I was in Missouri, a student, only recently discharged from the army, when the news was announced in class. I went outside and looked to the south, in the general direction of Texas, as I thought, with fear, with an expectation of something dreadful coming.
It might have been an anniversary of the shooting, long after, in Dallas with an old friend, on a Sunday morning. He wanted to show me where he had begun attending church, a downtown Methodist landmark. We got there early and my friend decided to show me around Dealey Plaza, deserted at that hour, eerie, like a disaster-movie set. We stood on the grassy knoll, squinted up at the book depository. Utter silence, until the sound of a body of people approaching, not talking, not marching exactly, footfalls echoing through the square as it approached. Around a corner, finally, some fifteen or twenty Japanese tourists in windcheaters and slung camera bags, moving here and there in tight formation, silently snapping away at all the prescribed points of interest.
This was the year before the chief minister of the Methodist church was charged with the attempted murder of his wife, who I see only recently died, after twenty-four years in a vegetative state from the savage beating she had endured.
My first time ever in Paris was in a November. I have drawn on this memory, much embroidered, for a story I once wrote called “Pont Neuf.” The bare facts are these: On November 11, Armistice Day, in 1978, I caught an early morning flight from London. A well-dressed Middle-Eastern-looking woman approached me before we got on the plane. She looked nervous and confused, she wondered if I knew anything of Paris and could I help her. She was Iranian, she said, on a mission to deliver a message to a holy man. She said “holy man” in all seeming naivety, as though the matter was obscure and in any case of not the slightest personal interest to her. She was to meet agents of this holy man on the Pont Neuf at noon. I pulled out my little blue Muirhead’s Short Guide, located Pont Neuf and the nearest Métro station to it, and worked out a plan to get her there from the airport bus terminal at Porte Maillot. She was delighted and said she could return the favour by recommending her hotel to me and perhaps we could share a meal there that evening.
I found a room somewhere else and was going to forget the whole affair, but decided later that night to ring her hotel, curious to know whether she had arrived, or if the whole story were not a fabrication. There was indeed a reservation in the name she had given me, a Mme Moussani, but she had not shown. The same thing the following morning.
In retrospect one sees that this curious episode occurred precisely in the time between the riots in Tehran in September and the fall of the shah in January, a period in which Khomeini was gathering the exiled and disaffected elements that would form his new government. I am quite sure about the date of Mme Moussani’s mysterious mission because stuck in my Muirhead’s is a receipt for a meal I had the next afternoon at a pub in boulevard du Montparnasse, dated 12 November 1978. I remember the meal as a rather nice gigot d’agneau aux flageolets.
Walking home the other day in a cold, pelting shower, hatless, rain dripping off the ears and soaking the knees, I was reminded of a similar day in November that I decided to run away from home. I brought a bag of dried beans for provision, thinking I could supplement this with game I would trap, and put on all the clothes I could smuggle out of the house, piled on in layers, and took the subway from Brooklyn to 181st Street in Manhattan and set off on foot across the George Washington Bridge in a driving rain. Soaked and irresolute under a roadway at the Fort Lee end, I was soon spotted by a police cruiser. To call my parents, the police had to ring Mrs. Foley who lived upstairs and had the only telephone in our building, who then had to fetch my mother, who then had to call the Wall Street bank where my father worked as porter. In due course my father showed up at Fort Lee police station, having taken the subway to 181st Street and walked across the bridge in the rain. Together we walked back across the bridge and took the subway home to Brooklyn. All I remember my father saying, on that long and dreary journey, was that his boss had told him they could not keep him on if this were to happen again.
It didn’t, and my father eventually retired from the Guaranty Trust Company, by then merged with J.P.Morgan as Morgan Guaranty, later yet JPMorgan Chase, the bank of the “London Whale” scandal in which rogue traders lost more than six billion dollars. Somewhere along the way, one of these successor firms looked over the pitiful legacy-pensions they were paying to widows and decided to raise all amounts below a fixed minimum. My mother’s pension cheque doubled, to nearly three hundred dollars a month.