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Post Road Magazine #32

Suicide and Marrowfat Peas

Jason Stoneking

When Leslie and I got together, I was already accustomed to dipping in and out of homeless. I'd lived in parks and on beaches, I'd couch-surfed all over the country, I'd slept on the bus for hours as it traveled around town, and I'd thumbed long-distance rides and fallen asleep in strangers' cars. I was perfectly comfortable not worrying about where I was going to wind up sleeping on a given night. I knew that I could usually organize something; if it fell through I could always just scrape up some change for a refillable coffee at an all-night diner, or I could go read religious pamphlets at the bus station until the sun came up and I could crash on a park bench without getting rousted by the cops. But Leslie didn't have these fall-back habits in her arsenal. Before her relationship with me, she had always had a steady place to live. So when we started traveling together, and didn't always have plans for our sleeping accommodations, it tended to stress her out pretty badly. But she also started to fall for the lure of the road. And when we found ourselves getting stuck in a rut, working miserable jobs, it didn't take long for us both to get the itch again.

I suggested that we move back to Paris. That's where I had lived before I was with Leslie, and it was a place where I'd had a lot of luck slipping through the cracks. I had found some interesting people to hang out with, and lots of little ways to survive. I trusted Paris as a city that would always find a way to look after its dreamers. Leslie was game for the move, but she was a little more cautious than I was. We hardly had any money to leave with, maybe enough to get us through a few carefully managed months, and we only had a couple of shaky leads on places to crash. Leslie suggested that we just go over there for a few months, so that we'd have a ticket back if things didn't pan out. Even if she was tentative about my assertion that somehow everything would be fine if we could just get back to France, she was also sick enough of our hamster-wheel life in the States that she was willing to give it a go. We had pretty good luck on that first trip, finding temporary rooms and little gigs here and there to help pay for them. Leslie sold a few drawings and photos, while I played guitar in a few bars. Eventually her confidence increased and we decided to try for a more long-term relocation.

One of the great things we had going for us in Paris was the network of tiny little romantic apartments all over the city. They are generally referred to as chambres de bonne, or maids' quarters. Most of the older buildings in the city center have these small rooms, which at one time were the sleeping chambers for the domestic help employed by the residents of the larger homes. They are often located on the top floor, cut off by the slant of the roof, and generally under a hundred square feet in size. In fact, many of them are too small to be legally rented as living spaces under Parisian housing regulations, but this also makes them cheap. Unlike the housing in New York or London, where anything even remotely near the city center would cost thousands per month, these romantic little rooms, scattered throughout the very heart of Paris, can often be had for as little as a couple hundred. So there is a thriving black market through which they are rented, exchanged, and acquired. They are prized by artists, writers, and students as an affordable way for the less affluent among us to bed down in the City of Light. And because they are in such high demand, if you want to hear about them, you have to be plugged into the network of expats and starving artists who pass messages about these places along a hidden grapevine, like keepers of a secret handshake.

When Leslie and I came back to stay, we floated in and out of temporary residence in several of those little rooms around town, and we managed to get ourselves tied fairly well into that grapevine. But it still wasn't exactly easy to find a permanent home. We'd get one for two months here or three months there, but then we kept finding ourselves back on the streets or crashing for short times with friends. This instability used to terrify Leslie. She took it more literally than I did. I had learned from years of experience that first of all, something always comes along when you're in a jam, and second of all, that even when it doesn't, a night in the train station, or a day spent sleeping in the park, is never as bad as you abstractly fear that it will be. Leslie was starting to understand those things too, but the transitions would still put her on edge. In March of 2004, we were staying in a cheap hotel, down to our last few euros, and we were getting close to rejoining the homeless population. Leslie was getting nervous. So I proposed what I always thought, and what I still think, is appropriate to do in such a situation. I suggested that we go down to the pub, and start investing the meager remnants of our finances in some beer and conversation.

