Mel Birnkrant's
Mel Birnkrant's
ANN ARBOR, DEJA VU
 
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
                 Some photographs are Copyright HAROLD CHAPMAN
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          When I got back to Detroit again, the first thing that I noticed was that Nothing had Changed!   The letter that my mother wrote me had been a total Lie!  Both Cadillacs still sat in the driveway.  The floors she claimed she’d have to scrub were still cleaned by the maid, Louise, who continued to “come in,” three days a week.  Leila still played canasta every day, but, not so much at night, as she was dating several men at the same time, most of whom redefined “sleaze.”  She met these guys at nightspots where she went bar hopping with her philandering girlfriend, several nights a week.  And she still won and lost more money, playing cards than I could have earned at any job Detroit might have to offer me.

The few of my father’s buildings that were remaining, when I left, were still doing OK.  And, although, my mother's income was less than what my father’s had been, it was no less than it was, before I went away.  Thus, the entire story that my mother told me had been a blatant LIE!  With one exception, she did plan to sell the house, and move to a condominium.  But that proposed downsizing was propelled by a desire for convenience, not need.

I had been conned!  And there was no attempt, on my mother’s part, to hide what she had done.  Furthermore, the whole idea of me getting a job never came up.  I asked myself if the letter that got me home again had been an act of love, offered by a caring mother, who thought she wisely knew what was best for her son.  And the blatant falsehood that she told was merely the artless means by which she tugged my leash to bring me safely "Home" again, for my own good.  Or was the lie that altered the course of my entire life, the cunning trick of a selfish bitch, created in a moment of mischief and deceit, impulsively designed to exercise control, and inspired, neither by any genuine need to have me back again, nor caring concern for me, but rather by the constant harping of the harpies she played canasta with all week, in this, the Land of Supposed to Be!

       
Once I assessed the situation, which took all of a day, I realized I had to get away!  And if I didn’t return to school, I would be drafted into the army, anyway.  That was one wrinkle I wished had occurred to both of us, when for ten dollars a month, I was safely enrolled in school in France.  If I really did have to get a job to support my mother, as she claimed in her fictitious letter, I would have soon found myself in the military.

Leila rewarded me for coming back, when summoned by agreeing to resume the deal, and finance my final year of school.  I was astute enough not to point out the inconsistency of this with her claim of abject poverty, of which she had written me.  The terms of the new arrangement were neither casual, nor flexible.  This time, they were strictly defined, consisting of tuition, which was next to nothing for a state resident, and the same amount I had in Paris, $250. a month, for one year, only.  But this would be "Her" money, not mine.  My own bank account still had a few thousand dollars remaining.  I would soon be sending some of that to Eunice to pay her air fare to the USA.

        
The next day found me driving one of my mother’s Caddies to Ann Arbor to look for an apartment.  As I drove along the once familiar highway, I could feel the memories of my freshman year there, closing in on me.  Paris had been like living in a dream.  Returning to the USA was a rude awakening. 

As I, once again, entered Ann Arbor, I suddenly realized that a student, living with a woman didn't happen there.  What had I been thinking?  I was not in Paris anymore!  Oh Merde!  Now, what would I do?  I thought I had better say something, when searching for an apartment.  Let's see: "In the fall, I have a cousin who is coming to stay with me.”  "Yeah Sure!”  I tried it once.  The prospective landlord laughed in my face!  There was only one thing to say, before I committed myself to an apartment: “I may be getting married in the fall.”  “Yes, that would be OK, but no Children.” …”No problem!”  I never intended to mention to Eunice that she might, if asked, have to pretend to be my wife.  I figured that no one would ask, and, in fact, they did not.

I found an apartment, one room and a small alcove, on a top front corner in a plain, but pleasant house, for $100. a month.  The address was, 405 East Jefferson.  I looked it up on google, a year or two ago, and to my amazement it was still there, looking exactly as it did in 1959.  I looked it up again, just now, and it is gone.  There’s nothing but a parking lot.  Thus, time and progress marches on!  Later that same afternoon, I enrolled in summer school, just for something to do, and keep away from home.  Once the reality of having me back again set in, I think Leila was glad to see the back of me, as well.

