Noises at Night - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

Chapter 9. Noises at Night

If I can’t see Paris when I open my eyes in the morning, I want to go right back to sleep.

HEDY LAMARR in Algiers

Though it alerted me to some potential drawbacks to night walks, Gelenter’s skepticism didn’t discourage me. True, there were problems, but some had already been solved.

The cobbles, for instance. Existing Paris-by-night tours ducked this difficulty by going indoors, to the cabarets and nightclubs of Pigalle. Though, inconveniently for me, most literary sites closed their doors just as these hot spots opened for business, there were sure to be some cultural locations sufficiently well lit to be accessible after dark.

And once I began thinking about the idea, material accumulated. For a scent walk, for instance: medieval monks planted rosemary and thyme between the stones of the paths around their medicinal herb gardens so that feet, crushing the plants, released their aroma. With a precedent like that, there must be places where the night brought out Paris’s unique perfume.

As for taste, with eating approaching a religion in Paris, such a walk should be a pushover. In Italy and Spain, American colleges were already offering courses in culinary studies where “classes” took place at various restaurants and the only required reading was the menu. Surely one could do the same thing in Paris. A friend already conducted U.S. high school seniors on a food-and-drink course, somewhat hampered by the participants not being allowed alcohol. I’d given talks to her class and noted their slightly aggrieved expressions. In their position, I’d feel exactly the same way.

Nor would a touch walk pose problems in so tactile a city—although art historian Walter Benjamin lamented how a preoccupation with “sights” and stories prevents us from smelling or literally feeling a building or street. The true flaneur, he said, “would be happy to trade all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile—which any old dog carries away.”

As for a sound walk, I hadn’t given it much thought. Modern Paris wasn’t a particularly audible city—not by comparison with the 1930s, when the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Montparnasse were a cacophony, particularly on Saturday nights. Nobody back then appeared to mind. If anything, it was part of Paris’s charm. In 1935, humorist E. B. White favorably contrasted Paris street sounds with those of New York. To him, Manhattan noise “has an irritant quality, full of sharp distemper. It is impatient, masochistic—unlike the noise of Paris, where the shrill popping of high-pitched horns spreads gaiety and slightly drunken good humor.” These bulb horns, honked aggressively, mostly by taxi drivers were as distinctive an aural signature of Paris in the 1920s as the piano accordion. Larry Hart wrote them into “That’s the Song of Paree”—“We have taxi horns and klaxons / To scare the Anglo-Saxons”—while George Gershwin took a collection of taxi horns back to New York and scored a passage of An American in Paris for four of them.

Mavis Gallant wrote about a similar impulse.

A young composer, in Paris for the first time, told me how he heard Paris rather than saw it, how he envisioned Paris sound in all its shapes and forms. The shape of the sound of Paris traffic is different from the sound of New York and Toronto. He drew or shaped those sounds in air with his hands. Since then, it was just a few weeks ago, I have been listening to familiar street noise and trying to see what he meant, but I attach words and images to sounds. Cars moving along rue de Vaugirard are like gushing water, turned on and off.

I tried this a few times, but after being almost run down by a bus on boulevard Saint-Michel, better sense prevailed.

Seeing images in sounds sounded like another version of what John Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy”—the belief that states of mind can be reflected in nature. Bad fiction and worse poetry is filled with armies advancing as dark clouds build, lovers surrendering to passion in the gush and roar of a thunderstorm, or that old favorite of melodrama, the return of hope with the rising of the sun: as the silent movie title cards put it, “Came the Dawn.” In short, the impossibility of finding cues for a sound walk was calling the whole idea into question—until, that is, I met Jesse Joe Callaway.

One moment, I was dawdling over a café crème at Au Chai de l’Abbaye. The next, a massive figure subsided into the seat opposite.

“Hey, hoss!” it growled. “How’s ya hammer hangin’?” He offered a meaty paw. “Jesse Joe Callaway.”