Leslie thought I was nuts wanting to waste both our precious time and our humble coins in an afternoon at the bar, but there was a method to my madness. When you're down on your luck, it's important to be visible. Especially in places where you're a regular and the familiarity of your face has accrued a bit of sympathy and good will. When things aren't working out is when you most need a favor, or the flash of inspiration that you might get from meeting someone new or overhearing a conversation. And you're not going to get that sitting in your room, counting your pennies. When you have a good-sized chunk of money it might be worth saving, but when you only have a few bucks, its greatest value is in the chair time it can buy you at the watering hole. I finally talked Leslie into it, partly because she didn't have any better ideas, and partly because I would have gone down there without her if I had to. We went to an old favorite bar on the rue Mouffetard, where I knew the owner from my younger days. Leslie and I had frequented the place before, and had reason to hope that we might run into an old friend, or meet a new one, or otherwise catch a lead on a place to crash. We went early, when the beers were cheapest, and got ourselves a couple of pints. Then we sat down at our usual end of the bar and got to work on the crossword puzzles in the English papers while we waited for some other regulars to pop their heads in and ask us how things were going.

The English crosswords always posed a bit of an extra challenge to us, being that they so often incorporated cultural references, spellings, and phrasings that were foreign to the American vocabulary. This day's puzzle was no exception. After solving the bulk of it, we got stuck on the long, two-word phrase running down the middle. We were confident about at least half of the letters, and they seemed to define the likely syllabic structure of some words, but the pattern didn't bring anything the least bit familiar to mind. Thankfully, our whining and grumbling was overheard by a young Irish language lover a few stools up the bar from us. This was the person who would go on to become our very dear friend Mark. He introduced himself and asked curiously what the trouble seemed to be. When we showed him the puzzle, he realized straight away that the answer we struggled so mightily to find was "marrowfat peas." Leslie and I had never even heard of marrowfat peas, so we were happy to be let off the hook by our new friend.

Not only did we hit it off quickly with Mark, but when the conversation moved on to what we were all doing in Paris, and we explained our predicament to him, his eyes flew wide in eureka recognition. He told us about how he had just met an American guy, in the preceding days, who'd been trying to rent out a cheap little room as quickly as possible. He cautioned us that he had passed on the room himself, due to some strange circumstances surrounding it, but suggested that if we were desperate it might be just the right fit. We assured him that we were, and that it was. So he offered to put us in touch with the guy and let him explain the unusual details to us himself. Mark called Anthony from the phone at the bar and told him he was with some people who might be up for renting the room. Then he handed me the phone. Anthony warned us that the place was tiny, but it was almost impossibly cheap. At 260 euros per month, we could almost find the rent just by looking for coins on the floor of the subway. He said he needed a renter as soon as possible, and I told him we'd take it (assuming I'd dig up the money somehow); he thought it might be a good idea if he came down to the bar first to describe the "complicated situation" in person. Unfazed, we told him we'd be happy to wait, and then we joyfully ordered up a celebratory pint with Mark.

When Anthony arrived, he explained that he had been subletting the apartment from a young German guy named Jan who had recently taken his own life. He said that Jan's parents had come through town to pick up his belongings and arrange a memorial, and that they had told him it was ok for him to keep renting the flat. But since then, he said, they had fallen out of touch. He had kept sending the rent to Jan's father for a while, but was no longer receiving a response. So Anthony, a college-age guy who was also on a tight budget, had found other sleeping arrangements for himself and decided to rent this place out. But he wanted us to know up front that Jan's parents might resurface at any time and expect us to move out of the place. We were fairly used to these kinds of temporary arrangements, and anything was better than our impending homelessness, so we thanked him for the opportunity and got to work looking for the rent. Our friend Chris, who was in a similar situation at the time but had a small amount of savings, joined up with us and helped with the expenses. Despite the unusual circumstances, we were all relieved to have found a place to crash for a while. But once we moved in, we began to feel a little bit haunted by the story of Jan.

