Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 1: SOUND
Chapter 15. Spending a Centime
For this relief much thanks.
In leading walks, I’ve noticed that, although certain subjects, seldom literary, are never far from a visitor’s mind, most are reticent about showing an interest.
Foremost among them is sex.
Salvador Dalí, on his first unsupervised trip out of Spain in 1929, took a cab directly from the railway station to the city’s most famous brothel, Le Chabanais, and demanded an instant erotic education. Madrid had just as many bordellos as Paris, some as splendid as Le Chabanais, but those of Paris were widely recognized to offer that little something extra. Young Salvador was not disappointed. After a few hours in a room reserved for voyeurs and well supplied with peepholes, he reeled into the street, having seen, he said, quite enough to furnish his fantasies for the rest of his life.
Brothels may have given way to Internet escort services, but the illusion of Paris, city of love, persists. Summer and winter, you can usually find a Japanese photographer hard at work on the Pont Alexandre III, the bridge that joins the foot of the Champs-Élysées with the park in front of the Hôtel des Invalides. He’s snapping bare-shouldered Japanese brides and tailcoated grooms as they pose against a background of the seventeenth-century façade of Les Invalides. Why not London’s Tower Bridge or Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate? Because, they explain earnestly, Paris is the city of love. Later, the same couples sit in a café, indifferent to one another but busily texting details of their romantic honeymoon to friends back to Tokyo.
Certain clients perk up when I mention that a narrow building near the corner of rue Mazarine and rue de Buci had been, before such establishments were outlawed in 1946, a maison close, or brothel. Whorehouses favored slender premises with a single entrance. The madame, stationed on the top floor and using a system of mirrors on each landing, could watch who came in and out—something demonstrated to me by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, whose home in Pigalle is a converted bordel.
Just opposite Église Saint-Sulpice I point out a similarly narrow establishment that catered to priests. Having sinned, guilty clerics had only to cross the street to confess and be forgiven. For good measure, I’d add that Henry Miller, as well as patronizing a number of brothels, wrote the text for the brochures published by one of the most prestigious, Montparnasse’s Le Sphinx, and was paid to steer friends into its gilded air-conditioned salon and mirrored bedrooms.
All this is too much for some clients. One sidled up and murmured, “Um, I don’t suppose such places still exist?” Another asked if I knew anyone who gave “private French lessons.” I sent him to a poet friend who taught as a sideline, but when I asked about their progress, she said frostily, “His idea of irregular verbs was a little too irregular.”
After sex, the second more common subject of conversation is … well, Roget’s Thesaurus lists its synonyms better than I can. Crap, poop, dung, excrement, feces, manure, night soil … or, to the French, l’ordure.
After rude waiters, no aspect of Paris life receives so much negative publicity as the prevalence of doggie doo-doo. One would think from some descriptions that the stuff lies in drifts, like snow after a blizzard. In fact, there never was a great deal of it, and the amount is dwindling. The reason is less sanitary than financial. Parisians used to keep Great Danes, Saint Bernards, and Russian wolfhounds in their apartments, but the high cost of feeding them has driven them to downsize to Yorkshire terriers. Nor does one see as many of those skittish breeds such as the dalmatian and poodle, so inclined to leave their malodorous souvenirs wherever it suited them. The choice of a pet, once a matter of class—to have a dog, the larger the better, signified prestige—is now more one of style; can your toutou fit into a handbag and remain quietly at your feet when you take him into a restaurant?
Three or four times a year, at the top of our street, a film crew cordons off Place de l’Odéon, in front of the imposingly colonnaded Théâtre de l’Odéon (built 1783), to shoot a period melodrama. Locals watch amused as actors and actresses in spotless crinolines and gleaming boots stroll across the cobbles—something they never did in real life.
At the time of Britain’s Henry VIII, only half of Paris’s streets were paved. The rest were bare earth: dusty and uneven when dry, muddy swamps after rain. Open drains carried the runoff. Rubbish and filth were everywhere. Our street, rue de l’Odéon, built around 1760, was the first in the city to have a sidewalk. Until Napoleon III transformed Paris in the 1870s, only the poor walked. The rich went everywhere on horseback or by carriage. Trotting right through the front gate of a building into the courtyard, they left their animals with the stable boys and took the stairs to the first floor. Their feet never touched the ground.
Crossing a Paris gutter, nineteenth century
Even if canine truffles decorated every modern sidewalk, their quantity would scarcely rival the manure left by all those horses, not to mention the cows, goats, sheep, and chickens which, until the 1920s, Parisian householders kept in their courtyards. One sympathizes with the movie directors who omit the filth. It’s hard to show La Rochefoucauld crafting an epigram just as his boot sinks ankle-deep into horseshit.
