For the last ten years I have spent every August in Paris, staying at friends' places often in their absence. These are friends that I met at university while they were studying English and I was studying French, and an exchange of languages has in turn become an exchange of flats. The three good friends I met at the university in the city I still live in, sometimes come to Scotland (staying at mine) when I am in their flat in France, sometimes they are holidaying elsewhere but insist I come and stay at their place anyway. There is usually a cat to feed, plants to water, and a Vespa to keep an eye on. Sometimes one of the three friends is there and even if none of them are, over the years I have met other people who have the habit of staying during this quietest of Parisian months. It was during one of these summers a couple of years ago that I was sitting in a cafe a little down from Eglise Saint Gervais and not far from the Pont Louis Philippe. Sitting adjacently by the entrance of the cafe, on the terrace, was a man who looked in his late twenties or early thirties, sketching in a notebook. His hair was blonde and of a length that suggested the need of a haircut rather than a desire to grow it long. He was robustly built and forcefully tanned, his arms thick from a period of hard graft or solid gym work, though it looked like he hadn't worked or worked out for a while. His arms and neck had been browned by the sun but his face looked sunburnt around the nose, cheeks and forehead. After about thirty minutes he turned to me and said, in English, would it be okay if he paid for my coffee and I could just give him 2 euros 50. He explained he had no cash, would have to pay by card and they probably wouldn't accept a transaction for less than 5 euros. I said I couldn't see why not even if a thought passed through my mind whether a scam was about to take place. However, a transaction between us turned out to be unnecessary.
The cafe waiter said they didn't take payments of less than 15 Euros and he explained in English that he had no cash; would it be okay if he went and withdrew money from a nearby machine? She said that would be fine, explained where he could get money and didn't look like she was worried he wouldn't return. I suppose I could have offered to pay for his coffee but I think I didn't do so less out of mean-spiritedness than afraid that I'd be allowing myself to be ripped off, and, out of curiosity, I wanted to know if he'd come back. I continued reading my book for another hour until I'd finished it, then ordered another coffee and read from a second book I had with me for another thirty minutes just to give him more time to return. I looked at the waiter's face to see if she looked at all concerned by this disappearing act and I might have guessed that this wasn't an entirely uncommon occurrence, and that losing 2 euros 50 a couple of times a week was no great loss. I supposed his scam was to get either a customer to cover his coffee or to get the cafe to give him a moment to go and find a cash machine and fail to return.
I didn't think too much more about it but the following week, a couple of days before returning to Edinburgh, I saw the very same young man sitting in another cafe, this time on the corner by Rue de Faubourg du Temple, not far from the canal. I took a seat next to him and waited a few minutes to see if he recognised me. He didn't seem to so I said that I was in the cafe near the Seine a week earlier and he asked to pay for my coffee but they wouldn't take his card transaction. He looked back at me, less I sensed to work out if he could recall my face than to work out if I knew that he had been pulling off a scam. Had I left the cafe shortly after him or had I stayed long enough to see that he obviously hadn't returned? But no, he really didn't seem to recognise me as I said that I actually stayed in the cafe for another hour and half and that he hadn't come back. He looked again at me for a moment, as though wondering whether he should be open about his ploys or hide behind another one. He happened, I suppose to opt for the former. He said, yes, it was a trick and he apologised for almost making me a victim of it. I asked why he involved others. He explained that firstly it creates complicity between him and another customer, suggesting he is an agreeable fellow. Secondly, quite often the person he asks says that they will just pay for the coffee. After all, what is a couple of euros? He said he never exploits a person or a cafe for more than a coffee, a beer or a glass of wine and went on to say that he had been in Paris for eighteen months and intended to remain for three years. He was staying until he had sold a painting, he said, but if he hadn't sold one after three years he was going to return to the States, accept his fate and get a job in some corporation. He said he did a degree in business and then afterwards worked in a company for a couple of years, a salesman for kitchen utensils. When he was left the equivalent of 50,000 euros as an inheritance, he initially did a few art courses while still working and didn't so much discover he had a talent for painting so much as rediscover an interest that his parents thought he had better bury if he wanted to pursue a proper living. When his unmarried aunt died she left him the little money she had, and while she didn't indicate in her will what he ought to spend it on, she was the only one who wondered, when he was advised by his parents to do a business degree, whether this was the right decision for him. It was obviously the right decision for his parents. So when she passed away he put a little bit of the money into those night classes, and then with the rest decided he would come and live in Paris for a while, remembering his aunt talking about three months she had spent in the city after university and before she started teaching in a high school in the US.
