4 min read
Ever get trapped in a cemetery? Ever get trapped in a cemetery surrounded by celebrities? It would have been cool if they had been alive. I could have gotten to know them – swap stories, joke about our shared adventure, you know… keep in touch.
Alas, they were all buried… or in mausoleums. These were major, empire-class celebs, famed throughout the world and time. Not the kind you hear about, punching out their spouse, on entertainment news. We’re talking folks like Proust, Balzac, Delacroix, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Frederic Chopin and… Jim.
So there we were, trapped in Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris and the most populated. This particular evening the population was up by two – me and my friend Keva. Being young fools, we ignored the guards’ insistent whistles, signaling closing time. We wanted to visit just one more luminary and then just one more. Plus, we still hadn’t found Jim.
We figured if they really meant it they would come find us. But they really did mean it… and they went home for dinner, locking us in. So this was how things worked in the so-called “Nanny State’ – if you didn’t take personal responsibility, Nanny split.
Go East Young Man
Every young writer wants to write in Paris. The streets and lanes still vibrate with the energy of history’s dreamers. If you ever have a chance to go there and roam, I suggest you do. At any age. Paris is a gift. You deserve it.
Even a wannabe screenwriter like me hauled a suitcase to the City of Light, back in my twenties. Thanks to Keva, who was somehow always connected with someone who knew someone, I got myself a chambre de bonne – a maid’s room at the top of beautiful building in the 8th arrondissement, not far from the Paris Opera.
The room was free but the deal was once or twice a week I would go downstairs to a fancy apartment to dust the owners’ Louis XV antiques. So, I was sort of their maid americain. Also, for amusement, the lady of the house would have me practice my French. Which was a desastre, but she was very patient.
This was such a sweet deal for me. Plus, I had a student card that entitled me to one dollar meals at various student cafeterias around the city. So there you have it: Paris on a dollar a day. OK, maybe it was more like three dollars with lunch and a trip to the patisserie. But that’s still less than an order of French Fries.
I had this city wired – even my entertainment was free. We had learned, practiced and perfected the fine art of second acting. You know, that’s where you wait for the intermission of your favorite show, concert or opera performance. Then you casually walk up, blend in with the crowd and shuffle inside. Once in the theater, hang back a little to scope out an empty seat and voila, you’re in. C’est facile!
As I lived near the Paris Opera, I did this on a regular basis. Consequently, I got to experience the back halves of numerous operas. This meant as soon as the curtain rose we were already in the middle of some big, dramatic conflict. Someone was already dead or dying or… betrayal, lost love or wanton destruction was imminent. It was like Opera’s greatest hits.
La Meme Chose Avec Paris
This also described my take on Paris. It was home to Passion’s greatest hits. This was a landscape pulsing with the history of yearnings, desires, revolutions and great love affairs, all presented in a colorized movie of boulevards, parks and rooftops.
Paris was so vibrant it even transcended its own inhabitants. Most, frankly, didn’t seem worthy of such a sublime situation. They were just too grumpy. I didn’t get it. How could you live here and not be happy?
But perhaps Paris is more than anyone can absorb. Or live up to. I was just trying to be worthy of my literary surroundings with my little screenplays, written in my chamber de bonne but… they didn't seem to measure up. I had expected Paris to inspire me. Instead, I felt dwarfed by its grandeur. So I would go out and indulge another éclair or gateau… or petit fours or pain au chocolat or profiterole…
But, I wrote and gave it my daily best on a dollar or two or three.
One of us had heard about Pere Lachaise, the largest cemetery in the city. There was supposed to be all sorts of famous dead people there: artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, generals, scientists, prime ministers… and Jim.
So, in the Parisian spirit of free entertainment, Keva and I decided to pay homage to these famous, talented, gifted souls and really… really to see Jim. He was after all, the lead singer for The Doors.
Walking the paths of Pere Lachaise, was like taking a tour in cultural literacy. Here was Oscar Wilde and here was Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas, the novelist Colette, composer Frederic Chopin, singer Edith Piaf, filmmaker Georges Melies and easily one hundred others.
But the cemetery wasn’t always so popular with celebs or anyone for that matter. Established by Napoleon in 1804, it was considered to be way out in les sticks at the time. So a little marketing was in order.
