©Stephen McDonnell 2001
Hemingway described in his book,
Paris is a Movable Feast, a walk he took from his apartment
down to the wedge shaped park at the end of Ile de la Cité,
the square du Vert Galant. I have my own memories of a spring
day and that same park.
In my second year as a student in Paris I set out on one of
those bright mornings which follow the Spring showers that finish
cleaning the streets; leaving the sun and horse chestnut trees
shining, everything new and optimistic. Spring is for the young,
the newly born. Innocence is reborn every year, freshly green,
untrampled and unplucked. If only it would stay that way, un
old, un fazed, ignorant.
My usual route from my seven floor walk up room huddled under
the roof tops, takes me down my street, Rue d'Aboukir, by way
of the place du Caire, the old "cour de miracles",
past the ready to wear clothes stores, the bolts of varicolored
cloth hampering my steps as they are delivered by Middle Eastern
looking men to garishly lit stores where they will be cut and
sewn into the latest styles to be draped on dummies, or worn
by bleached blond Parisian women, or even a few six foot models
who look like ice would not melt in their mouths, unlike the
hookers who ply their trade from the same store fronts at night
shivering in their miniskirts with their artificial looks of
desire mixed with pity etched on their too young, too old faces,
winking at me, "viens cheri, tu veux faire la pipe, une
passe" (come here darling, let me give you a pipe job, or
turn a trick?) because they know I can not afford their wares,
but in the bright day light they have disappeared to sleep off
their night of sweaty exercises, so I walk unmolested to the
Chinese laundry where I pick up my towels and cloths which I
put in my red nylon nap sack, and I go my merry way, my step
light in the Spring morning, down Rue Montorgueil to gaze on
signs that tell me Mozart and Thomas Jefferson lived here, so
many eons ago, yet it has not changed, I continue South past
the wheeled wooden carts that still existed then, the "quatre
vents" sellers of fruit and flowers, my favorite old woman
giving me a toothless greeting in her second arondisment accent,
soon to disappear, like "les Halles" that Victor Hugo
called the stomach of Paris, now half demolished, but the meat
market holds on, buttressed by its green painted soaring wrought
iron arches, sheltering the dim lit interior's blood stained
floor, on which the meat packers known as "les forts des
Halles" carry carcasses of cow and sheep on their backs
to hang on meat hooks, the blood dripping on the special tunics
they wear as a badge of pride to denote that of all the French,
they are the only ones allowed to say the familiar "tu"
or thou to anyone they please, they also greet me heartily, the
young artist who spends hours drawing and painting their carcasses
a la Rembrandt, I leave them to meander towards the Samaritaine
department store with its roof top café that affords me
an occasional haven to sit and draw and where I met Ann whom
I helped pass her French Baccalaureate exam, remembering when
we are together the first time I asked her and she was not against
it and afterwards she was like a bird with a broken wing with
her back injury from gymnastics, I am always gentile with her,
hating violence, so it is ironic that as I cross the Pont Neuf
to get to my classes at the Fine Arts Academy I make a fatale
The statue of Henri the fourth. in front of the two perfect
1608 houses that guard the entrance to Place Duphine and the
law courts, seems to point at the horse chestnut trees below
in the park. Spring is here, the sun has come back and lovers
and students come pouring out of the universities and high schools
to take part in the festivities. Why not I? Filling the air,
pollen wafts across the Seine river, intoxicating, like a beautiful
woman's perfume, pulling me down to the river side. The Siren
song of Spring can not be resisted. My steps falter, then lead
me down to the river, to the "Quai" where my fellow
Spring timers bask in the sun, enjoying their youth, their freedom,
their momentary rebellion. Why not I?
Under the arches of the Pont Neuf, I see that a gang of rough
looking young men are harassing students. They look like French
working class toughs, out of work, and out to have fun. In my
seasonal bliss, I ignore them, even walk towards them, filled
with self confidence. In a flash they surround me, the leader
in front of me, he pulls open his leather jacket to reveal a
tricolor medallion. "Police," he ejaculates the word
into my face, a look of fear mixed with cunning on his visage.
My brain is not up to speed, or maybe my testosterone has kicked
in as I tell him to take a flying leap. Not a wise decision.
What happens next occurs in slow motion; I feel hands trying
to open my nap sack and for some unknown reason I hit the leader
in the face, the others back off and deliver "Savate"
kicks to my body, one of them breaks my front tooth. All of this
seems to take hours, all in slow motion induced by the adrenaline
pumping through my body.
I tell him I will give them my "frick", French slang
word for money, but they understand that I will call the "flicks",
the police. When they come at me again I throw my money in their
faces, some of it flying out onto the Seine river. They grab
it and run, leaving me standing dazed with blood flowing out
my mouth in thick streams. Not one of the French students around
me has said a word, no one comes to my aid, except a young Arab
with his blond French girl friend. He asks me if he can help,
concern on his face. I wave him off, taking my clean towel out
of my sack to staunch the flow of blood from my broken mouth.
I climb back up the steps to go the few yards to the main
Paris Police station, where a Gendarme stands at attention, unaware
of the mugging taking place below him on the bank of the river.
I tell him my story, and he asks me if they were "Arabs"?
No, I tell him, and he looses interest in my plight. Thinking
the only person who had helped me was an Arab, I wonder about
French justice. (Later I hear from my Arab friends the treatment
they receive from the French Police.) I walk away in shock. I
have learned two new lessons.
At the American Hospital they kill the root of my tooth, the
French dentist proud of his shiny new equipment as he drills
my tooth to a stub. From that day on, I carry a knife and wear
work boots with steel tips. I take self defense lessons. I wear
shabby cloths. I keep my guard up. I return to my cold room,
with its Turkish toilette and coal burning heater, wondering
about my decision to live the bohemian life.