He added that he was renting a studio in the 20th arrondissement for 700 euros a month on a three-year lease. That left enough money for food and bills but not much for luxuries like coffee, beer and wine. For that, he needed to be a little inventive. We talked for more than hour but I sensed while there was nothing untrue in the telling, it was a story worn thin with use; that he had told it many times and perhaps for the purposes of another scam: that after the telling someone might offer him a bit of money and insisted he keeps up the effort it was good to see someone pursuing their dreams and so on. I asked him a little more about his flat and whether it was roomy enough to paint in. He looked a little surprised, as though most people would listen to the story but wouldn't expect what seemed like extraneous details in the telling. He no doubt wondered if I was trying to catch him out again; I had after all already recognised him as a con artist; was I now trying to discover that he was a more general liar too? Yet he also seemed very keen to go into more detail: he said that he had a small easel that he kept above the cupboard and its size allowed him to paint canvases no more than a couple of feet long and a foot wide, and since he had nowhere to store them in the flat the concierge had let him put them in the basement in return for the occasional bottle of wine. Sometimes he just gave them away to people and on a few occasions he even returned to cafes he had scammed and, feeling a little guilty, returned with a painting of the place and the 2 euros or 2 euros 50 that he owed them for coffee. He explained that he couldn't find a bank machine nearby, that he'd promised to go back the next day and never got around to it. They were usually happy with his excuse, flattered that he was offering them a painting, which they would promptly stick up on the wall, and didn't only refuse to take money for the coffee he owed them but gave him another free one too. He smiled, or perhaps smirked: was this a sign of his honesty or a further example of his capacity to take advantage of others?
I asked him in which cafes I could find his paintings: he named one cafe in Strasbourg St Denis, a second off Rue Daguerre, in the 14th and close to the Montparnasse cemetery, another by the canal at Quai de Valmy, and a fourth in the 20th, down some steps off Rue des Pyrenees as he wrote down where I could find them I said I might go for a wander over the next few days and take a look at them. He said his name was Bart Rigert, but offered me no further details and I didn't ask for his number or his card, assuming he had one. For a moment I thought I should pay for his coffee, went to the bathroom as I thought about it, and when I came back he was already offering a card payment that the waiter said was too low as a transaction. He said he would find a cash machine and return shortly. The waiter said no problem; he needn't hurry it was only a coffee after all. As he got up to leave he said it was very nice meeting me, hoped he would see me again, and that if he didn't he hoped at least I might seek out one or two of the paintings.
Though I am not someone who travels so much, which is why so many of my trips have been to Paris, a city I now know of course well and can reach easily by train, I have occasionally travelled to other European cities, including Barcelona, Dublin, Berlin and Venice. Usually when doing I so I try to find a way of seeing as much as possible with neither too much deliberation or too much idleness; neither marking down all the tourist sites and ticking them off, nor just wandering around coming across whatever I find. Sometimes it is no more than a bookshop I've heard is very good and rather than taking down the specific address and going directly there, I use the address as a general guide, taking my time finding the place. The idea of wandering around Paris looking out for four cafes with paintings by Bret appealed to me more than the notion of looking at the paintings themselves. I didn't expect anything from them but hoped the search would yield some contingently interesting results. Several years ago, in Berlin, I was looking for its English language bookshops, which provided pleasure enough, but in the process of looking for them found various other parks, streets and cafes of interest too. To have found these other places without a mild sense of purpose might have seemed too aimless; to find them on the way to a particular destination helped give meaning to these contingencies.
