Posted by Tamara Shayne Kagel
George Whitman of the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris passed away on December 14, two days after his 98th birthday. In 2003, I spent the summer at “the shop” as he called it and eventually moved in to his upstairs apartment briefly as one in a long lineage of housemothers he invited to stay with him above the shop.
I went there to write. I had just finished my junior year of college and was trying to figure out what to do with my last summer before entering adulthood. Quite a few of my friends had fancy internships with big banks or prestigious government offices to help them get snazzy jobs after graduation. I had no idea what I was going to do and it seemed like all of the sudden out of nowhere I had to make summer plans that were life determinative – if I wanted to go into politics I should take an internship getting coffee and answering phones in D.C., if I wanted to work in Hollywood I should be someone’s bitch in LA, or if I wanted to go to law school I should take an LSAT class. I couldn’t bear the thought of any of my options. So instead, I decided to do precisely what I always wanted: become a bohemian writer in Paris amongst other artists and tolerate the insufferability of modern life with other kindred spirits while we watched Jean-Luc Godard films, recited poetry and fell in love to release ourselves from the drudgery of pervasive banality.
There was only one problem. I was just a typical upper-middle class white girl from an elite college, just a hair away from being a virgin, with an over-involved Jewish mother who wanted the precise location of my coordinates at least once a day. So I lied. I had heard about Shakespeare and Co. from a friend who had traveled to Paris a year earlier and hung out at this storied bookstore that she said housed cool artsy kids. I had tried to email the store to find out if I could live there for the summer but of course, this was before his daughter Sylvia had returned from London to help her dad run the store, and George probably didn’t even know that his store had a website. But I bought a ticket to Paris for the summer anyway and I just hoped that this benevolent bookseller I had vaguely heard of would take me in.
I told my parents and everyone else I was accepted in to a “writer’s-in-residence” program after submitting my fiction work to this well-established renown writer’s institution. I showed up in Paris alone, with no cell phone, very little money, no laptop, not knowing anyone, clutching a paper with the address of a bookstore. I had no back-up plan. If I couldn’t stay there, I didn’t know where I would live let alone what I would do for the next few months. I got off the Metro station and walked to the store, with butterflies in my stomach. I walked up to the guy at the till, proclaimed that I was a writer and asked if there was room for me to stay at the shop.
As it turned out, George was in London for another week and so although Patrick who was in charge of the shop said there was a bed I could have for now, I was expected to write a biography of myself in the time I had till he returned. Upon his return, he would read our bios and if they were satisfactory, he might allow us to stay. In the meantime, I was introduced to the sundry group of wanderers who spent most of their time reading on the benches in front of the shop. I fell into the most fabulous and dirty group of hipster ex-pat gypsies I could have ever hoped to find. There was Jonathan the fiddler who made his living from busking, Ted, the Australian painter whose portrait of me, in front of the store, now hangs in my home, Vereen, the Indian vegan who taught me how to hop the turnstile to get onto the Metro, Xander, the Brit who spent most of his time lying on the ground next to a girl of the week reading poetry, and Pehter, the Slav, who introduced me to Absinthe by telling me to open my mouth and pouring it straight down my throat. We all shared the responsibilities of opening the store, setting up the book displays, and signed up for shifts to work the till. I had never worked a register before and loved that I was expected to spend most of my shift reading. The first thing I read was A Moveable Feast, naturally. But I was also introduced into the world of Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and Jacques Prévert. Rumors about George were plentiful– people talked of him throwing all his guests out on a whim, of his many relationships with the pretty girls that frequented the shop, the divorce from his much younger ex-wife, and his friendships with the famous writers we all worshipped.
There was a typewriter upstairs which we were encouraged to use and on which I wrote my biography. The day George returned, we all passed in our pieces of paper and waited for him to decide whom he was keeping and whom he was booting out of his shop. He was almost ninety at the time and though he moved slowly, his mind was starkly nimble. He read them all in front of us while we waited, watching his face for the occasional grimace or laugh. Maybe he took a fondness to me because I was the only one to write my bio on his beloved typewriter, maybe he appreciated my academic pedigree, or more likely, he called my name because I was a pretty young girl (although I must admit, it wasn’t hard to be the prettiest girl in a group of really grungy boys. If you were man, it was much harder to get George to like you – you had to be a truly talented writer or at least a true intellectual.) Whatever the reason, he did call my name. All of the sudden, his whole demeanor softened into an almost flirtatious manner as he asked me if I’d enjoyed my stay at his shop so far. You will be the housemother, he told me. You’re moving upstairs. This was the best news I could have imagined.
