By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
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By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Up in the room I was renting from Gail Wagman, I'd been looking at the latest volume of Crumb's sketchbooks, and there was one drawing I kept going back to. It showed a black man in profile, wearing a baseball cap and drinking from a paper cup with the Dunkin' Donuts logo on it, and a white teenager, in T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, standing around aimlessly with his hands in his pockets. Over the top of the drawing Crumb had written: IT'S HARD LIVING IN A BANKRUPT CULTURE.
Obviously, the culture referred to was American. "The aspect of the States everyone discusses here is the pace - fast food, instant gratification," Pete told me, adding that when Crumb and the other Americans in the village had been invited to present a part of their culture for a festival Cache was putting on, they declined.
"Aline's a real Francophile," Crumb would tell me later. "She wakes up in the morning just in love with the place. I'm not like that, but I do think it's a nice place to live. I like living in a place that's civilized and yet, because of its traditions and its own stubborn pride, holds out against all that mass-media and corporate crap. There's this push-pull between the capitalist forces and the socialist forces here so that neither one dominates."
According to Aline, their daughter was now something of a Francophile too. Sophie, she told me, has become more French than American. "When she went back to America, she sort of had contempt for most of the kids her age. She found her old friends were very media-savvy, yet unsophisticated and unreflective in other ways . . . Her friends were sort of nowhere, you know. And she couldn't believe they'd spend a day hanging out in a mall. Teenage culture was very alienating to her."
America - or rather, the way France differed from it - also came up when I spoke with Tony Baldwin. "There are many wacky, silly things about France," Tony told me, "but as a nation, as a culture, it works. One thing I find frankly rather ludicrous is the incredible amount of flak the French social-security system has been given by the American press. Let us look at the results of what has happened socially in the United States for want of a functioning social-security system. You get huge economic divisions, social exclusion with all that that represents. People are scared to walk down the street, because someone might jump on them because they're desperate. They're always portrayed as marginals or drug addicts, but how about portraying them as people who are just poor?"
As for France, Tony said, "Sure, socialism is very expensive, taxes are very high. But it means you have a society where there aren't too many supermarket atrocities. There aren't too many kids hijacked from their kindergartens. It's a pretty calm, well-balanced society. Of course, it's expensive. There has to be a price somewhere - the price is purely financial."
None of these people were America bashers in the crude sense, but from the moment I'd arrived in Cache, I'd been picking up a persistent strain of disenchantment with the States - along with an appreciation for what, in his post card to me, Crumb had called France's "shreds of cultural resistance."
But what was this "resistance"? Essentially, it was economic: a refusal to allow profits to be the sole arbiter of society. One way to see how France differed from America in this respect was to think of all the businesses Cache contained: five restaurants, two bars, three bakeries, a butcher's, a grocer's, a dressmaker's, a piano store, a tobacconist/news agent, a pharmacy, a bookstore, several barbershops and beauty salons, and not a chain store among them. In the States, most of them would have been gutted long ago, subsumed into some giant shopping complex three miles out of town. There would be no "baker" or "butcher"; there would just be employees.
It takes a while to notice it, but whether you're in Paris or the provinces, gradually it creeps up on you: In France, service jobs are not just for the young and underpaid. There are middle-class adults everywhere. Thirty-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds. They serve you coffee, they pour you beer, they punch your tickets, they cook your meals, they do your photocopies, they sell you books, cigarettes, clothes, magazines, medicine, meat, furniture, everything - and they're knowledgeable about what they're selling. The effect of this is considerable: Life feels richer and more varied, because all available generations are taking part in it.
Looking around, it wasn't too hard to guess why the Crumbs moved to France. In the States, once you hit your mid-30s, culturally you start to go into exile anyway. Youth is the market, and you either serve it or ignore it or slavishly try to keep up with it. But it's no longer really yours. Crumb was a special case, of course - with his fixation on the 1920s, he'd been a misfit from the start - but I could imagine his pleasure at living in a country whose culture was still largely aimed at adults. You could grow old gracefully here.
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