       
  The University of Michigan gladly took me back. I had checked with them about that, and set it up, just in case the draft board created complications, before I went to France.  I had earned the highest grades a first year student in the school of Architecture and Design had achieved that freshman year; thanks more to the lack of competition than to my efforts or abilities.  And I won some kind of golden key.  Incredibly, the University now granted me full credit for all the art classes I had, and had not, taken in my three years of wandering, including the year I didn’t attend L’Acadamie Julienne.  This added up to one and a half times the art credits that I needed to graduate as an art major at U of M.  All that was still required to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree was a speech course, an art history class, one year of a language, and one year of current residency. 

Meanwhile, I had only one thing on my mind: EUNICE!  The day I arrived back in Detroit I told my mother that I met a girl in France, and she was coming to America to visit me. "Uh huh", was her reply.  As usual, she wasn’t listening.  Or if she was, she didn't hear.  Bottom line: She wasn’t interested.

        
And so, I painted the apartment white.  Then, I transported the narrow twin sized, but extra-long bed from my childhood bedroom, there, leaving the headboard behind.  And I decorated the place with all the stuff I got in France.  I hung the carousel pig from the ceiling.  And, over the course of the summer, I made wooden canvas stretchers in the school shop to remount all the oversized rolled up canvases that I brought back with me from France.  Soon the place began to look like my room at l’Hotel du Mouton Blanc, overlooking Rue Mazarine.   And the same moon had followed me from France, and bathed my lonely bed in friendly moonlight , as I tried, without success, to feel at home, in this now alien land.
          When I left for America, Eunice gave me a large photo of herself, courtesy of Harold Chapman.  It was one of his and my favorite photographs.  Harold signed the smaller of the two copies, which I carefully put away for safe keeping.  The larger copy was indeed quite huge, and this I hung above my bed.  And so, like Eunice herself, this compelling photograph of her dominated my world, my thoughts, and my heart, throughout the long summer that we were apart.
         Back at the U of M again, I ran into several old friends.  We no longer had anything in common.  I even saw my good friend Charlie Rasch.  We had, alas, become strangers.  I sadly realized that Charlie was still the same as ever.  It was I who had changed.  Time had stood still for my former friends.  I saw in them, the kind of person I would have been if I had remained at the University of Michigan.  And I wondered why they were all still there, when, unlike me who squandered a year, they should have already graduated, the year before.  And I realized that these citadels of higher learning, have a way of trapping students there, forever.  Like Rapunzel, they remain prisoners in an ivory tower, unless, as I had done, they let down their hair.  Having made that observation, the fact remained that I, too, was still there!

One day, when I was in the art building sawing up the wooden parts for a Victorian toy theater, to my utter amazement, through the door walked Lois Malzman, the onetime love of my young life.  The romance dematerialized when I went away to Pratt.  Being that Lois was far more intelligent than I, she had been the first to realize that our long distance love affair had no practical future, and, to put it bluntly, dumped me.  I later heard that she married a doctor, thus, fulfilling every Jewish parent’s dream!  I set down the Victorian toy theater, and we went out for coffee.  We sat outside a sort of makeshift Ann Arbor version of a Paris cafe, actually a picnic table in front of a small grocery store, on a quiet residential street.

How strange it is that days and weeks and years can pass uneventfully, then, suddenly, a chance encounter of two hours can contain a lifetime’s worth of content.  Like me, Lois had changed.  She had always been more mature than me, even though, we were the same age, but now she looked older as well.  On the other hand, she still smelled the same, a unique odor that I found attractive, and have never encountered before or after.  I’m sure I could identify her blindfolded, even today.  Suddenly she seemed grown up, a doctor’s wife, indeed!  She looked the part.

Three years before, she broke my heart, and, even though, I got over it, some scars remained.  As we sat there, together again, I could feel them healing.  Nevertheless, this was a sad occasion. I could see that Lois was unhappy, an aura of melancholy radiated from her body, stronger than her signature odor.  She had been married for two years, and was, now, about to leave Ann Arbor in two days’ time, to accompany her husband to, of all the woe begotten non-Lois places in the Universe, Alaska.  There she would live in  family housing for a couple of years, while her hubby fulfilled his internship obligation.  She told me she was seriously considering not going with him.

