One Saturday morning in 1944, when I was seven years old, my half-sister took me shopping at Cross Street Market in South Baltimore. By the time we got back out onto South Charles Street, she had the handles of two large cloth bags of fresh meat and vegetables in one hand, and was struggling to control me with the other. I had stopped in my tracks and was looking up at the Garden Theater marquee across the street, testing my new reading skills: “Double Future,” I said. “What’s that?”
“It’s ‘feature,’ not ‘future,'” my sister said. “It means you get two movies for the price of one.” It was common in those days for a country boy my age, new to the big city, to be ignorant in such worldly matters. My family had moved to Baltimore from Virginia the year before so that my father, a carpenter, could find work in the shipyards. “What’s a movie?” I asked. Pulling me along toward Hanover Street and home, my sister explained as best she could. To keep me moving, she promised to take me soon to see my first “moving picture show.”
I can’t remember if my sister kept that promise, but someone must have, because I’ve been going to movies ever since. In subsequent years I saw many shows at that very same Garden Theater. One Saturday morning show at the Garden stands out in my mind. It was 1950 or ’51, I was 13 or 14, and by then, of course, I had been allowed to attend movies alone for some time. I was sitting where I always did, in the very last row with my back against the wall. (I could never understand why many of the kids crowded close to the front of the theater—some so near the screen that they had to look straight up to see the distorted images moving in the light.) The newsreel was on. Pictures of tanks going into combat over hilly terrain; soldiers, their rifles at the ready, running alongside the metal monsters. I don’t remember the exact words, but the narrator was saying something like: “On May 15, U. S. tanks crossed the 38th Parallel and penetrated 13 miles into North Korea.” Music swelled, then died. More pictures, the camera keeping well back from the action, detached. The film showed men being wounded and killed, but from so far away it was oddly glorious and didn’t look to be at all painful.
I had joined the line in front of the theater at 9 o’clock that morning, and the box office began selling tickets at 10. The newsreel began minutes after I was seated, and we kids were on good behavior during it. But when the Technicolor cartoon flashed on the screen, we let go, responding to the animated antics with hand clapping, screaming and stamping feet. We hooted the villain—Bluto—and cheered the exploits of the hero—Popeye. Some of the kids left their seats and ran up and down the aisles. Spitballs, like fireflies, traced beautiful arcs through the projected light.
After the cartoon, a technical hitch caused a delay while the projectionist tried to get the weekly serial installment of “Captain America” started. We quickly grew restless again, yelling, firing cap pistols, and popping air-filled popcorn bags. Again we stamped our feet, this time in unison, louder and louder, until it sounded like a herd of angry elephants in a Tarzan movie crossing a wooden bridge. When the harried man in the projection booth finally got the film going, he turned the sound up to compete with our noise. We called him and raised him. After several noise level exchanges, the clamor became deafening. Then, suddenly, the screen went black and the soundtrack silent. The house lights came up and the squat, serious-looking theater manager marched down the aisle to the stage. He raised his arms and yelled, “Just hold it!” The screaming and stamping of feet quickly diminished to an angry murmur. The manager smiled. “Now, here’s how it’s gonna be,” he said. “The movie is over . . . ” A few kids started yelling again, but without much support they quickly dropped it. The manager continued, “The movie will be over—unless things get under control around here.” He looked slowly around the theater, concentrating his glare on each one of us individually it seemed. “The law is clear,” he said. “I don’t have to show no movie to no unruly mob.” The murmur of young voices now included quite a few clear “Yes sirs.” The manager smiled and signaled the projectionist, and the rest of the program was screened without further trouble.
We enjoyed the serial and the two-reel comedy—”Joe Dokes Behind the Eight Ball,” if I remember correctly—and we soon became absorbed in the main feature. It was “Breakthrough,” a war drama that followed the development of a group of infantrymen from basic training through the Allied invasion of France. Like the newsreel, it had a narrator (Frank Lovejoy, one of the stars of the move itself), and, as young recruits ran an obstacle course, he was saying, “It was not just another training exercise. Whatever was coming, we knew it was going to be big—with a capital ‘B’.”
Lovejoy was a tough sergeant who helped a young officer—Lieutenant Mallory, played by John Agar—adjust to the problems of combat command. I was drawn in. The movie was like music to me, it bypassed my rational mind and acted directly on my emotions, and I became lost in the romantic vision of men at war. Even when the camera came in close on the make-believe wounded and dying men, there was nothing gory about it—no blood. The young men lying in the arms of their buddies and reciting their last words were heroic figures.
