Friday, January 19, 2018

COURAGE AND JUSTICE

"The Burghers of Calais" by Rodin

Cinematheque in Paris grew from its base in the art studio loft.  At the core were two Irish boys, one from the Protestant north and one from the Catholic south.  They had bonded to each other, which was not unusual in the group, but their strong commitment was exceptional.  They described it as a “marriage.”  Between the two of them, they shared a position T. always created, somewhere between assistant and vice-president.  This time, aside from doing a lot of the daily work, like filtering the floods of hate mail that still arrived, they managed T. himself and the schedule of travel and performance.  Though they argued with him, they also protected him.

There were three levels of activity: pop-up plays performed in the city on flights of stairs or along the Seine or in galleries; sub-group photography trips to Auschwitz or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or other locations of injustice.  The Bastille, the location of the guillotine beheading of 40,000 in the French Revolution, and Rodin’s bronze statue of “The Burghers of Calais” were all at hand.  The boys took the poses of the Burghers and sent a photo of themselves.

The third level was paid gigs to make vids of rock groups or nonconforming artists.  Sometimes T. went to speak or confer with activist groups, especially about HIV-AIDS, taking along a boy to carry the luggage (limited to one bag for each person) and walk the dog.  Navajo, as a helper dog who steadied T. on his new hips, flew in the cabin under T’s seat.  The only problem was that between anxiety and cabin pressure change, the dog emitted stink bombs.

T. got a phone call from his daughter who was teaching school in Bolivia.  His small granddaughter was ill and neither the young couple nor the doctors were getting hold of it.  Though a deadly riot was surging in the streets, he was on the next flight to La Paz.  Three boys were suicidal at the time and had to be with T.  Telling them to get their cameras as they were now going to be photojournalists, he just took them along.  In short order he had worked through to a diagnosis of the little girl, treatment was effective, and he found a local indigenous woman to be the child's nursemaid in future, reasoning that she knew better how to manage children in that place more than American young adults could.

From their hotel the boys had an excellent overview of the rioting streets.  After watching for a day or so, one of them produced a Harry Potter book.  He had not mastered reading, but asked T. to read it out loud, saying he had brought the book in case he got bored with the riots.

The original Cinematheque group now accepted boys assigned from the courts or social workers who didn’t know how to handle profoundly at-risk youngsters, even close to death.  France is an enlightened country in many ways.  The age of adulthood is younger in Europe and some legal cases could be resolved by a few years of growing up, until reaching emancipation.  Those sent to the group did not run away as they did in confinement-based institutions.

Another category was the sons of extremely wealthy people, boys who had no mothers so were raised by servants until they became unmanageably defiant.  Those fathers were prepared to subsidize the group as a whole.  In fact, a group of “trust fund babies” had collaborated to create a philanthropic body and they also contributed.  Groups like this who have money are invested in secrecy or they would be besieged by needy people and con men.  Of course, it would not help a respectable businessman to have publicity about his son, especially if it lent itself to sensational exaggerations.  It might even invite kidnapping.  Therefore, an aspect of Cinematheque had to be absolute discretion, which I am breaking by writing this.  (Of course, I know little and could prove nothing.  I had reports as things happened.)

The group had evolved into two categories:  older boys and young boys.  The older ones were protective, almost parental, and the younger boys, who had been starved of attention, settled down to receive medical care they needed to survive HIV-AIDS, though it meant boring and invasive clinic attendance and a miserable med regime.  Some had enough neuropathy in their feet to need wheelchairs, but others were simply emotionally unstable.

And then there were the junkies.  "Johnny Firefly" had pushed himself into the group but he couldn't give up his drugs and he was supplying one of the others.  When he was found out, the boys -- who did their own disciplining -- were harsh, as youngsters can be.  He was asked to leave.  T. considered asking the group to change its mind, but then thought they had to draw the line.  Later the Firefly blew his head off.  Years later T. was still haunted by this.  

A couple of the boys attended mass at Notre Dame.  One of the younger priests had been friendly, but then one day he said that they were scaring some of the older ladies and asked them to worship elsewhere.  I suggested that the young men should go to those old women, kiss their arthritic hands and ask the grannies to pray for them as they would for any boys.  Didn't happen.

At the time a few of the boys were willing to risk speaking out for political goals of freedom and justice.  But just by word-of-mouth some chancers began to realize the location of the loft.  A few of the boys had sexwork reputations like rock stars, recognizable.  

Two categories of people were especially dangerous:  those who resented the change in the boys and those who just looked for an excuse to attack the vulnerable, not expecting resistance.  One day an evident pedophile was ogling one of the youngers as the kid innocently sketched in the park.  A big aggressive member of Cinematheque spotted the ogler and beat him up, which the police did not appreciate.

It was time for a relocation and this time T. found a vacant old monastery in Italy close to where "My House in Umbria" was filmed.  It was so far up in the mountains that the beds had to be carried up by mules.  The old women always knitting something black just kept their backs turned but didn't object.  The old men were interested in teaching the boys what they knew about making things, maintaining life in a village, stories of the past.  Youngsters had been missed.  It was safe enough for individuals to go into the fields to sketch horses.  One of the big boys discovered a pocket of malleable clay.  T. fished the streams with great satisfaction.

Sustiva had just come on the market.  New drugs always meant balancing risk against effectiveness, since necessarily the meds affected subtle deep body processes.  Sustiva, which could cross the blood-brain-barrier, had the dismaying side effect of terrifying nightmares.  When the supply of the new drug came, which preceded the arrival of the beds, the boys spread out their sleeping bags in a communal room.  T. asked them to sleep in pairs so that if a boy woke screaming, there was someone to hold and reassure him.  One small and anxious boy was left over from the pairs, so the Irish couple took him in between them.  T. sat up for a long time with his laptop, watching and writing.

Normally, boys who have been traumatized have nightmares anyway.  T. never let them sleep with him — it was the dog Navajo who curled against him at night — but if the boy were going through a bad patch, maybe ill, Navajo could sleep with them.  Even in the relative safety of Paris, some boys would bring their sleeping bags to sleep on the floor beside T’s bed, the way toddlers sometimes do with their parents.

A plan developed for some of the older boys to go to Amsterdam where marijuana is legal to grow.  In resisting opioids, cannabis is key.  The climate there is cold and wet, so in mornings T. had to sit in a hot tub for a while in order to move.  It was impossible weather for boys with weak lungs from pneumonia bouts, so Qi Jin, the half-caste Chinese boy, could not come.  He was bitterly disappointed because he really should be with the younger boys but was so intelligent and ambitious that he yearned to with the older group.  

Later, after the death of his closest buddy, Qi Jin composed a video of the scattering of the friend’s ashes on a favorite beach, throwing the cremains high into a cloud of greedy seagulls.  The vid ended with T.’s big hands clapping — applause, celebration, heartrhythm anguish.  Not long after that Qi Jin himself died.  The boys and T. were with him.

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