When you hear that George housed thousands of travelers throughout the many years he ran his shop, you might imagine as I did, a tiny little room in his apartment that he allowed people to crowd into. But, most of us travelers he provided lodging to, stayed literally in the bookstore and never saw his upstairs apartment. The shop had tiny little beds in random corners all throughout. During the day, the beds that someone might call home for months, were converted into unsuspicious book displays. We all shared one closet upstairs that had a combination lock where we could keep our backpacks and where I had a cd player stolen twice. There was no bathroom in the shop. There was a little sink where we could brush our teeth but that was it. There was a public restroom not too far away that cost me one euro for a shower which I didn’t use nearly enough. Learning the bathrooms of the Latin Quarter became some of the most valuable information I learned while in Paris. And no one was given a key to the shop. So you had to be in the bookstore by the time at night when the store was locked up or you would find yourself sleeping in the park – unless of course, you knew how to sneak in through the second story balcony which I eventually did learn by necessity. And so, while we were all grateful for the free lodging, it was an existence that constantly required planning to say the least.
So when George invited me to be housemother, this meant I no longer had to live quite as dingily. I could stay in his apartment above the store which had an actual bathroom. Although, the place was really less an apartment and more just a book storage warehouse with some random furniture and a stove thrown in for good measure. But it was also magical. And not just because sometimes when you pulled a book down and opened it up, money would pour out of the pages – George didn’t like banks. It was magical because it was the fairytale of every angsty suburban teenage girl come to life – a place filled with weighty ideas and prolific thinkers in the most beautiful part of Paris. And George was telling me I belonged there. George showed me his private typewriter and demanded pages from me. Everyday, he wanted to know what I was reading and why I wasn’t finished with that book yet. Sundays, the housemother made pancakes and if we were lucky a famous writer or two would drop by and share a manuscript.
And though I went there to write, I realize now that I really was just there to live. I took up a Gauloises Blondes cigarette habit and drank red wine for breakfast. I spent two euros a day on food – usually a cheese sandwich which to be precise was a sliced baguette with butter and brie smeared on it. Once a week or so I would sight see, making fun of the American students on study abroad programs. I drank too much. Way too much. I wasn’t yet of legal drinking age in the states, so buying wine at the store became a perfectible pastime for me. One time, I went with my gypsy gang to the Pompidou center early in the morning to get inspired. Naturally, we drank heavily on the walk over. I eventually slipped away from my friends and sat down on the couch at a rather disturbing video art installation. I woke up five hours later when a guard was poking me, yelling at me in French that the museum was now closed. My friend Nikolai and I actually snuck into the American cemetery at Normandy because we got there so late on a Friday it was already closed. Being fearless and young, we scaled the brick wall and walked through the grounds understanding that there was literally not another living soul for miles.
Everyday, I woke up, intending to work on my novel. The summer was passing quickly and though sometimes I would eek out a few pages on George’s typewriter on his kitchen table with the Paris sunlight streaming in over the Seine and onto my words, they never amounted to much. I was twenty years old, my senses were on overload and I didn’t have the will power to keep myself upstairs in the apartment alone while my newfound vagabond friends were outside drinking, laughing, and propounding the philosophies of young idealist thinkers who came to Paris for compatriotism. Mainly, I drank and ate and smoked and loved. In fact, I thought I loved twice. Really, I just loved my life there. I lived for the first time on my own terms in a world I made for myself. I had shed the training wheels of my upbringing – I wasn’t relying on my parent’s money, or my grades, or my university, or my connections, or the world I came from. I created an identity for myself based on a blank slate and it was more freeing than any other single experience of my life. I had never felt more like the real version of myself. And the best part about it was George Whitman approved. As the summer passed, I fantasized more and more about not returning to college but staying on as housemother indefinitely. I remember a heart wrenching conversation over the phone with my mother where I was crying telling her I was in love and never wanted to leave Paris.
