Box of Broken Dreams: In Search of a Soul Lost and Found in L.A.
Oh, yeah, sure. Tell me you haven’t done it. You’re walking along and you see that box of stuff near the curb. You know the box. The one with scratched picture frames, a pretty darn good dish rack, slightly scuffed shoes, a VHS copy of Jagged Edge, maybe a tattered Friends script next to a torn Scarface poster. There are books you don’t have but don’t really want, various half-used toiletries and some clothing that looks really interesting, if you lost weight. A lot of weight.
You know the box. The box that’s left by folks who are not moving to another place in Los Angeles, but home. Home to Wallace, Idaho, or Quincy, Illinois. Home to Greenville, Alabama, or Ardmore, Oklahoma. Small-town America. The places where dreams are born. The box is the stuff that can’t fit in the back of the U-Haul. The box is the life being left behind.
It is the box of broken dreams.
Sometimes we stare in wonder. Sometimes we turn away in embarrassment. Sometimes we just keep walking. Sometimes we actually rustle through the box. At least, I do.
It’s like any other early-summer Saturday in L.A. Only this one is 101 degrees. People are looking at each other like they’re crazy. And many of them are. It’s too hot to jog, so for exercise, I had decided to walk to the 99 Cents Onlystore on Sunset, the one just south of Thai Town. Now I’m on my way back up the hill, lugging two large plastic bags full of glasses, cheap China-made prison china and some canned food that warns of fast-approaching expiration dates. As I cross Sunset Boulevard, I shvitz from the heat while trying to remind myself I am in some odd way actually exercising.
I turn north up Western Avenue past the White Horse Inn cocktail lounge, continue past the many motels — the places where broken dreams become nightmares — past Pink Elephant Liquors, where urban legend has it Bukowski got his liquor and smokes when he lived on Mariposa Avenue. (The area can be a little rough around the edges. Last December, police found the severed body parts of a 47-year-old man in the store’s Dumpster.)
I cut across Franklin Avenue heading east, pass Normandie and then head north on Mariposa up into the lower hills just below the Griffith Observatory. At 1955 Mariposa, I see the box. It sits next to a green industrial Dumpster in front of a house under renovation. Even from afar, I can see there are things that need much closer inspection. Particularly a collection of Rip Off Press comic books. Including issues No. 4, No. 5, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11 and No. 12 of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers(I own only No. 3 from 1973, and there are just 13 in the series). Dear God, I wonder, why would anyone chuck these?
The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers tells the tales of three potheads created by artist Gilbert Shelton around 1970. The main storyline of The FFB is that they’re always attempting to score dope without getting burned. You may know them from such cultural catch phrases as: “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.” Shelton has been compared to the legendary Hergé, best known for The Adventures of Tintin. This might be the reason why I find two Tintin model-car collectibles, still in their original boxes. The Model T-Ford, or, in French,La Ford T(from Tintin au Congo, 1946), and the Willy Jeep (from Destination Moon, or, Objectif Lune, 1953). Each of these 1/43-scale models is worth about 60 bucks new, sometimes more on eBay.
I look around, then quickly stuff them into my 99 Cents Only store bags.
Back to digging. Yet another collectible: a Lucky Lukefigurine. Lucky Luke was a popular French-Belgian comic book series set in the American Old West. Weaving real-life Western characters into the storyline, at the end of each tale, Lucky Luke sees its hero ride off into the sunset on his horse, crooning, “I’m a poor, lonesome cowboy, and a long way from home. .”
I wonder if the song applies to the owner of this box.
As I tuck the 7-inch figurine into my pocket, I find another: Edouard Bracame on his Honda CB750. Bracame’s a character in the French biker comics Joe Bar Team, whose adventures are set in 1975 Paris.
Now I get serious, put down my glassware and dive in headfirst. At the bottom of this weathered wooden box, I find four full sets of Homies, the controversial minigang figurines that raised some politically correct hackles a few years back.
