It’s a dirty job, and no one has to do it.
It’s one o’clock on a rainy afternoon, and I’m standing on a bridge staring at the wet ramparts of a medieval village in the south of France, wondering what I’m doing here. Back in L.A., where this scheme was cooked up, coming down here seemed like good idea. Now it seems like a less good idea. In fact, it seems like the kind of foolhardy, expensive, misconceived and spectacularly bad idea that would occur only to a freelance writer desperate to cover the cost of his winter vacation . . .
Someone is crossing the bridge. He’s wearing shorts, sandals and a bright-red soccer shirt, and it’s hard to tell if he’s running, limping, hopping or walking. I’m about to call out, “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, où est la Rue Miette?” but at the last moment I hold back. Something about the guy seems a little off.
I go back to staring at the village. In there, somewhere, is the comic-strip artist R. Crumb. In fact, he may be watching me through binoculars right now. Tourist season is five months off, and the people who live here probably don’t spend their lunch hours standing around staring at their own village in the rain. There’s no doubt about it: I stick out.
I first got the idea of coming down to Cache-le-Dessinateur when, three years after first seeing Terry Zwigoff’s film Crumb, I watched it again on video. There was Crumb, acid-warped chronicler of the ’60s, creator of Fritz the Cat and Devil Girl and Mr. Natural, ranting about America, about rock music and advertising and corporations, pointing at homeless people sleeping in doorways and announcing, at the end of it, that he’d had all he could take and was packing up to live in France — a country he credited with being “slightly less evil” than his own. What, I wondered, did he think of France now?
The movie, of course, was a huge success, so watching it again on video, I thought it odd that I hadn’t read any articles about Crumb’s new life as an expatriate. Or perhaps it wasn’t odd. On the phone in California, Zwigoff informed me that only one journalist he knew of had gone down to Crumb’s village, and suffered a nervous breakdown in the process. If the real-life Crumb was anything like the one in the movie, this seemed perfectly plausible. Maybe word had gotten around. In any case, I already knew that I was unlikely to get a very warm welcome from Mr. Keep On Truckin’ — assuming I got a welcome at all.
“You’re right . . .,” Crumb wrote to me three weeks earlier, in reply to my somewhat pessimistic request for an interview,
‘Being written about’ doesn’t appeal to me very much . . . I’ve had my fill of it . . . I hate the L.A. Weekly . . . What do I like, you might ask . . . Not much . . . I like to walk in the woods . . . I like old music . . . Women with big rear ends . . . That’s about it . . . I guess you can surmise from this that my answer is ‘NO.’
I thought I saw an opening in this. In the first place, I was surprised that Crumb had bothered to reply to my letter at all, let alone read the articles I’d sent him. I was even more surprised to see that he had written to me on a post card featuring one of his own drawings (a naked woman smoking a cigarette in front of a table with a carafe of wine and a baguette on it). There was nothing condescending about Crumb’s response. The answer was no, but it was about as personable and interesting a no as you could hope for. The question was, how to get him to say yes.
I decided to write to Crumb again, inventing, for my purposes, a sadistic editor who was ordering me to go down to the village whether I liked it or not. And since I badly needed the money — that part was true, anyway — I was going along with it and would be arriving in about two weeks. Furthermore, I told him, since I would be traveling in the interim, it would not be possible to reach me by mail . . .
The business about the editor seemed a transparent ploy, and I was sure Crumb would see through it in a second. Still, Crumb always took the side of the underdog. If I could paint myself as a victim, perhaps . . .
And now I find myself standing outside Crumb’s door. I ring the bell. After 30 seconds I hear footsteps and the door opens. Looking rather glamorous and French in black pants and a pearl-gray crushed-velvet top, Aline Kominsky-Crumb — whom I recognize from the film — is standing on the other side of it.
“Is Mr. Crumb in?” I ask, stupidly pretending not to know who she is.
“And who’s asking?”
I tell her my name and affiliation.
This information does not bring a smile to Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s face. In fact, it brings something closer to a scowl. “I thought he told you he didn’t want to see you,” she says.
Faced with the undeniable truth of this statement, I have no option but to stumble through the rest of my pathetic plan. “I know,” I say, “but I wrote to him again and I thought maybe . . .” I flap my arms uselessly in the street. Guilty as charged.
