At 5 o'clock in the morning the rats come out. At 6 the pigeons drop from the trees and the roofs of buildings and the rats go back into the shrubbery of the center island of Boulevard Clichy. It is the pigeons' turn to pick over the garbage. At 7 the city workers show up for cleanup. By 8 the area has been picked over in various ways and a few tourists show up out of nowhere. It will be hours before the sex shops open for business but the day has begun. How do I know all this?
I am hanging out there every other day—or should I say night?—as a cost-saving measure. I can only afford to stay in a hostel every other day. At least I am in Montmartre, a nice part of Paris, once frequented by artists and now, with the Moulin Rouge just up the street, coveted by tourists. I don't know how long this will go on. "Business," I read, has begun to recover. Buy my business has not. I guess big business is doing business with big business; they are not doing business with me, the little guy, or my business, which is small. And what money the government of the United States once had has been squandered on foreign wars. But maybe I should be grateful that they did not go after me. I would be cheap, after all; one bullet to the head would do it, not a 500-pound dropped from a 100-million-dollar jet.
So I am spending every other night out on the street—dans le rue à Paris—mostly on a big, tree-lined pedestrian island that runs down the middle of Boulevards Clichy and Boulevard Rochecouart, the latter continuing the grand boulevard to the east toward the Arab quarter. It has been interesting but not without discomfort and incident. Also, staying up all night gives you a lot of thinking time. That can of course be good and bad. The clarity is nice; the world's unsolved problems are a nightmare.
My first night out was the first Friday in September and the beginning of Le Weekend in Paris. The weather was mild during the day, and I had decided to take a walk from Montmartre down to the Seine. I had never done that before: I had almost always taken the subway to different locations around Paris, popping up here and there, not knowing exactly how I had gotten there. This left me with a patchy impression of the city, the patches connected by a tourist map that I trusted to show me how I had gotten there if I really wanted to know. But now I knew exactly how I had gotten there. A lot of dots were connected by doing this. Before I had felt like a hobbit. I walked down rue Pierre Fontaine to rue Notre Dame de Lorette—actually rue Pierre Fontaine turned into Notre Dame de Lorette and I passed places that I had been to before such as Le Limonaire on rue Bergère. I had once taken a taxi there to a performance by musician Stéphane Cadé but did not remember the route the taxi had taken. Rue Notre Dame de Lorette turned into rue Fauborg Montmartre, which cut across the junction of bouelvards Haussmann and Poissonniere, Poissonniere heading to the east, Haussmann to the west. I had once studied French at nearby ACCORD Language School on Poissonniere, having no idea how I had gotten there each moring on the subway. Rue Faubord Montmartre then turned simply into rue Montmartre. Then I cut over on rue Etienne Marcel to Boulevard Sabastopol, heading in the same direction on Sabastopol as I had before on Montmartre. I proceeded to the Seine. This was all enlightening—I like to know how I get somewhere and don't completely trust tourist maps—but I was developing blisters on my feet and getting sweaty from the walk. As I approached the Seine and St. Germain across the river, it suddenly dawned on me that I would not be getting a shower later on. I felt happy that I had connected some dots but hobbled back to Place Pigalle in the late afternoon, the sun now slanting over the city and the grand boulevard running east and west. I wondered just how I would spend the night. I bought a sandwich; I bought a bottle of wine. But I did not know how I would spend my time. I wandered up and down the center island where there were a lot of other people, some on benches, some parading in fashionable clothes, the sun filtering light green through the leaves of the trees.
Down at rue Lepic at Place Blanche, with the Moulin Rouge nearby, there were a lot of tourists. The many couples all seemed to have the same idea: to shoot each other's picture with the Moulin Rouge in the background. It was just like up the street at Place Pigalle where every couple wanted to shoot each other's picture with the Sexodrome in the background. It all seemed to be reflex behavior. It was something they would put in their family albums or on facebook.com and show to friends and relatives who would have exactly the same reaction: the feigned shock of those who are used to almost anything on TV and movies but almost nothing in real life. These people were either fashionably dressed or purposely dressed like slobs, the message being in the latter case that they were beyond fashion. All had expensive digital cameras. Wanting to avoid this as much as possible, I headed west down to Place Clichy on the broad center island. There were a lot of hanger outers but they were not tourists now, or at least not most of them. Many of them, sitting on benches, had tall, open cans of beer.