I find six almost-new, neatly folded wool designer sweaters. Too hot. Leave ’em. Picture frames are sometimes nice. This one has a worn black-and-white photo of an elderly couple who look like they fought with the French Resistance. I’ll keep the frame. I toss aside various French books I’ll never learn to read. A ceramic-teapot kitchen clock that’s still ticking. Good. Brand-new bed linens. Hmmm. Queen-size. That’ll fit. A Chinese Mandarin portable tea-party set. Weird. I’ll take it. Black pants, neatly folded directly from the dry cleaners. I have too many pants. Black dress shoes. Wrong size. Various photography magazines. No interest. Contact sheets. No time. Two magnifying eyepieces. Possible eye germs. Hmmm, what’s this? A handmade tri-fold calf-leather wallet from La Sella in Rome. Very expensive. Totally empty. Usually means a guy got a new one and this was his old one. Unusual for someone to toss something like this. Wallets have, and are, memories. They contain imprints of bodies. To men, they’re like appendages. I stuff it in my back pocket.
I find a couple of books in English: Rimbaud: Complete. A keeper. A proud member of the literary Decadent movement, Rimbaud might have found the next two books of interest or possibly of assistance: Just for Today: Daily Meditationfor Recovering Addicts, and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions by Alcoholics Anonymous, in which there is a handwritten inscription.
I stuff into my now-burgeoning bags The Man Who Saw Through Time, by Loren Eiseley, and The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories, by Henry James.
And there are the DVDs. No Jagged Edge here. Le Gendarme en balade(The Gendarme Retires), which stars Louis de Funès in this popular French comedy series from the early ’70s. There are four other DVDs, which look homemade. One has a cover featuring cartoon figures, with dates printed from the 1970s and ’80s next to names of vacation spots around France.
I shove these deep into my bags as well — who knows what this is? — and trudge up the hill toward my home base.
Once inside, I spread my urban treasure out on the kitchen table. Nice haul. Clock. Frame. Comic books. It’s all good. I kick back to cool off and watch some Saturday-afternoon basic cable. My choices are thin. Mostly shows called Paid Programming. Instead, I pick up one of the retrieved DVDs. It’s the one with French towns and dates on it. I insert the disc and push “play.” These are clearly someone’s home movies, shot on Super-8 with mushy Muzak-like soundtrack added later. It’s Christmas dinner in a Parisian apartment, circa 1973. We first see a group of adults sitting around a table — smoking, drinking, laughing — then a group of children. The camera finds an adorable toddler with huge brown eyes and long Galahad locks. A 7- or 8-year-old boy I take to be his brother (they are both dressed in the same bright-red one-piece feety pajamas) lovingly helps him eat.
These could be my own family movies. Indeed, I had just uncovered my parents’ home movies and had them transferred to DVD, with a similarly cheesy soundtrack. In this French version, the children rush to open their presents. To the disturbing sounds of a Muzak-ed “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” — a big hit for Nina Simone in 1964 and, later, an even bigger hit for the Animals — the übercute youngest boy plays with a colored ring-stacking toy while his brother uncorks a popgun rifle and takes aim at the camera. Then we see the young one being placed inside a shiny yellow racecar. The 7-year-old receives a pedal-powered tricycle. Suddenly, we cut to:
EXT. FRENCH VILLAGE — SUMMER 1976
Fermaincourt, a small village about 50 miles southwest of Paris. A now-4-year-old boy in a red-striped sailor shirt and beret rides his bike inside a courtyard. Later, his toy rifle–toting mother chases the boy, now wearing an Indian headdress, around a teepee. All this unfolds to the watered-down tunes of Star Wars. At the end, we see a quick shot of another, older woman doting on the boy like a grandmother.
EXT. FRENCH CAMPSITE — FALL 1976
Cabourg. The Normandy region of France. A sweatered middle-aged father tosses a soccer ball to his husky 10-year-old son. In the background, we see an 18-foot travel trailer with a walk-in-tent attachment. Two elderly women fawn over the younger brother. This all plays out to a sickly trumpeted version of “Devil in Disguise.” The DVD box says: “Cabourg with Grandma Jeannett and Grandpa Fernand.”Some names to put with these faces.
EXT. FRENCH BEACH — SUMMER 1977
Le Lavandou, a seaside resort around the horn from Saint-Tropez. In the azure waters, the two brothers, now about 5 and 11 years old, play-fight in a very loving manner. The soundtrack is a trumpety “Love Me Tender,” then switches to an all-gal vocal version of “Tutti Frutti.”
