27 July 2016

Meeting Under The Unicorn

First off, I want to assure you that I have made up nothing in this blog.  Not even the third-place finish in a race.  Or the climbs in the Alps, Pyrenees, Sierra Nevada, Green Mountains, Adirondacks or Catskills.  Even the bad, crazy and silly things I've done are as I've recounted them.

Still, you might not believe the story I'm about to tell you.  I understand.   But I assure you that I couldn't make up anything like it.  

It took place in la Musee Nationale du Moyen-Age, a.k.a. the Cluny.  Even if you've never been there, you've seen this:

Most people think of it as "the unicorn tapestry".  Truth is, it's just one of six tapestries in the "La Dame a la Licorne" series.  The other five tapestries feature the lady, the unicorn and nearly all of the other elements of the one you've all seen.  But what this one--"Mon seul desir"--represents is the subject of debate.  Some have said that it is the mind, while others believe it is the heart or love.  I think the tapestry's creator intended it to be the power of the unicorn, whatever that might be.  

Now, what exactly is the power of the unicorn?  Some say it's something that happens when the woman touches his horn. (I won't disagree. But I want to keep this clean!) Well, perhaps it got me out of bed early so I could ride for an hour, with no destination or purpose, for about an hour before cycling to Cluny.

And the unicorn's magic (or whatever you want to call it) may have been the cause of what I experienced while in the museum.  

Many of the objects displayed there, at one time or another, adorned cathedrals.  A couple stood before one of the displays.  They were talking about how those objects were made and how cathedrals were built. 

I chimed in with a comment about how, in places like Chartres and Reims, literally everybody in the town contributed in some way or another to building the cathedral.  Of course, some were artists and craftspeople.  Others cut and set stones and glass, and did other things vital to building the structure.  And, of course, there were those who prepared food and did other things for the other workers. "Most of those people never lived to see the finished product," I pointed out.

That led us to talk about the things we were looking at--and, soon, things entirely unrelated.  Naturally, the conversation led to the inevitable traveler's question, "Where are you from?"

When I'm far from my home area, I say "New York"--which, of course, is true.  But unless someone's familiar with the city or its environs, I don't mention anything more specific.  It's not that I'm trying to impress anybody: Rather, it's just easier:  Almost everyone has heard of New York; only people who've lived in it have ever heard of Astoria,  Queens.

But that couple obviously knew the city.  So I told them I live in Astoria, Queens.  Each of them mentioned living in Brooklyn.  "No kidding!  I lived there for a long time."  That led me to confess that I'd grown up in Bensonhurst and Borough Park and later lived in Park Slope.  

Turns out, she lived there, and he in neighboring Windsor Terrace.  They mentioned The Park (Prospect), eating at the Silver Spoon and the Pintchick's store on the corner.  

"Bergen Street", I exclaimed.

Up to that point, I had the feeling that I somehow recognized them.  Especially her.  "Yes, I lived there during the '90's," she said.  "And we started dating then," he added.

The FBI has age-progression software that shows, for example, what a child who went missing years ago might look like today.  My mind's eye did the opposite of that:  I found myself imagining what they might have looked like five, ten, twenty years ago.  In her case, I didn't even have to look that far back:  She's hardly aged at all.

We asked each other's names.  She told me hers. "Really?"  

Her eyes, and his, fixed on me.  Then I asked whether her last name might be (N)."

"How did you know that?"

"We used to be neighbors.  In fact, I lived in the apartment next to yours."

For a few years, we exchanged pleasantries and sometimes got into conversations in the hallway of our building.  Our talks veered into all sorts of topics:  art, movies, politics, the not-for-profit agency for which she worked, my writing--and the class and workshop I was taking with Allen Ginsberg.  

But at that moment, she could not recall those things--or, more precisely, she could not connect me with them.  

"Well, I am Justine now," I confessed.  "But back then, you knew me as Nick."  

I could see flickerings of recognition.  Then I added  more dim, dark secrets:  I had a beard in those days--a red one, at that.  

"Wow.  Yes, now I remember.  The beard!"

Then she recalled, aloud, the poetry--Yes, I still write, I assured her--the studies, the teaching and even my cat.  "And you used to ride your bike everywhere," she recounted.

I nodded.  And, yes, I still ride, and I've been riding here in Paris.  She, her husband and their teenage daughter went for a ride the other day, she said.

Just when we were about to fall off each others' radar--which was much easier  in those days, just before everybody started to use cell phones, the internet and e-mail-- she had started dating him.  And I would meet, and move in with, the last partner I had in my life as Nick.

Now tell me:  What are the chances that two people who lived next to each other--in Brooklyn--would bump into each other twenty years later--in Paris, no less?


  1. Coincidences hey! Long after I had left home and moved to Scotland my parents came to visit to see what had drawn me away. We took a drive deep into the country and had lunch in a dark dining room attached to an inn. During the meal my mother and a woman on the opposite side of the room kept glancing at each other, as we were about to leave they decide to speak only to find that they had worked together in an aircraft factory during the war, still live a few miles apart and had never seen each other in 33 years. Not as good as yours and not as cultural a meeting...

    John Renbourn used that tapestry and the title for a 1970 LP, still have it somewhere.

  2. Justine,

    You must be familar with the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan. Their iconography is clearer than the Cluny set. It is a tale of death and resurrection, an ancient (Gallo-celtic?) myth cycle that had undergone a level of christianization. The Cluny works are far more cryptic.

    Coincedinces? There was a guy I knew in high school in Portland in the late 50's and early 60's. We were kindred souls, literature and philosophy geeks. Our ways parted in '66. Within a few years I was living in Finland and he found a life in Tasmania as a philosophy professor. I bumped into him by accident on the net about 10 years ago. (That might be a big enough coincidence itself!) We correspond now. It was two years ago now that I last visited Portland. I mentioned it to my old school mate down under. It turned out that he too was going to visit Portland and without any coordination on our part our trips overlapped by one week. We spent a couple of days hanging out in our old home town together after a pause of 49 years.


  3. Coline--Your mother's story sounds almost like a New York story. In "the city that never sleeps", people can live a block apart and never meet each other.

    I remember the John Renbourn album. He died last year--in my opinion, without the recognition he deserved.

    Leo--It's been said that when we meet, we are connected thereafter. If that is true, it makes sense that you and your friend made the same plan without consulting each other.

    I have a question: Did your friend or Portland change more?

    1. Hard to say. My friend turned into Socrates, with white hair and beard (as befits a prof of philosophy). Portland on the other hand is well on the way to becoming a gigantic pedestrian plaza. I spent one afternoon cycling around downtown purposely making nothing but left turns in traffic just for the pleasure of being treated the equal of a car. My friend regarded it as a problem in ethics: "You are exploiting those poor car drivers!".