I hung out and watched the scene for awhile, sometimes standing and not knowing what to do—I was beginning to feel bored—and sometimes sitting on one of the benches. After awhile a young Arab guy approaches me and asks me for money, "tois Euros" (three Euros). I don't know how he arrives at this amount. It is not small change. I tell him no, that I don't have tois Euros. I tell him that is why I am on the bench here. Now his friend comes over and also asks for money. I tell him no also, with the same explanation. They are both well dressed, or at least better dressed than I am. The first guy walks off and the second guy calls me a "bitch" and kicks me. Now they are both gone. I'm not sure whether I like hanging out with these guys best or the tourists. At least the tourists don't kick.
(The next day, back at the hostel where I was staying every other day, a guy explained it to me: "They think you owe them." Maybe.)
Soon it is getting cold. The sun set some time ago. I'm not sure what time it is—nine, ten, or eleven. Time drags. Then there is an automobile accident—someone is lying in the street—and an ambulance arrives. Now someone is being lifted into the ambulance on a stretcher. But it seems to take forever. Time seems to have ground to a halt. Why are they taking so long? I see a motorcycle without a rider on the curb. It is dented. The mood is now somber, almost grim on the street. What am I doing here?
A little later there are three French guys at the bench next to mine. One of them comes over. He asks me where I am from.
"Shanghai," I say, "Chine."
He looks curious.
"Jiujinshan—San Francisco," I say. "I died there last year in an accident involving offshoring, derivates, and subprimes."
But he is a nice young man, so I quit acting like a crazy person.
"I get around," I say, "Shanghai, Paris, San Francisco; Shanghai, Paris, San Francisco ..."
"Mais qu'est-ce que tu fais ce soir?" (What are you doing tonight?) he asks.
"Je n'ai pas beaucoup d'argent" (I don't have much money), I say. I'm one of the losers of the financial crisis, I say.
He warns me about going to sleep on the center island. He says maybe I won't be robbed because I'm older.
"Peut-être qu'ils vous respectent en raison de votre age" (Maybe they would respect you because of your age), but he says that he would be robbed. I assure him that I don't intend to go to sleep.
He introduces himself. His name is Etienne. I say mine is Louis Martin. He likes that, as it is a very French name.
"But you speak only some French?" he asks.
"I speak better Chinese now," I say. "I spent the last year in China."
He asks me if I want to join him and his friends for a drink. They are drinking whiskey and coke, a combination that I don't like, but he is a friendly guy and I go over and he introduces me.
"This is Marcel," he says. "He doesn't like Americans."
Marcel squirms and tries to explain. I say that I have not been happy with America either when George Bush was president and Marcel relaxes. He says he likes Obama. I say I hope he does not get assassinated.
"Les meilleurs présidents américains sont assassinés," I say.
We all look grim for a moment. They they say they are headed to the clubs.
It is late now. I wander over to a bench on the other side of the center island and look up between the Napoleonic-era apartment buildings. I see the moon in a mostly clear sky. It is a fine sight. My mood is lifted.
Later I walk down toward Place Anvers—walking is one way to stay warm—where I eat my sandwich and drink some wine. But the wind comes up and I get so cold by 4 AM that I walk back down to the all-night bar, Cafe Palmier, opposite the Moulin Rouge, for a vodka martini and shelter. In the end I have saved little money by staying up all night.
Woodstock is full too. I consider spending another night on the street but decide against it. I am too tired. I am afraid of falling asleep.
Just east of Place Anvers, next to PIED DE LA BUTTE on the north side of the street, is an old nameless hotel, or a hotel named HOTEL if it has a name.