I suspect it is part of a broader approach to my life, one which leaves me somewhere between a professional and an amateur, and I wondered if this was why I felt a mild affinity with this person who had an ethical system; if we can accept a system that incorporates lying and theft. I didn't lie or steal, but I had found my own way of living that allowed me to be what is commonly called 'my own man'. I have managed to survive for around twelve years teaching what I call conversational English. I insist to clients that I won't be able to help them pass their exams, won't give them grammar lessons (though I'll correct the grammatical mistakes they make), and won't mark any written work. I ask for 12 an hour which is half the price that many others demand, and I meet up with them first for free, working out their level of English, and then, each time we meet up thereafter, we talk about newspaper articles, short stories, light essays, films and television shows that I recommend they look at. The material is from newspapers I read, short story writers I like, films that I have watched, and so it is a pleasure for me rather than a chore, and I hope my enthusiasm is more evident than more conventional teachers who are determined to get them through an exam. I teach around a dozen hours a week and I am fortunate that I have no rent to pay. I live in an ex-council flat near Nicholson St that faces out onto Arthur's seat and that my neighbours are no doubt paying at least six of seven hundred pounds to rent. My mother bought it is a right-to-buy for only a few thousand pounds. She had been living there for thirty years and this was factored in when she bought the place a few years before she passed away. So there I was after she died with free accommodation for life. I don't doubt my luck; don't for a minute see it as something I deserve any more than anybody else, and it would take an explanation of British politics to say why I will always remain ambivalent about this good fortune. All I want to say is that I have found a means by which to live my life of ease and any guilt I feel doesn't reside in living such an existence but wishing it was possible for everybody to choose it.
So I felt an affinity with this person who had got lucky too, even if he seemed also to be chancing his luck while I think I sought out contingent situations within my fortuitousness. There he was determined to find ways to get the luxuries in life for free while I suppose I was willing to work for them even if work hardly seemed the word. And once the basics were covered I would with the extra money travel to places like Paris hoping for chance encounters, experiences that seemed more likely to happen whenever I left Scotland. And there I was, passing through Paris, walking from one arrondissement to the next, in search of Rigert's paintings. Since the flat I was staying in was in the 14th, in Rue de la Glaciere, so the morning after I met Bart I walked to the corner of the road, turned up the street until reaching the famous lion of Belfort, continued past it and on to Rue Daguerre, finding the cafe where Rigert proposed I would find an example of his work. It was, on the wall, inside the bar, and under a small strip light that suggested the painting was being taken very seriously indeed. Did it deserve such attention? I am no expert on art but several years ago there was an exhibition of Jack Vettriano's work in Glasgow. I was through visiting a friend, he said there was a Vettriano retrospective at Kelvingrove Gallery, did I want to go. I couldn't think of a reason why not and subsequently had one of those experiences you need to have to know that you didn't need to have it. Wandering around the museum looking at painting after painting that seemed competent enough we finished viewing the exhibition and were on the way out when I saw an F. C. Cadell painting on the wall, recognising what real art happened to be. All the criticisms made about Vettriano's work I understood, knowing that it wasn't just a question of snobbery, that this working-class artist who worked as a mining engineer and then started doing watercolours at twenty-one, didn't quite go through the appropriate aesthetic training. None of that was important. What was significant rested on the work; it wasn't sinuous at all next to the Cadell. Seeing Rigert's painting, it possessed that quality; it seemed to have the texture of a problem and not only a ready technical solution. I couldn't see it as well as I wished, the light inside was weak next to the sunshine outside, but I could see enough to know the work was done by an artist I shouldn't have been embarrassed giving 2 euros 50 to support.
Leaving the cafe, I noticed it was 1230 and started walking in the direction of the Bastille, where I fed a cat each day usually in the afternoon. Its hunger I hoped coincided with mine as I usually started to feel the need for lunch and walked down in the direction of Austerlitz station, crossed the bridge, and turned towards Bastille on the other side of the Seine. I often wondered if there were other cities I might have been as happy to wander around but it was as if Paris couldn't quite exhaust my enthusiasm for walking. An equivalent distance in many a city would have left me bored or tired and it wasn't as if I covered this distance with the ecstasy of the tourist. I had never been up the Eiffel tower, inside Notre Dame or to the Louvre, and while I sometimes went to galleries, frequently watched films, and enjoyed going to bookshops and flea markets, it was always as if the intention behind any deed contained what I can only call a spiritual enthusiasm greater than any desire. I didn't expect to do anything more as I crossed from Rue Daguerre to Bastille than find a good bakery, catch the end of a market where I could buy a piece of cheese, a couple of tomatoes and a peach, and observe the sedate life of a city where so many of its participants had left. It made those who stayed in Paris during August conspicuous in their poverty, eccentricity or need for peace, and so each summer I always seemed to see people who reminded me a little of the one friend of mine who always remained throughout August, someone I was seeing late that evening and who I had met several years before.
