Waiting - NIGHT 5: SIGHT - 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)

NIGHT 5: SIGHT

Chapter 34. Waiting

The thing about Paris, it’s a great city for wandering around and buying shoes and nursing a café au lait for hours on end and pretending you’re Baudelaire. But it’s not a city where you can work.

MALCOLM MCLAREN

While I waited for Paul to work his magic on Last Nights of Paris, I recruited friends to help me explore some of Paris’s darker corners.

“It’s like a uterus,” Ingrid said.

I looked around the Café du Rendez-Vous on Place Denfert-Rochereau. On the other side of the large room, across the lanes of brown-varnished tables, a decidedly nonuterine barman polished glasses. If the cavernous and crepuscular café in this corner of southern suburban Paris had any resonances with the female reproductive system, they were too obscure for me.

“How do you figure that?”

Ingrid’s blue-gray eyes had a knack of appearing to look right through my brain to read the secrets written on the inside of my skull.

“The uterus is like this.” She held up her fist. “But as the child begins to grow, it swells.” Her long fingers unfolded. “Which is what happens in here. By lunchtime,” she said, adding her other hand and spreading them outward from her navel, miming the swelling belly of pregnancy, “it will be bulging.”

I drank the rest of my noisette in silence. If you make friends with a psychotherapist, you expect conversations like this.

It seemed entirely appropriate to our talk that a network of underground limestone quarries riddled the ground beneath our feet. We were dealing, after all, with the Darker Side of Paris. Across the road, a queue had formed at the booth where one paid to descend into them.

Baron Haussmann’s teams of stonemasons, returning from demolishing medieval Paris, would load the empty wagons with skeletons exhumed from former graveyards and plague pits, and re-inter them in the galleries from which they’d cut the stone. Pious men, they arranged the remains with respect, using professional skill to create walls of bones as they did of bricks; a course of ulnas, one of pelvises, a third of skulls. The bones of 6 million French men and women lay under our feet.

Ingrid had never visited this corner of our adoptive city, so I’d volunteered to take her down the winding cement staircase and lead her, Virgil to her Dante, through what a warning over the lower entrance called “the kingdom of Death.”

In the nineteenth century, the tunnels, misnamed “catacombs,” became a convenient hideout for criminals and political plotters, who left signs of their passing gouged into the soft stone. Eccentrics of a melancholy disposition asked to be buried down here. One encounters every few hundred meters an ancient marble slab, too stained by time to make out the name.

Obeying the same reverence that caused them to order the bones, masons cut niches to make shrines, made paths for the increasing number of visitors, and fenced off ponds where water had filtered down through the stone. The miners who cut the galleries refused to drink their water, so cleansed of impurities by the stone that it appeared to them unnaturally clear. Students of the mining and geology schools traditionally dunk new graduates head-down into one of these still pools.

Once mining ceased, mushroom growers moved in. For years, the catacombs produced hundreds of tons each year of the bulbous white buttons which, though they grow almost anywhere, are still known as champignons de Paris.

During World War II, both the Germans and the French resistance used the tunnels. Only a few years ago, explorers of an old network nearer the Seine found an entire cinema dating from the 1940s, complete with comfortable chairs and projection equipment. When they returned a few weeks later to explore in more detail, everything had disappeared.

For this, one can blame a group who call themselves cataphiles—lovers of the catacombs. It’s an open secret that certain manholes scattered around the area will admit you to the tunnels after hours. Graffiti on the walls show that taggers know most of them. In one huge chamber, known as La Plage—the beach—an elaborate copy, many meters long, of Hokusai’s famous woodcut “The Breaking Wave” decorates the walls.

But if the catacombs are meant to be scary, they fail. Crowds of people visit them every day and emerge a couple of hours later more amused than chastened. Conceptions of the underworld have moved on. Jean-Paul Sartre articulated the opinion of many when he wrote in his play Huis Clos, “Hell is other people.” To the existentialists, Hades wasn’t walls of bones but the more horrific walls of a waiting room where nothing ever happened and one was doomed to repeat the same mistakes into eternity.

Sartre spelled this out more fully in one of his rare screenplays, Les Jeux Sont Faits—The Chips Are Down. It belongs among the most depressing films of 1947, a year notable for downers—something I can verify from experience, since that was the year I began to understand grown-up movies. Though I didn’t experience its languid hopelessness until much later, Les Jeux Sont Faits slotted perfectly into 1947, easily punching its weight with, for instance, Nightmare Alley, in which Tyrone Power, as the “geek” in a traveling carnival, bites the heads off live chickens.

Though obviously set in Nazi-occupied France, Les Jeux Sont Faits respects prevailing sensibilities by changing the location to an unnamed fascist state. Eva, wife of a high official, is poisoned by her husband at the same moment as a traitor shoots down resistance leader Pierre. They meet for the first time in the afterlife, which Sartre imagines as identical to our own, except that the dead of all ages continue to inhabit it, unseen by us, the living.

A few of these revenants blow on the ashes of life, hoping to revive a spark. One old marquis, hanged two centuries ago, volunteers to act as a guide for Eva and Pierre, but breaks off to pursue an attractive woman. “I never get very far,” he says with a shrug, “but it passes the time.” Most of the dead, however, just hang about, looking over our shoulders as we defecate, fornicate, and pick our noses—a disturbing prospect. One can imagine Sartre composing these scenes at Brasserie Lipp, Deux Magots, or the Flore, always wearing the same dingy brown raincoat, forever fantasizing of being watched by everyone who ever ate there.

An amiable old lady seated with her cat behind a huge ledger records the names of new arrivals and directs them to the door leading to eternity. I’d known dozens like her: clerks in regional town halls, receptionists at dingy hotels.

