the heavy curtain over Dian's nude body and shoved her off the helpless Twa. Dian's shoulder crashed into the wooden wall, her hand still covered with green slime as she cried out, “Get off me, you bastard, and leave me alone!”
Heinz turned his head to face the corner, like a donkey who sees its sibling being slaughtered, and knows it is next. Bill lifted Dian and carried the partially-nude woman out of the shed and into the darkness, crying, “Shanti Sena! Shanti Sena!”
Suddenly activists came running through the darkness from every direction. Within a few minutes, Bill, Heinz, Dian and the Twa were back in the shed, which was surrounded by dozens of Dian's students, interns, post-docs, non-credentialled assistants, and volunteers like Bill.
“I told you already, we won't tolerate you abusing the native peoples in this country,” yelled an undergrad, who had strawberry-colored hair.
“But we have to take action to prevent the poaching, to save the endangered gorillas. They call them demons; they have superstitious practices. They'll go extinct,” said Dian quickly, for the one hundredth time, lowering her face.
“Then call the police!” screamed the strawberry maiden.
“They'll kill everyone, they'll kill all of us...” said Dian wearily.
“Perhaps you're being paranoid again,” said a tall young female post-doc guardedly.
“We’re activists and humanitarians, not a bunch of sadists!” screamed the strawberry woman. “Get away from him!” she suddenly screamed.
Heinz had silently left his spot in the corner of the shed and had quietly worked his way over to where the Twa man still lay prostate on the horizontal scaffold. Discovered, he quickly backed away, weeping silently in fear. His glasses were fogged.
The crowd now turned to look at the Twa man. They were not pleased with him either, as he had been caught poaching the previous day, and a mother gorilla and two infants had been killed.
“What, if anything, would you like to say about all this?” asked the scrawny, mustached ecology intern. The entire crowd grew absolutely silent, except for Heinz’s nearly inaudible weeping and the sound of cicadas. Those gathered listened intently as the poacher made an effort to speak.
“I... only...want....be with my people,” croaked the Twa's harsh, dehydrated voice. That was was the first time Bill realized that dysfunction existed in the world beyond Maxwell Street. Eventually, the entire camp returned to bed. The poacher was taken from the scaffold and locked into a utility building behind the men's quarters, from which he was released to Rwandan police two days later. Things in the camp went on as though nothing had happened. There was never again any reference to sexual improprieties amongst the activities on Mt. Karisimbi.
Bill awoke in a sheen of sweat. He reached in the darkness of the camp for his alarm clock, but instead found his hand upon a fresh-seeming tombstone, and realized he was back home. To his side, the immense ladder still lay prone, but looking up, he saw his father dangling from the warehouse window, 200 feet in the air. He ran into the warehouse and raced up five flights of steps, then pulled his adoptive father into the building. Heathcliff stood bent over and gasping, then straightened and adjusted his wig. The entire building had been jammed with used books in storage.
“Dad, what’s going on here?” Bill asked.
“Come in here,” said Heathcliff breathlessly, gesturing to a little side room containing more books, as well as a wood stove and a few chairs. He tossed a handful of paperback books into the stove, and stuffed in some cardboard. Bill had forgotten how fast cardboard burned.
“It’s good to see you, ‘Butterfly’,” said Heathcliff, as Bill sat down. “Things have become a little disorderly around here. Affairs in the outside world have demanded my attention, so I haven’t been able to spend as much time around the ecovillage as I used to.
“You see,” said Heathcliff, “a few days after you left, seven years ago, I thought it would be nice to take a look at some of the old sites again. Bougard and Valery were standing in the bookstore one day, arguing with me about Boogard’s book, and Valery’s legal strategies, so I sort of spontaneously invited them both to join me on a helicopter tour.
“I couldn’t believe how much the city had changed while you were growing up! An entire epoch in French history passed. Why, the Rolling Stones recorded ‘Exile on Main Street’ in the basement of a villa not far from here when you were 11 years old, and Picasso himself died only two years later. Brigitte
Bardot became an animal rights activist who vehemently opposed immigration, and Jean-Luc Godard has seen his style evolve. Jean Paul Sartre died in 1980, three years after you left. Deplorably, now the entire country carries a torch for Serge Gainsbourg.
“I really became disillusioned with France after Sartre died. In the helicopter, I saw for the first time the skyscrapers of the ironically-named business district called ‘La Defense,’ at the site of the historic city wall, which the bourgeoisie had constructed during the years of your puberty. I reflected on how I could have had an altogether different life. I could have lived in a houseboat on the Seine and finished my dissertation.