EXT. SPANISH BEACH — SUMMER 1978
Alicante, Spain. On the white beach, we see a slimmed-down, more confident older brother, 12, and his younger sibling, frolicking in the sea. On the shore, the camera captures Grandma Jeannett in a purple-print summer dress, strolling while lost in thought. Meanwhile, as Mom knits in a beach chair, Dad enters the frame. He is 40-ish and rotund, and a comb-over hides a bald patch.
EXT. FRENCH VILLAGE — SUMMER 1980
The Haute-Savoie region in the French Alps. We see mountains, Swiss-style chalets and Alpine goats, lots of goats. The youngest boy is now 8 and growing straight up like a sprout. With his mother and grandmother, he walks along a country road, shirtless and flexing his newfound muscles and faux freedom. Where is his older brother? Fourteen years old? Probably back in Paris, chasing girls. The camera finds amazing waterfalls, snow-covered peaks and — did I mention? — goats. Dozens of them, roaming freely through the town center. Mom, in her summer dress and low heels, hikes up into a patch of snow with her son. Playfully, they throw snowballs at Dad, who is filming from below. The vacation ends with a close-up of the spunky 8-year-old with a sprig of straw in his mouth. He gives a thumbs-up to the camera.
This is an extremely happy family. There is no pouting. There are no temper tantrums, no fights. It’s all very loving. I am getting emotional as I watch. Don’t all families start out like this? Isn’t it all good in the beginning? That is, at least until puberty, when teenage angst, sex, drugs and rock & roll usually darken the picture? I am reminded of my own family films. The era is about right. The camera motions are similar. The film stock looks about the same. Even the maudlin soundtrack is reminiscent of the time.
Our family films were shot at hotel pools in Miami. Outside the summer bungalows of the Catskills. In apartment buildings around New York City. Yet, all of these home movies are the same. I’m sure you have your own. As I watch, I feel myself longing for that idealized childhood. Playing with my brothers in the ocean at Coney Island. My father held the camera then, just like this father is doing, doting on his offspring, hypnotized by their every move. I am getting more and more depressed. Having lost my mother recently, I don’t want to watch this any longer.
Yet, somehow I feel compelled to continue. I pick up another DVD, labeled: “LOS ANGELES: August-September 1997, February-March 2000.”
On the cover is a color photo of the Hollywood sign. Okay, lemme have just a quick glance to see what the hell this is and then I’m going to bed.
I stick the thing in the machine and kick back for two seconds before I spring to the edge of my bed. WTF? The doting mother from the Parisian Christmas of 1973 is now standing on a balcony of the freakin’ Saharan Motor Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. She’s explaining in French about shopping at “Rock & Roll” Ralphs supermarket, seen in the background.
I know it’s the Saharan Motor Hotel in 1997, not only because I can see Ralphs in the background, but also because I used to stay there in 1997, when I was still a bicoastal New Yorker. This is weird.
It has been 14 years since I’ve seen the French mom, but she hasn’t aged a bit. She has a shorter hairdo and seems to have put on five pounds, but other than that, I feel like I know her from her earlier film work.
She then goes downstairs and enters the tiny AstroTurf-encircled motel pool. They are a robust people, these French.
EXT. HOLLYWOOD CAFÉ — SUMMER 1997
The now-defunct Louis XIV restaurant on La Brea Avenue near Melrose. Omigod. It’s him! It’s the kid I have watched grow from an 18-month-old that Christmas. Now he’s around 25, tall, handsome and ponytailed. Dressed in a smart black-silk bowling shirt with white piping, black slacks and black Adidas. Wait. This can’t be his style, it’s his uniform. He is a waiter here at Louis XIV.
EXT. MALIBU CLIFF
We’re now overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A rental car. A road trip. He is showing his parents the views. The young Frenchman is dressed in a hip military jacket and blue jeans. His long brown hair is down and he cups a Pentax camera in his palm like a professional photographer.
