I worked at 9-6 jobs in NYC from August of 1989 through July of 1991 when the pace of the city started to overwhelm me and I decided to move to Paris. During those two hectic years in New York I had grown accustomed to eating Chinese delivery lunches at my desk while I continued to work. When I moved to Paris, the first thing that struck me was the long lunches. They could start anywhere around one o’clock when a bottle of wine might be ordered and then several different courses of sumptuous food. I often found myself still at the same table around 4pm or 4:30 drinking an espresso and then meandering back to work.
I began working on screenplays with Luc Besson and one day Luc invited me to his apartment but didn’t realize that he had double-booked, so he politely sat me down in his screening room, put in a VHS of “Le Grand Bleu,” and told me that he would come back in a few hours. When we met for lunch I was chuckling to myself and Luc asked why I was laughing.
“What the fuck is that movie about???” I guffawed, not so subtly.
Luc responded very sincerely, “When you are 8 years old people ask you what you want to be when you grow up and you say, ‘I want to be a nurse or ballerina, a fireman or a cowboy.’ When you are 16 years old people ask you what you want to be when you grow up and you say, ‘I want to be a nurse or ballerina, a fireman or a cowboy.’ When you are 25 years old people ask you what you are doing with your life and you say, ‘I always wanted to be a nurse or a ballerina, a fireman or a cowboy… but now I’m just a jerk who works in the Monoprix.’ I wanted to show a guy who at 8 years old wanted to be a dolphin, at 16 years old wanted to be a dolphin. And at 25 years old, became a dolphin!”
I got all choked up and knew that I had something to learn from this guy.
While working with Luc on a screenplay called “Zaltman Bleros,” I moved to the Marais and — being a creature of habit — quickly made Le Loir dans la Théière my cantine. I would sit every morning in the corner armchair and order a ginger tea and something to eat. One day in the spring of 1992 there was a gentleman in my favorite seat so I took the chair next to him. Like me he had a long mane, a three-day stubble, and was dressed in black, and I soon found out that he was Canadian so we started chatting in English. At the time I was going to see at least one film per day in one of Paris’ 300 cinemas so we immediately started discussing film and art and music. He was an artist and lived in the 3rd arrondissement and he invited me to stop by some time to see his work. He claimed to be building a museum that would house his collection someday. I thought he was insane.
Having an affinity for insane people, a few days later I stopped by his apartment and he showed me some photographs of elephants and other animals that he had printed on large pieces of parchment. The photos were very beautiful and I recall Gregory being shocked that I had never heard Van Morrison’s “In the Garden.” I was familiar with Van Morrison’s popular oeuvre as well as “Astral Weeks” but for some reason “No Guru, No Teacher, No Method” had escaped my ken. We listened to “In the Garden” at least twice and then I went to the FNAC to buy the CD. Gregory and I kept in touch sporadically over the next few years and then lost touch when I moved back to NYC to go to film school.
In 1999 I was visiting Paris with my friend Rachel and I called Gregory but only got his answering machine. Rachel and I ate lunch at Le Loir dans la Théière and then decided to walk to Gregory’s to see if he was home. But as we passed Place des Vosges, a guy on a Vespa with a woman on the back came towards us and I instantly recognized the ponytail hanging out of the back of his helmet. Gregory spotted me and stopped. The four of us chatted in the street for a minute and but parted quickly due to imminent rain.
About 18 months later I was back in NYC dining at Odeon and taking advantage of my boss’ Silicon Alley expense account when I spotted Gregory at the next table. I have to admit that I was too intoxicated to register what was said but I remember him mentioning his “museum” and once again thinking that although he was rather well-spoken and pleasant, that he was delusional. Nobody has a museum built for just their artwork except Picasso or Rodin — and even both of them have other artists’ work in those museums — and those museums were built posthumously, I thought. This guy is a nutter.
Over the course of the next few years we kept in touch and in January of 2004 while visiting Paris, my girlfriend and I spent a lovely day viewing Gregory’s latest work in his new flat on rue Vieille du Temple, taking a break for a long lunch at Le Loir dans le Theiere.
In 2005 I was living in Los Angeles but flew to New York to check out the construction of Gregory’s “museum” and learn about the bamboo and teabags and other recycled products used to build the Nomadic Museum which was scheduled to travel to different cities. I brought sundry people to tour Gregory’s home and the museum and we had a few leisurely meals and discussed politics, art, and love, as usual.
In 2006 Gregory moved out to LA for the opening of his museum and I visited him in the editing suite and we shared a few meals together. When “Ashes and Snow” opened I brought people from the yoga community to the museum and Gregory was always extremely gracious with my friends.
Over the past few years whenever I was in Paris, Gregory happened to be New York and whenever I was in New York he happened to be off shooting so we weren’t able to reconnect until last year when I was teaching in NYC. I was staying on the Lower East Side and he invited me to stop by and see some of his new work, “The Island of Songs.” The film I watched as well as some of the stills from the upcoming 6 museums were mindblowing. In the clips he and his actors interacted with wild lions, mantas, polar bears, orangutans, dolphins and sea lions as if they were human. I’ve never really seen anything like this from any other filmmaker or photographer.
I gave Gregory copies of my new DVDs, we ate a light lunch, and discussed politics in America and France, recent exhibits by Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer, l’amour (as usual) and monotheistic religions’ odd relationship with animals (whom they view mostly as meat, leather, or pets).
It is difficult to admit that for many years I thought of the guy claiming to build a museum as a madman. Having toured a collection seen by more people than any collection of any other living artist, it is clear how myopic and judgmental I was in 1992 and 2000. Nonetheless, I always felt that I learned more during our long lunches discussing politics, art, and love, than I learned during any of my graduate programs.
For many years I had a running joke with my accountant Marcia who would ask every April what she should put down on my tax return in the “Occupation” box.
“Put down ‘Conversationalist’ as my occupation,” I would tell Marcia.
It’s even funnier now that I’m a psychotherapist and actually earn my living engaging in conversations with patients. There’s really nothing like a tête-à-tête to gain clarity on a subject, to evolve, grow, and learn about visions hitherto unimaginable — like building a sustainable nomadic museum, or becoming a dolphin.
Recent studies regarding happiness as reported by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others show that people who have jobs (“now I’m just a jerk who works in the Monoprix”) — something one does for money — are not very happy; similarly, I’ve found that those are the type of people who often eat lunch at their desks. On the other hand, people who know their vocations — their callings — and have a long-term vision about what they are doing on planet earth — report being quite happy. Those are the people who understand the importance of long lunches, of connecting with others in a meaningful way.
Before lunch last Saturday I asked Gregory how he was doing and he replied with a large grin, “I can’t complain,” further explaining that he had his freedom to pursue his passion and not have to work on anyone else’s schedule. A rare art.
I treat many young people who have been diagnosed with depression. When I learn that they conduct much of their interactions and sometimes entire relationships through texting and IM-ing and emailing and Skype, and that they don’t have time for lunch because they are ‘crazybusy’ and can’t afford to take time away from their jobs, I want to take out a fake prescription pad, write ‘Lunch’ on it, and hand them that script. My diagnosis for many of them would be “Failure to Lunch.”
Because you never know what type of inspiration you could receive while leisurely breaking bread with a fellow human being.