Early in my guiding career, I’d taken three large ladies from Amarillo, Texas, on a stroll through Montparnasse. At the start, it hadn’t gone well. None of them were interested in literature, and I watched their enthusiasm fade by the minute. Fortunately, we paused outside the premises of master chocolatier Christian Constant on rue de Fleurus, around the corner from Gertrude Stein’s old apartment. One sniff of his rich dark Grenache spiced with cayenne fired up their appetite. After an orgy of chocolate tasting, we adjourned to La Coupole, where we spent the afternoon assessing the compatibility of foie gras with Austrian Gewürztraminer and Kentucky bourbon with île flottante.

Something about the way those ladies had stood, heels rocked back on nonexistent riding boots, chins up as if looking out from under the brim of an invisible Stetson, suggested the kind of clothes they wore back home. So looking at Jesse Joe, I felt mainly déjà vu. From the ten-gallon hat, embroidered cowboy shirt, and string tie secured by a steer-skull-shaped bolo, to his stack-heeled lizard-skin boots, toe-capped in silver, he was dressed for the Country Music Hall of Fame. Almost as impressive were his hair and beard. Voluminous and powder white, they foamed from under his hat and exploded around his face like stuffing from a gutted mattress. He was Roy Rogers’ unkempt uncle, Gene Autry’s wild child, the bastard offspring of Big Nose Kate and Dirty Dingus Magee, Grizzly Adams reborn. By comparison, John Wayne looked like a Boston accountant.

“Saw on your website as how you hung out here,” he said, looking around the café. “Thought I’d just take a chance and drop by.”

“Of course. Good to see you.”

The waiter materialized. “Je vous écoute.”

“Uh, would you like something?” I said.

“Sure, I could see an eye-opener. Double scotch, water back.”

The waiter’s eyebrows climbed into his hairline. Whisky—at eleven o’clock in the morning? The French never drink hard liquor before lunch. It’s exclusively a digestif, sipped after a meal, to settle the stomach. If they drink it before then, it’s only as grog Americain, mixed with sugar and hot water. Returning, he carried the tray at arm’s length, as if the glass were radioactive. Callaway downed half the shot at a swallow. On what little skin remained visible under the whiskers, a network of capillaries lit up like Christmas lights newly connected to the mains. Clearly Jesse Joe was no stranger to the hard stuff.

“Haven’t been in Paris since … must be ’99,” he said. “Year I warmed up for Bob Seger.”

“Oh, you’re a musician?”

“Well … yeah!” Astonished by my ignorance, he put down his glass and frowned. “Jesse Joe Callaway?”

“I don’t think …”

“Of Stinky and the Toadsuckers? Horny, Blue and Sandy Sue? Cathouse Herman’s Famous Five?”

“Sorry …”

“You hafta know ‘Ya Got Me Dancing in My Pants’! Five weeks at number one. It’s on the soundtrack of Truckstop Crapshoot III.”

“Well, a lot of good music doesn’t make it to this side of the Atlantic,” I said hurriedly. “But tell me: why are you here this time? Playing somewhere?”

“No. I’m pretty well retired now.” He sank the rest of the scotch and looked around for the waiter. “Got a little spread outside El Paso. Coupla hundred head. Nothing fancy.” He leaned forward earnestly. “I mean, it’s like my ol’ daddy used to say—at our age, what do ya really need but tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit?”

We meditated on this paternal wisdom in silence. Then he said, “But that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I know this guy …”

When I got home, I told Marie-Dominique about Callaway and his scheme. It wasn’t the first time something similar had been suggested. Details varied, but my role didn’t. He would bring groups from the United States. I would organize an itinerary, liaise with hotels, arrange transport, give orientation talks, translate, and deal with any minor problems. In return, I got half the profits, invariably described as munificent.

“What did you tell him?”

“Same as all the others.”

Whenever people made these proposals, I always nodded and said, “Very interesting, just keep me up to date, we should talk some more, I’d like to see some figures.” Mostly I never heard from them again. Occasionally there was an embarrassed email: “Didn’t get the response we hoped for … slump in tourist spending … maybe next year …”

“I did do one thing a little different,” I said. “Probably shouldn’t have.”


“Well, he’s a musician. He asked if there was anybody he should catch while he was in town.”

She frowned. “Oh, you didn’t!”

“Yes,” I said, “I sent him to hear Gelenter.”

She shook her head in disapproval. “John, you should be ashamed of yourself.”