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The Poet of Montmartre (writing for a meal)

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

It all happened a long time ago, and I have no idea if the man is still alive today, but just to be safe and for the sake of privacy, I’ll just call him Rupert.

Rupert, the poet of Montmartre.

When I first met Rupert, in the mid-eighties of the previous century, personal computers, laptops, smartphones, let alone the internet, didn’t exist, and if you were hoping to eke out a living in anything involving free-lance writing, or translating, as was my case, you counted yourself lucky at the start of your career if you owned, or at least had access to, an electric typewriter. But Rupert didn’t have, or rather, no longer had, access to the laborious whirr, clack and whizz of a bulky IBM or Olivetti when I met him. A few years earlier, he’d arrived in Paris on a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne, and somehow, for reasons he never quite explained, he had dropped out, lost his stipend, his lodgings, and probably a girlfriend along the way, but I can’t be sure, his ramblings were so confused. Finally, he’d cut off all contact with his family and friends back home and ended up on the streets of Paris, homeless and illegal, his student visa expired. It was on a sunny Saturday morning in March, my first spring in Paris, when Rupert walked into my life. Sitting on the steps leading up to Montmartre’s Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, soaking in the spring sun, watching a troupe of puppeteers on the stairs below perform a show worthy of a more exclusive venue, I caught sight of what I thought was just another beggar working his way up the steps among the gathered crowd of tourists. I will not describe him for you, use your imagination, fill in from experience, we’ve all seen beggars before, if not in the flesh, then at least in pictures and movies. In the few months I’d been living in Paris, I’d seen my daily share of these ‘clochards’, begging on the subways, sleeping on heat grates and in carboard boxes, rummaging through the garbage cans of restaurants and bistros, and like most Parisians, I had stopped handing out alms, grown numb to their presence and ignored them, as if they were but part of the inanimate cosmopolitan cityscape against which my life now evolved. So I looked away, returned my attention to the puppeteers, but then, as the man moved closer, I heard his voice, and his clear, unadulterated American twang. “My fair ladies. A meal, a meal. My poem for a meal. Help me earn a meal and buy a poem. Whatever change you can spare for a poem.” Without turning my head, I glanced to where he was standing a few steps below to the left, holding a ream of papers in one hand, waving a single sheet with the other at a group of young women, clearly American, judging from their hairstyles and clothes. No Parisian belle would ever dress like that, another thing I’d learnt after a few months in one of the world’s most famous fashion capitals. I watched the rest of the transaction — the women laughed, three sheets were handed out, money was slipped into the beggar’s free hand, he bowed, three times, and moved on, looking for the tell-tale signs and behaviour of the non-native, and easier, prey in the gathered herd. When he was clearly going to walk past me, non-descript as I was, I called out. “Hey, friend, what’ve you got?” He stopped and turned, eyeing me for a moment, and then grinned. “Well, well, what have we here? You sound American, but you don’t look American. Expat?” “Yes and no. Expat, yes. American no. I’m Flemish. You know, from that top-half part of little Belgium?” “Your English is good, though.” “I was an exchange student, went to high school in the States for a year,” I quickly offered and closed that avenue of conversation. “So, what’ve you got?” I pointed at the sheaf, a mixture of grimy, salvaged paper, discarded Christmas wrapping and cardboard in his left hand. “Poems, my lord,” he bowed theatrically, “poems for a meal.” “Alright, I’ll take one,” I smiled and held out a ten franc piece I had intended for the puppeteers when they passed the hat. “Oh, that calls for a nice one,” he cooed at the sight of the coin in my hand, then riffled through his papers and pulled out a used cake board. “Here, one of a kind and now yours,” he handed it to me, took my coin and pocketed it. “Thanks, buddy,” he grinned, bowed again, and then continued up the steps, hoping closer proximity to the Basilica’s ominous white dome would lead to ever more generous charity. For a few seconds I watched him go, then turned my attention to the round, butter-stained piece of cardboard in my hand and read. This wasn’t my first time reading poetry. There had been the obligatory pieces to dissect and pull apart in high school, in a class called “How to rape the written word.” Then, at university, came the discovery of poets such as T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and, my all time favourite, William Carlos Williams. So from past experience, I judged Rupert’s poem to be actually quite good, but let me be a tease for now, be patient, I’ll share the poem at the end of the story. Down below, the puppeteers finished their splendid act, the hat started to go round, and realising I was all out of coin I got up and scampered off, feeling like a guilty freeloader. I