EXT. DEATH VALLEY
A sign reads: “Badwater.” Tourists mill about. The son stands tall in the shimmering desert heat. In a rock T-shirt and jeans, long windblown black hair, he looks like a cross between Joey Ramone and Jim Morrison. A sign reads: “Devil’s Golf Course.”
EXT. DESERT HIGHWAY
Mom stands beneath a stilted narrow sign that reads: “Entering Nevada.”
INT. NEW YORK, NEW YORK CASINO, LAS VEGAS
Mom and son stroll around the casino. Clanging slot machines are everywhere. I am wondering what this French family thinks of all this, when suddenly the giant hand of a security guard enters the frame and we hear: “You’ll have to turn that camera off!”
EXT. MANN’S CHINESE THEATRE — SEPTEMBER 1997
Night. The world premiere of L.A. Confidential. Lights. Cops. Fans. Period music. Oh, wow, there’s Kim Basinger. So beautiful. So blonde. So still Mrs. Baldwin.
Mom, dressed in a shocking-pink pullover and multicolored stretch pants, points to a plaque that reads: “Marilyn Monroe 1926–1962.” FADE TO BLACK
I take out the DVD and lie back on my bed. It’s now 2 a.m. and I’m really depressed. I think it’s the mother-and-son combination. My divorced mother had schlepped me around to many resort areas in her search for a new husband and a new life. Much of the footage I have seen in our family films shows me vacationing with my mom at various beaches and hotel pools.
Her sudden death, my transfer of our family films to DVD, and now my watching an anonymous French family’s home movies for hours have apparently kicked up a lot of shit in me. Feelings I really do not want to have at this point. I tell myself I am not doing this again. I have a DVD box in my hand. I am notgoing to open it.
The cover reads: “February 2000.”
EXT. MARINA DEL REY — A DOCKED SAILBOAT
It has been three years since we have viewed Mom, but she is upbeat and chipper as always. This is the happiest Frenchwoman I have ever seen. I couldn’t say the same for her son. Now 28, he seems disenchanted and depressed. His head is shaved to near skin. He wears a flannel shirt buttoned to the neck, like a gangbanger. He seems tired and anxious, as if this film is a burden to him. Is he now living on a sailboat in the marina? His mom, her hair still short and now dyed brown with auburn tones, waves gingerly to the camera, saying in French, “How do you like this?” to an unseen dad behind the lens. “I am visiting my son Nicolas,” Mom explains in French. Bingo. Finally, a name. Nicolas.
EXT. VENICE BEACH — WINTER 2000
Sunset. Drum circle on the beach. LAPD on patrol. Dogs humping. Vendors shilling. Homeless shuffling. Q-Tip rolls by strumming his guitar. In an alleyway off the boardwalk, Nicolas unlocks the door of a purple 1988 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with a white landau roof.
EXT. DUSTY BUNCH GALLERY
A trading post–type gift store. Snow covers the ground. Wait. I know this place. It’s on Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. Of course. They are heading to the Grand Canyon. Inside the gift store, at the counter, a 70-year-old fireplug of a woman wearing a black Stetson riddled with commemorative pins. She counts out change to Mom, who says “thank you” in English without an accent.
“These ... are ... nice ... to ... bring,” says the Stetson lady in that childish stammer we all use with foreigners, as she wraps their purchases in tissue paper. “Enjoy ... your ... visit.”
“Thank you very much,” replies Nicolas in deeply accented English.
EXT. GRAND CANYON RIM
The camera peers over the edge, deep into the canyon. Snow-covered red rocks. Spectacular. We see all the usual sights. The Grand Canyon depot. The Red Feather Lodge. Hermit’s Rest. The Colorado River. A family of deer gingerly crosses the road. Up close and personal. Mom at the rim: “It is cold here,” she says in French, as she pulls her light sweater closer around her neck. In the Hopi House, Nicolas suddenly comes to life when surrounded by Native American art and culture. We see in him the fascination of the boy who once dressed like an Indian.
INT. HOLLYWOOD APARTMENT
A slinky white cat scratches gently at a gift-filled Trader Joe’s bag. It is 3/20/00, according to the video camera. Suitcases are packed. Nicolas stands by the window, wearing a mustard-colored V-neck Star Trek shirt. A bed on the floor. A small TV in the corner. Empty walls. Hollywood chic.