Even worse was human excrement. The British word “loo,” for toilet, may derive from the warning Gardez l’eau—Look out for the water!—that preceded the emptying of a chamber pot out the window. Even in the eighteenth century, this was thought vulgar. The more fastidious patronized the men with leather buckets who cruised the city’s fashionable avenues, carrying tentlike cloaks to drape around clients as they used them.
Buckets gave way to a kind of rolling privy on wheels. City ordinances required that these keep moving, occupied or not, which must have made relieving oneself a hazardous matter as the cabinet jolted over cobbles. In time, the government accepted that some functions require tranquility and introduced the semipublic vespasienne, or pissoir. Barely obscured by metal screens that began above the knee and ended below the neck, men—but only men—could relieve themselves on the busiest street. Despite the smell and minimal concessions to privacy, one lady remarked tartly that “there cannot be an Englishwoman exploring Paris who would not, at some time, have shelved her hygienic objections if only such provision had been made for her.”
Writers, expatriate or otherwise, have little to say about sanitation. An exception was Henry Miller, who positively relished defecation. To him, all human functions affirmed life. “I love everything that flows,” he wrote. “Rivers, sewers, lava, semen, blood, bile, words, sentences. I love the amniotic fluid when it spills out of the bag. I love the kidney with its painful gall-stones, its gravel and what-not; I love the urine that pours out scalding and the clap that runs endlessly; I love the words of hysterics and the sentences that flow on like dysentery and mirror all the sick images of the soul.” In particular, he patronized a pissoir in the Luxembourg Gardens that permitted him to pee while peering over an adjoining fence at families enjoying a picnic.
For two hundred years, French lavatories were of the awkward and unsavory “Turkish” type. One squatted over an open hole and risked having one’s feet inundated by the flush. In his 1966 survey, Guide Porcelaine to the Loos of Paris, sanitary scholar Jonathan Routh called them “crouchers,” though an Australian came up with a more vivid term, describing the process of using them as “kangaroo-ing.” Though doctors insist that squatting is more natural and healthy than sitting, the croucher has few friends. In the early 1970s, while I waited on the seafront at Ostend for the ferry to Britain, a busload of American college girls pulled up. One darted into the sanitation block and popped out a few seconds later to shout ecstatically, “Real toilets!” One more reason to visit Au Bon Saint Pourçain, the tiny restaurant on rue Servandoni, just by the church of Saint-Sulpice, was the insistence of François, the owner, on preserving his traditional WC—another touch of authenticity, along with the menu chalked on the slate and the complementary glass of wine from his own village.
Even after Paris had sewers, few apartments included toilets or bathrooms. A building of fifty or sixty tenants might have only three or four lavatories, all on the landings of the main staircase, and seldom cleaned. When Parisians congregated in cafés, they did so mainly to enjoy the intellectual ambiance and the company of their peers, but the washrooms were an added incentive, supervised as they were by a madame pipi who not only kept them clean but also, for a few centimes, provided soap and a hand towel.
Pissoirs disappeared in the 1980s. As well as being smelly and embarrassing, they attracted both prostitutes and exhibitionists. The automated self-service cabinets that replaced them offer good service when they work—which is seldom. It’s easier to visit a café, buy an express at the zinc, then enjoy the privacy and cleanliness of its petit coin—the “little corner.”
At times, that experience can be as transcendental as even Henry Miller might have wished: in the art deco luxury of the toilets under La Coupole, for instance, or the tile, brass, and varnished elegance of Brasserie Vagenende on boulevard Saint-Germain. And yet, reading Routh’s Loos of Paris today, one almost feels nostalgic for the era of sanitary adventurism in the Paris of General de Gaulle. Routh gives the search for a loo an Edwardian sense of hazard and discovery, making it sound like an expedition into darkest Africa. Seeking relief in the Paris Opéra, he found a custodian who, for 50 centimes, sold him a ticket and gave him a key to the toilet, with complex directions on how to find it. When Routh finally got there, it was well worth the walk, though not for the reasons one might imagine.
It had a red fitted carpet, 1 toilet, 1 basin, and one other tiny toilet for the smaller person. Also in the room, a large cupboard, which, because there was a slight shortage of paper beside my toilet, I opened in search of more. I found very much more inside; ancient files of the Opéra with original letters from the family Strauss, hand-written scores of goodness knows who. I feel it a pity if, during any subsequent period of paper shortage, a less scrupulous toileter than myself were to put these irreplaceable documents to the use for which the room is designed, and I recommended to the Musée authorities to lock their cupboard in order to remove the temptation.
Paris pissoir, c. 1900