spent the rest of the day at my desk in the tiny ‘chambre de bonne’, the maid’s room I rented for a decent enough price but which still was a small fortune to me, staring at the blank piece of paper I’d rolled into the Olivetti typewriter, with Rupert’s cake board poem pinned to the wall above the machine. The next day, Sunday, I headed back for the stairs of Montmartre, looking for Rupert. When I couldn’t spot him on the stairs or around the Basilica, I drifted into the side streets of the ‘butte’ and finally wandered into the Place du Tertre, the blanket-sized village square, once upon a time the beating heart of modern art, but now, sadly, just a cramped tourist trap, a battle field where the easels of wanna-be painters jousted for space with the tables and chairs of the bistros and restaurants. And there was Rupert, working the tables filled with tourists sipping espressos, drinking beer and plonk that passed for fine wine, at three times the going price the local café next to where I lived charged for these same libations. Before approaching him, I let Rupert finish gyrating past the tables of a terrace — “A meal, a meal, a poem for a meal. Spiritual food for you, a hunk of bread for me,” — and when he finally stepped out onto the crowded cobblestone road, I stopped him. “Hey, remember me? We met yesterday, on the steps to the Basilica.” He squinted for a moment, then broke into a smile. “Well, well, if it isn’t my generous Flem! Care for another poem today?” He held out a mottled piece of painter’s canvas, words in all caps swirling through the coloured blotches. “Actually, I came to …, I, uh, had this idea, last night. What if I typed out your poems for you, I have a typewriter, and then, I could have them photocopied, I know a place that’s cheap, and hey, you know, my gift, the copies, but then you could sell a lot more of your poems, see which ones sell best, get more copies of those …” The smile instantly vanished from Rupert’s face and he shook his head. “Oh no, no, no. Can’t do that, man. You see, each poem’s unique, one of a kind, that’s the pitch. You buy and you know no one else will ever have one like it. No, no, can’t sell copies. Besides, your typewriter couldn’t reproduce the way I write, the way the words have to dance and float and sway and swirl like a figure skater on acid.” “Then at least let me buy you some decent writing paper.” Rupert continued to shake his head. “Man, you really don’t get it, do you? The surface I write on is as much part of the poem as its words. I like to skate on rough frozen lakes and rivers, not on some boring, polished skating rink,” he huffed. I was about to apologise when suddenly Rupert cast a panicked look at something behind me and hissed “Gotta go.” I looked back to see what had startled him — two policemen had sauntered into the square and were checking the painters’ permits — and by the time I turned around again, Rupert had disappeared. Two weeks went by before I picked up enough courage to seek out Rupert again. After a short search, I found him, more or less as expected, crying his wares among the crowd in the Place du Tertre. In the middle of charming an elderly couple, American of course, the garish baseball caps a dead giveaway, he spotted me, cut short his theatrics, excused himself to the couple, and walked over to greet me. “Hey man, good to see you. Sorry about last time, slinking off like that, but hey, you know, police, my visa expired, they’d put me on the next plane home. Which isn’t home. Not anymore.” “That’s alright, I get it. Just as I get what you told me about your poems. So I got you this,” I held out half a dozen ballpoints, including a green and a red one, rolled into a hundred franc bill I really couldn’t afford to part with, the lot strapped tight with an elastic. “Oh, man! That’s great! Just great. Oh, look, and there’s a green and a red one. Fabulous!” Somehow, to my great relief, he ignored the hundred francs as he waved the wrapped ballpoints around like some tiny magic wand. If he was offended by the gift of money, which I had feared he would be, he didn’t show, didn’t make a scene, didn’t embarrass me by pressing it back on me. In the days and weeks to come, when I went to see him at Montmartre and he slowly confided his name and confused snippets of his past, we never spoke of the money, and I never offered him more, though I did buy more of his poems, enough for a small anthology. Then one day, I couldn’t find him, not on the steps, not in the square, none of the back streets. For days on end, I went back. Nothing. Rupert was gone. Montmartre had lost its poet. I decided to believe in the best case scenario — picked up by the police and flown home, which wasn’t home. Any other scenario to explain what could’ve happened to just one more anonymous Parisian ‘clochard’, not more noteworthy than a fly disappearing from your daily scenery, was too gruesome to consider.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s a poem by Rupert, for Rupert, wherever he may be, a poem for a meal, written on a butter-stained cake board:

remember all of your dreams are true until you betray them every morning under the grindstone of the life you chose and you play your little Hamlet whining in his golden cage  — to sleep, perchance to dream —  because there’s the rub you can’t have your cake and eat it

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