I check if they have a room. They do but it is 55 EUR. I hesitate and the manager offers it to me for 50. Although it violates my budget, I take it. I need a little more rest before hitting the street again. I get a good night's rest and a shower and reflect a little on what I have seen so far. I am surprised at one thing: The number of people out on the street—well dressed French people, including older men and women, who have asked me for money. It has not just been the young Arab guys. They come up, start a conversation—"D'où êtes-vous?"—then ask if I have a little spare change "pour manger." I tell them I don't and they are very polite about it. They do not kick me. I have lived in Paris before, though not on the street, and have never had a well dressed French person ask me for money. Are things that bad for them too? An old phrase, "to have and to have not," takes on new meaning for me. I am aware of becoming a "have not" or at least a "have little." It is like sliding down the muddy banks of a river. Is there a way back up? Is there a "solution"? Or is it eventually the sea and "death by drowning"?
On Sunday I'm back on the street again, first having stopped by a locker that I rent to stow away stuff I do not need on the street. I was still wondering about a solution and not being washed out to sea. For some reason in recent months I had become interested in "problem solving." I realize that is rather abstract but when you are faced again and again with the same problem or situation, it leads to abstract thinking. I had literally begun to ask myself, "How do you solve a problem that seems unsolvable?" I concluded that the first requirement was that a person try no matter how difficult the problem appeared to be. I also concluded that a person had to watch for opportunity. Previously I had contemplated what I called the Big Picture, or the Meaning of Things. This was while living in China and reading Lao Zi and Confucius. (Lao Zi & the Void) And I had also returned to a consideration of "psychology," which I had neglected or even derided in recent years. I realized that the Big Picture was not enough. You might be in possession of the greatest philosophical truths of mankind, but if they did not relate to your actual personality with its strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and more bizarre aspects, you possessed nothing of real value. Then I moved on to "problem solving," because it occurred to me that if you had a good idea about your strengths and weaknesses ... you might want to tinker with your strengths, weaknesses .... That was human nature. I also realized that there were problems of your own making and ones that were purely external. But you had to deal with both. Even though you were not responsible for "subprimes" and "derivatives," you were going to have to deal with them or at least their consequences. This was just before leaving Shanghai, China, for Paris. (Picking Up The Pieces In Paris, Part 2) Timely, I suppose. I had thought Paris would be easier. But when I got to Paris I found prices to be much higher than expected, and I found myself with less money than I thought I had. Guess what? Yes, I had a problem, or a whole bunch of them. But back to the street.
I got through the day and the night okay but I'm not sure how. I don't remember and my notes are few. The weather, I believe, was mild. Up to midnight or 2 AM was not bad. You could go to a bar or a cafe and order a coffee and sit and read where it was dry and relatively warm. You had shelter. From 2 AM on was the rough time if it were cold and especially rough if there was a wind as well. The best places in Pigalle and Montemartre closed by 2 AM. Then it was the rip-off place, Cafe Palmier, across the street form the Moulin Rouge; Tavern Clichy further to the east where Clichy bends south; or a few other sleazy all-night places. I had not discovered them all yet. At first it was a combination of discomfort and boredom, which I was not used to. It was as though I had regressed to an earlier time in life when I suffered psychological and physical discomfort, and endlessly boring and hopeless days. It was as though I were back in junior high school not knowing what to do with myself. I had been cut off from the life that I had made for myself later on through dreaming, visions, work, and waiting for the right opportunities to open up. Where was the solution? I did not see one—just the endless cold night with a vague longing for the coming of day which would bring light and some warmth. There were people all around me but for the most part I did not want to talk with them. This was unusual for me and made me think that I was becoming mentally ill. But no, I did not feel mentally ill. I just didn't want to talk with most of the people around me. I felt like I already knew most of them, and it would be a waste of time. I felt like my energy would be drained away.
On Monday I went over to Woodstock
again. They had a place for the night and I took it. Staying at Woodstock
and staying at Caulaincourt Square will illustrate the difference between
a good hostel and a bad one. Woodstock advertises itself as hip and fun.
