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
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
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.
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.