“My parents are gonna go,” he says slowly in French to the lens. He seems kinda ... well, to be honest, he seems stoned.
“I’m gonna show you the cat. Our mother fell in love with this cat.”
He yanks up the furry feline and strokes it hard, like someone annoyed. He smirks knowingly into the camera, then, in French: “Bye, Pasquel. See you soon.”
Pasquel? Could this be the name of his older brother back in Paris?
Later, in another room, we see a girl with her back to the camera. She is on her knees doing something on the couch. Nicolas stands nearby. He is swaying back and forth like he’s high as a kite. As the girl senses the camera, she turns around and smiles. “Do you want me to stand up or what?” She is tall, thin, Asian-American and beautiful. In the kitchen, Mom plays with the cat.
EXT. APARTMENT BUILDING
Nicolas loads his parents’ luggage into his aging Cadillac. We see the exterior of a modern three-story building somewhere in West Hollywood. As he loads the final bags into the car, WE FADE TO BLACK
It’s now four a.m. and I am wired. These movies, and the characters in them, have captivated me. I can’t stop now. I want to know more. I grab a Mountain Dew, and insert the fourth DVD into the player.
EXT. MANN’S CHINESE THEATRE — FALL 2005
Nicolas and his mother are back in Hollywood. It’s been five years since I’ve seen her, but Mom is no worse for wear, with a short blond up-cut. She mingles among the costumed local superheroes: Superman. Catwoman. Batman. Spider-Man. Big Bird.
INT. BONAVENTURE HOTEL LOBBY
Mom sits with Nicolas next to the fountain. His long hair hides his puffy face. He looks pale and unhealthy. Now 33 by my calculation, Nicolas looks 40, or even older. His frame is sagging. He looks savagely tired.
EXT. LAKE SHRINE — SELF-REALIZATION FELLOWSHIP — PACIFIC PALISADES
An attractive blonde in her mid-30s walks with Nicolas and his mom to the lake’s edge. The new gal seems lively and happy in that upbeat-actress kind of way. Nicolas is now hunched over at the shoulders. His once-thick, buoyant hair now appears thinned and scraggly.
EXT. MATADOR BEACH — MALIBU
Mom waves from an abandoned lifeguard station as the young couple heads out onto a rock peninsula. Nicolas waves back like he doesn’t mean it.
EXT. WILL GEER THEATRICUM BOTANICUM
Empty. From high up in the cheap seats, the actress/girlfriend announces to anyone who is listening: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we present you a very special show.” Onstage, Nicolas mimes the international sign for smoking a joint.
EXT. HOLLYWOOD HOUSE
Nicolas, followed by his mother, wheels a blue recyclable-garbage container to the front of the house. Mom and son sit in the back of the two-story mud-colored structure. Is this 1955 Mariposa? It’s hard to tell. Looks more like Silver Lake. Nicolas looks disheveled. He moves like someone who’s loaded.
Mom is putting sheets on the mattress, which rests on the floor. In the kitchen, Nicolas addresses the camera in French: “Bonjour, Pasquel. Mom is going to talk now.”
Mom walks around the kitchen, describing everything for Pasquel, who we can assume is back in France. In the bedroom, she describes the bed, the closet and — hey, wait a minute, is that what I think it is on the wall? Yes, it’s the framed black-and-white photo of the elderly French couple, which is now sitting on my kitchen table.
Nicolas’ mother describes the people in the photo as her parents: “This is my dad and my mother.”
On the same wall, below the photo, is a map of Paris. The camera tilts down to a table beneath the map — suddenly there is the Lucky Luke figurine! I look over at it on my own night table. And there are all the Homie figurines on a shelf, just the way I now have them on my kitchen table.
Finally, we see Dad. As Nicolas takes the camera, he films his parents eating yogurt at the kitchen table. Dad has a hefty gut, and only a few strands of hair comprise his last-chance comb-over. “Yoplait. American yogurt,” says Nicolas, mocking.
Nicolas now has the camera and describes in French what he sees to his brother, Pasquel:
“This is the street of my house. This is the front. I rent an apartment here for $700.”