“Well,” Aline says, looking at me, the street, the rain, and quickly concluding that this isn’t exactly Mike Wallace and a camera crew she’s dealing with, “You might as well come in and eat something, anyway.” Then she adds sternly: “But you can’t ask him any questions! If you don’t, he might talk to you.”
And then, as she leads me through a cluttered hallway lit with held-over Christmas lights, she calls out: “Robert! It’s that journalist guy from the L.A. Weekly!”
From somewhere in the house comes an answering groan, or perhaps a moan, followed, I think, by something like a snort. And then I see him: In a small alcove two steps down from the kitchen, Robert Crumb is standing with his back to me, bent over a basin bathing his eyes.
“Sit down,” Aline tells me, indicating a large wooden dining table surrounded by chairs. “Would you like something to eat?”
I’d love something to eat, I tell her. Aline brings out bread, cheese, butter, ham and coffee and encourages me to dig in.
After a moment Crumb emerges from the alcove, looking much as he did in the movie except for the addition of a soft, woolly beard. He squints at me briefly. “I’m going upstairs to take some pills,” he announces. Then he leaves.
Aline takes a seat next to me. “Robert’s got a migraine,” she explains as I listen to her husband trudge wearily upstairs, muttering, no doubt, about fuckin’ journalists, they’re everywhere, can’t get away from ’em, even in your own house, hate ’em. At this point I have no idea what to expect from Crumb, but I am beginning to feel that, to some extent at least, Aline is on my side. She let me in, after all, and she’s given me food. In any case, there’s a stillness, a centeredness, a sure look in her green eyes that’s very attractive.
A minute later Crumb walks back into the kitchen. The first thing that strikes you is how thin he is; the second is how light his presence is. It’s as if an unusually interesting feather had walked into the room; this, you think to yourself, is truly a man who couldn’t hurt a fly.
“So,” he says, stretching his long, sunken body like a clothesline between two chairs, “you’re here.” Behind the thick magnifying lenses of his glasses, his eyes are absurdly large, like moons.
“Yeah,” I say, “sorry about that.”
“I can’t believe this editor of yours,” Crumb says, shaking his head at the ever-present evils of the universe. “Forcing you to come down here like that. God . . .”
“Yeah, he sounds terrible,” Aline chimes in. “How can you work for a guy like that?”
Well, you know . . .,” I say, and help myself to some more ham and cheese . . .
Crumb is talking about Titanic , which he and Aline saw a couple of days earlier. Apparently, he’s still reeling from the effects of watching a gigantic ocean liner sink in a theater full of weeping girls. Crumb liked the movie but doesn’t think much of DiCaprio, who’s the son of an old cartoonist friend of his. A couple of years ago he and Leonardo had dinner in Paris, and, according to Crumb, DiCaprio spent most of the meal staring into a mirror. The waiter, confused by the teen idol’s beauty, addressed him throughout the evening as “mademoiselle.”
The Crumbs have been in France since 1991, and they are now applying for dual French-American citizenship. They love the village, they love their house, and, though he can’t seem to master the language (“I hate French,” he says), and thinks most contemporary French art is lousy, Crumb does seem to be cautiously respectful of French society.
“To an American, it’s really shocking how unambitious the French people are about doing business,” he tells me. “It’s definitely not their priority at all.” When he phoned an electronics store in a nearby town, Crumb says, wanting to buy a Toshiba 1710 photocopy machine, the guy on the end of the line was speechless with amazement — it was the most expensive thing he had, and he couldn’t believe anyone would actually want to buy it. Nonetheless, two men delivered it to the Crumbs’ house that afternoon, and — wanting to celebrate their sale in the appropriate manner — remained there until 11 o’clock that night, drinking pastis and singing songs. Two days later, one of them came back again, with a guitar, another bottle of pastis and a song he’d composed especially for Crumb.
“It’s not like America,” Aline says, laughing. “Here it’s like you’re bonded for life.”
One major advantage to living in France, Crumb says, is that his “celebrityhood” — he pronounces the word as if it were an infectious disease — is small here. His official reputation in the country is considerable (his entry in the Encyclopédie Larousse is larger than Walt Disney’s), but the population at large is slightly baffled by him.
“There have been attempts to put my work over here,” Crumb says. “One book of mine, My Troubles With Women, came out in French with an intro by a French cartoonist, and the whole intro was like, ‘What is Crumb’s problem with women? He makes such a big deal about sex, I don’t understand, what’s the big deal?’ Which is really the French attitude,” he laughs. “They don’t understand repressed Northern people. Whereas . . .”