Jan had been a troubled young man, and one day he had knocked on the door of a stranger, who lived on the top floor of one of the taller buildings in his neighborhood. When the woman who lived there had opened the door, he had calmly asked her, "May I use your apartment to kill myself?" When the slightly confused older lady didn't know how to respond, Jan had brushed past her, placed a single piece of paper on her table, crossed her living room to the balcony overlooking the street, and then walked straight off the balcony and fallen to his death below. The piece of paper Jan had left on the woman's table had read, "In Paris we live like dogs, when we should be living like kings." And here we were living in Paris, and living in Jan's apartment. Jan had been a creative soul, and we felt connected to his struggle, and felt honor-bound to try to get to know this mythical German martyr through the handful of artifacts he had left behind: some homemade cassette recordings of jazz and classical music from the radio, some old black and white tourist photos printed on thick cards, a cracked chess board with no accompanying pieces, a few odd bits of wooden furniture that Jan had fashioned himself. We mused over the possible stories behind these objects, and they began to inspire our own work. Leslie made drawings and photos of the things around the house, while Chris and I thought about Jan when we wrote. We imagined his spirit as a benevolent companion to our efforts as poor artists under the tiny, anonymous roofs of Paris. We imagined that somehow he was rooting for us, that he would have related to our plight.

The three of us were living on just a few bucks a day, which was enough to split up a 500-gram bag of pasta or rice, and add in some cheap protein, like a can of tuna, leaving enough left over for the obligatory bottle of rotgut wine. Maybe we'd splurge on some tomato sauce, or butter, if one of us had scored some extra change that day. But we didn't earn too much, since none of us left home very often. We were mostly focused on our creative endeavors. Not to mention that we were in the Montmartre neighborhood, at the far north end of town, so any time one of us wanted to visit our friends, or our old haunts in the downtown scene, it involved more than an hour of walking each way. We certainly faced some challenges that year, but thanks to Mark, Anthony, and Chris, at least none of us were on the street. We weren't starving to death. We all had someplace to work on our art. And for the time being, none of us (except Jan) were dead. We tried our best to honor Jan's memory, and to see ourselves as kings rather than dogs.

We carried on living there this way for a few months, without any word from Jan's family, but one day, when Leslie and I were out of town on a little hitchhiking trip, Chris was surprised by the arrival of Jan's father at the door. The father was equally surprised, not knowing who Chris was, and expecting either to find the place empty or maybe to run into Anthony. According to the father's side of the story, Anthony had simply stopped sending him the rent, some months prior, with no explanation. So he had flown in from Germany to square things away with Jan's apartment and put it up for sale. He told Chris that he knew Anthony was in town, and had spoken to him by phone, but that Anthony had been dodging him. Chris tried to be diplomatic and did his best to work out what was going on. He got in touch with Anthony himself, but Anthony was evasive about his reasons for avoiding the father. So Chris wound up dealing with the entire situation on his own.

Jan's father was confused about Anthony's disappearing act, and also about the story that led up to his son's apartment being full of people he didn't know who weren't paying him any rent. Chris could easily have just split, and let the chips of the situation fall where they may, but instead he hung in there, out of sheer sympathy and class, and looked for a solution that would appease everyone involved. He didn't want Jan's grieving father to be left holding the bag during an already tragic time for his family, and he didn't want Leslie and me to return home only to find that we were back on the streets. Jan's father had his understandable doubts about leaving the apartment in the care of three people he didn't know, so Chris took the entirety of his savings and gave it to him in good faith, as a couple months' advance rent, so that we could stay on while he was making his preparations to sell the place. Jan's father was touched by this gesture, and I think he was happy to know that the place his son had left behind was of sincere use to some creative young people. He graciously allowed us to stay there until he found a buyer, and he only took a few of Jan's furniture items with him before telling us that we could help ourselves to anything there that we might need.

When the time came for the new owner to move in, it was Chris who found the lead on our next home: a tiny little top-floor, slant-roofed room in one of the old buildings on the Île St-Louis in the middle of the Seine. The night that we moved there, we walked the whole way across town, carrying with us a pile of the essentials we'd adopted at Jan's place: the little cutting board, the knife with the broken tip, the slotted wooden stirring spoon, as well as the cassette tapes and the chessboard. These things all followed us to that next little room we lived in, and then to the next one after that. Chris kept the place on the island for a while, but Leslie and I eventually moved on to another chambre de bonne, back over in Hemingway's old neighborhood off the Left Bank, where we still live today. And still, every night when I cook, I use those kitchen utensils and think briefly of Jan. I try to remember, with every meal I eat, that we live on a fringe, a precipice, a cliff, where sometimes there is only space for us because someone else doesn't get that little bit of luck and decides that it's easier just to leap. To anyone who's living like a dog in Paris tonight, I hope you catch a break.

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