As his mother walks out of the house to join him, he notices her and jokingly says: “We hear the discreet steps of Mrs. Garnier.” A last name! Garnier. Another piece of the puzzle is filled in. Nicolas Garnier.
Black shirt, black tie and black pants. Apparently, Nicolas is dressed for work. He hugs his mom, who is getting ready to leave for France. “I’ve been to the 99 Cents Onlystoreso many times, they will be happy to see me leave,” she says with a laugh. The date is 11/11/05, according to the video camera. He kisses his mom goodbye. She holds on for an extra second or two, as mothers will. I am envious. I have never seen such consistent love from a mother for a son.
Nicolas, his car apparently gone, now mounts his cruiser-style bicycle and heads off to work. There is something sad about watching this 33-year-old man kiss his mother goodbye and head off to a waiter job on a bicycle. Nicolas keeps a forced smile on his face. “Bonjour, Papa,” he says to the cameraman.
His face is bloated now, his skin pasty.
I have seen Nicolas Garnier grow up in front of my eyes. Thirty-three years have rushed past in eight hours.
EXT. RESTAURANT — DAY
A man with his back to the camera washes the outside glass of the restaurant’s door. As he turns, we see he is dressed in black except for the white apron. It is Nicolas at work. He seems stoned again. He stumbles on the sidewalk. He sways back and forth. As the camera pulls back, it reveals that this is — the Figaro Café? That is right down the freakin’ street from me! I must have passed him dozens of times without even knowing it. This is too much. Maybe he is there now. Maybe he is writing out the menu on the outdoor chalkboard. What would I say to him? I look at the teapot clock — which used to be his. It reads 9:05 a.m. The café opens at 8:30. I race into the bathroom, splash some cold water on my face and jump into a pair of jeans and sneakers.
What if he’s not there? What if he’s dead? Shit. How will I describe him? I freeze-frame the image of him on my TV screen, grab my cell phone and snap his photo.
I walk briskly down the hill from my place up near Los Feliz Boulevard. As I get down to Franklin and pass the House of Pies, I wonder why I am even looking for this guy. Outside the Figaro Café, a variety of Los Feliz denizens inhale their daily starters. I approach the counter and nervously ask the young barista if he’s seen this guy who used to work here? Without even looking, he says I should talk to Deborah, a petite French waitress in her early 30s. I tell Deborah I am looking for a former employee. I show her the photo of a waiter standing in front of this very restaurant. She looks briefly at the image then says sadly, “That is Nicolas.”
“Nicolas Garnier?” I ask.
She nods her head sheepishly.
“Does he still work here?” I inquire.
She shakes her head no.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
She looks pained by the question. There is a long, uncomfortable pause, and then she says in a hushed voice, “Nicolas, he is a lost soul.” The phrase hangs there in the air by itself. “I saw him a few weeks ago. He is addicted to opium and is homeless,” she whispers. “He is trying to get back to France. He is in bad shape.
“He will probably come by here to say goodbye,” she adds hopefully.
I give her my phone number, and ask her to call me if he stops by.
“Maybe I can help him,” I say.
I don’t know why, but it seems like the right thing to say.
“He needs help. Please help him,” Deborah says quietly. “He has run out of dreams.”
As I walk back up the hill to my place, the French home movies run through my mind. As do many questions. When did Nicolas actually become an addict? Did Hollywood do this to him? Is there a spot in the films where you can actually see him cross the invisible line into drug addiction? Some experts say that lack of love from the parents may be a cause of addiction. That could not be the case here. I have never seen a child more deeply loved by his family. At least on film.
When I get home, I realize there is one last DVD. I take a deep breath, stick in the disc and ...
EXT. PARIS BUILDING — SPRING 2007
We seem to be in the back courtyard of an old apartment building in Paris. A new French voice narrates: “The last moment of happiness. This is a beautiful courtyard,” he says, as Mr. and Mrs. Garnier emerge from the building. “Mom and Dad are going shopping with their little boy.” As dad takes the camera, we now see the narrator. He is a man in his early 40s wearing a baseball cap, jeans and a white high-necked pullover. This is Pasquel Garnier, the older brother of Nicolas. I have not seen him since the first DVD’s scene in Spain in the summer of 1978, when he was 12 years old. Here he is in Paris 30 years later. Pasquel goes to the mailbox in the entranceway of the large building. Sure enough, it reads: “Garnier #40.” He opens the box and removes a package. “It is from Nicolas,” he announces to his parents.
