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Further Hazards of the Writing Life
An article by Bruce Gatenby

One doesn’t become an artist overnight. First you have to be crushed, to have your conflicting points of view annihilated. You have to be wiped out as a human being in order to be born again an individual.
–Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn

I’m sitting in the Vinoteca Maestro Villa, just off the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, drinking my fourth glass of Rioja Reserva. Each glass costs roughly $1.40; the tapas–tuna and pimientos roja in olive oil, tortilla a la espanola, jamon and queso manchego, are complimentary. The prices in Madrid are so cheap I’m starting to think about sticking around.

Five minutes later I notice someone has walked out the door into the cool Spanish night with my leather coat and passport. I feel like I’m living Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat.” I also feel like not sticking around much longer. Losing my coat will just piss me off; but losing my passport will make crossing the border back into France difficult.

I’ve written elsewhere about the notion that, for better or worse, my life is in the hands of what I call “the Malicious Gods”: those trickster spirits who provide interesting experiences that lift you beyond your limited and circumscribed horizons–but exact a hefty personal cost in return for those experiences. Maybe not a first born son, but something less biblical; say, your passport. Or the $1,100 three-quarter length leather coat you picked up on sale in San Francisco for $399. Gogol, indeed.

I’ve just started my third year living in Europe and other than a nasty stretch of teaching at the Dr. Caligari School of Hotel Management in the Swiss Alps, nothing remotely awful has happened to me. Paul Auster has warned struggling writers that “you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days…unless you turn out to be a favorite of the gods (and woe to the man who banks on that).” Besides, not all my luck is bad. I won a Vespa-Piaggio Gilera SKP Stalker 50cc bright red scooter in a national contest in France a few months ago–which kind of makes up for the loss of that coat–and I have managed to buy myself a solid year and a half of writing time. So I may not be a favorite of the gods (malicious or otherwise) but I’ve never seen myself as a victim.

The Spanish policia called me a victim. The official who issued me a new passport at the American embassy in Madrid called me a victim. So did Jess, the artist in linebehind me at the embassy, who married a Spanish woman and woke up to find she’d left him alone on the beach at Mallorca and taken off with all of his money.

Now just in case you think I’m blowing this simple theft way out of proportion, that I’m embracing American-style victim status with all the mad frenzy of a Brazilian batucada refrain, just wait until you hear what happens to me after my return to Paris.

* * *

Nothing unusual or malicious occurs on the train back to Paris, unless you count twelve hours of listening to a Bombay businessman recounting his life story until dawn unusual or malicious.

We arrive at Gare d’Austerlitz a little after 9:00 and after hastily making my escape, I walk across the Pont d’Austerlitz and head up Avenue Ledru Rollin. The temperature is in the low 30’s, the sky overcast and colored gray, a light drizzle of rain making the sidewalks slick. Perfect Parisian weather because it’s the kind of conditions that keep the tourists away. Americans often complain that the French are nasty and rude, but after living in France for six months I can understand why. A little travel tip: don’t assume everyone speaks English. Even a rudimentary attempt to speak French will endear you to Monsieur or Madame. They will correct you. After all, it is their language, their culture and their tradition. Consider it a compliment.

Normally, I would be happy, looking forward to un crème at Café Bataclan but today is my last day in Paris. Once again, my time here is at an end and I must return to a job in order to feed the writing habit. I’m flying back to the States to housesit for a month, then moving to Germany to work part-time as a business language consultant. I promise myself I will be back in Paris soon.

I’m meeting my friend Bill Grim at the Hotel Ibis Gare de Lyon. Bill, like me, is a former academic who decided no one in the bughouses of academia knew anything about the creation of art or music or literature and so, tired of Resentment 101 and Victimhood 102, we’ve chosen to, in Father Walt’s words, “sail the pathless and wild seas” of vagabondage and temporary employment. In the morning we’re flying back to the States on Iceland Air, with a three-day stopover in Reykjavik. I’ve wanted to see Iceland ever since a minor dalliance with an Icelandic barmaid in Switzerland, and here’s my chance. Bill is late, so I decide to go ahead and check in.

I have two suitcases, out of which I’ve been living for the past two years, and my laptop computer, complete with all my files and backup disks. Three novels, nine screenplays and several essays: my entire oeuvre from the last six years of writing. Bill finally arrives and we head out at 7:00pm for dinner at La Potée des Halles. I’ve had to buy a used peacoat at Les Cinq Pieds au Mouton in the Marais, so I’m still pissed about the loss of my coat. When we walk into La Potée the maitre d’ rushes over, shakes my hand, kisses me on both cheeks and snaps his fingers at the barman to bring over glasses of champagne. This is my first time there. “Who the hell does he think I am?” I whisper to Bill, who, poisoned with American propaganda about French nastiness, cannot believe what he’s seeing. I accept the champagne with a smile. What the Malicious Gods take with one hand…

The meal itself takes a little over three hours. “My mother never treated me this well,” Bill says, near tears. Filled to bursting with pot au feu, crème brulée, several bottles of Bordeaux and doubts as to why we were treated thus, we stumble back to the Ibis.

