Le Royal Custine, Rue Custine, Paris



Shanghai8 June 2008:
Le Bon Moment en Pigalle


"Don't say I'm nice," she said angrily, then looked away. I said I meant it. She had just told me how things worked at the Le X-Oh. It was one of those small girly places off the main drag in Pigalle. I liked this one better than the others. There were more "girls" and it was friendlier. You could buy a drink and talk, and there wasn't the pressure to go in the back for "sex."

She had been working the trade for eight years, she said. She rotated between London and Paris: six months in London, where she was from, then six months in Paris. Her name was Somali. She was a British citizen of "African descent."

She was actually promoting her friend to me, who spoke little English. She told me the prices and informed me that her friend would even go home with me if I wanted.

"How much to go home?" I asked.

Two bottles of champagne and 400E for her friend. The champagne, which was purchased from the bar, was 160E per bottle. That was 720E. I didn't want to take her friend home but I was curious what it would cost. I did not know that the girls in Pigalle would go home with you.

"She'll get her coat now if you want," said Somali.

"Not tonight," I said looking interested but not committed. In fact her friend, Maite, was a real knock-out African girl with the cartoon figure of a sex comic book. But it was Somali who was interesting.

I said 720E was very expensive.

She asked where I was from.

"Ici" (here), I said. "J'habite sur la rue Pigalle." (I live on rue Pigalle.)

She quit regarding me like an out-of-town bank account.

She explained the business a little more. She said it was mostly out-of-town businessmen who paid that. She said you could work out a deal with a girl that did not involve the bar. I thought there must be other rates or they would be out of business waiting for these out-of-town guys to show up. In fact, I saw a variety of customers. There were some local-looking young French guys who came in and bought a drink, hung out with the girls, and occasionally went in the back with them; there were older-looking French guys who did the same but more often went in the back; and sometimes one of these out-of-towners was there, usually looking slightly ashamed. They were the "target" customer, as they had the money, and the girls went for it like goldfish feeding on a few flakes flicked into their tank; but they looked awkward and out of place.

I talked books for awhile with Somali. She said she read in her spare time. I said that although I was living in Paris now, I was from actually from San Francisco, California. She mentioned romance author Danielle Steel, whom I knew of but had never read; I mentioned Jack Kerouac, whom I admired. She had never heard of him. "Try Mexico City Blues," I said. It is about a prostitute that Kerouac falls in love with but I did not tell her that.

Now for some reason she was promoting her friend again:

"Yeah, she'll get her coat right now," she said again.

I thought about asking, "What about you?" but didn't. I had enough trouble. But she was the interesting one, not her friend with the explosive figure.

I looked about the room. It had the fancy lamps like the other establishments in Pigalle but it was less rouge (red), more marron (brown) and easier on the eyes; and opposite the bar along the wall was a kind of padded couch-bench where the girls sat and hung out with customers, le clients. There was also of course a room in the back.

"Montmartre," she says sarcastically. She speaks only French. A heavy-set, lumpy old blond woman, she is the madame of Le Jet d'Eau, a curious and très petit girly bar close to the corner of Place Pigalle on Rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. I have walked by it many times since moving to Pigalle and it has always been a curiosity to me. I have seen a fluffy, white-haired old guy cleaning it in the mornings. He cleans the sidewalk, clear out to the curb, as well. He looks like a curiosity himself.

I have just said to madame that the bar is très artistique. It is. Everything is perfect. There is even red material hanging from the ceiling, not just the walls. The lamps are gorgeous, the bar beautiful. Much care has gone into the place. Her one-word response attributes the artistic quality of the bar to the influence of neary-by Montmartre, famous for its artists.

But I have been curious about one thing. Every time I walk by I have seen a sign in the window saying, "Recherche Hôtesse," meaning they are looking for a hostess.Now you see such signs in many of the bars in Pigalle but not all the time. Here at Le Jet d'Eau I always see the sign. I figure it must be the old guy, or the madame. One or both may be difficult to work for. One day I even see a sign that says "Demande Hôtesse." Demande doesn't have quite the emphatic meaning as in English, I think; but it does express the attitude that they really are in need.. And it is not too hard to figure out.

Madame is not unfriendly but speaks only when spoken to. The guy with the fluffy-white hair, probably the owner, is fastidious, I would guess, though très artistique. None of this makes for a friendly work environment; and in this business, which requires hours and hours of waiting, almost like a fisherman, environment is all important.

Anyway, on the night I drop in, there is in fact one "girl" there and one customer. Usually girls outnumber customers.