When Eva and Pierre sense a growing mutual attraction, the same woman explains that, in such rare cases, people can be returned to life for twenty-four hours. If their love flourishes, they will be restored to the living. It ends in tears, of course. Eva’s friends scorn her working-class lover: when he calls on her, a servant sends him round to the tradesman’s entrance. Both become too caught up in their old lives to think of love, and so die at the instant their twenty-four hours expire. Back in the afterlife, they drift apart to join the other ghosts, weary with seeing people repeat, century after century, the same errors.

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Les Jeux Sont Faits. Les Films Gibé/Lopert Pictures Corporation.

Les Jeux Sont Faits. Charles Dullin as the old marquis, Marcello Pagliero and Micheline Presle as Pierre and Eva.

At 10:00 a.m. in the Café du Rendez-Vous, the hours of café crème and croissants were coming to an end. The last lingering office workers left, heading for their desks. Already most of the tables were set with the couverts—knife, fork, spoon, plate, paper napkin—that indicated lunch. At the nearest of the square wood-paneled columns supporting the six stories above us, a waiter in a long white apron climbed onto a chair. Erasing yesterday’s specials from the blackboard (côte du porc roti, purée maison, tarte aux pommes), he began, using the almost unreadable cursive of all waiters, to chalk up today’s menu.

After lunch would come the tourists, footsore after a few hours of trudging through the catacombs. After they’d taken a load off their feet and headed back to their hotels, they’d be followed by the businessmen who, for the price of an espresso or two, used the café as their office, spreading their papers across the table. Later still, around five in the afternoon, the predinner period would begin. Here’s how it was described by Soupault in Last Nights of Paris.

The café was taking a little nap. The aperitif hour had passed, and that of chocolate and sandwiches had not yet come. The waiters stood about with bowed heads and dangling arms. A few had seated themselves, looking much like those statues that receive gold medals at the salon and adorn public squares—useless, motionless and out of date.

By comparing the café to a uterus, Ingrid had imposed a newer vision—one that took root and invaded my perception. The autumn sun’s rancid yellow light now appeared denser, as if an amniotic fluid had stealthily insinuated itself until we were, all of us, both in the café and outside, immersed. In the street, young women, uniformly dressed in the black and brown wool and leather chic of early winter, wove purposefully through the traffic—like antibodies, I thought, alert for any infection. And that crocodile of preschoolers, hands linked, eyes unfocused, moonily abstracted, directionless? One could almost imagine them as a chain of molecules in red mufflers and knitted gloves …

“Voulez-vous autre chose?”

I hadn’t noticed our waiter, but his presence at my elbow jolted me out of the fantasy. We were suddenly back in an ordinary café and, as far as he was concerned, an impediment to the business of preparing for the lunch trade.

“Oh, rien, merci. L’addition, seulement.”

He slapped it down before I finished asking.

Ingrid stood up.

“Must go pipi.”

But she didn’t move. Instead, as if the view from this new perspective stimulated a different perception, she went on, “This is the only café where anyone offered me money for sex.”

These observations of hers used to throw me. Now I barely paused in counting coins to pay for our coffees.

“Recently?”

“Oh, no. Years ago. In my twenties.”

“Lot of money?”

She did a swift mental calculation.

“Corrected for inflation, about six hundred euros.”

“Generous.”

“I’m pretty sure he would have paid even more. He drove a Porsche. Had a vast apartment in the sixteenth.”

“If you saw his apartment, I assume you accepted.”

She gave me That Look again. I thought for a second that she might actually answer the question. But only for a second. Ingrid’s life was a twenty-four-hour-a-day demonstration of the principle of “need to know.”

“Won’t be long,” she said. “Then we can go look at your skeletons.”

My eyes followed her to the steps that led down to the toilettes. Stately, long-legged, an American woman totally in charge of herself and the world. But when exactly had they become my skeletons?

I was left alone at the table with two empty coffee cups and the little dish on which the waiter had left our bill, torn across to indicate it was paid.

Why do waiters so seldom figure in memoirs of Paris? They would have been the Frenchmen with whom expatriates most often came in contact. One of the few to write about them did so in 1916.

British journalist E. Bryham Parsons painted a dreary picture of their existence, particularly those who worked in the bouillons—large cheap restaurants that offered “working men’s dinners” and stayed open late, if not all night, to catch the last night owls and the first early birds.

Desiring some gruyere cheese, I called the waiter. He was holding himself more or less upright in a great archway which led into the adjoining room. I presently approached and touched him. He was fast asleep. He explained he generally worked until 3 in the morning. “3am—it’s too late,” he said, “particularly if you live in Paris.” I believed him. The all-night business, so charming to Englishmen let out on a holiday from genuinely soporific London, where a restaurant found open at three in the morning would be visited with a crushing fine, makes Jacques, the waiter, or Henri, the rough-and-ready garcon of the bouillon, a dull boy. The following Saturday, I went in again. The place seemed utterly deserted. The Parisian waiter does not snore, but I knew that not far from me, on the floor, on the stairs leading into the kitchen, or huddling themselves for warmth and comfort round some stove in the basement, the waiters slept that fearful sleep which knows no fixed hours, which is as full of shocks as some terrible nightmare, and which may be banished any instant by the terrible cry, ‘Café, s’il vous plait!’ which, breaking in on their dreams, will bring the whole dozen of them to their feet, staggering, gasping, and blinking before a single insignificant customer.

As Ingrid returned, I put two euro coins on the table.

“For two cafés?” she said. “You’re already paying fifteen percent service, remember.”

“I know.”

“Then why so generous?”

I looked off into the shadowed interior of the Rendez-Vous. How many waiters of other eras were hanging around unseen, even more bored in death than they had been in life? How many former clients, awaiting l’addition that would never come? Hell is other people.

“For the ghosts,” I said.