The First–And Last–Time I Saw Paris

BEFORE IT WAS A LIGHT SHOW: Natalie and Chuck Eiffel Tower gazing after dark at Jardins du Trocadéro.

 Returning from Vietnam in 1971, the best thing that ever happened to me was the fulfillment of my relationship with Natalie—which has endured to this day. Second best? Surely the onset of my friendship with Chuck, which unfortunately ended on January 8, 2020, with his passing.

In 1971, Chuck and I met at Long Island University, when the Army gave me an “early out” to return to college. Chuck was on the rebound from an aborted stint at Cornell University. Like a pair of wary rescue pups, we struck up a cautious friendship to start. Chuck liked the Army field jacket that I wore; I was covetous of his intersecting-striped Onitsuka Tiger sneakers–“‘sukas,” as we called them. We traded. From then on, we were virtually inseparable.

We had many common interests. We loved R&B music, Bogart movies, basketball, delicacies from Russ & Daughters, the venerable Lower East Side appetizer shop, drinking Scotch whiskey, beer, and smoking at the Whitehorse Tavern in Westbeth.  Always smoking. Sitting in the back row of our college classes, we’d chain-smoke cigarettes and work the daily NY Times crossword with religious fervor.  For a final exam, our philosophy instructor asked only one essay question: “What did you learn in this class?” Chuck and I submitted the puzzle. We were graded “C.”. Maybe we should have tendered a box of Marlboro instead.

ONITSUKA TIGER: ‘Sukas, then….
….And now.

By 1973, I was steadfastly focused on finishing school, finding a full time job, and getting married. A European adventure was the furthest thing from my mind. But Chuck had one planned down to the nickels and dimes. We’d both be graduating in May, then heading in different directions: Chuck to the London School of Economics for grad school; me to a full time radio news-writing job in Upstate New York.  Chuck made a convincing case that a summer road trip was called for to mark these milestones. 

We flew TAP Airlines to Lisbon for $130 and then backpacked by train using the au courant student Eurail Pass—unlimited travel anytime, anywhere, for a flat fee.  From Portugal we crossed the border into the unheralded Spanish beach town of Vigo, then caught up with hoards of other young world travelers in Madrid, southern France, Florence, Switzerland, Germany, Amsterdam, Paris, and finally, London.

We spent meagerly on coffee, inexpensive meals of mostly sandwiches, a few beers, museum visits and cheap hostel lodgings. Early in the trip, at a bar in Madrid where we hung with some local students, I had the temerity to order a Cognac. Chuck hit the roof for me blowing our budget. Later, in Munich, the bank teller doing our currency conversion made a decimal place error that resulted in a huge windfall in our favor.  We spent our ill-gained fortune on expensive British cigarettes, a sit-down meal, and lots of beer. Years later, that bank came looking for Chuck in the US to collect.  They did not prevail. 

In Amsterdam, we joined thousands of other vagabond students at “The Dam,” the city’s central and most iconic public plaza, where everyone partied high on weed or hashish. We ‘scored” a $5 ball of hash—Pakistani Red, we were told—but when we fired up our little pipe…..nothing.  We’d been ripped off. For Chuck, ever mindful of our pursestrings, this would not stand. He found a patsy more inexperienced than us, and we unloaded what was left for exactly what we paid. Back to beer and wine for the rest of the trip.

Paris was the crowning achievement of our adventure.  

We traipsed around Montmartre, ate Algerian couscous near Place Saint-Michel, sipped hard cider with crepes served by pretty French gals in Normandie dress in St. Germain.  Even Natalie, who was on a separate journey of her own, showed up for what proved to be our pre-wedding honeymoon. We saw the Eiffel Tower before it was a light show, Impressionist art before there was Musee D’Orsay, and the Louvre before it had a pyramid. We puffed French Gaouloises cigarettes —“gow-wheezers,” we called them—before they carried warnings. 

ON TRAINS, PLANES AND IN THE CLASSROOM: With religious fervor, Chuck and I would smoke, always smoke.