When the movie ended and the theater lights came up, I stayed scrunched in my seat, legs hugged to my chest, chin resting on my knees, watching the credits roll. All around me, kids stood and stretched and yawned and greeted each other, then began filing toward the exits. I remained staring intently at the screen, reading the names of each person who helped make the movie. And I was trying to decide if I should stay to see the entire program a second time.
Double Future was originally published, in a slightly different form and under a slightly different title (and without these illustrations), in the Baltimore Sunday Sun Magazine on February 1, 1981.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Many people attracted to community theater—as actors or working backstage—are involved for only a limited time, anything from the run of one production to a year or two. Volunteering to work on a play, in whatever capacity, involves hours and days of hard creative work. It’s a huge commitment, especially if you have a day job or family (or both), and after awhile some folks—even those who love the experience and would like to continue—feel they have to drop out. On the other hand, there’s the long-term involvement of people like Sharon Weaver. (She’s pictured above as a young woman, rehearsing her solo in the Baltimore Spotlighter’s Theater 1977 musical production of Zorba The Greek.) After more than thirty years, Sharon is still at it. These days, though, she’s usually running the show. At a recent gathering of local theater people, we had a chat about the Harold Pinter play “Old Times,” which Sharon is directing for the Vagabond Players’ 93rd season (the play opens February 27, 2009). The theater bills itself as “America’s Oldest Continuous Little Theatre,” and Sharon has been active with it, or with other local stages, a full third of that time. Now that’s a commitment to community theater. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973
Urban street markets seem much the same the world over. There’s a festive feeling naturally generated by such familiar activity, which explains why I felt at home the instant I stepped onto the cobbled Rue Mouffetard pavement in Paris. Emotionally, I might just as well have been in Cross Street Market in 1950s Baltimore, a boy of eleven or twelve, enthralled by the block party atmosphere of people going about their daily routine of buying, selling, socializing and just hanging out.
Rue Mouffetard is a remnant of an old Roman road. Some buildings there date from the 12th century, and in a sense the street represents the history of the city. Crowds of shoppers fill its lower half every morning, and its vitality is reminiscent of a scene from the Middle Ages. On my first morning in Paris, in August, 1973, my new girlfriend and I were still getting re-acquainted after my flight from Baltimore the previous afternoon. She had been living for a month with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in a one room apartment. I had known her only two months when she left to begin her annual summer teaching break tour of Europe, so we were still passionate strangers. She had found a private space for us in a small, inexpensive “mom and pop” hotel near the market. Our shy reunion, at first a bit awkward, had gone pretty well—but now we were both happy to be out and about, beginning our mutual Paris experience.
And the first order of business was lunch. In the early 1970s few Americans knew much about France, and fewer still knew anything about French food. Growing up, my midday meals had been pallid sandwiches of ham and American cheese, slathered with mayo and stuck between slices of soft white bread. Part of my new girlfriend’s plan, she later told me, was to introduce more sophisticated foods into my diet. My first lesson came that morning as we shopped in Rue Mouffetard. My girlfriend, using her ragged high school French, bought bottled water, a round of soft cheese, and a loaf of naked bread (no wrapper, no bag). She selected fruit for dessert from her favorite stand, which was manned by a handsome young Frenchman. We ate while seated on a bench in a nearby park, a spot which became our personal picnic area on most of the twelve days we toured Paris. The following excerpt from a “Hemingway-esque” short story I later wrote sums up the routine during our stay in the city.
“They took a room in a small hotel in Rue Pascal and settled in to stay until fall. Mornings, they strolled the Latin Quarter, bought food at the market in Rue Moufftard, and lunched on a bench or under a tree in the Jardin des Plants. Afternoons were reserved for making love and a nap in their tiny room. Evenings, they dined with friends near the Sorbonne; then, most nights, they would take the Metro to the Champs-Elysées and either walk the boulevard, people-watch from a sidewalk cafe, or attend an American movie. Or perhaps all three. It was wonderfully romantic, they thought, as if they were living in a Hemingway novel.”