Crossing the city that day I counted eight people who somehow reminded me of him, people who looked like they wanted to find their rhythm in Paris without the bustle of its ambitions, and they strolled along the streets, sauntered through the gardens or drank coffee on the terrace while reading books or newspapers. I wondered how they coped the rest of the year and whether, like Michel, they would often say they were going to leave Paris and live in the countryside, returning to the capital only in the month when most Parisians were away. It might have seemed like a misanthropic position but I knew of few people more polite, welcoming and generous than Michel, and as I looked at a man walking near to me down Boulevard Arago I wondered if he was, like my friend, less a misanthrope than perhaps a Malthusian; that he wished there were fewer people in the world, and especially a smaller number in the French capital. I had the feeling that during the rest of the year such observations were harder to make, the flow of urban human traffic a perceptual muddle, people on fast forward rather than slow motion.
I fed the cat, ate my lunch and decided to walk around, finding a cafe to read in before watching a film that started at 6 over by Strasbourg St Denis, carrying on after to the cafe up near Rue des Pyrenees in the 20th that Rigert said had three examples of his work I especially might like. This purposeless purposefulness filled me with a pleasure that I reckoned was quite distinct from the sort of things I had looked forward to as a boy, when my parents took me to the fairground, where I couldn't sleep anticipating opening my presents on Christmas Day, or awaiting a trip to the beach. Such events now appear to me as enthusiasms, amusements that anybody could look forward to rather than specifically of interest to me. Even going to the cinema seemed a very different experience than when I was child. I would look forward to the film everybody was talking about; now I would see films that I'd hear of obliquely. The film I saw that evening was one I knew nothing about except that I'd once read an interview with the actor who said that it was the film that could have ruined his career: he acted so much against type that years of a carefully cultivated image was unravelled in one screen performance. He never took such a risk again and regarded the film as a failure anyway. It was part of a film maudit season and I don't think I would have watched it I hadn't read that interview several years before. The idea of seeing the film, and seeing it in a cinema in Paris, somehow made it my film, my experience.
I hardly followed the plot, instead focusing on the performance in the context of all the other performances I knew the actor for, and seeing in the display a crisis that I suspected the actor felt and that in the interview he hid behind when talking of his career. Usually, he played kind people, second-leads in a buddy film, guys who get the girl next door and who kill only when they have to do so. In this film, he slept with several women maliciously, killed a few people gratuitously, and got himself taken out pathetically. But all I could see was an actor feeling that if he could play such a role in film how far could it be from what he was capable of in life? But the actor in interviews couched it only in terms of an aberration for his career; there was no suggestion he saw it as at all detrimental to his mental health. Yet there were other films where I'd read this happened to be so: where actors had got lost in a role that they couldn't find their way out of; a late sixties British film where the actor left the film industry altogether after playing a character with a very protean personality, another very famous actor in the early seventies who drew on his own life that the director filmed, and felt his inner self had been violated. Walking up in the direction of the 20th to see Rigert's work, I thought again about the difference between the body of Vettriano's work and the mere presence of just one painting by Cadell. It was the difference between playing a role and wondering how it might affect your career and a part that demands something is extracted from ourselves and then put into a role.
