Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 4: SCENT
Chapter 27. Underworld
Do you know what you remind me of? The subway. You’re all silk, and you jingle when you walk, and yet with all that chi chi you make me think of the subway. Isn’t that funny? And potato chips, and coffee on the boulevard.
Pepe le Moko to Gaby in Algiers
There are as many ways to see Paris as there are Parisians, but seeing them en masse is where patterns emerge. And for that, no place is better than Paris’s subway, the métro.
Some call the métro the bloodstream of Paris but it’s more like the nervous system, and we passengers those fizzing zips of energy that carry messages from organs and extremities to the brain. Blood is homogenous; nervous energy is not. Each impulse is separate, private, a quantum of being. And the line where those quanta flow in the most intriguing variety is the deuxième—the number 2 line.
Algiers. Walter Wanger Productions/United Artists.
Charles Boyer as Pepe le Moko and Hedy Lamarr as Gaby in Algiers
I was a stranger to the deuxième until I spent a week minding the flat of a friend in Montmartre. Most days I walked the streets, constantly surprised by a new corner of the city.
Plastered to the haunch of the butte of Montmartre, the eighteenth arrondissement has an architecture and lifestyle all its own. Along rue Marcadet, diamond-shaped lots from the days when these were market gardens or guinguettes—beer gardens—have dictated apartment blocks with parallelogram floor plans. What does it do to your brain to live in a room with no right angles? Maybe it explained the pale faces that stared out from a few windows: shut-ins, with nothing to do but watch the world go by.
Caught in the gaps between these habitations, like bits of gristle in a set of crooked teeth, businesses survived that you seldom see in more prosperous districts: plumbing supply shops, shoe repairers, molders of false teeth, and undertakers, along with makers of funerary monuments. The Montmartrois joke that once you visit the dixhuitième, you stay forever—because it’s the arrondissement with the most graveyards.
My friend lives on rue du Square Carpeaux, a short, wide, sloping back street, surfaced—unusually for Paris—not with cobbles or asphalt but brick-shaped blocks of slick gray stone resembling flint: another attempt by the restless city to find the ideal paving material. As the blocks aren’t cemented in place, grass grows in the cracks, attracting small birds that peck for insects. As there’s no through traffic, the street often echoes to one of the rarest of all sounds in Paris, birdsong.
Perhaps it was their twitter that lured me out that warm Saturday morning—that and knowing that a big street market was taking place around Père Lachaise cemetery. Admittedly, it was on the far side of the city. But it was in just such obscure markets that treasures surfaced.
Plotting my trip on the métro map, I decided to take the deuxième. The moment I passed between the pillars of Hector Guimard’s art nouveau entrance, I was aware of a different métro to the lines I knew.
Looking down the platform, I saw more black and brown faces than white, and Muslim women in the head scarves frowned on in the central arrondissements. In tourist Paris, police and métro staff excluded panhandlers from the stations and severely limit buskers. Up here, where tourists seldom come, they relaxed the rules. Musicians also felt no need to skulk. One waited with a battered accordion, another with a clarinet and an old luggage trolley to which he’d taped an ancient beat box.
We all boarded the same train. Its doors had barely closed before the clarinetist’s beat box started to rap a muffled rhythm. His medley of favorites, precisely calibrated to the distance between stops, included nothing French, and, just as we slowed into the next station, ended hurriedly with “My Way.” Beat box still tap-tapping, he circulated with his Styrofoam cup, ignored by almost everyone, and stepped off onto the platform.
At almost the same instant, the accordionist, having waited his turn, struck up “El Choclo,” a staple of tango dancing since the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1952, someone added English lyrics to make it “Kiss of Fire.”
Give me your lips, the lips you only let me borrow
Love me tonight and let the devil take tomorrow.
Who danced the tango anymore? Nobody in tourist Paris. But in its strut and pose, the dance belonged on the deuxième. I half expected each man in the carriage to grab the woman next to him, haul her to her feet, and execute a few spirited steps along the center aisle.
No other métro line had ever induced these fantasies in me. The deuxième, I was discovering, was the line of love, or at least of lust. If Paris had a streetcar named Desire, this was it. How could it be otherwise, when the line begins at Porte Dauphine, center of Paris’s échangiste culture, and curves across the tenderloin of nineteenth-century Paris—Pigalle, Clichy, Menilmontant—to expire on Place de la Nation?
Even the posters on the platform walls sang a siren song. One promoted a show of Tamara de Lempicka’s florid art deco portraits. The one next to it announced a new variation in computer dating: an online hook-up service for wives wanting “a little bit on the side.” The posters showed, from the back, a woman wearing something between a wedding dress and a white waspie. She was hiding one hand behind her, and the fingers were crossed.
