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Monsieur Young and the End of Existentialism

By Greg Bottoms


In front of Basilique de Fourviere, up in the sky, my face moist from the cold mist moving, I saw the whole city of Lyon spread out in front of me, squat geometric shapes of brown and white and gray. I watched the specks that were speeding cars on a distant highway. I saw the Rhone fat and muddy and red, like an artery.

The church sits atop the highest peak in the city. Its old stone is the color of wet sand; its giant, weathered wooden doors are as thick as a man. People—especially Catholics—come here from all over the world. From the top a green-blue statue of the Virgin Mary peers down at the slow smallness of things. I studied the stone demon and angel carvings outside.

Inside, there were scenes from the New Testament on every wall: the virgin birth, John the Baptist’s head, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection. You could rub your fingers gently across any of it—across Jesus’ baby belly as if he were your own son, through Mary’s hair in a gesture of apology—and no one said a thing, and nothing in the world changed. High ceilings, arches, pigeons in the rafters bombing shit onto the pews, light spilling almost liquid—the whole tableau, I imagined, growing out of someone’s dream of Heaven. Only it was dirty now, and wet, and smelled of mildew.

The day I went up, walked up and up and up, I was listening to Neil Young’s Unplugged on my Walkman. I was hungover. The sky was a new bruise, painful. I had felt, until then, lost in France, with all the power of an infant, drifting in a foreign language, every sign a mystery, every gesture written in code. A few days before, after being scolded by an old woman in a janitor’s getup, I finally figured out that I had to pay five francs to take a piss at the Eiffel Tower. An Algerian kid had nearly attacked me for my Levi’s, the 501s I was wearing, on the Paris underground. And I had left my copy of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London in the Louvre.

Anyway—this is what I want to remember—when I came out of the church that day, I saw a homeless man playing an old, scratched guitar on the steps. He was filthy, wearing a jacket matted with something sticky—maybe whisky or red wine. He had a blond beard up to his eyes, down to his shirt collar, a little bald patch like a monk’s on the top of his head. Tourists moved past him on the cobblestones—English, Japanese, German, American; carrying cameras and backpacks and babies—talking and pointing at the stained glass, the intricate stone work, the ecstatic angels within reach.

I took off my headphones. The homeless man was singing Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” in French. He and Neil were almost on the same verse! I felt a jolt. I felt enlivened and blessed. For a flash I imagined he had read my mind. I was lonely, and missing things, we were at a church with the Virgin Mary above us, looking down on us, the whole rest of the world below, two lost souls at the top of the hill, all of Europe, all of history, out there, both of us thinking, almost unbelievably — come on, I thought, this is unbelievable—of Neil Young and Pocahontas and the strange beauties and tragedies of America on the other side of the Atlantic.

“Neil Young,” I said, pointing to the headphones around my neck, poking at my heart.

“Neil Young,” he said in broken English, gesturing toward the money in his open guitar case.

What heavenly glory in a moment of connection! The sun came out. Rainbows curled over the land. The French stopped speeding. The carved angels were black backup singers, and Japanese tourists with space-age cameras took pictures of them swaying. The meek were invited to sleep out of the cold, and to use the restroom without charge. What could I do: I gave Monsieur Young a piece of paper that was some denomination of French money. He smiled then—smiled big—so I might have been as generous, as Christ-like and kind, as I’d like to remember.


 

Greg Bottoms is the author of Angelhead, a memoir, and Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks, a collection of essays and stories. He teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Vermont.

 

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