It is neither; it is disorganized. It also advertises itself as cheaper;
in the end it is not. Sheets are "extra"; Internet access isn't
free. They have a bar and disallow you from bringing your own. For a four
Euro glass of wine you could buy two bottles at the market next door.
There is one door key per room, the key shared, somehow, by six people.
Showers have no temperature control, are luke warm, and are operated by
a time-controlled push button that you have to keep pushing. Caulaincourt
Square is just the opposite on all the above and in fact hip and fun,
if that is what you are looking for. One positive note, however. I met
three Chinese-speaking girls from Singapore at Woodstock. I felt more
at home with them than I had felt in the last week. It was nice just to
hear them laugh and see them smile; they were infectiously uplifting to
my spirits. Clearly I was missing the good life in Shanghai and resenting
my new life as a half-homeless person in Paris.
On Tuesday I'm back out on the street again. I am beginning to get organized now. I am looking for places to work besides the bars and cafes. I get the idea that the libraries—biblioteques—might be good places to spread out and write. I remember the libraries in Santa Cruz, California, where I lived years ago. They had big tables and comfortable chairs and good restrooms. They were a comfortable place to work if you needed work space. So I paid a visit to nearby Clingnancourt Biblioteque. It was a nice library with plenty of light and had a nice collection, but it had only chairs, no tables. I had the impression that this may have been by design. Anyway, I scratched the idea of working in public libraries. The bars and cafes would have to do, with the purchase of a coffee or glass of wine every two hours or so to avoid the evil eye. Actually, a nice tip was a good way to buy more time.
Earlier in the morning it had been cold out on the island on Boulevard Clichy. It was then that I observed the schedule of the rats, pigeons, and the clean-up crew: 5 AM for the rates, 6 AM for the pigeons, and clean-up crew at 7. Anyone who was sleeping on a bench was usually up and off by then. The party hanger-outers—mostly Africans and Arabs—had finished smashing their bottles and were gone somewhat before the bench sleepers. It was time to clean up and get ready for a new day of the same. One thing I had discovered by now: About one out of five of the Marie de Paris toilets actually worked, and all went out of service around midnight. I guess that was to discourage the hanger outers, only it did not work. They were not a shy bunch. They simply peed on Marie de Paris. And I must say I did not find this offensive. Toilets are essential if you want a clean environment. Control access hours on the island if you don't want people there; don't deny them a basic necessity! I used the bushes myself—I'm shy—and one evening I walked over to the bridge over Cemetiere Montmartre and peed off the side—I thought I heard a plaintive stirring of souls down below but could not be sure. Once, I am ashamed to say, I misused a telephone booth. Oh, how nice it would have been to have working toilets at those hours. Does anyone remember when they had real toilets in Paris and you paid a few francs to a woman who watched over them and kept them clean? Those were the days! Now we pee in or on an automated metal chamber that talks to you while you are inside or denies you service while you are out. So who is making money off this insult? Would not castration be a fitting punishment?
I see from my notes that while
the rats and others were doing their thing, I was studying Chinese and,
according to my notes, not finding it "too relevant." Indeed!
If I were losing my sanity, at least I was retaining my sense of humor.
On Wednesday I was back at Caulaincourt Square. It is mostly young people there either glued to the Internet or dashing out to visit one more monument, museum, high tower, catacomb ...
"Have you been to the Concourse de _____?"
"Not yet. Tomorrow. You?"
"Yeah, and the Louvre and the Toulier de Something and the Pierre Le Chez ... I think it was a cemetery ..."
I guess I was the same years ago on my first visit. I even visited the sewer system, Les Egout de Paris. A tour was offered once a week, on a Tuesday. My French friends with whom I was staying: "You did what?!!" They didn't know about this tour, and I'm not sure they approved.