The attack took place in the middle of the safe Paris, near
the main Police headquarters. I had never expected it. My quarter
is rough, this working class second arrondisment, off the beaten
track. The only tourists are looking for sex at night on nearby
St. Delis street, where Erma La Douce look-a-likes lear at you,
dressed in revealing short skirts and see through blouses. I
can even categorize the working girls.
There are the high volume ones who service the long lines
of immigrant workers, giving them five minutes worth. Others
are middle class, with customary pimp, poodle, and one room apartment,
vacation on the Riviera. The high price ones are in the phone
book or walk the streets in the rich parts of Paris, or drive
around hunting. The belle de jours, the married women, needing
extra cash, can be seen, looking uncomfortable in their high
heels hanging around the lobbies of high price hotels or in cocktail
parties, their hungry eyes on every man or woman. Mistresses
have their payed flat with obligatory 5 to 7 service to their
keepers. Married women flirt, more discreet, knowing their husbands
have mistresses on the side. I know a rich woman with a penthouse
and gigolo male lovers, doctors even, who play her court, but
not me. There are male prostitutes as well, near the Opera boulevard.
In the woods, the Brazilian transvestites work standing up to
pay for their plastic surgery. Near the large department stores,
the midday ladies are ready for men who are hungry for more than
lunch. Young working girls flirt at work, in department stores
they are ready to sell themselves to the right man. The old ones
are the worst, they are grandmothers in hot pants, flabby wrinkled
breasts hanging out, tackily ready for love; they too have their
clientele. The new ones evoke the most pity, fresh off the farm,
still blushing, still soft outside, shy and poor. Not for long.
The oldest profession. At least it is honest, no lies, no
regrets, no sighs. As a student I do not need their services,
but I observe them, talk to them. We share the same world. They
are human beings. We tell each other that it is cold in winter,
and too hot in winter. We smile knowing smiles. They give me
looks that say they know one day I could be a client, it is only
a matter of time and of human nature. And money.
It is a cheap place to live, everything is cheap. My favorite
place to eat is the Art Nouveau restaurant, chez Julien,
with saw dust on the floor, paper table coverings and black and
white dressed waiters with handle bar mustaches who serve the
prostitutes and bums, the old ladies with their dogs who eat
with them, who wander in for a full course meal for a dollar.
At any time, I expect Toulouse Lautrec to come waltzing in with
some beauties form the Moulin Rouge. (It is now an expensive
chic restaurant, the clientele is the same ) Even my showers
are taken at the local public bath house, where the Arab and
Portuguese workers go once a week, fortunately heated, unlike
others I had tried.
What drives me to experience this life? A masochist streak?
No one knows or cares that I live this way. My Italian girl friend
thinks me a Patzo, crazy. She visits once, looks around and sniffs.
Unimpressed, is this regazza from Cremona; she is like a blond
version of Sophia Loren. Even Helen, the black beauty from Harlem,
comes to a party in my cold room, after we had made love at her
place, but she never returns even after bragging to me about
rats eating her ears in her child hood New York tenement. The
women who visit me, like Ann, were few and brave. It was not
an area where young women walk alone except to earn money on
their backs at night, or buy fancy clothes during the day.
But I am in love with this part of Paris with its dirty life.
It feels like the Impressionists could walk out and greet you
at any moment. The Port St. Martin and St. Delis guard the grand
boulevards, they are the doorways to the heart of Paris and everywhere
are hidden treasures. Rue de la Lune. Rue Montorgueil. Place
du Caire. This is the heart of Paris, of the real Paris, where
danger lurks behind every corner. Any minute you can have an
adventure. This is the old Paris, the one that Hemingway wrote
about, that has disappeared everywhere but here. An island.
When the American dollar is devaluated by President Nixon,
for a month I have no money, my account is frozen by my bank,
so I take a job in one of the dress making shops, cleaning the
floor and toilettes. I even clean my Jewish land ladies windows
to the amusement of her little maid in her black and white uniform.
When I first arrived in Paris, I had found a new room with
heat and a shower, all the conveniences, in the 16th arrondisment,
near place Victor Hugo. A bourgeois neighborhood, surrounded
by chauffeur driven Mercedes Benz and BMWs. It was boring. People
were boring, BCBG, bon chic bon genre. At night they retreat
to their luxurious apartments while the high class male and female
whores take over the streets. It was hard to distinguish them
from the upstanding citizens. Down the street at Place Dauphine,
near the old NATO building turned into University, cars gather
at night, husbands lean on parked cars, their wives in side looking
like caged poodles, all dolled up. Wife swappers and swingers
I found out later. Corruption crawled beneath the shiny upper
crust of the rich. I preferred to see it in the raw, without
embellishment or hypocrisy.
Looking back, I think I must have been crazy to have lived
there, it was the real Paris, not the tourist post card, sanitized
one. It was the Paris one reads about. Not the one you see in
the tourist brochures. Yes, I froze at night, rolled into a ball,
under my sleeping bag, alone most of the time. I suffered, like
all young artists are supposed to. I did not die from it. I take
it out ever so often from my memory and look at that time with
amazement. Finally I gave in and moved to a student dormitory,
far from the real Paris, into a student paradise, or ghetto.
My two story studio apartment looked out over Paris, warm and
cozy, till the Oil Embargo, and oops, once again I froze - till
I found a girl friend.
You can never appreciate heaven till you have lived in hell.
©Stephen McDonnell 2001
Modern addendum; Chez Julien is a posh expensive restaurant
now, but the girls still ply their trade on St. Denis street.
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