“In a mood mixing melancholy with a spirit of new-found freedom, I meandered one morning down the hill and into the city, past the bridge that was my home long ago after I first emigrated from Quebec. I continued past the Isle de la Cite, to the tomb of the great Camus, my mentor, which for years I used to faithfully sweep every afternoon when I lived inside the bridge. Now, however, I carried not a broom, but a cane, and when, entirely on a whim, I decided to enter the house of the cemetery porter at Pere Lachaise, I found nothing easier than to become a docent at the same tomb I used to covertly sweep!
Heathcliff grasped two more handfuls of American paperbacks, and bent over, preparing to heave them into the stove. Bill stood up and smacked the Quebecois emigrant as hard as he could in the side of the head, causing him to spill the books.
“You imbecile!” shouted Bill. “You’ll kill us! It must be 115 degrees in here!”
“What? Oh, another fire! Quick, get the fire engine!” said Heathcliff.
Bill followed his adoptive father down and out of the building, and around the corner to an abandoned art warehouse in the alley behind them, half a block up the hill toward the Basilica. Inside was an ancient fire engine.
“Push!” shouted Heathcliff.
The two men strained and struggled, and eventually pushed the fire engine by hand around the corner ‘til it came to rest before the warehouse at 5112 Rue Maxwell, where a fair-sized fire burned.
“Pump!” hollered Heathcliff.
Clambering into the cab, Bill pumped madly with his hardy legs, until finally water began to spurt from the hose. Holding his wig firmly to his head with one hand, Heathcliff used the other arm to point the nozzle at the fire, which was eventually extinguished.
The two men returned to the fifth floor of the warehouse.
“Eventually, the growing prevalence of suspicious fires in the neighborhood compelled me to join a volunteer fire brigade, at which I excelled,” continued Heathcliff, breathlessly hanging his suit jacket before the wood stove, and shaking the moisture from his wig.
“Now one day a curious thing happened. Whereas in past years, before I adopted you, I was sometimes a figure of horror and revulsion to passersby in the vicinity of the cemetery, now, due perhaps to my cane and my age, I was looked upon with approval by complete strangers. A wealthy widow, a dowager who had once been a fashion magnate, took a liking to me. We developed a close companionship, and one day I spoke to her at length.
“‘Oh, Heathcliff,’ she said to me, ‘You live a life of such robustness for an older gentleman, volunteering in the fire brigade, serving as docent at the tomb of Camus, and operating a successful used bookstore.’ For she was attracted to the fact that I had become the model of a petty bourgeois.
“‘Why, mademoiselle,’ said I to the dowager, “That’s not all. I once served on the Council of Paris, and therein lies a tale.”
“‘Oh, Heathcliff, you’re a statesman!’”
“And so I told the dowager my history, of how I emigrated to Paris from Quebec to study under the great Camus, but my mentor died in a car accident within months of my arrival. Within weeks, he was interred in the Pantheon with the other great individuals of France, and just as suddenly disinterred and moved to the common cemetery at Pere Lachaise, out of French whimsy. I alone remained to faithfully sweep grave every afternoon and vowed to take up residence in the bridge over the Seine until Camus should be restored to his rightful place.
“‘Why Heathcliff, were you in Paris in the early 60s?’ she interrupted me to ask.”
“Mais, oui, mademoiselle. After all, that was the era when anyone could be a genius, even the bartender in the Manhattan Bar, who pours out Curacao with one hand and gathers up his gonorrhea with the other...[T]he gentleman in the raincoat, who is about to start his seventh trip around the world, even Chuck the Drunk, who goose-stepped through the alleys of Montreal, carrying a bottle of vodka and wearing his high school letter jacket and a Russian fur cap, talking to himself; and many other strange characters as well.”
“So, I told the dowager of my daily routine in those days, as mad as they were. I would clamber every afternoon out of my residence in the hollow arm of the bridge at the Isle de la Cite to sweep Camus’ grave. In the evenings I had a small business taking tourists on covert midnight tours of the Pantheon to show visitors the spot to which the great man would one day be returned. We were trespassing, of course, and because I was inexperienced, we would sometimes become lost. And even when we could find our way out, I was never able to direct them to the Closerie des Lilas, or the places where the night streetwalkers strolled.
“Then in the evenings,” reminisced Heathcliff, “it always seemed there was some fool who had insulted the honor of my mentor. So in the hours past midnight, I could usually be found scouring the cafes and bars of the city for a disrespectful sot, to whom I would have to teach the dignity of his heritage.”
“‘Oh, Heathcliff! Weren’t you frightened by all the violence?’
“‘Madame,’ I told her gravely, ‘In the words of Jacques Lacan, there will always be brawling among men- but one day Camus will be returned to the Pantheon.’
“‘Did you feel alienated?’ she asked.