But there were also a few thoughtful youths there like Barry from Philadelphia who had just graduated from the university with a degree in English—not computer science, not political science, not marketing "communications" and other nonsense. We talked about our room mate "Fabo," who looked Iranian but was living and working in Los Angeles, California. Every day Fabo was making the rounds of the tourist hit list but also hitting the clubs at night. He was so busy making the rounds that he did not have time to drink the bottle of Stoli that he had in the room. Waste is a bad thing. Barry and I helped him out. I even poured some into my whiskey flask to drink out on the street when it was cold and make extra sure so that it did not go to waste. Barry was skeptical about Fabo's night routine.
"I think he could do the same thing in LA," he said. He was referring to the clubs.
"Yeah, it does seem senseless to come to Paris to go to discos. More Stoli?"
I once mentioned that minimal travel gear was a toothbrush and an extra pair of underwear. We were talking with our room mate, a lovely blond girl from New Zealand, who was a genuine traveler.
"And socks," Barry added.
"Right you are," I agreed. "If you are going to do much walking, you need socks too."
Barry had his head screwed on for someone who had just graduated from the university.
Then I saw women between the age of 20 and 30 prancing down the sidewalk like spirited horses, heals click-click-clicking on the concrete sidewalk and totally self absorbed. Ah, yes, they were young French women. They looked like the center of the universe, theirs anyway. They appeared to have no interest in anything outside their own thoughts and feelings. Maybe that was good. Being self contained could be adaptive in times like these. They looked and sounded like they were always right, as if they alone knew the truth. What a wonderful thing that would be. Imagine knowing the absolute truth! But where were their young men, I wondered. Did they even need them? Maybe not. But then some of them had babies that they were pushing around in carriages, talking to them as if they were young princes or princesses. They must have men of some kind.
Then I noticed the young guys with shaved heads and leather jackets zipping around on motorcycles. The looked like knights of old as they zoomed onto the sidewalks, scattering pedestrians in all directions, then parked by the curb with 30 other motorcycles rendering the sidewalk nearly impassable. As they rip off the helmut with the tinted face plate, you then see the bald head and the evil but intelligent eyes—unbeautiful but I guess as their women, absorbed in their own beauty, aesthetics, and sensibilities, want them.
But what about the Africans? What about the Arabs, the Indians? Who are they? What are they thinking? I nearly collapse under the weight of my inquiry.
I had recently come out of a culture that was much more uniform. Maybe that is what was troubling me.
In China it was much more crowed but people seemed to flow around each other; here it seemed to be all tripping over each other and stubbornness. No one wants to relinquish an inch of space. Also, style and image seemed to be all important. Ideas are important but only as a fashion statement; they come and go as does low hem lines or high ones. Meaning? Mention the word only if you want to be laughed at or sneared at, or spit upon. Or am I just losing it? Have I been out on the street too long?
One other subject—or is it really the same?—I have noticed that the big problem, to put it bluntly, is the hardness of surfaces. Or the harshness. That is, without padding you can only sit on a bench so long. But then there's the wind too and the rain. And the price of coffee....
On Friday, after some rest at Caulaincourt Squarel, I was back on the street. But it was a rough night. It was cold and windy, which later on caused my body to shake. Across from Carrefour Market near Place Anvers there was a big grate with hot air coming out of it. I stood on it at times during the night to get warm but it seemed to have a negative effect. While standing on it you were okay, but as soon as you stepped off you were more miserable than before. Also, when on it your legs were warm but your face and head were cold. It was a strange imbalance, leaving you feeling more sick than before. Catty-corner to the grate and on the other corner facing Carrefour was Au Rendez-Vous des Artistes. I wondered how long it had been since any real artists met there. I had been in earlier for a 2.65 EUR espresso.
In Paris I am a people watcher but I am a little indirect about it. I don't like to directly look at people for a long period of time. I steal glances, which I feel protects their feeling of privacy. In China I have learned to almost not look at all. I see things but I mind my own business, which is what other people do there. My attention goes to the person I am with. But in stealing glances from the grate opposite Carrefour I caught the glance of a young French women who had for a moment broken the unwritten rule of self absorption. It was a critical or "dirty" look, one I have seen other people give to the homeless in the United States. I felt uncomfortable and looked the other way. In fact, I adopted a new policy of generally looking in the opposite direction as people were approaching, sparing me, I thought, other dirty looks.
