Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
Chapter 4. The Dark Side
Never was anything great achieved without danger.
Mae West, the most voluptuous and outrageous actress of Hollywood in the 1930s, said of temptation, “Given the choice between two evils, I always go for the one I never tried before.” To choose neither never entered her mind, or mine. In fact, the more I was urged to Do The Right Thing, the less inclined I was to obey.
This has made me the most intransigent kind of tourist. Though I lived in London for fourteen years, I never visited the Tower of London or watched the Changing of the Guard. When I lived in Dublin, those fans of James Joyce’s Ulysses who spend each June 16 following the path of Leopold Bloom around the city had to do so without me. And though I’ve been to the Louvre numerous times since I moved to Paris, I have never, in more than twenty years, been within touching distance of the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa.
On my first visit to New York, I did take a bus tour as far as the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, but I stopped to try my hand at what, in those days, was the exotic diversion of playing Frisbee and was left behind. Deciding to walk back to my hotel, I found myself attending a block party, eating my first chicken-fried steak, and finally drinking bourbon in a bar with someone whom, I realized later, was almost certainly … well, that incident belongs in some other book.
I’m also that nightmare of the tour guide, the know-it-all. Being led round San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s mansion on the hills above the California coast, I challenged the claim of the Parks Service guide that Hearst had been a pious model citizen and his relationship with live-in girlfriend Marion Davies that of an affectionate uncle to his wayward niece.
Pointing to the figure of the virgin over the entrance to a chapel, I asked, “Then how do you explain what Dorothy Parker wrote about that?”
“Go on,” the guide said tersely.
“There are various versions,” I said, “but one goes something like:
I swear on my honor
I saw a madonna
Standing in a niche
Above the door
Of a prominent whore
Of a prominent son of a bitch.”
This amused the other visitors. Even the guide unbent a little. But he hung back as we walked to the next point of interest and murmured, “I heard it as ‘the world’s worst son of a bitch.’ But do me a favor, would you, and keep this stuff to yourself? I’ve gotta earn a living here.”
I have a long history of walking through those half-open doors or gates that warn NO ADMITTANCE or ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. In Dublin, a scholar of recent history helped me track down the haunts of those who died in the rising of Easter 1916, the rebellion of which W.B. Yeats wrote “a terrible beauty is born.” In London, a dealer in antique silver took me at four in the morning to the clandestine thieves’ market known as The Stones, where anything sold before the sun comes up remains, no matter how suspicious its provenance, the property of the buyer.
Some encounters were more comic than mysterious, or, occasionally, both. In Los Angeles, I attended the running of the grunion on a beach near Malibu. While people scrambled and squealed with flashlights at the water’s edge, scooping the twitching fish into plastic buckets, I admired the lovely Sandra Tsing Loh, seated at a white grand piano, as she led a chamber orchestra in her composition “Night of the Grunion.”
Most of these events took place at night, often in the early hours. And the writers I most admire are those who write about such times with a special intensity. A few like to quote Robert Browning:
Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist.
By “dangerous,” they didn’t mean physical adventure; none of these men climbed mountains nor went white-water rafting. They meant the unconventional—that sense of turning a corner or opening a door without quite knowing what to expect.
Paris has innumerable such corners and doors. I seek them out, as I sought their equivalent in other cities. Some are best seen by day. Others, like certain night-blooming flowers, reveal their perfume after sunset. But they have this in common: to gain admittance, one merely has to reach out and push that gate that stands slightly ajar …