INT. PARIS APARTMENT — NIGHT
Pasquel takes us inside the sprawling, rundown apartment where he and his brother were raised. This is where we started our journey, some 35 years (and eight hours) ago. This same apartment was home to the Christmas dinner of 1973. It was here that Nicolas opened his first Christmas gifts. Here, where he learned to walk.
At the dining-room table, Mom breaks a long loaf of bread, while piano jazz plays in the background. Dad enters the scene and places a bottle of sparkling water on the table. He seems self-conscious, and immediately exits stage left. The apartment, furnished in dark mahogany and faded flowery wallpaper, bathed in a dim yellow light, looks like something out of an old World War II movie. Pasquel lovingly describes the apartment to his brother. One bedroom is filled with scores of stuffed animals.
Mrs. Garnier lifts a bedsheet to reveal a full drum set, apparently belonging to Nicolas. “We were here 40 years,” Mom gestures, “we’re gonna have to move all this.”
It is clear that this video is being made for Nicolas’ sake, to say goodbye to the apartment and neighborhood where he was raised.
INT. GARNIER APARTMENT
Boxes are everywhere. Suitcases are packed. These people are clearly leaving, and not for a vacation. This trip looks permanent.
EXT. FRENCH COUNTRY HOUSE
Pasquel continues to talk to his brother through the camera. Mrs. Garnier opens a metal shed in a rural back yard. She shows Pasquel a bobble-head doll with a photo of Nicolas slid into the face. “I got this at the 99 Cents Only store,” she says. It’s the same doll I saw at the 99 Cents Only store before this whole story started.
INT. COUNTRY HOUSE
Pasquel shows Nicolas his collection of figurines. There is the entire French national soccer team in miniature. One by one, each player is named: Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Fabien Barthez. There are dozens of miniature figurines from the Lucky Luke series and other French cartoons. There are Smurfs. There is a Serge Gainsbourg. A Louis Armstrong. In fact, this entire converted bedroom is filled with dolls and figurines. There’s a bust of Tintin. Dozens of stuffed animals of all sizes. Dolls and model cars sit in glass cases.
In the living room, we meet the mother of Mrs. Garnier. She is in her 80s now, white-haired, yet seemingly pretty tough. I look at the framed picture I have in my kitchen — it is of her, 40 years earlier. Too weird.
“Hello, Nicolas,” she says to the camera.
Pasquel shows Nicolas the outside of a red-brick building complex on a nearby roadside. “This is the place Grandpa worked at. Mom and Dad worked here. This is where they met.”
A restaurant sign reads: “Le Relais du Dernier Sou.” (Loosely translated, it means a cheap place to sleep, eat and change your horse.) Later, I do some more research and learn we are in Montreuil, population 2,690. Founded in the 13th century, the town sits on a hill above the river Canche, just a few miles from the coast and Fermaincourt in northwest France. Author Victor Hugo stayed here just long enough to write his novel Les Miserables, based on the 1830 revolution and set in the town. Mom, smiling serenely, a baguette in each hand, strolls through the old village.
We then see the grandmother, aided by her cane, exiting the house and ambling toward a bench in the courtyard. Her grandson Pasquel, wearing an Indiana Hoosiers sweatshirt, sits down next to her. “That’s my brother, who brought me this sweatshirt back in ’88,” he tells the camera.
The old woman suddenly tears up. As she dabs her eyes with a handkerchief, Pasquel puts his arm around his grandmother and whispers some words of comfort.
EXT. NEIGHBOR’S HOUSE — MONTREUIL, FRANCE
The family visits a small farm. A magnificent stone farmhouse is the centerpiece. A large silver-haired man in his late 60s gives the Garnier family a tour of his property. It is a bright, sunny spring day; the birds are chirping madly, you can almost feel the cool, crisp air on your skin. As we walk toward the rear acreage, we come upon a small herd of Alpine goats. Pasquel turns childlike and seems completely enchanted by the animals.