As absurd as the vision of Lois Malzman in Alaska seemed to me, I realized that she would have been equally out of place on the Left Bank of Beat Paree, maybe, more so.  And my mind drifted, from the compassion I was feeling for Lois, to the image of Eunice, glowing on the wall above my bed, a few blocks away, and all that it meant to me, joyous memories of the recent past, and the hope of a deliriously happy, but temporarily distant future, extending from Ann Arbor to Eternity.

         
It was beginning to dawn on me, what I had returned to.  There were no “Beatniks” at the U of M.  And, Yes, I did continue to wear my limited, but user-friendly, wardrobe from Paris.  It had become a part of “Moi”.  Now, it was I, who stuck out like a sore thumb, in the land of Ugly Americans.

        
Meanwhile, Eunice and I wrote each other every day, and she kept me up to date on her adventures in gay Paree.  Unfortunately, the men who flocked around her, as if she was a bitch in heat, the instant that I went away were anything but gay!

Harold became her guardian, and attempted to keep the wolves at bay.  On the day after I left, he went with her to our old room at Rue Mazarine, and helped her, tearfully, gather what remained of all our things, and move them to her new place, Bob and Verta’s room at Number 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur.  It was, by far, the best room in the Beat Hotel, and also the most expensive.  On the very day that she moved in, every horny Beatnik in the place beat a pathway to her door, and kept her awake all night, vying to take my place.

Miraculously, she managed to dissuade them, and convince them that she intended to remain faithful to me.  So much for night one!  Eventually, most of them gave up, and a few became platonic friends.  Nonetheless, everywhere that Eunice went, she was wooed and propositioned constantly.  Fortunately, and I really don't know how this was arranged, she got a roommate, an American girl named “Liz.”   Liz arrived in France on a Fulbright Scholarship, and straight from the plane, moved into Eunice's room at 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur.  She had an older brother, living in France already.  Liz was Eunice’s first firsthand experience with a typical American girl.  In some ways, Liz drove her crazy, with her abrasive voice, Bermuda shorts, and uptight personality.  But she was a nice girl, and they got along well.  One thing that Eunice could not get over was the fact that, in spite of her clean-cut ivy league appearance, Liz very seldom bathed.  Instead, she applied vast quantities of Mum Deodorant to her “chat.”

The fact that Eunice now had a roommate, helped keep some of the men away.  And she and Liz became good friends.  One day they visited the Louvre together, so Eunice finally saw it, after all.  And Liz’s brother had a car, which he used to take them touring around France.  They went to Chartres Cathedral, and afterwards, Eunice went skinny dipping in the river, among the frogs and lily pads.  It was the first time that she swam since her accident three years before.  A tugboat passed by, and its crew of wide-eyed senior sailors nearly fell overboard!

Before long, Eunice and Liz acquired a third roommate, another American girl, named, Benita Blau, who later visited us in Ann Arbor.  When Benita married, her name became Benita Fury, and she became a reporter for NBC TV. We saw her frequently on the New York evening news.  She even filmed a story about us renovating our schoolhouse.  Sadly, just when her career was flowering, she died of cancer.  How puzzling it is to see one’s friends and family come and go, and still be here.

Soon, another American girl moved into the hotel, in the room next to Harold’s.  Her name was Stella, and she became Eunice’s friend as well.  Eunice, Stella, and Tove, all three, got jobs together, selling the New York Herald Tribune.  That was just about the only job that foreigners in France, who did not have French working papers could legally do.  Each morning, they were given a stack of newspapers, and, wearing their tight-fitting Herald Tribune tee-shirts, they set out to sell them in various assigned locations around Paris.  They had to give the money for the first half of the papers to the Herald Tribune, and the rest, including tips, was theirs to keep. This was very tiring for Eunice, because of her leg.  Sometimes, before the end of the day, she’d throw the rest of the papers away.  But she managed to eke out a meager wage, just enough for food and rent.  Throughout this adventure, she got offers and propositions, every day, from throngs of men.  One diamond merchant promised to cover her in precious gems.  Another wealthy American offered to take her on a tour, “around the world.”  I wonder, exactly, what he meant?  And everywhere she went, she got enormous tips, thanks largely to her enormous "tetons".
          Eunice became good friends with George Whitman, the proprietor of the famous bookstore, “Shakespeare and Company.”  She used to hang out there a lot. Although, George sometimes said some rather creepy things, she loved to talk with him.  He welcomed her to relax upstairs and chat, and read all the books and magazines, while he plied her with strawberries and ice cream. 

