Tuesday, March 31, 2020


For flipping when the choice is between creativity or madness.

Monday, March 30, 2020


Van Stein: The Starry Night Painter

I hit the gas pedal, tear through wheat fields painted by Claude Monet, past St-Paul-de-Mausole (Van Gogh's asylum) out of St-Remy—not stopping for two-and-a-half hours until we are forced to a halt by an officious police officer guarding the border into the Principality of Monaco. 

I would have stopped us, too, in our baseball caps, leather bomber jackets, bloodshot eyes, and unkempt hair.

Van Stein startles awake.  “Whats going on?”  He focuses on the immaculately uniformed female Nazi.  “Uh-oh,” he mutters, “not another threshold guardian.”

Identity, she demands. 

We surrender our passports, which she scrutinizes, then patches our names to Police Central through a two-way radio. 

Car papers, she demands.  

I hand her a wad of rental documents.  She inspects, it passes muster.

Then the grilling.  Why do you come to Monaco?

There’s no point lying to an officer of the law. “I have a rendezvous with Prince Albert.” I check my wristwatch.  “At 11:30 this morning.” 

So, like, can you hurry this up a little?

“Le Prince Hereditaire?”  She looks at scruffy me like Im nuts, wanting to hear me confirm this in her native language, I guess.

“Oui,” I oblige her. 

She whispers into her two-way radio, listens, gently hands me passports and car papers.  “I am sorry,” she says.  “It is my job.”

“Its okay,” I reassure her.

“Goddam Nazi,” hisses Van Stein as we roll off, spiraling downward into Monte Carlo on a quiet Sunday morning. 

We take an open-air table at Café de Paris for cappuccino and croissants, joined by Reek Pisserin, in from London to join me for princely business. 

We leave Van Stein at the café, promising to return for lunch.

Two-and-a-half hours later (the Prince was late and the meeting long), it is way past lunchtime.  

A French foursome occupies our old table where Van Stein should have been.

Where did he go?  

Reek Pisserin and I scramble, aware that our flight to London is two hours away.

I find the artist sitting, sketching, next to a fountain in gardens adjacent to Place du Casino, a look of total abandonment on his face. 

“Thomas?  Sorry, we ran late.  Why didnt you wait at Café de Paris?”

Van Stein shakes his head in disgust.  

Finally, he speaks.  “They wanted to move into lunch and I didnt have cash to pay for our croissants and coffee.” 

“What about a credit card?

“When they saw it was American, they refused it, just told me to leave quietly.  I was lucky not to get arrested.”  Hed been mindful of the Nazi at border control.  “Ive been walking around, trying not to look suspicious, which is hard for me today, since all I had was forty-five minutes' sleep before you woke me up and I look like a homeless tramp around all these Lamborghinis and Ferraris and mink coats.  Then I sat here, pretending to sketch.  The police have been circling, getting ready to pounce on me.  Im never coming back to this place.”

We find the car and drive to Nice-Cote dAzur Airport, return the vehicle to Avis, retrieve our gear. 

“Hey,” says Van Stein.  “Wheres my paint box?” 

On all these trips, Van Stein carries a small wooden crate with his mix of paints, thinner and brushes.

Its nowhere. 

Did somebody break into the car in Monaco?   

No.  Unheard of. 

“Phone the chateau,” snaps Van Stein.

I consult the invoice given me at checkout, tap out numbers, connect, explain the situation.

Yes, we have Mr. Van Steins wooden box, says the woman.

“Where did you find it?”  

I expect her to say, His room.

The answer startles us:  Outside, behind the chateau.

“But I wasnt even back there,” says Van Stein.

“You sure you want it back?” I ask him, fully understanding the metaphysical darkness behind this, based on my haunting.

“Of course.”  Every new expense, however small, burdens the struggling artist who lives for art and sees money only as a means to buy more paint.  

Ultimately, its a question of arithmetic:  the expense of buying new supplies is greater than shipping the crate home.

”Careful, Thomas—you never know what may come back inside your box.  You may need to re-name it Pandora.”

With hindsight, it is clear what transpired: 

We’d gone searching for the spirit of Van Gogh. So the dead artist first tries to throw me out of my room, second, tries to keep me prisoner, and third,  smuggles himself to Santa Barbara in Van Steins box.

