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.
When I next see Crumb, he's alone in his 800-year-old kitchen, whistling tunelessly as he prepares a late breakfast.
“What's your ultimate ambition? What would you really like to be doing with your life?” he asks, shuffling between table and stove with bread, coffee, milk, butter, sugar, jam.
“Well, I guess being a journalist is second best in a way,” I concede. “I started out as a poet, but I could never take myself seriously.”
“A poet has to have a day job, nobody makes a living as a poet,” Crumb retorts, showing his practical side – which, I've begun to notice, is a lot stronger than one might think.
The table set, his hands now free, he stands stock-still in the middle of the room, knees bent, head drooping, arms dangling at his sides like overcooked noodles. The posture is so extreme in its geekiness, for a second I think he's putting me on. But no – this is how he really is. You could fold him up like laundry and stick him in a drawer.
In this moment, I decide I like Crumb. In baggy gray cords and an old wool sweater, he seems like the kind of engagingly weird uncle you could discuss your problems with over a cup of hot cocoa, never suspecting that, in the basement, 10 oversexed Amazons were impatiently waiting for “uncle” to come down and play. For someone alleged to have marked misanthropic tendencies, he is also refreshingly curious about people. The Crumb depicted in the movie was something of a monster, ravenous and cynical and scary, but the Crumb I see puttering about in his kitchen just seems like an interesting guy to hang out with and shoot the breeze.
He may even let me interview him. Testing the waters, I mention “The Lonely Guy Tea Room,” a place that cropped up several times in the latest volume of Crumb's sketchbooks. In it, Crumb can often be found (on paper at least) musing on some of his favorite subjects, such as injustice and girls.
“It's this place on Eighth Street in San Francisco,” Crumb tells me. “It's a little coffee shop, and all that's ever there is these lonely guys sitting around looking out the window watching the girls go by.”
I mention his cover for Mystic Comics, quoting from it: “'There Are Signs and Omens Everywhere.'”
“That's right,” says Crumb, going a on to talk about his new “mystic” phase. “Maybe it's part of getting older or something. I'm spending much more time on inner exploration, almost like going back to the old days when I took LSD, but without the drugs. I feel it's something I have to do. Preparing for death or something, I don't know. Part of it also is a survival mechanism against celebrityhood. Why don't you say I'm a 'recovering celebrity' – put that in there. That shit can kill you. It can kill you or turn your character really bad.”
Just when it seems that an interview is finally going to happen, Aline walks in, and Crumb invites her to sit down. As usual, she's looking sharp, every inch the Queen of the Household. Today she's wearing a lacy black blouse, a maroon skirt, black boots, and a thick leather belt with a studded silver crucifix dangling from it. She's also wearing rings on several of her fingers, a small army of bracelets, heavy glass earrings and glossy skin cream. Her makeup is perfect.
They make an interesting contrast, the Crumbs. “I'm such a nerd. I'm such a geek,” whines Mr. Crumb, passing his wife a jam jar.
“I just spent a week at an Austrian health clinic, and the doctors say I'm totally healthy!” says Mrs. Crumb, opening it for him.
According to Crumb, Cache is a lot more crowded than it used to be. When they first arrived here, the village was half-empty. Now it's filling up. This worries him, as does my presence here. “Just tell them not to use the name of the village in the article,” he urges me. “For God's sake, don't let them. Or use a fictitious name. Call it 'Saint Jean de something,' some generic name. 'Saint Jean de Schmuck' . . .”
“A woman from New Zealand came here,” Aline says. “She stalked me. She wasn't a journalist or anything, she was an aspiring cartoonist fixated on me for some reason.”
“Was she cute?” Crumb inquires.
“Not bad. Not your type. Some obnoxious German artist came one time . . .”
This one he remembers. His hands sketching little movements in the air, Crumb's voice cracks: “With a really beautiful girlfriend, incredible, staggering German beauty . . .”
“And then those Swedish art students came here,” Aline continues. “Beautiful, breathtaking, blond giant Swedes. Robert was, like, shaking . . .”
