The Hour of Crimes - 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)


Chapter 38. The Hour of Crimes

Everything tends to make us believe that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined, past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as contradictions.


On such a night, with few people out, Paris becomes a city of shop windows. Reticent by day, they retreat from our attention into the shadows. At night, however, lit from within, they reach out to invite us, opening like flowers. Night blooming simples, rooted deep … At such times, the traffic between seller and client turns sensual. The French don’t speak of “window shopping” but of lèche-vitrine—window licking.


Keeping out of the rain brought us closer to the windows of shops at which, under normal conditions, we’d never have paused. One vaguely described “gift shop” offered porcelain rabbits and small white jars decorated with a finial in the form of a pink skull. For what function? Neither of us could imagine.

I recognized one nineteenth-century façade of green-painted wood, since it had been in the news. Though the name read Pharmacie Lhopitallier, the Lhopitallier family who did business here for more than a century had recently sold out. The interior, with its paneling and banks of wooden cupboards, was now preserved in the Musée Carnavalet. Its antique façade remained, but as the new owners were free to sell whatever they liked, the windows that had once been filled with antique pill bottles and ads for patent medicines now displayed, incongruously, mannequins draped with dresses in un style bohème et chic.

At the foot of rue Soufflot, on the usually busy boulevard Saint-Michel, nothing stirred. The junction with rue de Médicis, normally one of the busiest in Paris, was deserted. No pedestrians interrupted the emptiness of its streets under the rain. Naturally the surrealists felt an affinity with the night. Paris after dark, drained of people, became a blank page on which they would exercise their imagination.

If the ruling minds of this walk were Soupault and Breton, the eye was that of Giorgio de Chirico, master of the empty plaza, the deserted colonnade. As we sheltered in the arcade at the rear of the Théàtre de l’Odéon, with the barred darkness of the Luxembourg Gardens opposite, across rue de Médicis, Kevin said, “Wasn’t there something in the book about sadistic bachelors … ?”

I dug out my dog-eared paperback and found the passage.

“‘The rue de Medicis along which we were strolling at a fair pace is sad around ten-thirty at night …’”

I looked around the drafty colonnade. True enough.

I went on. “‘It is a street of everlasting rain …’”

The drizzle continued to drift down through the lights. He got that right as well.

“‘It is said,’” I continued, “‘that along one side of it is the meeting place of masochistic bachelors. A modest and silent club. Here umbrellas take on the appearance of a flock.’”

So this had been what was generally called a “meat rack” where seekers for the more painful sensations came to shop. Similar places existed in most cities, often under colonnades such as this. Sadomasochism is a diversion as specialized as stamp collecting. One might wait hours to find a partner of matching tastes. Shelter was desirable. So was an umbrella, not to mention a raincoat, even if one wore nothing under it.

“This is getting a little creepy,” Kevin said. “Next thing, we’ll run into Georgette.”

“For that, we’d need a café.”

We moved out of shelter and turned into rue Tournon, but even Café Tournon was shut. Some aspects of the Paris night might survive from Soupault’s time, but since waiters were now unionized, few had to work past midnight.

“I’d settle for the dog,” I said, pulling my head deeper into my collar.

Kevin coughed. “Don’t look now …”

About a hundred meters ahead of us, a square black van had just parked. A woman got out. Following her was a black dog.

“Did I say a bit creepy?” Kevin said. “Let me revise that. This is extremely creepy.”

The woman watched warily as we walked toward her. The dog, less suspicious, sniffed and, scenting no fear or menace, nuzzled my leg. From inside the van, a man looked out.

“Bon soir.” I held up the pocket recorder with which I’d been taking notes. “We’re making a radio documentary for the BBC.”

It wasn’t too much of a lie. Both of us had worked for the BBC, and we might conceivably turn this into a program one day.

“Are you French?” I asked.

“No. Dutch,” the man said in English. “Are we okay to park here?”

I looked around at the empty street. “I don’t see why not.”

From a glimpse of the interior, their van had been adapted into a mobile bedroom, with bunk beds.

“Are you going to sleep here?”

The woman said, “We were out in the suburbs, but it is not so nice there. You won’t tell?”

“Our lips are sealed,” Kevin said. “Your name isn’t Georgette, I suppose?”

She frowned. “No. Eva.” She waved toward her friend, who was making up the beds. “And this is Paul. You are looking for a Georgette?”

“Not really,” I said. “It’s a long story.”

Ten minutes later, Kevin and I drank cold beer in the only café on rue de Buci that remained open.

“A strange night,” he said.

“They’re all strange.”

He shook his head. “That woman … and the dog …”

It had been an interesting coincidence—if one believed in coincidences. What if we had lingered on the empty street, perhaps stepped into the interior of that van … ? An infinite universe of possibilities opened before me. I blinked it closed. Don’t go there!

“What now?” Kevin said, looking out at the rain, now heavier. “Want to go on?”

“I don’t think so.”

He nodded sympathetically. I didn’t explain that it wasn’t the rain that dissuaded me. Following Soupault’s ramblings had made me see a more fundamental problem with walking by night. Paris by day, a working city, was in the business of being accessible. Bakers sold the same breads. Restaurants offered their set menus. The works of Picasso and Delacroix were reliably on show in galleries and museums.


At night, however, those rules no longer applied. “Paris by Night” tours stuck to the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère because they were safe—not from muggers and pickpockets but from ideas. To set out into the night, clothed in nothing but innocence, was to invite the invasion of everything that this city represented; the satisfaction of desire, the embrace of change, even the will to destruction; the face of l’inconnue was proof that the waters of the Seine ran dark and fast.


Was this the truth the sixth tapestry in the Cluny meant to convey? Might its motto, À Mon Seul Désir, also mean “by my will alone”? With her magic unicorn and her omnicompetent maid, the lady of the tapestries controlled her world. She had merely to express a desire for it to be realized. But formulating that desire and framing the request took imagination. To gratify the five senses, one needed a sixth. And that, as the surrealists understood, rested with each of us alone.

In my capacity as guide, I could help with the first five senses. But after that, each of us had to make our own voyage of exploration. That was the message of both Last Nights of Paris and Midnight in Paris. We must create our own griffe—our secret park, that fugitive scent, our own Georgette.

So in answer to the lady from Montreal—no, I don’t do night walks. Each of us must, in our own way, as with a new lover, seduce, or allow ourselves to be seduced by the Paris night.

But I can unlock the gate that leads into the dark, push it slightly ajar …

Allez-y, mes amis. Paris and its nights are yours.