But when the day came to go back for my last year of college, I packed up my things to head home. Maybe I knew I wasn’t in love. Maybe I knew I was never going to get enough writing done in a place where I became obsessed with living. I dreaded telling George, I was leaving. I was scared that the paucity of novel pages on his desk combined with my relinquishment of the title of housemother was going to disappoint him. But when he saw my packed bag, he just smiled. He wasn’t surprised I had decided not to stay. I guess after fifty years of housing and saying goodbye to peripatetic writers he understood my path better then I did. I knew you were gonna leave, he said. Keep sending me pages, he practically barked on my way out. I am greatly saddened, that in literally the same month that I have finished my first book, George has passed and he will never read it. But I am also at peace with it. I never would have been able to write much at all without my time with him. And the point of George and his store and even his own story was not to provide great writing for his own reading pleasure. But rather to ensure that there would always be a place for great writing and writers. He believed books and writing were the lifeblood of human existence and I am heartened to know that in some small way, I continue to perpetuate this conviction by continuing to write. Because when George told me to send him pages, it was not so he could read them, but rather to ensure that I continue to write them. And so George, as the thousands of ragged souls around the world unite to say goodbye and pay homage to you, I join them with my own promise, to continue sending you pages…
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December 15, 2011 | 8:45 am
Posted by Tamara Shayne Kagel
My boyfriend’s company had their holiday party this past Saturday evening, which meant I was on my best behavior – except of course for that one moment when I asked the woman who was there with her step-son where her husband was and she had to tell me they were separated. Eek. I always love a good holiday party and it’s always interesting to get a sneak peak into your significant other’s work life, where he spends all those hours toiling away and you can’t help but wonder if they know the same person you do.
After hours of small talk, when we finally got home and I was looking at him sans suit and tie, I thought about how this is the little part of him that nobody else knows. The person we are when we rest our head on that pillow next to the one we love is different from the person everyone else sees.
There’s some element of being arm candy that I confess I love. I want my boyfriend to be able to show off that he has a pretty, smart girl on his arms whom he can trust in a situation like this. But on the other hand, sometimes when the women group off together and leave the men to talk to business while we talk girl stuff, I get a little uncomfortable. At times, I feel like a teenage girl playing dress up in an adult world and at any moment, I could get exposed for having the emotional development of an errant teenager. A lot of the women who were just a few years older than me, have kids and were talking about getting their hair done and building homes in the Palisades.
In the last two weeks, I’ve had a ton of fun at some of the very LA holiday parties I’ve been at. As much as people love to rag on LA, it really is a creative environment – even if they have stopped making creative movies. I feel it because when I’m socializing and it comes time to talk about my profession I feel comfortable without defining myself and instead talking about whatever I happen to be working on that particular day. But, when I step into his white shoe world, and no one can think of any question to ask me except what job I have, I am suddenly very conscious of the fact that there is a “right” answer to this question. Yes, some of the significant others have professions, but many more of them are simply moms, and more notably, I could sense that all of their careers seem to take a backseat to their husband’s pursuits. In having to answer the what-do-I-do question, it is most expedient for me to simply say that I just obtained a law degree and so I do. But I am very conscious of the fact that a complicated answer to this question is not going to be “right” at any point in time for these people.
What I’m most concerned about though, is I start to wonder if Mr. DB wants me to be like all the other significant others tossing back champagne. There is a type of woman who wants nothing more than to be an accomplished man’s significant other. But it’s not me. I met some of them Saturday night and they really were lovely. They seem like they’re great mothers and smart and funny and I enjoyed a lot of them. But I’m never really going to be one of them. I wonder if my boyfriend knows this about me. I think he does, but sometimes I get a whiff that although he might not need a Stepford wife, he does want to be with someone who might be more domesticated than I am.