The girl is plump but pleasant looking. The customer looks like one of the out-of-towner business types but nicer than the usual sort I've seen. For one thing, he is not drunk. He is a young African male in a sweater, not a blue blazer—he is not the U.S. State Department going astray for an evening—and he has a kind of sensitivity about him. It is in fact an interesting process that I'm watching. It is almost as if he is wooing her with his charm and she is finally consenting to go back to his hotel with him. I don't think that is usually part of the process, this charm and consent thing. I think it is usually just a matter of money, honey; if you got it, you got me. Or you've rented my body for the rest of the evening, anyway.

But of course even here there is money involved. I see that he is passing the carte bleue, the credit card, across the bar to madame, who carefully scrutinizes it while the girl goes to the back to get her coat. Madame runs the card through the machine, which approves the purchase, and the happy couple are headed toward the door, almost as if they are on a honeymoon. I nod and say "bon soirée" as they pass. I actually feel happy for them.

I don't know how they are going to get more girls for this place. Some days they are even closed because, I suppose, no one wants to work there. Maybe they will need to quit washing the sidewalk, fluffing the curtains, and being so damned artistique.

"I want a whiskey," she howled like a child. I was in one of those moods after being taken by the ladies the night before that I was practicing stinginess like an art form. I was getting good at it. I bought myself a drink and sat down on the couch next to her.

"La coupe?" (the cup?) she asked. I didn't respond to her question. I practiced French with her for awhile. There were six very board-looking woman when I walked in earlier. Somali was there at the end of the bar near the window. This is the potential look-out for customers and the first impression customer have looking in the window. It is like the window in the pastry shop; you put your best stuff there. But I said something to Somali that annoyed her and she snapped at me. She has gotten to know me a bit and freely expresses herself.

"You're moody," I said to her bluntly.

"Well, how do you think I would feel working here?"

"What's wrong with here?" I asked. "Here is here, hear?" I said but she didn't get it.

I guess she was back to not feeling like a "nice" person. I wanted to tell her that "nice" people really weren't nice, nor very happy, but I didn't. I handed her some money and she looked much better, stuffing it into her low-cut blouse. But not wanting to buy her a drink, I went over to the couch and sat down with Saline, a compact blond, curly-haired girl from Italy. I had met here there at Le XO a few weeks before. She kind of interested me because she was not aggressive like the others. In fact when I first notice her she was sitting at the far end of the bar, away from the window, while other girls came up to see if I wanted company.

First a tall African woman came up, whose company I did not want, then a young blond French girl, whose company I also did not want. It was then that we played a little game like out of a movie. Sabrine looked up and motioned with her finger for me to come over; I motioned back for her to come to me. She hesitated,smiled, then came my way.

She told me she was from Italy and we spoke in a combination of French and English. I think I may create a new language that basically consists of French but substitutes English words where you don't know the French. It will keep Frenchmen on their toes when speaking with you, as it will appear that you have a larger vocabulary than they do: Monsieur, qu'est-ce que le sens de ce mot ... And they will be more respectful. Maybe.

We actually had an interesting conversation talking about words. Yes, if you don't have anything to talk about try talking about words. We talked about the word sensible (sensitive) and fou (mad). We did not discuss déprimé (depressed) or déments (demented) but probably should have. I think we might have found a lot in common there. Finally we discussed "business" and what it would cost, in theory, to have a girl come home and spend the night with you. I said it seemed very expensive.

"No," she said, "I'm not so expensive." Her voice was soft, low now. "I see you nice guy. You buy me dinner I go home with you."

Now I felt bad. This is not what I had in mind. I'm sorry I had moved the conversation down to this level. She was a nice person, like just about all the other girls here. I felt bad when I walked out leaving her alone there at the bar.

"Quarante euros," (40 euros) that is what she said she needed. She was the African girl with the cartoon figure of the sex comic book. I was going to avoid her but there she was in front of me. Sabrine was "tied up" with a business guy on the couch—wouldn't he look great in the company news letter!—so I bought the bombshell a drink. Was she real or just a seductive figure?

Since I was stuck drinking with her, I decided to ask her a few questions. I could use my text-book French.

"Quel âge avez-vous?"

Now my numbers are not great but I did not understand her answer. I think she may have responded in her native African tongue.


I finally determined that she was "vingt-huit ans" or twenty-eight years old.

"Qui, et vous avez la bonne figure, la bonne ligne. Elle vous donne la grosse tête." (Yes, and you have a good figure. It goes to your head.) I guessed at the French for "it goes to your head."

I went on: "Le jeune femme avec la bonne figure. Tout le monde vous aime ..." (The young woman with the good figure. Everyone loves you ...)

I could see that she really wasn't listening to me and so I stopped.