I ordered a fresh mint tea and sat in the terrace in a surprising state of anticipation, waiting till I needed to use the bathroom before taking a moment to look at the two paintings by Rigert I would find on the walls. I supposed that the actor's sense of self resided in a place other than his acting, perhaps in the businesses that he built up around his acting career: he owned an apartment block in Brooklyn that he bought when prices were low, and many acres in Wisconsin where he was born, and which he'd developed as an adventure park. He seemed to see his acting career as but an aspect of his overall profile and that the miscasting was no more than a bad business decision. When I was younger I always enjoyed watching his films, but when I viewed some of them again a few years ago I saw how little he seemed to give to the performance, a consummate actor who could remember lines, move well through the frame and look plausible enough in cowboy gear, cop uniforms and lawyer's suits. Acting was what he did, just as property development what he would do well too. It appeared that his identity resided in this constantly expanding wealth and also in his family. He married at twenty-five and was still married to the same woman now both of them in their mid-seventies. He had four children, two of them bland actors working mainly in television, a third who worked in the same career as the actor's wife: the medical profession, and a fourth who seemed to be drifting. The website I looked at on my phone while sitting in the cafe proposed that this fourth offspring wanted to escape the family success and find his own sense of failure. It was an unusual formulation and sounded like a quote, but then I recalled an interview with the actor where he had said coming from a poor background he wanted to escape the family failure and become a success.
I wondered what the son might now be doing, where he might be and somehow in my mind could see him in Paris, living on a small income or a modest inheritance, perhaps working in a cafe, maybe with enough money to pursue a degree, take French lessons, or master an instrument. Perhaps I passed him on the street busking, or sat beside him in a cafe. I've long thought that fame is a terrible failure of the manifold, that to become a celebrity is to confine oneself not just to a public life but also a restricted perception of oneself in the eyes of others. To be typecast as an actor must add to this restriction and is this why so many actors instead of seeking a wider range of parts and roles end up instead making more and more money diversifying not in the parts they play but in the portfolio they build up? I found myself recalling one very great and fascinating actor of the seventies who bought prime real estate in Manhattan and the parts grew less interesting as his property empire expanded. It was as if the internal nature of the roles that brought out the complexity of selves became the external need to become materially successful. It seemed to take up the spiritual surplus needed for creating art as I thought that perhaps this is what made Vettriano's work so lacking in power all of it belonged to the world of success. But then weren't there artists who made fortunes and still made great art? Yet when I thought of Francis Bacon it appeared to be one of the very tensions in the work the material versus the spiritual manifesting itself as the nervous.
And so it was that I went to the bathroom and both on the way there and on the way back lingered on the two Rigert paintings on the wall. They were much easier to see than in the gloom of the other cafe against the outside light. Now, I could see not so much how much detail went into the work but how much texture went into the stroke. All three paintings were about the same size (around fifty inches wide and thirty inches long) and all three were landscapes, two clearly of the US midwest and the third clearly showing Paris. Yet clearly wasn't quite the word; the stroke created a blur that almost destroyed the painting. It wasn't at all abstract but threatened to fall into it by the amount of paint administered on the canvas. Trees would be raised lumps of green and brown; a building clumped and clotted. If it was said of one artist that he painted anxiety, Rigert seemed to me to be painting determination. While what I saw in Rigert when he sat in the cafe drinking his coffee was a man who looked like he had time to spare, hours to kill and a life to discover, in the paintings I saw completeness, someone who was present to the moment of the work's creation. Was that what I wished to seek in films, books, paintings and music, and yet what I didn't expect at all from my own life where I sought the constant possibility of being distracted from the moment, for change to enter my existence and take it in a different direction? And yet my very need for distraction, my interest in contingency nevertheless may have had an assertiveness to it. It stopped me from pursuing a career or taking what my parents would call a proper job, it meant travelling usually alone and avoiding any but the most casual of affairs. It meant having friends but never a social circle. I didn't know what space I was creating in an around myself but I knew what it couldn't incorporate. Yet when I respond to a film, a book etc. I admire all that it has incorporated, feeling no lack of what has been left out. That is what I saw in Rigert's paintings and would have liked to have seen the others in another couple of cafes he mentioned. But I was leaving the following afternoon, it was already nin- thirty at night, and to see the paintings, in Rue du Faubourg St Denis and Quay de Valmy, would have meant too great a detour and cancelling my meeting with Michel.
