17 March 2007

My Old Phonebook

As part of my recent efforts to get a semblance of organisation, I have been migrating material back and forth between home and office. Books, papers, syllabi, and committee reports that have ended up in a series of IKEA plastic tubs chez moi have been exchanged, like Cold War spies on the Glienicker Brücke, with photos, personal letters, and tchotckes that were shipped to the office from the East Coast over the last year or so. Surprisingly, I have discovered that my personal material was mixed with a lot of Mr. Gordo’s in our flight from Sadistic College, and have been building a small pile of material to return to him when I next venture east: several old passports, panoramic photos from his chap book party in 2001 (shortly before he came to the United States), old stiff family portraits in tropical sitting rooms, journals and essays and old student papers from his university days, in between letters from my mother, post cards from friends from all over the world, and piles of photos of me in my various looks over the years.

Within this pile, I discovered one of my old phone books, an archaic little thing, rather worn, like a talisman from Ancient Egypt, ready to crumble at the first wrong look. It is a small thing, 2” by 3,” blue with gold embossed edging and stamped upon its face the name of a bar in Paris: Le Charonne Bar Restaurant, 126 rue de Charonne, Paris XI. When I saw it floating amongst the papers and photos in my boxes at the office, I snatched it up and put in my pocket. When I got home, it became lost in my tax material, and today, in the midst of organising, I re-discovered it. I got this phone book on my first trip abroad, a rather madcap adventure with Big Sis, who even almost twenty years ago, when we were in our early twenties, was already the Big Sis.

Shortly before spring break my senior year, I was a mess. I had a visual project due in a month or so, and had not started it. My advisor, The Printmaker, was kind but getting impatient. I was broke and miserable, in the dim grey of a New England soggy spring. Big Sis, at that time always somewhat effusive, invited me one night off-hand on the phone to return with him to Paris for break, where he had lived during a somewhat extended junior year abroad before returning to finish up his BA. Big Sis was a sort of extraordinary oddball in a time and place where oddballs were a dime a dozen. He had begun his undergraduate career in the early eighties, led a glamourous and notorious life, decamped to Paris for a year abroad, and never managed to return. While there, he danced on tables (literally), perfecting a mutable look (long hair one season, floppy another, label fashion) that was as exotic to the J. Crew Ivy Leaguer as Tallulah Bankhead with a queen on each arm strolling into the Maidstone Club.

He had already begun some of this “work” while in his latter days at PU, in drag passing as a student’s mother at Presidential garden parties, maintaining a column for the student paper (under a clever and campy pseudonym, of course), and having a “wedding” which featured a lesbian groom, him as the bride, and assorted sundry fashionistas, heiresses, and PU freaks as bridesmaids. The apex of his fame was organizing the ne plus ultra social event of his penultimate year at PU: a fashion show extravaganza benefit for GLAD week that managed to pull straights and gays into the mix, featuring Big Sis's handmade dresses, and an insouciant decadent air that was captured in an inadvertent flashing of an heiress’s breasts on stage (when her dress slipped in a 007 scene). Voilà! Big Sis was the toast of toute PU!

The regime change that happened during Big Sis’s absence overseas was more about the transitory nature of student memory and fashion than anything else, although years later a roommate reported a conversation with a PU alum who reportedly described the change at PU over the mid-eighties as the shift from [Big Sis’s] "fun" drag antics to “the black turtleneck, depressed, existentialist [Oso Raro] period.” It’s nice to be remembered. Because I had personal connections to the previous era, Big Sis, unknown to me, landed in my apartment his first night back in the United States after three years in Paris to complete his degree. La Zeez and I affectionately called our apartment at the time the “Tree House,” but it was really just a strange attic apartment with no living room, low ceilings, and odd Dutch angles. A jet-lagged nebbish with coke-bottle bottom glasses and terry-cloth shorts (by Matsuda, but who knew about such things then?), he arrived roughly at the moment I was moving out, so we didn’t get to know each other then.

Later, early in the fall semester, I would spy him walking around campus, completely different from the well-scrubbed undergraduates that surrounded him. This differential sense was not only because by this point he was older than the rest of us. Firstly, he wore a goatee at a moment when no undergraduate male (or practically none) had any facial hair at all. Floppy hair in a sort of Haircut 100 style, he was always lugging around a large leather Parisian plumber’s bag which invariably had a bottle of Evian tucked into it, another innovation none of us had seen at the time. Often, with his contacts in now, he struck me as having a Eurasian "Young Lenin" look, incredibly exotic and also perhaps a bit lonely, marooned back in a place that was no longer the one he had known and been (in)famous in. Well, of course we became friends, and I soon came to frequent his apartment over a store on the commercial strip on the edge of campus, loaded with junk both from Paris and his time here before: a collection of cardboard French cigarette displays, yards of fabric, bric-a-brac, boxes of shit. As I sat in a large, pleather-covered beauty salon chair, he would whip up intricate dinners out of his little kitchen; Thai chicken with coriander and fish sauce was a typical mid-winter dish. At the time, used to noodles and rice, such meals were refreshingly adult. As winter dragged on, his apartment was filled with paper whites and hyacinths, and the sweet odour of the flowers permeated everything in the apartment, including his clothes. It was a scent I would associate with him for many years afterwards.