Aline relates the story of one obsessed Crumb fan, a guy from Flushing, Queens, who turned up on their doorstep at 4 a.m. in pouring rain with his Korean wife and the cab driver who had brought them from Marseilles, approximately 100 miles away. The fare was $200. Naturally, the Crumb fan was penniless. Aline paid the fare. Since their daughter was in the house, the Crumbs weren’t about to go to sleep with a deranged man from Flushing, Queens, on the loose and stayed up all night in the kitchen while the fan and his wife slept on the floor. In the morning, Aline bought two one-way bus tickets back to Marseilles and sent them on their way. Surprisingly, the fan did later return the $200 in a letter artfully decorated with swastikas, claiming that Crumb had wanted to talk to him, but Aline, whom he described as “an over-the-hill princess with a liver problem,” had prevented this historic colloquy from taking place.
What’s surprising, as Aline relates this story — with occasional interjections from Crumb — is how much she seems to enjoy doing so. There’s no anger or outrage; apparently, the Crumbs don’t expect people to act rationally.
The conversation then turns to the subject of Jews and Aline’s Jewishness, something Crumb seems to enjoy teasing her about. According to Crumb, people in the village are barely aware of Jews and will say that so-and-so does something “comme un Juif” straight to Aline’s face, it having apparently never occurred to them that she might be Jewish herself.
“Nobody likes Jews anyway,” Crumb says to Aline.
“That’s because they’re good businesspeople,” she replies firmly. “People know they’re smart.”
“Everybody hates Jews . . .”
What I’m witnessing, I think, is a performance, a playlet about their marriage put on by the Crumbs. These are their comic routines, the riffs they perform for strangers. (“I’m weak,” Crumb says later, when the discussion turns to his having never learned how to drive. “Yes, you need to be protected,” Aline says, tenderly stroking his knee.)
Whether intentionally or not, the Crumbs have turned me into their audience. One question I would like to ask, however, is answered for me. The Crumbs moved to France, Aline tells me, because of their 16-year-old daughter, Sophie. They didn’t want her growing up in California.
“Is that why we came to France?” Crumb asks, acting puzzled. “I never really figured that out.”
It’s easy to see why Crumb would like Cache: It’s old and funky. With its crooked streets and muddy lanes, its riverbanks and archways and old stone staircases, the place almost begs to be drawn. Crumb has obliged, producing a series of detailed ink drawings that reveal his ability not only to capture reality but to transform it as well. (In a door, the opening of a letter box resembles a vulva; long, curiously flaccid-looking drain pipes slither in and out of walls . . .)
It doesn’t really feel like a village, Cache, and in a way it’s not. In the 16th century, when Protestants and Catholics were duking it out all over France, 10,000 people lived here; now, only 1,400 do. Back then, the place must have been a stinking madhouse of horses and armor and garbage and troubadours and wenches and church bells and hacked-off limbs. Some of the houses still have two doorways: a small one for humans and a big one for horses. The main square, now a parking lot for Peugeots and Renaults and Fiestas, was once off-limits to everyone except monks, and up in the hills above the village you can still walk along stone paths laid down by the Romans and hide out in the remains of medieval forts.
Crumb has reluctantly agreed to see me one more time, though for how long or on what terms remains unclear. He has also provided the names and numbers of a few of his friends in the village. The first one I meet is Gail Wagman, a Californian from whom I’m able to rent a room. Gail tells me how it was that Crumb ended up in Cache rather than some other French village: It was Aline, not Crumb, who first saw Cache while on holiday. She came over to Gail’s one day for lunch and fell in love with the place. Then Crumb came over from California, and he fell in love with it too.
Gail heard about a house in the village for sale, and took the Crumbs over to look at it. “It was a beautiful old house with statues of Christ everywhere, all these old armoires and furniture from the ’30s. It was gorgeous. It was just their dream house. They walked in and the room that was going to be Robert’s studio was obvious, the room that was going to be Aline’s studio was obvious, the whole thing was so obvious it was unbelievable.”