       
  Speaking of Shakespeare and Company, here is Harold’s photo of Eunice and Volkmar Von Alten, the son of the German ambassador, In George’s bookstore in 1958.  It was called le Mistral Bookstore, then. 
Harold wrote me a friendly letter, telling me that I was a fool to leave Paris without Eunice, and urging me to either hurry back, or get her out of there, before she became a member of the German aristocracy, in the person of Volkmar Von Alten.  This, needless to say, made me very unhappy, as Volkmar was someone Eunice failed to mention in her letters. 
Here they are together on the bridge that leads from the Left Bank to Notre Dame. 
And here are Eunice and Liz, photographed in the same place.  I’d say it’s fair to speculate that Volkmar was behind the lens.
Here’s another of Harold’s photographs.  This one shows Eunice, Ken, Tove, Liz, and Cyclops, together with George Whitman, in front of his Mistral Bookshop.
In this photograph, Harold captures the excitement of a summer night in Paris, and Eunice’s instantaneous charisma.  Clearly, her leg is feeling better.  And she is wearing one of my shirts.  Eunice does know how to draw a crowd.  Harold’s caption reads: “Eunice Richards from Dover, jiving in the streets of Paris with a Swiss photographer.” 
         Eunice wanted to remain in Paris, until after Bastille Day, July 14,1958.   This photo, taken at that celebration is my favorite.  It captures Eunice, exactly as she looked on the night that I first met her.  This is the delightful apparition that I saw coming towards me, along Rue Mazarine, that night in April, with Harold at her side, as he is here.  Here too is Stella, and, behind Harold is Cyclops.  In the upper left hand corner, is Volkmar Von Alten again. Eunice is wearing the necklace that I gave her.  Would you believe it’s a Mezuzah, nestled between her breasts?  Evidence of my lifelong flirtation with religion, and the perfect talisman to ward off Herr Von Alten!
          I was pleased to learn that, a few days later, Eunice returned home to Dover.  But I was not glad to find out that, from there, she went to London.  Throughout the entire summer, Eunice was met with one challenge after another.  Her parents were not the least bit happy about her coming to America.  Her father expressed his disapproval by remaining silent, while her mother did everything she could to dissuade her, or, at least, delay her departure by several months, until a possible court case about her accident was, possibly, going to take place.  They feared that if Eunice went to America, they would never see her again.

Then, there was the problem of the money, how much to send, and how and where to send it, not to mention how I was to get it, without alerting Leila.  My mother was joint cosigner on my bank account.  That had been arranged so she could withdraw funds to send me while I was in France.  Although, I could withdraw money on my own, she would could easily find out about it.  Then, there was the problem of visas, vaccinations, and deciding if she was traveling by plane, or boat. 

Meanwhile, in London, Eunice stayed in a room, supplied by her former employer, upstairs at “The Apron Strings,” where she used to work.  She considered working there for a few weeks to earn some extra money.  Thank God, before I even knew about it, her friends managed to talk her out of it.  When she finally had enough to buy the ticket etc. we discovered that, in order to get into this country, a traveler to America from England had to have a hundred pounds of cash with them to assure that they would not be stranded in the USA.  She also needed a sponsor.  That was me!  All of this took time, as the computer was not invented, yet, so, everything had to be done by mail.

In London, Eunice was bombarded with passes, propositions, and proposals, along with endless invitations to parties and occasions. To the amazement of her former friends, who knew her before we met, she turned all of them down.  In the end, they were convinced that Eunice must be truly in love, and so she was.  Finally, her friend Audrey, who worked for BOAC pulled the whole thing together, and arranged to fly to New York with Eunice on September 15th.  Audrey, was coming to the USA to marry an older man, Solly Elman.  She would remain in New York City, where she planned to continued her on-going career with BOAC, this time from “the other side of the pond,” and Eunice would continue to Ann Arbor.  The amount of perseverance, determination, and bravery that Eunice had to muster up to accomplish this trip was intense.  Meanwhile, we both sustained ourselves on letters.  If one was lost, or late, it felt like the whole world was about to end.