In any event, one thing led to another, and with some clever accounting and a rush to obtain a passport, I spent the break with him in Paris. It was a remarkable time. I had never been abroad, had never really been exposed to non-Anglophone culture (except the haimische Salt of the Earth modesty of the Mexican Campesino), never experienced a European city of such minute and detailed perfection as Paris. In many ways those eight days with Big Sis and his crazy cohort of Parisian and expatriate freaks changed the course of my life. It certainly blew apart my understanding of the limits of my world, the boundaries and neat definitions I had, even at a place such as PU, maintained without question. Whether this was an effect of Paris itself, or Big Sis, or the wacky adventure we were on (He was filming his senior project, with me as the star of a non-documentary documentary, if it could even be described as that, titled [Oso Raro] in 'Something' by [Big Sis]; clearly I wasn’t the only one grappling with Senior Project blues; I think he actually got an A, where I received a B+ for my final project). So, instead of the usual tour, we spent countless hours shooting video on the streets of Paris, including an excruciating afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens where he played my Jewish aunt and I, well, I’m not sure what role I was playing, in a dialogue that repeated itself endlessly about Breakstone cottage cheese, Donnie not becoming a rabbi, and out of body experiences.

Sometime during this past year, Big Sis found the master tape for the video, and forced Mr. Gordo and The Beautiful Lisa to watch it. They, predictably, fell asleep. It is the sort of thing one can watch only if one was in it. When back east for the summer, I had a viewing one very humid evening, and was curiously affected. To be captured in perpetuity at a particular moment, in an incoherent non-linear narrative video that, surprisingly, does capture something, some moment of time, was a shock. I had to retreat afterward to the stoop to smoke, to think, to pause a moment.

Looking through the pages of the Parisian phone book, a freebie from a bar near Big Sis’s old apartment in Paris, which he gave to me during our trip together, I am struck by how arcane phone books are now. Who actually uses one anymore? Numbers are stored in electronic data, and I couldn’t tell you Mr. Gordo’s cell phone number if Anne Coulter was waterboarding me, although it is programmed in my phone under his name. And the postal addresses! Does anyone send anything by post anymore, except as one of the last ways to actually kite a check? As I flip through the yellowed pages, names and information for people I haven’t thought about in ten years, much less talked too, float by, along with the names of people I can no longer remember at all. Who is Pablo Toledo and why do I have his address in Madrid? I stopped using this book many years before I actually knew anybody in Spain. Or one Patti Davis in San Francisco? Paging a Nancy Edwards in Oakland! Your prescription is ready! Why do I have the address and phone number for the Institute of Race Relations in London in this book? The listing for Macy’s San Francisco store is more apparent. And pray tell who the hell is Riyahd with a number minus even an area code? Is it 415? 212? 718? 514? 213? I have a feeling Riyahd and I can probably live without finding out the answer.

Old addresses for still-close friends fly by, in places they haven’t lived for years: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Los Angeles. It occurs to me that perhaps I should have maintained my own personal list, as I have bopped from point to point myself, as transitory as my friends. Back and forth across the continent 5 times in the last 15 years, always on some mission, but remaining restless. The book itself, as an object, strikes me as having the quality of a Dead Sea Scroll, a reminder of a way we used to live that has quickly, rapidly, and without a look back, become obsolete. But as a metaphor for a time, a moment in my life, and a relationship that has changed from friendship to family, it still retains considerable power.

After the initial viewing, however, I have put it back upon the shelf, nestled in the papers and photos which have kept it company. I would guess it counts as a treasured possession, but the algebra, the life, the moment it reflects, is one better kept tucked away, hidden, partially remembered. We do not live that way anymore.


db said...

This might be my age showing, but I have had related feelings discovering old digital address books in obsolete formats from oh, a whole decade ago. Open them as plain text, sift through the formatting turned into ASCII, and similar nearly-rememberable events show themselves. Not quite the same sensorial effect as a book that hasn't been opened for a decade, but a reminder that technological determinism is overrated.

Tenured Radical said...


After a number of years of keeping my calendar and address book digitally, I gave my Palm Pilot to the carpenter and have returned to keepingmy records by hand. Not onl does it produce a marvelous artifact (as you so elegantly show) and trigger storeis, frankly I don't like typing with my thumbs on tiny keyboards, or writing with a stylus. And finally I was able to admit it. Furthermore, I am a notebook 'ho.



Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, as always.

I think I remember that film. Wasn't there a scene in which you splash around in a tub? If I'm not mistaken, I think you also sang "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" over and over again.

"Diamonds!" became one of your popular catch phrases, much like "twirl" (as in "We were twirling around Church St. when M's ex-twirl walked by, and she had to twirl him out").

Hope you're feeling better!

Sisyphus said...

What a lovely story! I, too love it when I come across some object that's old and pungent with memories, and it speaks to me unexpectedly.

Bruce said...


You don't specify the chronology, but I assume your first sojourn in Paris was at least 10, maybe even 15 years ago.

You modestly omit saying that your friend, and by extension, you, were cutting edge urban pioneers. The area of the Rue de Charonne has since become quite gentrified and trendy, by back then it was just beginning to be noticed by those in the know. It was considered a bit rough and dangerous, but fascinating. The most interesting gay places in Paris were already probably there, but Paris XI was still considered a solidly working class area. It's now quite solidly "bobo."