In 1967, Jean-Luc Godard made Two or Three Things I Know About Her. The main character is a housewife who moonlights as a prostitute in her home. Obviously some things about Paris don’t change, although these days the amateurs are taking over. Internet services such as Croisé dans le Métro (Crossed on the Métro) and the Craigslist section called Missed Connections offer a chance to meet the person whose eyes you met across the aisle on the 7:43 from Gare du Nord, but most such attempts don’t survive the moment. A spark flashes between two people … then each goes back to his or her iPhone or paperback of Gide.
Paris could be fertile ground for a French version of the Japanese chikan densha or “pervert train.” Certain Tokyo clubs provide facsimile subway carriages, complete with station announcements, even authentic noises and vibration, and staff them with suitably dressed men and women who cooperate in acting out your fantasy. Hearing of this reignited a vivid moment from a visit to Japan with my blond American wife. As we traveled back to our hotel late one night on a jolting train, a dark-suited sarariman, so drunk he could barely stand, stared at her hair for three stations before finding the courage to reach out and tenderly stroke it.
As the train glided into each station on the deuxième, a recorded voice spoke its name. Until now, that voice had been male, but at the stop after Place de Clichy, it became female.
“Blanche,” she murmured, then, after a beat, “Blanche.”
The effect was seductive. The first time, she spoke the name flatly, politely, the second time more intimately, as if responding to a question only she heard.
“Blanche.” (“What station did you say, mademoiselle?”) “Blanche.”
And abruptly I was back in the film Algiers, listening to Hedy Lamarr, the beautiful tourist, flirting with gangster Charles Boyer, who must remain inside the native quarter, the casbah, or die in the streets that surround it.
“Do you know Paris?” she asks.
“Do I know Paris?” he replies incredulously. “La rue Saint-Martin …”
“Le Champs-Elysées …” she responds.
“Le Gare du Nord …”
“L’Opéra … boulevard des Capucines …”
“Abbesses … rue Montmartre … boulevard de Rochechouart …”
“Rue Fontaine …”
Then, both together, “La Place Blanche.” They laugh. “What a small world.”
That world was even smaller than he knew. It was at a café on Place Blanche that André Breton convened the daily séances of the surrealist group, to whom the busy, brilliantly lit intersection possessed mystical significance. “Nights here do not exist,” he said, “except in legend.”
At the next stop, a surge of new passengers washed in our first beggar. Towering, unshaven, saddled with a backpack, and apparently blind, he moved slowly among us, staring over our heads as he mumbled his appeal—a ritual, worn featureless by years of repetition, all sense had been rubbed away. He carried no cup nor did he hold out his hand. Even if we wanted to give him something, there was no way to do so. He ambled down the center aisle, as indifferent to us as we were to him—Eliot’s Tiresias from “The Waste Land” who “bestows one final patronizing kiss, And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit.”
The next beggar made up for his reticence. As short as the other was tall, he hustled in off the platform, shoving through the standing passengers. His arms were bare. Loose gray trousers were rolled above his knees and bunched around his hips and crotch. His left leg and both dirty feet were bare, his left foot turned inward and half over, so that he walked on the outer edge. Apparently deformed hips imposed a swiveling, crablike rolling gait with, yet, a Popeye arrogance.
Sidling up and down the crowded carriage, he kept up a litany of complaint and appeal, eloquent in its simplicity.
“Help me, please … help me … I need help … help me … please …”
We who habitually ignored beggars felt discomfited. A few fumbled for coins. When the train halted at Place de Clichy, he didn’t get off but, unusually, returned down the carriage for one last circuit—a lap of honor?
As he passed, I pressed a euro into his hand. It earned me no thanks—just a moment to study him more closely. No ordinary beggar this. His hair was trimmed, as was his short beard. Facial hair was unusual in a beggar, who ran mostly to stubble. Neither stale sweat nor food stains soiled the cotton knit shirt. As he turned away, I studied his legs and feet. The twisted one didn’t appear deformed or withered. There was no callous where the skin touched the ground. As for the hips, his trousers were so bunched that one couldn’t see them.
Was that intentional?
And weren’t his trousers a little too baggy for normal wear? Where the belt cinched them tight around his waist, the cloth gathered under the strap. What if he straightened up, let the trouser legs fall to his ankles, placed the soles of his feet flat on the ground? I was almost certain he could walk quite normally. This was no invalid. This was a performer. We’d been treated to a skilled mime. Perhaps, like Neville St. Clair in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” he made enough from begging to support a family in the suburbs and live like a gentleman. I was glad to have contributed the euro—if not from compassion, then appreciation.