Earlier in the evening, down near Place Clichy, I had another incident. I was standing up a few feet away from my push cart—you get tired of sitting on a hard bench all the time—when a young Arab guy grabbed it by the handle and ran. I am not sure whether he was really trying to steal it or just teasing me. But I chased him down and he let go. I felt no humor in it, if that was his intention, and called him a "mother fucker" twice. He walked off smiling with his friends.
As the night wore on it got colder and colder and I got the shakes. First you quiver, then your start to shake uncontrollably. I got out my flask of vodka. Several swigs brought the shakes under control till morning. I wished that I had beijiu. It is stronger and would have done a wonderful job.
One of the rats came out early, followed by a single pigeon. Who or what gave them the go I don't know. The clean-up crew showed up at the usual hour of course.
For a couple of days I observed
the same pattern—hostel one night (Caulaincourt Square), the next
night on the street. I was beginning to get bored with the scene in Pigalle
with the mostly African and Arab guys hanging out at night on the center
island and the glitter of the clubs where occasionally some guy would
come flying out of the door chased down the street by the doorman or the
manager. Most of the clubs on the Montmartre side of Clichy were rip-offs.
They got some guy inside and, if he didn't order a bottle of champagne
for 200 EUR or so and go in the back with one of the girls to have "sex,"
presented him with a bill of 80 EUR or more for buying a girl a drink
and talking with her. When he protested the price, a 6-foot, 8-inch black
guy showed up blocking the exit. But one evening it was interesting. I
was standing staring blankly at L'Entrevue next to Pussy's
when I saw the doors suddenly fly open and a lean young man with a pony
tail and a small back pack come flying out. Then came the manager in hot
pursuit. But he was no match for the lean young man. He gave up after
a half block. What few know is that threatening to call the police will
rapidly end any price dispute. The "clubs" do not want trouble
with the police.
But as I said, I was getting bored by the scene in Pigalle and began to look more seriously for places to hang out and stay warm. I discovered La Fourmi, which was good during the day but crowded at night. I discovered Le Royal Bar next door, which was owned by a Chinese guy with a friend named Mr. Wong (Wong Xiansheng). It was not overly popular, as it was not "hip," but was well run with reasonable prices. If you wanted to practice Chinese, it was even better. There was another place I had discovered down the street on rue Pigalle. It also had a Chinese owner who was happy to speak Chinese rather than French. In fact, I think he was rather pleased and surprised when I showed up speaking Chongwen or putonhua, the standard Chinese language. Every afternoon he gets a crowd of customers—guke—who show up for the horse races. He has a big screen TV and a betting machine. None of those customers speak Chinese. I began to go by every afternoon after writing at La Fourmi and checking my email at Discount Internet on rue Pierre Fountaine. My day was beginning to take on a shape, a pattern if you want to call it that, but a good one. After the races I usually went out shopping for dîner. I hit various markets and wine shops till I found what I wanted and could afford. It was always the same: a sandwich, cheese, a baguette, and a bottle of wine. Actually, that was dinner and breakfast and lunch the next day. The sandwich was not a good one from Brioche Dorée or one of the other bakeries that make good fresh sandwiches. They were expensive. It was a 1.99 EUR sandwich, sliced diagonally, in one of those triangular plastic containers with an expiration date, usually two weeks out. But there were better sandwiches and worse ones. The best were with Rôti, or rôtisserie chicken and chopped cornichons, the worst with Thon, or tuna. Good camembert cheese could be had for only 1.35 EUR, a bargain. You could eat that all day and into the night and finish it up, somewhat runny, for breakfast. Baguettes were never a problem. Only ninety centièmes for the best—warm, crunchy, and fresh—at a bakery up in Place Abbesses. Wine was the fun item for me. For awhile I was buying one-litter bottles of red wine from Caves des Abbesses, also on Place Abbesses. It was their lowest-priced wine but good. Everything they sell is hand picked and good. But then they ran out. Or I guess you could say I drank it all. I then began to scout the markets in Montmartre for bargains. I was not disappointed. I found good bottles, especially reds, for under 2 EUR. Although I would have preferred white, since it is less conspicuous, looking like water in my Evian water bottle, I in fact bought more red than white: better price, better quality, and more choices. I usually ate my dinner down near Place Clichy on one of the benches there. Quieter and more orderly there, better for the digestion. I think that Maestro Cafe across the street on the Montmartre side set the tone for fine bench dining.