There was only one problem: It was the wrong house. The house for sale was at the other end of the street. In the south of France, however, business tends to proceed — when it does proceed — with a dream logic. Confronted by two strangers wanting to look at her house, the woman who owned it thought: Well, why not let them look at it? And when it turned out that the two strangers wanted to buy her house, she thought: Well, why not sell it? So Crumb sold some of his notebooks to pay for the house, he and Aline went back to California and packed up their stuff, and — voilà — they were in Cache.
Fortunately, Crumb’s presence here does not seem to have changed anything. Although a poster for a 1992 exhibition of Crumb’s work in Cache is on sale in the village’s tourist bureau (“L’affiche du célèbre Crumb est vendu ici 20 Francs,” says a notice by the door), most of the locals are only vaguely aware of what “le célèbre Crumb” looks like and what, exactly, his celebrity might consist of. In any case, it seems that many of the villagers can’t distinguish one foreigner from another. When I ask the guy behind the counter at the grocery store if he knows who “Monsieur Crumb” is, he says yes, and then proceeds to describe a stocky American with black hair and a pencil mustache who lives in the village and walks around dressed up as Zorro.
Any notion that the villagers might be suffering from some odd ocular defect caused by centuries of inbreeding is soon laid to rest, however. “Ah, yes, the tall thin gentleman with glasses,” says the lady at the bakery, peering at me sensibly through her own specs when I mention Crumb’s name. And then, lowering her voice confidentially, she informs me that though he likes just about everything in her store, Crumb shows a marked preference for her miniature pizzas.
Out in the street I see the jogger again. He’s still running. Or hopping. Or limping. It’s impossible to tell.
On my second morning in Cache, I bump into Aline, who’s out shopping. She nods hello, but coolly. Obviously, it’s not time to call on Crumb yet. Later in the day, when I drop in on Pete Poplaski, editor of The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book, I meet her again. She’s sitting in the kitchen over coffee and cigarettes with Pete and one of the locals. This time, she’s friendlier. Pete turns out to be the man who likes to dress up as Zorro (he is the world’s “leading” Zorro expert), but when I meet him he’s wearing stonewashed jeans and a Green Bay Packers T-shirt.
I’m beginning to get a sense of what it must be like to live in Cache. Pete’s house is a brisk 45 seconds’ walk from Crumb’s, and Tony Baldwin, another of Crumb’s friends, lives about 30 seconds away from Pete. Ian McAmy, a musician from New York who plays in a band with Crumb, also lives nearby. (Crumb’s own band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, will be appearing in Holland and Belgium in June.) “It’s a little community,” Gail Wagman told me over dinner the night before. “They spend hours talking, listening to records, arguing different points of view about religion and stuff like that. Robert thrives on that kind of thing. He definitely likes to have these male friends that he shares a lot with.”
Like Devil Girls. A few years ago, Crumb decided to make a life-size wooden sculpture of the evil temptress, and enlisted Gail’s husband, theater director Alain Schons, and another Frenchman, named Yves, to help him. Scouring the land for a model, Alain finally found the perfect specimen in La Rochelle, a town on France’s Atlantic coast. The girl was a cross between a bodybuilder and a contortionist, and according to Gail, once they’d persuaded her to pose for them, the three “dirty old men” could barely contain their glee. Crumb ended up spending four months on the statue (“Jeezis, that was a lot of work!” he writes in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book. “It was fun though”), and had hoped to sell it. But so far there have been no takers. For the time being it sits — or rather, contorts — in the guest bedroom of Crumb’s house.
The Devil Girl has infiltrated Cache in other ways, too. When Maus cartoonist Art Spiegelman first came to the village to visit Crumb, and was wandering its maze of tiny streets looking for his house, he kept running into nice, proper schoolgirls sporting (temporary) Devil Girl tattoos. Apparently, Sophie Crumb had been giving them out in class.
A major misconception about Crumb, Pete tells me later that day, is that people think he’s a millionaire. He’s not. According to Pete, Crumb lives “a comfortable middle-class existence.” In fact, he says, the coffee-table book came about only after Crumb had been hit with a $12,000 bill to have central heating installed in his house. (During their first few winters in Cache, the Crumbs warmed themselves with fires.) Until then, Crumb had resisted the idea.
I ask Pete how Crumb liked Robert Hughes calling him, in the Zwigoff movie, “our late-20th-century Brueghel.”