One of the very few times, he has ever made me cry involved this matter. We were in Cambodia, listening to one of our favorite podcasts, Radiolab and somehow the topic of cooking and cleaning came up. I joked and said that my mother taught me how to hire someone to do those things. He said that my lack of interest in domesticity did kind of bother him. I was taken aback. It was six months into our relationship and it was the first time he had ever said anything critical of me. I made some smart alec remark back to him, apologizing for being successful in other areas of life which shut him down.
Naturally, when we got back to the hotel, I completely lost it and cried for the first time in front of him, accusing him of making me feel like he could care less about my brain and just wanted a maid to clean up after him. He quickly assured me that it came out wrong. In fact, he exhaustively tried to explain that he didn’t mean cleaning and he just thought home cooked meals were important especially down the road with children and something about how his mother had spoiled him and maybe given him unreasonable expectations about what a partner should provide and yada yada yada whatever else he could say to dig himself out of this hole. Clearly, he eventually convinced me that he loves what my mind has to offer and that he was just talking jibberish when he said this because we’re still together and I have reiterated that I will never be someone who enjoys cleaning sinks.
And so I pretty much thought this was all settled. I did agree with him on one point - as someone who grew up on home cooked family dinners every night of the week where attendance was required, cooking for children is important to me, but otherwise I’m never going to be much in the way of Susie Homemaker. But there we were at his holiday party and I was talking to the pretty young housewives with their fabulous lives and wondering to myself, does he think I’m the same as them? And if he doesn’t, does he think he can turn me into one? I just want so much out of life, there’s no way, I’m ever going to be happy as only a cheerleader for my partner. Maybe I’ll work from home when I have kids or maybe I’ll take some time off when they’re young, but I’m never going to have a simple answer to the what-do-you-do question. I’m always going to have five things going on at once and probably still be in school to learn one more. He has to know this about me, right?
Which brings me back to that moment on the pillow. That moment when it’s just us. Not the us out there, but the us only we know about, that only exists in here. I really had spent a fair portion of the evening wondering if I’m dating a man who wants me to be someone I will never be. I start to worry that he believes that the act I put on to blend in at the party isn’t really an act at all. I start to realize how exhausted I am from acting like that for the last five hours and as we both begin to unwind I am feeling very self-conscious, wondering if the woman he loves is really the one that now lies here beside him. He tells me he loves me so much and I look back at him for a long time. I don’t say anything, not on purpose but just because I am really considering whom he thinks he loves. It’s painful and I remain motionless and silent because I haven’t figured out what to say. I start inner monologuing at a mile a minute: Maybe we need to have a talk. I’ll wait till after till Christmas, but I need to tell him I’m not who he wants. If I don’t tell him, he’ll never see it and I’ll be perpetuating a lie - He grabs my head almost forcefully and pulls my ear to his lips so he can whisper to me. He whispers what I need to hear. How does he know? He uses my whole full name. He’s slow and deliberate with his words. He makes me feel how much he loves me.
And I really believe him. Not just about the love part. But about the me part. He does know me. He knows me and he picks me. And I let him tell me again. And again.
December 9, 2011 | 11:28 am
Posted by Tamara Shayne Kagel
Tonight, I hate the world. And in accordance with cliché, I don’t even understand why. My boyfriend called me tonight and by the time I got the message I had about a fifteen minute window to call him back before he went to sleep; I let it pass so that I didn’t have to talk to him while I was in this mood. I figure that’s probably a good idea considering I could feel myself about to pick a fight with him. I was going to test him by telling him I want to name the four daughters I plan on having after my favorite cheeses: Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, and Tallegio. I might be willing to compromise if he wanted to replace one with a Gruyere or an Asiago, but if he pushed back, I was all ready to make a big deal about him being a slave to convention.
I know how crazy this sounds. But sometimes, it’s hard to help. Maybe it’s the holidays. Maybe it’s the end of the year. But with all this forced commercialized cheer and focus on things coming to an “end,” if you are not completely satisfied with where your life is, the holidays can be a brutal angry time dominated by self-loathing. I’ve spent this week hating a recent haircut and simultaneously annoyed with everyone for not noticing, frustrated with myself for not finishing my work, angry at my printer for breaking, angry at everyone I knew in Santa Monica for not having a stupid scanner. Angry at myself for going to holiday parties instead of exercising, angry at myself for not going to all the holiday parties I was supposed to. I’m mad I stayed up way too late last night reading Christopher Hitchens and I’m also furious at myself for being unable to finish his entire four part series on cancer last year. So essentially, I just hate myself and I’m inconsolable about this. Actually, if you are my friend and you try to console me, I will be unreasonably irritated with you for trying.