She lay down on the couch and put her head on my shoulder.

"J'ai un bébé," she said. "J'ai besoin de l'argent pour le bébé."

She told me she left her baby with her sister when she worked at night.

She said she wanted one more drink. I argued that the bar just got the money if I bought her a drink. Somali had explained that to me. I suggested that it would be better if I just gave her the money.

"But I don't drink or smoke at home with the baby. I need a drink before I go home."

I bought her another drink. Spread out on the couch and whining, she had become real.

Pauvre fille. Le bonne ligne peut être une malédiction. (Poor girl. The good figure can be a curse.)

"Voulez-vous avoir un bon moment avec moi?" she asked. I had walked into Vinois on rue Victor Masse. It was a place I had not been in and I was going slow and doing it on a budget. I had allotted 50E and wasn't going to be stuck in conversation with the first person who walked up. That was the idea, anyway. If you want to learn the places in your neighborhood, you can't spend it all in one place; you have to have some discipline.

The interior surprised me: It was modern and the bar was well stocked with bottles. There were also a lot of girls hanging around the bar, younger girls. Sitting on a bar stool was older guy, maybe seventy, with mealy skin. He looked like the product of years of heavy smoking and drinking, but his body still looked strong. Was it the girls that kept him strong? He was well dressed but did not look like an out-of-towner. I thought for a moment that he might be the owner, then thought it unlikely. He smiled—it was the twinkling smile of an old cowboy—when I came up to the bar, said somethng that I did not understand, then went outside for a smoke. Yes, the no-smoking rule seems to be strictly observed in these "houses of sin."

Soon a rather chubby and unattractive young lady was at my side asking if I wanted to buy her a drink. I didn't and she moved off. I don't quite understand it but it is a fact: You always find some truly unattractive women working in these places. Sure, I know, they have a right to do it, but how much money do they make? I don't think much. But maybe there is a market for unattractive women that I don't know about. Maybe some guys feel more comfortable with them. Maybe I would would, for that matter. Maybe I should give them a try.

But soon the usual is happening. One girl fails and another moves in on you. But now it was the babe of the house in front of me. A somewhat tall, busty African babe who simply exuded sex. I was going to see how long I could refrain from buying anyone a drink and just get the feel of the place but I changed the rules slightly when she stood before me, moist, oily, like a promise of joy, flight, release ...

But to make matters clear to her I said:

"Je ne suis pas un bon client." (I'm not a good customer.)

This was my usual warning that things were not going to be according to pattern. But I don't think she really heard me. She was just running a routine.

I also told her that I was from the neighborhood, that I lived just down the street. She still treated my like an out-of-town bank account.

I am sitting down on a bar stool and she is starting to do things to me that, if done at all, are usually done in private. It does not bother her that there are other people around. I think I better make the situation clear to her again.

"You're not going to be happy when I walk out," I say. But I don't think she even hears this. She is using all the tricks she knows to excite me. I think the idea with some of the girls is this: If they can get you sufficiently excited or turned on, the customer will do anything: Drive off a cliff, throw himself into a river, jump out a window ...

"Voulez-vous avoir un bon moment avec moi?" (Do you want to have a good time with me?) she asks. "We go down stairs. Very private."

"Se combien?" I ask. I am always curious what something costs even if I don't want it. But this time I should probably not have asked. It just made her more confident that she had me in her power.

"Cent soixante-dix pour le champagne, et cent soixante-dix pour moi." (One hundred and seventy for the champagne, one hundred and seventy for me.) "You put on carte bleue."

"C'est un peu cher pour ce soir," (That is a little expensive for tonight) I say and reach for my bag, which I had placed on the floor next to the bar stool.

"You are leaving?" she asks sharply. She looks mad.

"Qui, je n'est pas bon client ce soir." She finally gets it and walks off without another word. She stands across the room with another girl looking truly mad. Where has the bon moment gone? C'est maintenant le moment de colère. (It is now a moment of anger.)

And if we had gone downstairs with the bottle of champagne, would it have been un bon moment? What if something had gone wrong, or too soon, or too late, or not at all? And my 340E that I spend for le bon moment? What about them? Would they be refunded? I would I then be le client en colère.

The other girls didn't look at me. They realized that something had gone wrong. The old cowboy had finished his smoke and was coming back through the gilded door. I was happy to leave. I really didn't like this woman who did not listen, had no fun about her, and was only into my carte bleue. I don't think, in her case, there was any bébé at home. I headed down rue de Douai toward rue Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. At Buddy Bar I bought a frowzy older gal a drink, then went home. Enough for les bons moments for one evening.