I met Pierre 7 years ago in a memoir writing group in Albany NY. The first thing I noticed about Pierre was his size: he occupied a lot of space. Which makes sense. How could one body house all that was Pierre? Especially his enormous heart?
A true artist, natural storyteller and teacher, renowned documentary filmmaker and writer, even at 76, he was impatient to begin a new project. Usually clad in his quintessential, well-worn leather vest and favorite cap, his memoir pieces revealed riveting tales about his cross-country motorcycle jaunts, cinematic and artistic endeavors, mixed ethnicity, LSD trips, Haitian heritage, Muhammad Ali, and world-wide travels. Simon and Schuster worthy stuff, all.
Never in a hurry, he spoke deliberately with patience and wisdom acquired from decades of experiences, both harsh and hallowed. He selected each word slowly, the way one inspects a pineapple at a market, always looking for something unseen, knowing that hidden treasures await inside.
"What am I?" he asked with a plaintive sigh over lunch a few months ago. He acknowledged he looked too dark to be White and too light to be Black. "As a kid, I never really knew where I belonged. I still don't," he lamented.
But he was comfortable in his skin and in his clothes, which he held on to for a long, long time. I often wished I had a needle and thread with me at lunch to do a quick repair. He talked about living in Haiti, about his dad, a diplomat, and his mom, a pediatrician who was often paid with chickens or baskets of produce left at their door. He never understood intolerance. Or indifference. He wanted to know more about everything, including himself.
In November, I noticed he was not attending our weekly Zoom memoir group. “Where are you, Pierre? You ok? I texted.
“Nope cancer is back and Covid on top of that. Otherwise doing okay.”
Within a month he was gone. Even now, I cannot imagine that anything could silence Pierre.
How sad I am that I knew so little about him and the stories he never finished. I wish I had asked more questions; had lunch with him more often. I wish I knew the people he spoke about with such reverence, especially his daughter and grandchild.
I loved our talks. He shared musings about the use and impact of color - in art, in people’s skin, and in the shades of one’s ideologies and perspectives. We talked about writing, teaching, photography, cinema. “I always listen to you,” he would say. And he did. Pierre knew what it meant to be present; he paid attention. He noticed the details. I was always in a better mood after we spoke.
Our lengthy conversations often began with a beef about one thing or another. Let me tell you what I’m annoyed about today, Pierre. I’m really annoyed that you’re gone.
In one of our last conversations, I scolded him for his self-deprecating remarks. He was impatient with himself for speaking too quickly, for offering a harsh critique to another writer.
The past few years, some health challenges demanded his attention, and perhaps explained some of his grumpiness, but Pierre never really complained. He said what he thought, without edits. Sometimes a bit blunt or chastising, “Why don’t people put their names on their paper? I want to know who wrote this.”
“Pierre! You think of yourself as such a curmudgeon, but honestly, you’re such a little teddy bear!” My assessment of him always made him chuckle. Indeed, his giant stature, shrouded in leather and dangling chains, harrowing tales of LSD trips, unforgettable dalliances, and meandering motorcycle trips on The Dog conjured up a highly inaccurate bad boy persona.
I saw the childlike wonder that defined Pierre. He looked at everything the way a child investigates a sparkly granite stone, turning it over and over between his fingertips, enchanted by the texture and possibilities.
So grateful am I to have had the privilege of knowing him, of listening to his inimitable, unique voice as he read his wonderful narratives in our group, bringing us along on the back of his bike for one adventure after another.
”How did that story end? The one about Francesca?” I asked a few weeks ago.
“Ahhhhh. You’ll have to wait to see what happens…”
But then, he was gone.
I once asked about the familiar greeting at the end of his voice mail. “Laissez le bontemps roulez is fractured French for let the good times roll,” he said.
I hope you knew that I cared about you, Pierre. You leave a very large space …