“He likes Brueghel and he likes Robert Hughes. He hates being called a ‘cultural icon.’ I’ll read some of the descriptions of [the coffee-table] book to him out loud and he’ll just cringe, because they use that term all the time. But other times I’ll say, ‘Well, Robert, do you really like being called a genius?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, I really like hearing that.’” Pete laughs.
“It’s like high tide, low tide,” he says when asked if Crumb is still obsessed-upset about his sexual fixations. “I’m sure there are times of the year when things hit him a certain way, so that’s what he’s thinking about. It depends on what’s going on, whether he’s alone a lot, or whether he’s around other people. If he’s alone, chances are there are going to be big women popping up in his work. If he’s socializing, I think he tends to have a more self-critical view, or critical view of society going on in his head. The women thing is private. And like he keeps saying about his work, he has no choice.”
After we talk, Pete walks out into the street with me, and we immediately bump into the jogger. Up close, I see that he’s almost dwarfishly short, with thin brown hair combed forward over his scalp, a wispy goatee and uninhabited blue eyes. In a strange, raspy voice that makes him sound like a French Harvey Fierstein, he asks Pete to bring him some photos of Johnny Weissmuller when he goes back to the States. “Je compte sur toi” (“I’m counting on you”), he tells him, slapping his arm. Then he trundles off.
“Crumb only likes people who are even weirder and more fucked-up than he is,” one Crumb watcher had told me in the States, but, so far anyway, this was not proving true. His friends didn’t seem to think Crumb was all that weird either.
“What you have to immediately discount is the business of Robert and his reputation and his status in the world of comic books,” says Crumb’s friend Tony Baldwin, a 48-year-old Englishman. “Evenings at the Crumbs’ are like evenings anywhere else. I had dinner there last night — what did we talk about? We probably talked a bit about politics, we talked about Sophie’s new school, and then we talked about the Holocaust because Aline is very conscious about her Jewishness.”
“Is Crumb a good conversationalist?”
“Sure. And he’s a very flattering conversationalist. He’ll always laugh at your jokes, even if they aren’t funny. Crumb, in the words of Professor Higgins, has the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein. He does. He’s genuinely a very kind man. I think he’s just a man who wants a quiet life — with the difference that he doesn’t share the mores of other people who’d like quiet lives.”
We’re talking over lunch in a restaurant called the Tour de Mole, an 11th-century tower a stone’s throw from Crumb’s house. You’d never guess it by looking at him — with his lemon shirt, blue cravat and horn-rimmed glasses, he looks like a slightly rumpled diplomat working on a wine belly — but Tony is a piano player (he plays stride, ragtime, bop) and earns his living by producing jazz-reissue CDs, such as a recent edition of Benny Carter.
“That’s the basis for our relationship, essentially, the music,” he says, meaning his relationship with Crumb. “Which also allows me to be a fly on the wall for his other life, his main life — I dunno, maybe the records are his main life. He said it before in his comics: There are only two important things in life — old records and sex. And he practices what he preaches.”
For a while, when he was living in Paris, Tony regularly supplied Crumb with “obscure French squeezebox music,” which he picked up at Parisian markets. Now that he lives in Cache, they go hunting for 78 records together. Recently they traveled all the way to London to attend an antique-records fair held at the Wimbledon Dog Stadium. “Hilarious,” Tony says.
He recounts the story of an overexcited Crumb asking a guy selling off a pile of scratchy old 78s how much a particular one was. The man quoted a ridiculously low price. “But that’s an incredibly rare record!” Crumb blurted out in astonishment. The man looked at him for a moment. “Well, in that case . . .,” he said.
Aside from the records, the London trip held other revelations. “Crumb was amazed by the English women on the Underground,” Tony tells me, tucking into his plate of profiterole au fromage de chevre sur sa verdure. “You know how he’s got these glasses that magnify his eyes, which gives him a rather peering look . . . Well, there he was on the tube” — Tony mimics Crumb frantically checking out the action on the train while, as frantically, Tony motions him to tone it down — “and it is true, the gene pool is still different. In Paris it’s elegant and underfed. You go to London and it’s strapping young wenches. That’s what Robert can’t get over, the strapping young wenches. So going to London was a big experience for him. It’s hilarious to watch. I’m being grossly disloyal here . . .”
But now the waitress arrives at the table with a selection of five different goat cheeses, one of which is to be eaten with honey. “Your senses will never be the same,” Tony murmurs, passing me the tray.
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 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.”