I slide my key through the lock, watch the LED change from red to green, enter my room and immediately notice my laptop computer, along with all my files and disks, is gone.

“Did I leave my computer in your room?” I ask Bill. We check. I didn’t. I race downstairs and confront the night desk clerk, who informs me that I possess the only clef electronique and so I must have left the door open. That, or I am lying.

“No, someone entered my room and stole my computer.” I somehow manage to control my voice.

“Is anything else missing?” He cocks his head, dubious.

Actually, it is rather strange. My suitcases, CD player and CDs were lying on the bed, untouched. “No, just the computer.”

Pas possible.

I refrain from throwing a good, old-fashioned American tantrum and instead insist he call the police. It’s obvious, to me at least, that one of their employees has made a duplicate of my key and stolen my computer. But why?

He refuses to call the police.

One of the problems with the French language, beside the gutteral “r” and verb conjugation, is there are only four real swear words. I use all four. He blanches at salope.

Suddenly, a beautiful woman walks out of the bar, drinking a glass of vodka and smoking a cigarette. She speaks rapid French with a Russian accent. The desk clerk nods, then turns to me.

“She is a friend of the other night clerk. She saw Alexander, one of our employees, leave about an hour ago with a computer case. This is very strange.”

I turn to her and we enchanté each other. I almost forget about my loss.

Then her friend comes out of the back room holding a computer case. It seems another guest found it in his room and called Alexander to retrieve it. “Is this your case?” she asks.

“Nope. Mine was leather.”

We open the case and find, to my surprise, my checkbook, my return airline ticket and my copy of Henry Miller’s Sexus. Someone has obviously removed these items from my computer case and placed them in another, cheaper case. I rummage around a little more and find a paper printout, with an email address on it.

It turns out the email address belongs to yet another guest in the hotel, Monsieur C–. By god, Watson, we have our man! The night clerk calls him and asks if he has a laptop computer. “Oui,” he replies; then we hear a tiny, tin scream through the earpiece.

It seems someone has stolen his computer as well.

So he comes downstairs and the best we can figure out is that someone broke into my room, stole my computer, broke into his room, stole his computer, switched the cases and left the case with my incidental items in yet another room.

The night clerk agrees to call the police.

Not only have I lost an expensive laptop, I’ve also lost all my files and backup disks. An ex-girlfriend has copies of my novels, but the thought of contacting her is worse than the theft. Other friends have copies of various files; I will eventually replace them all, but it will be a time-consuming pain in the ass to do so.

And so Monsieur C– and I are off to the Bastille station of the Direction Generale de la Police Nationale at two o’clock in the morning, to file our declarations of loss. So much for a late-night rendez-vous with the mysterious Russian woman. But I do get to speed down Avenue Daumésnil in a French police car with blue lights flashing.

The detectives are gathered in a windowless interrogation room, watching a French translation of Jim Jarmusch’s film, “Dead Man” on TV. “Johnny Depp,” one of them says as we enter the room. “Cool.” Now I know why the French invented surrealism.

“Ah,” another of the detectives exclaims after I begin my narrative, “utilisation d’une fausse clef!” He is very impressed.

And so after spending two hours dictating my declaration, I am back at the Ibis, waiting for the director to arrive. It turns out the hotel’s insurance will cover the loss; but it will take months to receive the payment. As to why the computers were stolen, it seems the director is new and some of the employees wanted to embarrass him. When Monsieur director finally does arrive at close to ten, I realize we will probably miss our plane as well.

Which we do.

We arrive at the gate just as the A320 Airbus is pulling away. The Iceland Air official then informs us it will cost two hundred dollars to change our tickets to the next flight-which leaves in three days.

Three more days in Paris. I have to laugh. It’s as if the Malicious Gods don’t want me to leave. If they want me to stay so damn much, why don’t they just make a publisher buy one of my novels, or have a producer option a screenplay? Paul Auster be damned.

Bill, however, is anxious to leave. I ask him why. “They’ve already taken all of your stuff,” he replies. “I’m afraid they’ll come after mine next.”

And so here we stand, watching the Airbus lift off into the mist and clouds, and bank northwest toward Reykjavik and other misadventures now lost.

At least for three days.

Copyright © Bruce Gatenby 2000

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Further Hazards of the Writing Life is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Bruce Gatenby is an expat American writer living in Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Arizona, which he has tried to give back on several occasions. He has written three novels, nine screenplays and is still searching for that big break. He can be reached at [email protected] and his home page is at


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