“Mama, Mama, remember the goats during the summers in the Alps?” he asks excitedly.
“Of course I do,” she answers.
FADE TO BLACK
When my family gathered for Thanksgiving this past year, we viewed the home movies I had transferred to DVD, including the added sappy Sinatra soundtrack. It had been a year since my mother’s death, and all of us thought an appropriate period of grieving had passed. Technically, we were right. Emotionally, we were wrong. It wasn’t so much seeing our mother alive on film that got to us. It was the viewing of whole lifetimes in such a short period of time. We realized that our childhoods, and, indeed, a good portion of our adulthood, had gone by in the blink of an eye. We wept for her, but we also wept for ourselves.
One day, I was driving by 1955 Mariposa, when my cell phone rang. A guy named Grant told me he was a waiter at the Figaro Café and a close friend of Nicolas Garnier’s. He had heard about my search. He told me among other things that Nicolas had dreamed of becoming a famous photographer here in Hollywood. He then confirmed the drug problem. There was a long pause. I was expecting to hear the bad news. The overdose. The incarceration. The suicide. The end.
Instead, I was relieved to learn that Nicolas had somehow found his way back to France and was now living with his family again. When I got home, I sifted through the box.
I picked up the little blue book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and read the inscription:
Here’s the little book you requested. You’ve come a long way. You make the incredible possible. Now that you’ve actually gotten this far, I don’t think that you even have to read this book. I can’t believe the 360-degree turn you made. It’s all I ever wanted when we were together and now we’re apart, but we still have a part of each other. Never forget. I think of you still and wonder how it would be now. I do miss your company and insights in life I admit. Who knows? I hope that we remain close always. But I don’t doubt it.
[Name withheld] — ’05
I decided to write a letter to the restaurant seen in the last video, as well as to the last known address of the Garnier family in Paris. One Saturday morning, months later, I awoke to find this e-mail message on my computer: “My name is nicolas garnier, let’s talk ... nico.”
I stared at the screen in disbelief. I leaned back and tried to visualize the day I’d found the box. It seemed like such a long time ago. I wrote back to Nicolas and explained who I was and what I was doing.
Regarding the box, he wrote: “When I left my stuff on the street, I was staying at my girlfriend’s, down the street on Alexandria ... women! ... life in L.A., epic!”
In late October, I received a package containing a CD with Nicolas’ art photos, haunting takes of Skid Row and its surroundings. I asked Nicolas if he had prints of the photos he’d sent me. He told me to contact a girlfriend here in Los Angeles, and that she would have the prints. I called her and told her what Nicolas had said. There was a long pause.
“Why would he say I have them?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He just gave me your name and number and said you would have his prints.”
There was another pause.
“A lot of people have them,” she said softly.
“Okay, but do you have them?” I pressed.
There was another uncomfortable pause.
“Everyone has them now because I put them out in the street in a box with all his stuff and saw people picking through the box,” she replied, with polite but repressed anger.
I asked if she was his girlfriend.
“Ex-girlfriend,” she said pointedly. She then told me that she would make some phone calls on my behalf to try to secure the prints. I never heard back from her.
Around Christmastime, in response to some questions from me, Nicolas e-mailed again. He wrote that the difficult time with his girlfriend “was a transition period for me, trying to get away from restaurant jobs, and moving up to something I care about. We were living together for three month at her place, but I knew she doesn’t like a man who doesn’t have control on his life. That period of no jobs and no money got on her nerves, so she kicked me out, I guess to test my ability to survive!!!!”
Nicolas said he is currently living in Toulouse, working on a friend’s house and doing temp work in restaurants. He stopped doing hard drugs two years ago and no longer drinks, but he still smokes pot. His mom is well, but “my dad passed away this past April at 69 years old.”
I asked him about his dreams, why he had come here. “The future,” he replied. “America always looked to me as a country in the making, regarding human experience on Earth. Always trying, never knowing. Just going forward. And the people power, as an individual, is the greatest on Earth. The spirit is there, definitely!!!!”
Nicolas added that he was arranging for a visa and hoped to be back in L.A. in February or March.
I can’t wait to meet him.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.