“Really?” Crumb asks.
“Yeah,” his wife answers.
Crumb throws his head back lightly and laughs. It's a dry, almost soundless laugh that stretches the skin tight over his face and makes his teeth protrude like a skull's. On the other side of it, I think, is horror.
Crumb wants to know who I've been talking to and what I think of the village, so I tell him. Then I mention the jogger, this crazy guy I keep seeing who runs around town in shorts and sandals.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Aline, cutting me off. “That's Johnny. He was in an accident when he was a kid, and he's slightly retarded. He comes over all the time to collect stamps. He's on medication, and he has a doctor and a social worker, and he gets money from the government.”
“He's my French teacher,” says Crumb.
“That guy?” I say. “No wonder your French – “
“He's good!” Aline says indignantly. Then she adds: “But I have to lock the door, because otherwise he lets himself in. A couple of times I've been upstairs coming out of the bath naked, and he walked in and I screamed. It's like Quasimodo walks in your bathroom.”
“Johnny's actually done quite well for himself in his own crazy way,” Crumb says fondly, as if he were reminiscing about a favorite nephew. “He calls himself Johnny Weissmuller Jr.”
“And how are the French lessons going?” I ask.
Crumb sighs. His shoulders sag in defeat. “It's really hard,” he says. “Aline's much faster. She's been speaking bad French since the day we got here . . .”
Only Crumb, I figure, would hire the village idiot to teach him French. But then only Crumb would turn down $100,000 from Toyota to do an ad, not to mention an offer to do an “Absolut Crumb” ad. (“Absolut Crap,” Crumb mutters disdainfully when I bring this up.)
“Crap” seems to be a big word with Crumb. No doubt he could have used it during a recent telephone conversation with a Hollywood producer, who, having failed to sell the ornery cartoonist on the idea of an R. Crumb biopic, decided to leave him with an irresistible, killer parting “thought”: Jim Carrey is R. Crumb.
On my last night in Cache I am invited to dinner with Pete and the Crumbs, on condition – laid down firmly by Aline – that I “stop playing journalist.” (“Forget about it,” Crumb says when I ask him if I can take his photograph. He doesn't want people to know what he looks like with his beard.)
There's not much to report anyway. On the way over, Crumb and Pete spot some rolled-up posters sticking out of a garbage can, and make a dive for them. One of them is of a nearly naked, very American-looking blond pinup. “Johnny will like that,” Crumb says, and takes it with him.
We eat at the corner table in a tiny, stone-walled restaurant in a converted wine cellar on Cache's main drag – just wide enough for a small car to pass through. Crumb and I sit on one side of the table, Pete and Aline on the other. Pete and Aline do most of the talking, and everyone drinks wine except Crumb, who's given it up. Next to me, in his gray zippered jacket, Crumb seems especially fragile tonight. Halfway through the meal he takes a small sketchbook from his pocket, leafs through it, stares at the portrait of an attractive girl. He does this almost surreptitiously, the way a cardiac patient might swallow a pill.
Over the course of the meal, several people from the village drop by the table to say hello. At one point, even Johnny makes an appearance, standing (for no apparent reason) just inside the entrance of the restaurant. Crumb catches sight of him and waves, smiling sweetly. Johnny waves back.
Crumb leaves early, after drawing a cartoon on the paper tablecloth, which he tears off carefully when he's finished. “That'll pay for another year of Sophie's school,” Aline says. Then she beckons him toward her, kisses him and whispers something in his ear. The Crumbs may have an open marriage, but, most of the time, I suspect, it's closed.
The next morning I drop by the house to say goodbye. Aline is getting ready to go hiking, and Crumb is standing with his back to me in the alcove off the kitchen – where I first saw him – washing his hands. “Well, goodbye. I enjoyed meeting you,” I say.
Crumb skips the formalities. “L.A. is a mistake,” he replies, flinging the words over his shoulder. “You can tell 'em I said so.”