I wish I had a really good reason for all of this right now but I don’t. If I had to guess I would wager that it has something to do with a general dissatisfaction with where my life is right now. Last year on New Year’s Eve, I remember precisely what my resolution was. I wished that in the year 2011, I would fall in love. I was finally in a place in my life where I was healed from the previous exes who had hurt me and I was willing to open myself up enough to risk heartache and let love into my life. Normally I think resolutions are stupid but I stopped judging myself for wanting it this time and I just let myself wish for love over and over. And lo behold against all odds, my wish came true. Not that long after, I did fall in love. But it didn’t fix everything. Love wasn’t the only thing that was missing from my life. And so now, despite the fact that I’m in love with a great guy, I am still succumbing to the omnipresent malaise I felt last year.
In my junior year of college, I was in this elite fiction writing class, culminating in a short story that served as our final. I wrote about this girl Audrey who drove around in a Snapple ad-wrapped VW bug searching for something at garage sales. I had a great professor, Sheila Donahue, and she seemed to think that my early versions of the story had great promise. So when I finally finished and turned in my last draft, I thought I had written something to turn the world of fiction on its head. I got a B+ I think. It might have even been a B. Prof. Donahue wrote a long critique on the back of my story where she essentially said I had gotten the ending wrong. I was surprised because I had planned on this ending from the inception of the idea, but she pointed out the myriad of reasons it didn’t work. You see, my story was predominantly about Audrey’s back-story told through the objects she buys and sells at garage sales, all while she was on a quest for this one particular object. In the very end at the last garage sale, she meets a man who of course has her holy grail and I alluded to their happiness ever after. But Professor Donahue rightfully called me out on this. Audrey had never been searching for a man or a relationship. The whole story was about her journey to find this ‘thing’ and I chose a cheap and somewhat sexist out by writing that the only thing she really needed to find was a man. Once she found the man, she had everything she needed, literally he proffered the object she was looking for, the end. But why did Audrey need a guy anyway? The entire story had never mentioned her love life and yet the second she falls in love, she finds her special object and it’s all over. No wonder my professor was disappointed in me. And of course, the moment I read those words from her glaring up at me in thin red ink, I realized her criticism was unintentionally an indictment of me. The reason I had Audrey fall in love at the end of the story was because I wanted to fall in love. I was waiting for love to come to me and fix me. I was ignoring the rest of the complicated and interesting story because I was so desperate for true romantic love in my life that I just unquestionably believed it would solve everything. Love was all anyone ever needed. Or so I thought.
You would think that because I had been in love before, this time around, I would know how little it really solves. But the beginning of every great romance is so majestic, so consuming, and so beautiful that even though you know it’s not going to fix everything, you often have a hard time remembering what your problems were before. I’ve been dating Mr. Dreamboat for ten months now and been in love for most of it. But it’s also been long enough for me to stop floating around on air and to realize that the rest of my complicated messy life still exists. Falling in love didn’t make all of that go away. And so now that I can feel my feet firmly back on the ground, I need to take the bull by the horns and figure out the rest of my life instead of ignoring my inevitable and welcome responsibilities. And perhaps, I’ve been putting this off for a while. Facing it, means facing dissatisfaction with myself and my life at this stage of the game. And that’s making me really frustrated. And also kind of hate the world. I know what I have to do, but sometimes it feels like so much work, it seems easier to put it all off and stay depressive. I mean, if he really loves me, won’t he just go with Roquefort?
But alas, I know it’s time to end my self-pitying. I’m getting sworn into the CA State Bar today and I’ll complete my yoga teacher training certification next week. I will officially not be a student of anything for the first time in a while. It’s time to kick my life into high gear. And although love hasn’t made that fact go away, I’m hoping that maybe it will make it a little easier for me to find what I am looking for.