And so it wasn't until the following year that I managed to see the other paintings. I first went to the cafe on Rue du Faubourg St Denis, where one of his works was kept with patience more than love. It hung on a wall that received probably more grease than light, the cafe a regular for people seeking frites with everything and a coffee or a beer. I wouldn't have been surprised if nobody had ever given the painting more than a glance, perhaps a look of surprise, even dismay wondering what the heck the picture was doing on the wall at all. I imagined a story where Rigert was sitting with his coffee, the painting for some reason by his side, when he asked if they would take card payments. They refused, he asked if he could go to a cash machine, they told him he wouldn't be allowed to pull off that scam, and either took the painting, or when nobody was looking, Rigert left it and rushed along the street. It was the most plausible of scenarios I could think of for this painting that really hadn't found a rightful home. I sipped my beer at a terrace table and watched the world go by, a world busy when I looked left and quiet when I looked right. The bottom half of the street had been increasingly gentrified in the last few years and many of the people living there would now, in the first week of August, be on holiday. Turning left I still saw many people walking and working, the blacks, north Africans and Turks who didn't have holiday homes by the sea, in the mountains, or by a lake. Afterwards, I kept walking up the people-bustling street, cutting across the traffic-hectic Boulevard Magenta, passing various tourists who looked like they'd exited Gare du nord and who were guessing they were moving in the right direction, finding my way by the canal. The sun was strong but there was a light breeze and not yet in the mood for any more liquid I lay there for an hour, lying on the towel I often took with me just in case I fancied a bit of sunbathing (usually in a park) and realised I probably could have bought the painting from the cafe for little more than I'd paid for the beer. I had no sense that anybody noticed it and that it might have been easier to have walked off with that under my arm than trying to scam the owner over paying for a drink. Lyingng there in my jeans, my T-shirt beside me, I tried to recall the other paintings, regretting I hadn't at least taken photos of them.
After an hour I felt that my shoulders could soon burn, put my T-shirt back on and walked for a few minutes before arriving at a cafe by one of the canal bridges. I am sure Rigert had told me that there were no more than three paintings in any particular cafe but here I found four. It seemed the most touristic cafe in the area, evident in the guidebooks to be found on one shelf, literature in English, German and Spanish on a couple of others. I also overheard various conversations in English, and the bar staff often took people's orders in English as well. I ordered a mint tea, in English and, after reading for around forty minutes, knew that if I were to ask about the paintings in any of the cafes, this would be the one. When the waiter had just served the terrace table next to me I asked her if she knew anything about the four paintings on the wall, as I pointed inside at one of them. She said she didn't but knew that the manager liked the work a lot. There were only two there a few months ago and then he purchased another couple. I should ask him about them myself, she said, he would be coming in around five. It was now after four, the book I was reading could easily keep me company for another hour, and so I ordered more mint tea (a popular drink here it seemed since almost half the clients appeared to be drinking it), and waited.
The hour passed quickly, as if my engagement with the book managed to counter my anticipation over seeing the owner, and I didn't realise it was after five until the owner was standing above me and said he was pleased I noticed the paintings. He liked the work very much. He intended to buy more. He said to me that the first two he received in return for giving the artist free drinks; now the price had risen a bit and he also gave him free food. He laughed saying that he insisted the artist at least now pay for his own drinks. It seemed fair enough I said, and the owner, a compact figure of bustle and energy, with cropped, greying hair and a smile that suggested he was used to getting what he wanted in life without too much stress or strain, reckoned he was getting too good a deal; that soon enough he expected the artist to be selling him his paintings. They are worth money, he said, it is just that the artist doesn't have any. He said he was a businessman but not an exploiter. The next pair he would pay for.
I wasn't staying in Rue de la Glaciere like the previous year but in a flat next to the canal about twenty-five minutes away on the other side, along Fauburg du Temple, and I decided to make the cafe my regular that summer, partly because I liked the location next to the canal, found the owner agreeable, the staff happy to speak to me in English or tolerate my French, and could look at the paintings on the wall for as long as I liked. But I also hoped to see Rigert. He usually came in about once a week, the owner had said, but he lived over in the 20th, so would probably still mainly take advantage of cafe owners over there. I asked him how he got to know him; had he taken advantage of him? Of course, he said the painter had scammed him for a coffee and tried the same trick six months later. The owner had a better memory than he did and remembered the trick he pulled, when the painter claimed he would go and get some money, and the owner instead of getting irate got curious and found out he was a painter; that is when they came to their little arrangement.