At the sidewalk tables of legendary Cafe de Flore and Les Deux Magots, we worked The New York Times crossword, kept up with the Watergate hearings, and handicapped currency exchange rates from a neatly folded International Herald Tribune. Chuck insisted we carry four currencies in those pre-Euro days: travelers checks denominated in Swiss Francs, German Marks, British Pounds and U.S. Dollars. At the time, we got about four francs–or “frogs” as we called them–to the dollar. Coffee cost one frog, beer about the same. We could eat a full meal for about ten.

Chuck was a magisterial trip leader and his business sense imprinted sure-handed discipline on our travel. But like escargot in garlic butter, he was an acquired taste. Chuck could be outrageous, insolent, sullen or giddy from one moment to the next. He was intelligent to a fault and infuriatingly haughty at times. I found his bad taste and misbehavior viciously amusing. But not everyone shared my opinion that, most of the time, it was harmless fun.

Chuck got us thrown out of the Palace of Versailles because his pseudo boom box–a portable radio with a built-in cassette player that we borrowed from Natalie–blared soul tunes not in keeping with the decorum of Louis XIV. We were bounced from a cheap Latin Quarter hotel on Rue du Sommerade when Chuck outraged the madam of the house one morning by roaming the hallways bare-assed looking for toilet paper. “Ou es le papier du toilette?” he publicly exclaimed in his altogether. Chuck used rudimentary high-school French in other ways that–at the time–seemed hilarious. “D’argent du guerre!” he would demand, usually when he had one too many beers and was of a mind to take locals to task for the country’s World War II debts.

On an excursion to Reims in the Champagne district, we visited the House of Lanson. Then still family-owned, Lanson didn’t offer the typical wine house tour-and-tasting for visitors. But Chuck had a scheme and he wangled us a private-office appointment with one of the Chateau’s directors. Despite our dress of blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, he fibbed that I was shopping for a suitable Champagne for my impending wedding. We walked out with two bottles–complimentary, of course–of Lanson Black Label. Back in Paris, we stashed and chilled them in an odd porcelain basin affixed in our hotel room. The water closet was down the hall, but even the most modest accommodations had bedside bidets.

At summer’s end, Chuck stayed on in London for his master’s degree and I went home to my new bride and new job. But our friendship stayed strong. In 1977, I was best man at Chuck’s wedding on an epically cold and snowy February day in Buffalo, NY. In 1983, the night my son was born, I fled the hospital to Chuck’s house the moment my wife and the baby fell asleep. We both got astoundingly drunk because becoming a parent startled and scared me like nothing–not even Vietnam–ever had. 

Not long after, however, Chuck and I drifted apart. We raised our children in different suburbs and our career paths veered. As a PhD in Economics, he rose very high in the banking food chain. By the early 1990s, Chuck stopped taking my phone calls, and my e-mails to him went unanswered. I became angry and resentful. I never stopped caring. Eventually, however, I just stopped trying. Even now, I’m at a loss to understand the schism. We were disconnected for decades.

Until 2017. I was on the verge of retirement. High on my bucket list was getting back in touch with Chuck. It took a fair amount of detective work to track him down to an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I arrived unannounced on a wintery January afternoon to find only his wife. Chuck was in an assisted-living facility in Florida, suffering from severe Parkinson’s Disease and dementia.  

I made two pilgrimages to see him. The first time, I brought him a brand new pair of ‘sukas, some of our favorite eats from Russ & Daughters. You ever try to get herring in cream sauce through airport security? Not easy but, thanks to Natalie, I pulled it off. We attempted a New York Times crossword puzzle, but Chuck’s physical coordination and mental concentration weren’t there. By the second trip, a year later, I brought photos for him to see of my trip with Natalie to Vietnam. But he could not comprehend. Chuck was barely able to speak, stand or recognize me. I held him in my arms and we danced to The O’Jays, The Spinners and more. It was a tearful goodbye.

In February, 2020, only weeks before COVID-19 shut down the world, I was happy to again be in Paris. It was my 12th visit, virtually every one with Natalie at my side. Like the first time, a special occasion drew us to back Paris: , the heralded Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre. The City of Light was cold, bleak and gray; a sharp and befitting contrast to my bittersweet memories of that hot and heady August 1973 week in Paris.