“‘Madame, I was a Frenchman! I attended the industrial strikes, and I wrote letters to the editor of the city newspapers. Eventually, just by going about my business, I attracted the attention of a gang of Dadaist sans culottes, who decided to run me as their candidate for the Council of Paris. I was elected councilor; but my bill to re-inter Camus in the Pantheon was tabled. The next year, it was the La Pennist sans-culottes who chose to run me, and again I was elected. But as a politician, I could achieve nothing. The following term, there were bloody clashes between the Dadaist and La Pennist sans-culottes in the streets of Paris, and I lost my seat. Returning to my bridge at the Isle de la Cite, I found that the city had welded shut the steam pipe. I then wandered for some days until I came to Maxwell Street.’
“To make a long story short, the Dowager ran me for City Council again, and I won, more than
25 years after I once held the office, and I serve there still. In fact,” said Heathcliff to Bill confidentially, “both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir visited the Rue Maxwell after your departure and greeted me in the same old bookstore across the street.”
“Incredible,” said Bill.
“Butterfly,” said Heathcliff confidentially, sitting down, and leaning in close to his son, “the squatters of the Rue Maxwell have become a problem. I was never able to do anything about them while I was raising you, and now they want to burn down L’Academe, which has always been the fount and reservoir of the Committees of Conscience, from the time of the bookstore’s founding. Will you help me expel the squatters, and restart the Committees?”
Bill bit his lip and closed his eyes. He didn’t know how to solve the problems on Maxwell Street, because nobody had ever tried. But he would go down to the Champs Elysees the next morning and buy 30 or 40 of the strongest locks he could find.
“I’ll try,” said Bill at last.
The next morning, as Bill was affixing a lock to the door of his old residence at 5106 Rue Maxwell. Heathcliff came hobbling up on his cane. “Follow me, ‘Butterfly’!” cried Heathcliff. “They’ve put up a barricade- the squatters are going to burn down L’Academe!”
“I don’t think we’re prepared!” Bill shouted, tucking in the tails of his flannel shirt as he ran after his father. He raced down the slope and through the historic market, following the bobbing white wig as it disappeared and re-appeared amidst the maze of sunken temples and broken columns among which cattle once grazed. He almost stumbled over a trio of young Frenchmen shooting dice and kicked the dice out of the pit.
“I run the dice games in this town,” Bill told them, as he leapt over their stupefied heads and chased the old Quebecois through the market.
Already, there was screaming in the marketplace, and the musicians at the bandstand, switched to a few chords of ‘La Marseillaise,’ before they disbanded altogether, threw their instruments into a pile and ran for cover.
At long last he came to L’Academe. Faces peered down through ivy-covered windows, far, far above the massive, featureless gray 12th century fortress wall. The gendarmerie, clad in riot gear, had cordoned off the face of the buildings, and shepherded the outraged squatters into a protest pen on the other side of Maxwell Street. Bill breathlessly caught up with Heathcliff. Already, the squatters had set up a barricade: shopping carts, overturned Yugos’ broken-up picnic benches, and the ticket-taking booth from a metro station had all been shoved into the middle of Maxwell Street.
“Save L’Academe!” shouted Heathcliff hoarsely, as he banged with his fists on the barricade.
“Fuck you, Petain!” screamed Bougard from across the street. “We’re not squatters- your Academe is the one that’s the trespasser!”
At that moment, another young fellow walked up to Bill and Heathcliff. He was between the age of the adoptive father and son, and had long hair, a sparse but disorderly goatee, and tortoise-shell glasses.
“Professor Heathcliff, I’m glad to see you are not standing over there, chanting with those retards,” said the newcomer warmly.
“This fellow is Frere Fructidor whom I know from the old days,” said Heathcliff to Bill.
“How are you, Jacques. How long before the National Guard shows up?”
Suddenly a buzzing sound emerged overhead, but its source was invisible. “Is that them? Is that the National Guard?” asked Heathcliff, keeping one eye on the squatters as he looked down a side street.
Fructidor unfolded a pair of opera glasses and studied the scene. “So many different uniforms,” he said thoughtfully. “Surely those are not French troops.”
The trio were silent for a moment. “Could every country in Europe have sent their armies, just to protect L’Academe?” Bill asked incredulously, as he peered with his naked eyes at the distant scene.
“No, there are French troops, after all,” Fructidor corrected himself. “On the right, there is the East German secret police. It looks like they are being led by ‘Iron’ Erich Mielke. Overhead on the left, we have two Med-Evac squadrons of the Transylvanian Coast Guard. But they are all being led by the French National Guard, in the center. The government has sent the very best,” said Fructidor.
“The Three Musketeers Battalion. L’Academe is saved.”