There is also Royal Custine on the rear side of Montmartre. That is one of my favorite places and good for later on in the evening. As is the common pattern in Paris, most customers prefer to sit outside or stand at the bar. That leaves the inside booths and tables for those who want to read or write. Occasionally there is soccer game, which breaks the pattern, but meiyou wenti—or should I say pas de problème?—I like soccer. The service at Royal Custine is always cordial, and they never rush customers out the door.
One other place I should mention is Brioche Dorée on Clichy and Houdon. It's part of a chain but the price is right, the pastry and sandwiches are fresh, and the restrooms clean. It, too, makes a good office. I did throw a fit one day, however, when I went in after thinking about coffee all morning and the espresso machine was broken.
"What can I do, Monsieur, the machine is broken!" the flustered manager said.
"But you are a coffee house!" I said, as if that made some kind of difference.
"The machine is broken!"
I pouted. Then he offered me tea and I settled down like a reasonable person. The tea was good. It seemed I had forgotten my China days when all I drank was tea.
Saturday I spent outside again, in and out of the bars and cafes. It was very cold and when I wasn't having coffee or a glass of wine indoors, I spent most of my time standing on the grate in front of Carrefour Market. It was a little unnerving, as it is a big grate that covers an under-ground utility room about 30 feet down below. You can't help imagining what would happen if the grate, not awfully strong looking, broke and you fell though. Of course your problems would be over, if you wanted to put a positive spin on it. You also feel exposed there, as if you're wearing a sign that said Here Is A Guy Freezing To Death. There is not a bush, bench, or tree to hide your shame.
Sunday I spent at Caulaincourt
Square but was back on the street again Monday. Although it was supposed
to rain Monday, it didn't, and all week long things seemed better. It
looked like I had an English tutoring job set up that would earn some
extra cash, and I had some promising email exchanges with a landlord regarding
a cheap room in the area. Who knows? I might be back inside and with "cash
flow" in a few days. If opportunity were knocking, I was listening.
True, it wouldn't be my old Nob Hill apartment in San Francisco with a
view all over the Bay and I wouldn't have my Ford van back—I had
sold it for cash sometime back. But who needs that shit? I was alive!
I hadn't lost any limbs in Mr. Bush's or Mr. Cheney's wars. I was in one
piece mentally most of the time. So what if I had bu hao jiyili—bad
memories? At least I had not been water-boarded 183 times in a month.
I could forget, couldn't I? I could refuse to remember. I could ... The
I could not get a booking at Caulaincourt Square on Saturday, so I decided to go over to St. Germain and try to get a booking at Young & Happy Hostel on rue Mouffetard. True, I was neither young nor happy but I figured they would accept my money. I knew the area and liked it. But they were booked and sent me over to a hotel on Port Royal. It was a nice place and they had a private room at just 40 EUR, a bargain for the area. But I decided against it because of the expense. But at the same time I was getting pretty tired. I was not sure I wanted to stay up two days in a row.
It was a nice day in St. Germain and I headed west on Boulevard St. Germain over to Le Procope, Les Deux Maggot, Cafe Flore ... I didn't have the money to ear or drink but I went into Le Procope just to look around. I had been there before. It wasn't crowed and I got into a conversation with the young bartender, who is an aspiring actor. He has the blood in the family. His farther is a performer at Moulin Rouge and his mother a former performer and now manager. He had orders for drink coming from some of the tables and at times the manager seemed to be giving him the evil eye, but he went on talking with me, only slowly responding to orders.