Sunday, March 29, 2020


Les-Baux, Van Stein

With Van Gogh's birthday looming up tomorrow (167 years), a good time to finish Van Gone-ville:

We need lodging nearby so that Van Stein may return to the the asylum that night and paint it bathed in moonlight. 

Around the Alpilles—rocky hills—sits the perched medieval village of Les-Baux-de-Provence, and nearby La Cabro dOr, an 18th century stone farmhouse, now an inn whose restaurant possesses a Michelin star. 

That cuts it for me, even if the price associated with Michelin unnerves Van Stein.  (“I dont suppose theres a Dennys around here?”) 

They give us a pair of rooms diagonally across a topiary garden.

The three-course supper is superb, bested only by a full-bodied Bordeaux, and vintage Armagnac, the perfect set up for a good sleep—for me, not Van Stein, who must drive back to St, Paul de Mausole, 30 minutes away. 

Hes got to paint, even though—or especially because—he’s hes on the edge from jetlag, sleep deprivation and non-stop loco-motion.

I settle into my cozy, cave-like room and prepare for bed, enjoying the still of the night until bored to sleep by CNN…


A loud explosion to my right jolts me from deep sleep. 

I lurch upward, no clue where I am during the first few seconds of consciousness. 

I twist my head to the right, expecting to see a big hole in the wall from whatever bomb detonated. 

But the wall is intact, along with a small radiator affixed to it, which Id turned off. 

So, what was the loud noise? 

A radiator burp, magnified beyond reason by the silent countryside? 

I get up, take a peek outside the window and see a very bright full moon hanging high in the sky before looking across the garden to Van Steins room, which is dark. 

I check the time—just past two o’clock—and slide undercover  relax, fall asleep, another deep sleep… 

Until a hand grabs my right arm, just below my elbowa real physical grip. 

I awaken with a start, absolutely certain that someone is standing next me wanting to explain why they wanted me to wake up.

But there is no one! 

I am absolutely astounded that no one is beside me, even though the mere presence of anyone would require serious explanation. 

The grip was that real.

The bedside clock says 3:45. 

I get up, drink from a bottle of Evian, gaze out the window:  A bright full moon, hanging lower than before; Van Steins room, across the garden, is still dark.  He must still be out there, poor bastard. 

Shaken (literally, having been shaken awake), I pop the TV back on (CNN) and I notice the TV clock says 3:15.  

Wait a minute, isn’t it 3:45?  I look back at the bedside clock: it now says 3:15. 

Thats it, Ive had it.  I decide to stay awake.  

But I dont.  CNN—as usual—induces sleep…

A knock on my door.  I awaken, walk to the door, open it.  

Van Stein stands in front of me, expressionless. 

“You made it back,” I say. 

Van Stein says nothing; he backs away from the door, motioning me with his arm to follow him, a bright full moon hanging in the sky behind him. 

“Something wrong, Thomas?” I ask. 

He does not respond, just keeps waving me toward him.

I awaken from this dream.  CNN is churning news at low volume; I fall back to sleep…

A knock on my door.  I awaken, get up, and open it.  Van Stein stands there, expressionless. 

“Thomas, youre not going to believe this,” I say, “I just dreamed this.  Whats going on?” 

Van Stein backs away, says nothing, motioning with a wave of his arm for me to follow him into the darkness, a bright full moon hanging overhead.  “Thomas, what the hells going on?”

I wake up again, mind agog.  I get up, splash water on my face.  Its about 4:30. 

No more sleep, I resolve.  

But soon Im snoozing again.  

Until my mind wakes up and my body stays asleep—one of those sleep paralysis episodes where you want to open your eyes and move, but your muscular system and every other part of your body refuses to budge. In other words, your mind has awakened but your body hasn’t.

Now Im in a coma! 

It takes about two minutes, but I snap out of it. 

And snap generally. 

Its 5:15 and I want out. 

Van Steins room is now awash with light.  

I shower quickly, dress, stride across the garden to his room. 

Through the window I see him, spread-eagled on his bed, face up, fully clothed. 

“Thomas,” I hiss.  “Are you alive?”

“Huh?”  He opens one eye.  “Hard to say.”  He closes his eye, turns onto his side, trying to shut me out.

“Get up.  Were leaving.”