“Well done,” said Bill. “Dad, let’s go.”
The entire crowd had broken into a riot. The squatters collided with one another and got hung. up upon the barricades and other wreckage which they themselves had hauled into the middle of the street.
“Come here, Dad!” said Bill, grasping his adoptive father firmly by the arm. Bill was trying to hold onto Heathcliff amidst the tumult, when he felt something soft strike him in the back of the head and fell to the ground unconscious.
That was the third time that Bill had been knocked unconscious, all within the last two weeks. The first had been in a swampy forest clearing at the base of Karisimbi: a perplexing denouement to an entire venture notable for the failure of the well-intentioned to mediate its dialectical contradictions, such being necessary for its success.
Bill remained with the camp on Mt. Karisimbi for seven years, notwithstanding the sexual abuse he uncovered that first fall. He grew to manhood serving on the anti-poaching team and learned to diligently protect the endangered mountain gorillas they had all come to love so deeply. Bill was fascinated by the contradictions which seemed to inhere so deeply within Dian, who was so dedicated to the gorillas that she sometimes lived in communion with them- but treated not only the Twa, but all Rwandan natives, with utmost disparagement.
Her contradictions summoned within him, over the years, feelings first mysterious, then contemplative, and finally inflamed. Bill was inwardly enraged that his mentor could devote herself to such good works, yet at the same time accommodate such malign acts in her spare time. Nonetheless, there being no more visible abuse, Bill remained a dedicated part of the anti-Poaching project. He never foresaw how the failure to address and synthesize the conflict between the animal preservation and human rights movements would lead to such imminent tragedy.
It was one of Dian’s own volunteers who initiated the violent conflict that apparently later claimed Dian’s life. A team of zoologists came upon the remains of one of Dian’s favorite gorillas, named Digit-a mere adolescent- on a mountain slope across the valley. Not long thereafter, one of Dian’s volunteers shot a herder, who Dian said was trespassing in the area, in the thigh with a high-powered rifle. After that, it was, ‘Katy, bar the door.’
A few days after, Bill was patrolling a mountain pass at the base of Karisimbi. Dian had come across a slope littered with gorilla scat, and since diarrhea was associated with sudden danger experienced by a gorilla family, she had sent the patrol to investigate. Poachers had of late taken to capturing infant gorillas for sale to zoos and massacring their families.
The team leader led Bill and his group into a forest clearing to get a view of a mountaintop and get his bearings. In the mistaken belief that the clearing was unoccupied, Bill followed, soon learning that it was marshy up to his thighs
“Get down!” hissed Lukacs, the team leader. He quickly raised his rifle, pointed it across the clearing and pumped off several rounds. A scream issued from the other side.
“Don’t do that!” shrieked Bill. “Why are you shooting that man?” Momentarily, Bill felt the dart enter his flesh just above his waist.
He awoke days later, unsure how far he was from Karisimbi, or what time it was. Through daylight which hesitantly penetrated his chamber, he concluded after some time that he was in a Twa hut, lying on a blanket on a dirt floor. Across from him a withered, toothless old man sat calmly on his haunches, regarding him.
“I know you,” said the man, gumming a betel nut. “You’re the White who saved our people from the Old Witch Woman who lives on top of Karisimbi.” He regarded Bill, who remained silent. “Don’t worry,” he said at last. “Red Cross be here this afternoon.
At length, the Twa elder lit a hashish pipe, which filled the spare chamber with intoxicating vapors. As the afternoon dragged on, a chorus of children began chanting traditional Twa songs. For some time, the songs seemed good-willed but untrained and rather atonal. Then they were interrupted by the sound of tires and a low engine. At length, guitar sounds emerged, and to Bill lying in the cannabis smoke, the Twa song was transformed into the most scintillating, buoyant Afropop.
In the mid-afternoon, the elder came and led Bill from the hut. Sunlight filtered moderately Through a forest canopy. He accepted a ride with two staff from the Red Cross, a Brit and an Australian.
“Where to, mate?” asked the British driver, once the Land Rover was safely en route.
“Karisimbi,” said Bill.
“What you going up there for?”
“I’m a volunteer in Dian Fossey’s zoology camp,” he explained.
“Fossey’s dead,” said the driver. “Murdered several days ago. The Rwandans want to charge an American student, but the consulate spirited him back to the States.”
“Better take me up to Karisimbi,” said Bill. “I’d better get this sorted.”
“Are you sure?” asked the driver.
Bill was silent.
“You’re a long way from a bowl of moules frites and bottle of Riesling, my friend,” said the Aussie. “Are you sure you don’t just want us to take you to the airport?”
“Fuck it,” said Bill finally. “Take me to the airport.”