       
  Back in Ann Arbor, my summer continued.  I took two Art History courses that I hated, Chinese pottery of the Ming Dynasty, and Medieval Art.  And I added one painting class, although, I certainly didn’t need the credits, just to pass the time of day.  The class was called, "figure painting."  And, low and behold, the model turned out to be a friend, who I had met, when she was just finishing high school in Detroit.  Ironically, she, and her parents too, were the only genuine bohemians I knew, in that conformity bound city.  And it was clear, even then, that the friendship would have progressed into more than that if I had not been been in New York, attending Pratt.  Now, here was Jolie, whose name described her perfectly, assuming the most unashamedly provocative poses that I had ever seen a life model attempt in public, chatting with me at every break, without bothering to don a robe, and repeatedly offering to come to my place and pose for me, personally, whenever I was in the mood. 

Although it took great self-control and fortitude, I never took her up on the offer, as I was determined to resist temptation, and remain faithful to Eunice.  A few weeks into the semester Jolie lost her dog and I helped her look for it.  Then, out of the blue, she transferred to the Chicago Art Institute School.  And, thankfully, the case was closed.  I felt that I had acquitted myself admirably.  Having successfully weathered that temptation, I, nonetheless, went on to commit one miniscule transgression, and got myself into a monumental mess. 

A girl who I had known, three years before, who was a friend of my ex amour, Lois Malzman bumped into me, one day, and after that, began to call occasionally.  We had several pleasant phone conversations, and eventually she stopped in one evening for a visit and a drink.  When I left the room, momentarily, to use the bathroom, she chugged down half a bottle of vodka, and when I came back into the room again, she was ready to ravage me!  Fortunately I had my wits about me, and no intention of being unfaithful to Eunice, who, lest I forget, was was right there on the wall, smiling down at me.  Somehow, I managed to steer my intoxicated guest, down the stairs, and along the street, which wasn’t easy, as she was not petite, and deposit her safely in her apartment, which, thankfully was on the ground floor, two blocks away.  In an effort not to offend her, I complied with her request for a good night kiss, and left!

My reward for this display of restraint and chivalry was a roaring case of Mononucleosis, the kissing disease!  As a result, I was bedridden for five weeks.  After ten days in the infirmary in Ann Arbor, during which time, I didn’t tell my mother, summer school came to an end, with me missing the final exams, and thus, not getting any credit for the two art history classes.  The infirmary was closing; so, I had to inform Leila, and continue to recuperate "at home."  I spent the next month in my mother’s bed, while she slept in the den.  The reason being that, apart from the fact that my mattress was in Ann Arbor,  she had one of the only two phones in the house on the night table beside her bed, and I served as an answering machine (which didn’t exist back then) when she was away, which was every day.  Not that she got a lot of calls, for all her friends were playing Canasta with her at the time.  I wasn’t supposed to get out of bed, except to use the nearby bathroom.  I had a constant temperature of 101 degrees. That was the indicator that the mono was still with me.

The highlight, or lowlight of that month, was listening in on the phone line, when my doctor told my mother that my blood tests indicated Leukemia.  Fortunately, I didn’t realize what that was, at the time, and it never materialized. Thank God!.  Finally, the temperature went away, just in the nick of time.  For two days later, Eunice was due to arrive.

        
On the morning of that day, I said, "Mom, Remember me telling you that a girl was coming to visit me?  Well, she arrives today.  Can I borrow a car to pick her up at the airport?"

"WHAT?  OH MY GOD!”  She heard me this time, all right!  And she was Flabbergasted!  In her eyes, just like my Uncle Arthur, I had imported a War Bride!

Much as she would have liked to, Leila couldn't refuse.  After all, she did have two cars, sitting in the driveway.  And the next day was my birthday!  So I took one, and picked up Eunice at the Airport.  From there, we went directly to my apartment in Ann Arbor, and directly into bed.