I was telling him about problems with the publishing industry these days. He wasn't aware of declining advertising revenues, the effect of Google ...
"Hey, I don't want to get you fired," I said, as the manager, a pinched-looking older guy, again gave him a look.
"It's pretty hard to fire someone in France," he said. "Tell me more about what you write," he said.
"Anything and everything," I said, "but unfortunately I mostly lose money."
"Well, as long as you do what you want," he said, "that's what counts!"
"That's the way I look at it," I said.
We talked for another 15 minutes, he mostly ignoring orders for drinks, then I walked down to the corner of St. Germain and Bonaparte. I paid my respects but did not go into any of the places. Then I headed back to Pigalle and Montmartre. By the time I got back in the late afternoon I was very tired. I was dubious about staying up two nights in a row but decided to give it a try. I went over to the Royal Custine and watched a soccer game in the earlier part of the evening. I stopped by a place called AUX NOCTAMBULES to listen to some guys who sounded like Django Rheinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. Reinhardt and Grappelli played across the street years ago. It was Reinhardt's first gig in Paris. I saw an old photograph that showed both of them dressed immaculately. But these young guys were inspiring too. They had the sound. I began to feel good about Pigalle. I also felt very tired. I drank wine because they didn't have coffee at AUX NOCTAMBULES. Strange? Well, at least the music was authetic. Then about 4 AM I went down to Place Anvers and sat on a bench. I was really feeling tired now. Very tired. So tired I did not think I could keep my eyes open anymore. I thought if I just lay down on the bench for a moment I would feel better. I lay down holding to my cloth bag with my left hand and to my cart that had my big bag with my left hand.
What seemed like a few moments later I feel someone gently squeeze my wrist and I hear him say, "You have been robbed. But don't worry, we have all your stuff." It is one of three policemen standing by the bench beside me. I feel like I am coming out of surgery. Everything is dim and confused for awhile. I have no idea how long I have been asleep. But it only seems like a few moments.
I get in their car to go for a fast ride to the Montmartre police station. They need me to file a complaint. They also have all my stuff there but ask me to identify my cell phone among other cell phones. Apparently the robbers had already begun to sort items from my bag into other items they had stolen. I didn't have a clear picture of exactly when or how they had been nabbed.
I go to the interrogation room where one of the officers asks questions and I try to remember everything as accurately as possible. I say that I had no intention of sleeping on the bench, that I couldn't get a hotel room and intended to stay up all night. By 7 in the morning I was back on the street with my stuff. I was lucky. The bag they took had all my notes from the last six months in China. They had not tried for my wallet, which was in a money belt still strapped to my waist.
Later I looked at a copy of the complaint. It was against two people I did not know and never saw: Manher Zarroug and Hadj Belkacem. Did I owe these guys too?
I felt both stupid and lucky for the rest of the day, with luck predominating. My problems could have gotten much worse. Opportunity was an important factor in life but luck was important too. Walking from the police station, I saw an older Arab man sitting on the street, his hat on the sidewalk for change. I knew the feeling. I dumped most of my loose change in his hat. When it got a little lighter out I walked up to Caulaincourt Square and checked if they had a room for the night. I was in luck. They did.
For the rest of the week I
kept to my pattern on alternate days of writing in the late morning, usually
at La Fourni; checking email; watching the horse races at the Chinese
bar on rue Pigalle; shopping at the wine stores, bakeries, and small markets
around Montmartre and Pigalle; and reading in the evenings at Royal Custine
and Royal Bar. The early morning hours remained a problem until I discovered
Le Frochot on the corner of rues Frochot and Victor Massé.
That was an all-night bar at the base of rue Frochot, the bordello street
in Pigalle, mostly off the tourist track. Anyone and everyone getting
off work in a club in Pigalle showed up there after his or her club closed.
It was mostly a drag unless there was a fight or someone was stealing
a car. But that's another story dans le rue a Paris.