During the second week of my visit, with friends away for a long weekend, and thus with a cat to feed on Avenue de la Republique, each day I ventured up the street I was living on, walked along and past Pere Lachaise cemetery, detoured a little to feed the cat, and then went up and around the area in which Rigert lived. One of the cafes I chose was off Rue des Pyrenees where I had seen three of his paintings, and saw them again still there, given a prominent place in the room to suggest that the owner liked the work. Seeing it so prominently placed and thinking of the one on Rue du Fauburg St Denis, I decided I would try and buy the latter, unsure whether my motive lay in saving the work from its hostile environment of bad lighting and chip fat, or seeing a bargain. I never saw Rigert that first day (nor on the following days when I visited the area), and the next afternoon, once I'd wandered around the 20th after feeding the cat, I walked along to La Republique, along the Bonne Nouvelle and arrived once again at Rue du Fauburg St Denis, went into the cafe and, while ordering a coffee, asked what seemed to be the owner if he might sell me the painting inside. I asked in French and realised I was speaking to someone whose French was a lot better than mine but hesitant nevertheless, and it took a minute before we understood each other correctly. I enquired how much he paid for the painting and he said it was the price of a couple of beers. I offered him the price of fifty beers for it. He thought that seemed like a good deal for him, that he never much cared for the painting anyway, but he didn't like getting ripped off. The person who gave it to him tried to do exactly that, he said, without adding anything more. He went inside, took it off the wall, handed me the painting as I handed him a hundred Euros, and it sat beside me for the next hour. There I was sitting outside with a coffee on the table, a book in my hand, and a painting propped up on the chair next to me. As people would glance at the painting, occasionally stop for a moment to take a closer look at it, I suspected far more people had viewed it in the last hour than in the previous twelve months. As I could feel around the frame a sticky residue of fat I believed I hadn't just bought a painting; I had indeed rescued one. A few more years on that wall the painting would probably have been ruined.
A couple of days before leaving Paris, I got up early and devoted the whole day to walking right across the city and back, looking again at Rigert's work in Rue Daguerre, the cafe at Quay de Valmy, and off Rue des Pyrenees. I had given up on expecting to see Rigert at all when I saw him sitting not at the cafe in the 20th where his painting resided, but in the very one where I first saw him the year before. It was my final day in the city and I'd bought a couple of books in one of the English language bookshops in the 5th and I crossed the Seine to meet the friends whose cat I had been looking after, as well as the friend whose cat I had fed the previous year, the one who had a flat in the Bastille. It was around six-fifteen and I was to meet them at a coffee and cake place in the Marais. As I walked past it took me a moment to recognise him: he had grown a beard and was wearing a suit. He looked neither smart nor scruffy but appeared like the bohemian dandy he had obviously become, where the year before he seemed more like the traveller he happened to be as well. I suspected that his new more conspicuous look wasn't ideal for cheating cafes out of their coffee but maybe he had got into the habit of swapping paintings for food or drink. Yet maybe this was his new look to work through all the cafes that he had previously scammed with his traveller outfit. He was sitting at the same table I recall him sitting on the previous year, and the table next to him, where I had sat, was empty. I had thirty minutes spare. I took a seat. He didn't seem to recognise me at all. I opened my book and started reading when about ten minutes later he said that he didn't suppose I would be happy if he could pay for my coffee. Usually, a card machine wouldn't take less than five euros he said. I looked at him for a few seconds, seeing if he recalled me from the year before and, seeing that he didn't, said he needn't worry at all it would be a pleasure if I were to buy someone a coffee; what after all is a couple of euros. He said that was very kind of me, as the waiter came over and I gave him five euros to cover both drinks. I wondered as I did so whether there was a slight smirk on his face as he believed yet another gullible tourist had been taken in, but I wondered also how well I happened to hide mine as I felt not only had I bought unbeknownst to him one of his works at a very reasonable price but that I had also become in my own very small way one of his patrons. I hoped too to come to Paris the next year and maybe get the chance to see far more of his work in one place (perhaps in the cafe by quay de Valmy, perhaps in a gallery). The previous year I would have thought paying for this man's coffee would have been an act of stupidity on my part and the encouraging of deceit in another. Now I saw it as a small victory, perhaps even a deceit of my own as the waiter came back with change from a 10 euro note and Rigert got up, thanked me and left.
© Tony McKibbin