The remains of certain famed French artists were transferred to the cemetery, including that of French playwright Moliere, considered to be perhaps the greatest master of comedy. The plan worked like a charm and soon people were lining up to reserve their burial plots - a development of which Moliere, no doubt, would have taken wicked pleasure.
As Keva and I explored the lanes of Pere Lachaise, we walked amongst the one million that had by then populated these blessed rows. We’d spot and call out famous names as if we were tasked with the invite list for a gala of all-time high achievers.
“I see Balzac.”
“Sarah Bernhardt… Camille Pissarro”
“Richard Wright… Bizet… Rossini…”
And so on… but no Jim.
We heard whistles blow not far off. The guards were coming around, waving to us. Five o’clock, or more accurately seventeen hundred hours – or more accurately still, dix-sept heures - closing time.
But We Were Young Lads in Paris
And we had come to see Jim. Besides, we were Americans – we wanted to see our countryman. And anyway, no one’s going anywhere, right? Ha. Ha.
We spotted a sign. Actually, it was really a defacement. Someone had spray painted in orange paint on some unfamous person’s headstone in English: “This way to Jim.” They had added a helpful spray-painted arrow. We followed the sign’s direction, which took us to yet more spray painted signs. Which we followed.
I was glad we were close but unsettled that someone, probably an American, had so thoughtlessly defaced others’ graves. It wasn’t the sixties anymore, or even the seventies. A few years earlier, I would have just laughed and nothing more. Now, I laughed but there was something more…
And then we were there. Before us lay Jim’s grave. It looked hollowed out and vandalized. People had left bottles lined up on the stone, either as a tribute or because they had simply finished their drinks.
It had taken the two of us a rather byzantine and unexpected route to get here. The same could be said for Jim. He had been in Paris for several months to join a longtime girlfriend. There, one night in 1971, he was found dead in a bathtub. It might have been a heart attack. Or a heroin overdose. There were many theories but no autopsy. Within three days, the rock legend was interred at this spot.
The wind was picking up and it was time to go. We quickly re-traced our steps among the anonymous and the immortal. But when we reached the exit or sortie, the big gates wouldn’t budge.
Something was wrong with them – they just would not open. It took a few moments for us to realize the gates were in perfect working order. They were simply locked and we were the ones out of order.
Still not accepting adult reality, we trotted on the next exit. Same thing, locked tight. We looked around. There had to be a night watchman, right? We trotted the rows looking for a body that was still standing. But we appeared to be alone… sort of.
The Wind Gusted
On cue. Like a Gothic novel. I told Keva in no uncertain terms that rain was coming. He was surprised at my surety. But I had no mysterious insight. I had merely grown up in New York, where we had weather, like Paris. Being an L.A. boy, Keva didn’t know the signs of wind and oncoming weather. But he was impressed. I was just worried.
It was getting cold and dark, with a Parisian rain approaching… and we were trapped in this city of a million dead, with a high wall containing us.
OK, there was nothing to worry about – we just had to get over the wall. It was only about ten feet, maybe twelve… We quickly picked a spot and tried grappling our way up but there were no good handholds. Wrong spot.
We ran along the wall looking for something to help us up – a rock, a ladder, a headstone? Nothing.
Finally we found a place with some bricks jutting out. This could be a handhold. A light rain had started. One of us suggested we give the other a foothold, a shoulder… something. I stepped onto Keva’s interlaced fingers, scratched my way up the wall and reached up for the brick.
It was a long reach and the brick was slippery with the rain. Keva pushed. I pulled. Gravity wasn’t about to help us. Wasn’t it obvious - gravity had the final word in a place like this… inviting us to stay. I wasn’t budging and time was slowing down. Einstein was right – gravity did slow time. Was Einstein buried here?
Trapped, wet, now stuck, I hugged the wall. I needed just one final piece to haul myself to the top.
It came from somewhere – I don’t know – perhaps I got a boost from some kindly souls below. But I found myself sitting on top of the wall, now pulling Keva up to join me. Perched on that wall in the rain, overlooking the darkening city below, we laughed.
We had escaped. We had beaten gravity, the rain, the guards, our stupidity…. And we had even thumbed our noses at Jim’s infamous line,
“Five to one, baby
One in five
No one here gets out alive…”
Dropping down to the other side of wall, back into the Paris of the living, we ran through the wet streets as young men do. We would go on and live our lives.