Paris Spring

©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.

The walk

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 error.

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.

The Mugging

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.

Working Women

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.

My quartier

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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