Chuck was 67 when he died.  I loved him deeply, in good times and bad. He was a true and loyal friend, until he wasn’t. I missed him terribly during the years we were estranged. And the last time I saw Paris, I missed him all over again. At the Louvre for the Leonardo exhibit, Natalie and I hiked the stairs of the Denon Wing to the Salle des Etats. It was a comfort tinged with sadness to see the master’s Mona Lisa there, snug and secure, exactly where Chuck and Natalie and I first viewed her in 1973, the first time we saw Paris together.

Paris 1973

AT THE LOUVRE: (l. to r.) Malachy, Natalie and Chuck
MAP READER: Natalie plots our way through the Louvre.
STEPS OF SACRE-COEUR: In Montmatre, Malachy and Chuck wearing his beloved “sukas.”
THE WORLD BEFORE SELFIES: My passport photo, 1973.
RISING ABOVE THE CROWD: Chuck and Malachy viewing Winged Victory.

Paris 2020

TODAY’S LOUVRE: The Pyramid entrance.
BW IN PARIS: A dozer visits to the City of Light, virtually always with Natalie.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: Cold, wet, and bittersweet this time around.
TOUR ILLUMINÉE: The last time I saw Paris, and it was beautiful.

12 Replies to “The First–And Last–Time I Saw Paris

  1. Fred!!!! What a wonderful story to read. The photos are perfect. What a selfie of you! I cannot believe the amount of hair!!! The sneakers- the smokes- the crossword puzzles- the champagne you scored- the music you guys enjoyed- the adventure you had. I love the photos of Natalie. I still am at a loss and cannot figure out what the heck happened to chuck that he gave up a true and wonderful friendship. What a complete loss on his part. I truly wish I knew the answer on what changed in him. One can only guess- whether it was the disease…. or something else…. he closed himself off…. thank you for including me in your stories and memories! I’ll be reading again! Thank you again for coming to visit at the end. You were certainly a true and loyal friend until the very end. I am thankful that I have gained a new friend in you! Much Love, Wendy

  2. Michelle & Khoa: Thanks for your kind thoughts and for being a part of my extended family. I miss you guys and wish you and all my friends in Vietnam good health and happiness in these times. Stay safe!

  3. Wendy–as Chuck’s caregiver in his final years, you were amazing. He was a fortunate person to have your love and devotion. And I was equally fortunate to know YOU as well as Chuck. I am thankful for it all.

  4. Fred thank you for sharing a wonderful adventure If you call me I might fill in what happened in 1990 Edith Schwartz

  5. If I am not mistaken wasn’t there a port wine bender in the town in Portugal? Something including waking up in a barn the next morning??? You talk about my memory….

  6. So sorry to hear about Chuck. My Condolences…For a time there you two were joined at the hip. I knew he was unpredictable but him and I got along and he treated me well! That was always my memory. I was used to people like that. What about that house with 10,000 windows on Westminster. He was a pretty good basket ballplayer as well. Very Competitive.

  7. You have an extraordinary memory John. I have to rely on notes and old photos. Yes, we had a brilliant time in Porto. Don’t remember the bender or the barn. Possibly a melding of two different instances because in Reims, France, we stayed in a rural youth hostel and we learned how to cook (and eat) couscous from an Algerian guy cooking on an outdoor braiser in what I think was a farmyard barn.

  8. A really nice story, Fred. Didn’t know about Chuck but hope to hear more about him next time we get together. Loved your “Jesus” look in the passport photo!

  9. Glad you liked it Felix. And happy to tell you more about Chuck anytime. Lots of additional tales, like our Miami or bust road trip in the Karmann Ghia that got totaled on the way home; or our night after night sessions at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village; or our Century Bicycle Ride to the beach; or the time we bought out a warehouse worth of Onitsuka sneakers because the local retailer was going out of business, and on and on.

  10. What a touching piece and so fine you were able to say goodbye as you did. What touched me even more is the endurance of your bond with your beautiful wife. May you have many, many more happy loving years together. Hope to write with you again sometime.❤️

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