The guy in my unpublished short story is a moody character, not unlike me at that stage of my life. But the present day me, older and somewhat wiser, will always remember those Paris experiences—even the negative parts—fondly. After all, that is where I had my first crunchy bite of crusty French bread, fresh from the bakery and topped with delightfully pungent cheese. It was love at first bite—a life changing episode—and in that instant I realized I could never again be satisfied with tasteless yellow cheese on Wonder Bread.
The relationship between me and my new girlfriend did not always go well—either in Paris or later, when we returned home. In fact, the affair was completely over after only a few years. Without going into the sad details, I can say that the problems we had were mostly my fault. In those days I was neurotic, still depressed about the failure of my marriage, feeling great guilt about leaving my young family, personally insecure, and extremely jealous of my beautiful new girlfriend. (The fact that she was twelve years younger and eager—at the prodding of her mother—to start a family, didn’t help.) Two examples of my jealousy will suffice. I was convinced that she was attracted to that handsome and bearded blond produce clerk in Rue Mouffetard, and that she shopped with him each morning not just because his goods were fresher and more reasonably priced. I never saw them exchange a smile or a nod (I watched closely, pretending to be interested only in my photography), but they appeared to ignore each other completely, which somehow make me even more suspicious. (Obsessive jealousy requires no proof.) And there was another young man at a sidewalk café who lit her cigarette. All very innocent in retrospect, I know, but at the time I berated her for allowing him to do so. (Jealousy makes no rational sense.) Meanwhile, I was photographing every beautiful woman I saw, and secretly falling in love with each one. But in my warped view at the time that was perfectly okay. (Jealousy isn’t fair.) For instance, I justified the images of the young woman pictured here sniffing melons in Rue Mouffetard as a “visual narrative;” and that by moving closer with each click of the camera I was only following a “golden rule” of photography which goes: “If your images are not good, you’re not close enough.”
Here’s another excerpt from my short story, which I think captures my own rueful mood soon after we finally broke up. The scene is in a bar where the two fictional characters have met for a drink, the man still harboring a small hope that they might reunite.
“‘I haven’t forgotten,’ the man said. The woman was very tan, she had been beautifully pale in Paris. ‘A dry Rob Roy, correct?’ She nodded and he ordered. ‘It’s funny,’ he went on, ‘I thought now—after all this time—seeing you would be different, but it’s not. When you walked in that door I felt a tingle like the old days. That sort of thing must die hard.’
‘Maybe it never dies,’ she said.
‘Three years ago, in Paris,’ he said. ‘I never want to forget how that felt.’ She smiled, her eyes downcast, saying nothing. She remembered how happy she had been with him in France—despite their troubles—how well-matched they seemed to be, how much in love she thought they were. The man continued. ‘But when I think about those days I get a little sad, a little afraid. The fear comes when I realize that it may never happen again for me.’
‘Oh, it will,’ the woman said. ‘It just takes time.’ She was looking at him now. ‘Anyway, you’re forgetting the bad stuff—all the arguments we had driving to and from Lyon.’
‘You must mean, Ms. Navigator, the times you got us lost,’ he said, and forced a smile.
‘You blamed me for it, yes.’
‘Well, you do have a lousy sense of direction—right?’
Again the woman did not reply. She had come to realize that the miscues between them in France amounted to an early warning system, one that she had willfully ignored. He had been unfair, blaming her for all that went wrong—on the road, at hotels and restaurants—and at the time she had begun to hate him for it. But even so, she had convinced herself that it was normal for two people in the early stages of a love affair to experience problems that could be worked out over time. For his part, the man remembered the anger he felt then, the frustrations about where to eat, which way to turn at a crossroads, where to stop for the night; how he had to depend on her to read menus and tell him where the bathrooms were. Being in love and in a foreign country was overwhelming. He felt helpless and—fair or not—he had resented her for it.”
Well, that’s the end of this story, or at least all of it I can manage to tell in a short essay. The relationship ended badly, as I said—but I have no regrets. I’ll always have Paris, and Rue Mouffetard, where I fell in love with love over and over again; and—for the first time in my life—I also fell in love with soft cheese and fresh-baked baguettes.
“Rue Mouffetard: A Romance” is the second in a series of travel-photo essays which will post on this blog from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.
Click image for a larger view. To purchase reprint rights for this cartoon, buy a print, or have it reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, aprons, etc., visit the CartoonStock website by clicking the sidebar link. If you would like to own the original of any of my selection of more than 500 gag cartoons, contact me for information about price and availability. My e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.