Tuesday, December 28, 2004

My First Time and Jim Haynes

It was December 30, 2000 and I was in Paris for the first time, staying at the Hotel Beaumarchais on the trendy rue Oberkampf. I had ventured out into the cold, grey, rainy morning to travel to Montparnasse where I was to meet the legendary American ex-pat Jim Haynes at his atelier, prior to attending his New Year's Eve party the next night at a bistro near the Pont Neuf.

I had first "discovered" Jim Haynes months before, while doing research for my visit. Only Google knows how I first came to find him, but once I did I knew I was hooked. A sexagenerian, recently retired from teaching "Sexual Politics" at the Sorbonne, Jim settled in Scotland after a tour of duty there with the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1950s. After being discharged, he employed his entrepreneurial spirit to create The Paperback, Britain's first paperback bookshop. With friends, he co-founded the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Later, during the "swinging 60s", he moved to London where he introduced playwright Sam Shepard's work and, with friends, co-created The Arts Lab, an experimental space for performance art and home to John and Yoko's notorious "Bag Piece". He also later co-edited a sex magazine out of Amsterdam called "Suck" along with the feminist Germaine Greer. In the late 60s, after the 1968 student riots in Paris, he was invited to teach at an experimental university there. He has lived in Paris ever since and every Sunday he is in town, he's invited anyone looking for an interesting time, along with a great buffet dinner and unlimited wine, beer, or soft drinks, to call him and make a reservation to be a part of his weekly party. There is a donation of around 25 euros requested, with any surplus money after expenses being donated to charity. And you are guaranteed to have a good time!

It was a two train trip, departing on the #9 train from the Filles de Calvaires station near the Cirque d'Hiver and transferring at Strasbourg-St. Denis. Up stairs, down long hallway, down stairs. Finally on the #4 train headed toward the Porte d'Orleans and, just before it, my stop--Alesia. After a long walk down rue Alesia, I came to 83, rue de la Tombe-Issoire and its "draguerie". After entering the door code on a keypad (Jim had thoughtfully given it to me when we'd spoken on the phone the night before), the gate opened and I followed the walkway to Jim's door. It was unlocked and, upon entering, I found myself inside a large open kitchen with an industrial stove and a huge refrigerator. People were scattered around the room, cutting up vegetables and preparing dishes for the party, as Jim called to greet me from his office loft on the second floor overlooking the kitchen. "Come on up," he called.

I started up the staircase, marvelling at the way he had managed to jam so many videotapes and books inside the shelves adjacent to it. And these were large videotapes, perhaps documenting some of the many "happenings" he had produced in the late 60s. Maybe his old neighbor and friend, the writer Henry Miller, was in there somewhere, too--who knows?

Jim rose from his chair and promptly kissed me on both cheeks, asking how my journey had been. He was tall and craggily handsome with shaggy brown hair shot through with grey and a large mustache, almost curling upwards at the ends. He had a strange way of making me feel as if we had been friends for years and were just picking up a conversation that had begun long ago. He complained lightly of computer woes and then asked me about my trip. I told him that I was supposed to have dinner in the Latin Quarter that night with a French doctor I'd never met before named Denis. I had come across him on a Dutch message board for fans of violinist Nigel Kennedy. I had Googled him, too, and felt safe enough--I knew Denis played the violin, loved both classical and jazz, had recently returned to France after working several years at a university in Australia, and appeared to be quite the athlete--skiiing, scuba diving, hang-gliding. There was a photo, too, and I could see that he was quite handsome. I wouldn't have a problem recognizing him if I could just get Jim to recommend a good restaurant close to the Fontaine St. Michel!

Jim pulled out his diary of business cards and starting thumbing through it, looking for something exotic. His book was huge and I was impressed by how well organized it was, all alphabetical and neat. We finally agreed that it was more important to just establish a rendezvous point, inside and out of the cold and then, if we didn't like it, we could just move on.

That settled, Jim and I went back downstairs where some of his other friends had appeared. There was Bjorn, a student from Sweden; Natalia, a pretty girl from Siberia ("She doesn't want to go back," Jim said. "Can you blame her?"); and Sven, an official at UNESCO from Denmark who had recently returned from Germany bearing a gift of Westphalian ham for Jim's party ("We are drowning in Iraqi oil!" is the comment I recall him making, UNESCO being the arm of the United Nations dealing with the "Food for Oil" program.)

I sat down on one of the banquettes lining two walls of the room and just drank in the conversation, enjoying the aroma of food bubbling away on the stove, all the while admiring the tall narrow windows along the northern side of the room. Extending two stories, they let in the misty grey afternoon light. Did I remember to mention this used to be Henri Matisse's atelier?