“Now?”  He turns back, opens both eyes.

“Yup.  No time like the present.”


“Meet me at reception,” I say.  “Ill be checking out.”

Its still pitch dark outside.  I return to my room, pack my things, hoof to reception, where wait staff are cranking up, brewing coffee. 

“I need to check out,” I say.

They tell me the woman who handles checkouts has wandered off. 

“Wandered off where?”

“She comes soon.  Five minutes.”

I pace.  Van Stein stumbles through the door.

“Would you like coffee while you wait?” asks a waiter.   A very un-French offer:  complimentary anything is unheard of in these parts.

“No,” I say, wanting to leave a.s.a.p., not wanting to be delayed by coffee, not even free coffee.

“Sure,” says Van Stein, groggy from lack of sleep.  He sits next me, rubs his eyes.  “I just got back an hour ago.  Hell of a night at the asylum.  Why are we leaving so soon?”  

“You believe in ghosts, dont you?”

“You know I do.”

“My room is haunted.  A spirit or a ghost or something tried to eject me from my room.”    

“Im not surprised,” says Van Stein.  “Theres a lot of ancient stuff going on around here.  I felt it last night.”

“Did you happen to feel a real grip on your arm?”

“You felt that?”

“Not only.  Its been going on all night long.  First it woke me up with a loud explosion.  When I wouldn’t take the hint and leave, it grabbed my arm, as if to say, This way please.  It tried to fake me out with the time, making the bedside clock seem later than it was. When none of that worked, it used you to lure me out.”


“In dreams.  Youre knocking at my door.  When I answer, you dont say a word, just beckon me out after you.  Twice.  And now, because I didnt take the hint, its trying to keep me here.”  I get up, amble to the breakfast room.  “Any news on that check-out person?  Its been twenty minutes.”

The coffee guy blows a raspberry and shrugs.  “She must come soon.”

“She must.”  I return to Van Stein, sipping free coffee.  “See what I mean?”

The artist takes another gulp.  “This coffees good.  And you’re suffering from franticism.”

I sip coffee, eyes frantic. 

The check-out woman finally appears.  She prints out a bill.  I scan the charges.  “Yeah, everythings fine.”

“Do I use the card you checked in with?” she asks.

“Do it.”

She does.  It doesnt work.  She tries again.  No authorization. 

“Okay,” I say, “If Amex doesnt want the commission, well give it to MasterCard.”

She runs it, looks at me.  “Non.”

“Impossible.”  Now I blow a raspberry.  “That one always works.”

She studies her credit card gizmo.  “Maybe this does not work.”

“Okay, heres what we do,” I dig into my pocket.  “Cash money.”  I count out four hundred euros.

“I must make you receipt,” she says.

“Not necessary.” I say. “Im good.”  I fly out the door, throw my luggage into the car.

Van Stein follows in slow motion, loads the car with his gear, which hed stacked outside his room in the topiary garden.  We climb in.  Its still pitch dark, a full moon setting, as we approach the electronic gate.  It is supposed to open as we draw near.   It does not.  We wait a full minute.  Nothing. 

“Holy-son-of-a-friggin-whoremaster.”  I open the door, get out, and trot back to reception.  “Gate wont open,” I bark.

Two French women look at me with astonished expressions.  

“Impossible,” snaps one.  The other blows a raspberry.

“Im not lying,” I say.   “It really wont open.”

One of them hands me a magnetic strip card.  “Use this.”

I gallop to the gate, run the card.  Nothing happens.  Again.  And again.  Same result.  (Some shrinks say the truest definition of insanity is when someone does the same thing over and over again and expects a different result.)

I sprint back to reception, thrust the card in their faces. 

It does not work.  Let me out.  Now!”

They look at me like Im not only a lying American but Im stupid as well.  And crazy.  One of them rises, follows me out and runs her magnetic card through the slot.  Doesnt work.  She opens a small door at the side of the gate, presses a button.  Nothing.          

Im too desperate to gloat. 

She blows a raspberry, stumped.  “This never happens.” 

Like its my fault.

“What now?” I’m desperate.

“I go see.”  She stomps off.

“Go see what?” I call after her.  Van Stein is snoring beside me.

A few minutes later, she returns with a new magnetic card.  

She swipes, the gate glides open.