The face of Paris, at least the face of its heart, is of a deep African complexion; with a touch of Caribbean and Middle-eastern. At night, in the places of transit, deep underground, this is who we see. In the day, by the Champs de Elysee, frolicking on the Elysian Fields, Paris is owned by the American tourist and the melancholy Parisian.
A city's character can be found in its patron deities, and in the case of Paris these deities are the war-torn dragons creaking rustily underground along the rail lines. In Kuala Lumpur, and in the new-rich cities, the monorails glide smoothly across the tracks, high above the city, tipping at what would be nerve-racking angles (if we didn't have such unconditional faith in their prowess), taking turns over the unfinished city below. Their pampered insides are air-conditioned, clean, new, every available space coated with bright advertisements, the translucent doors painted with vibrant ads for shampoo, moisturizers, and vacations to Taiwan. Each two-carriage train boasting its own theme: Some over city monorails tout traditional excursions to outlying Malaysian Island, while many trains deeper underground have ever carriage pasted with the shameless dull red and creepy smiling features of Colonel Sanders, his face torn asunder with every opening of the door.
But when one sees the monorail whizzing by overhead, the multi-colored exterior, the evocative splatterings of color, it is nothing but soul-stirring for the urban animist. A high-speed idol, dashing with confidence towards super-modernity. As it glides, perhaps, through a poor part of town: beside the 4th floor of a discolored, water-stained, concrete apartment block--the occupants surely hear the lithe juggernaut whizzing across the tracks; the contented sigh of its opening and closing doors; the pattering of footsteps and the mutterings of Mandarin, English and Malay wafting through the air and interweaving, and feel delighted. They look out and see the nefarious, multi-colored dragon, young, chic, sleek, tattooed with pastels, unblemished by etchings and mental graffiti, laughing off through the day, or sleepily rolling on through the night.
Trains are the minor gods of a city, each a single member of a vast pantheon. Like rivers must have been for the early animists, we modern animists meet in them, we crowd into them, they swallow us and spit us out. They are the silent gathering places of the people. We stand wedged up against a group of people for half an hour, close enough to hear their hearts beat, close enough to feel their hot breath, close enough to count the pores on their faces. Close enough to exchange thoughts telepathically, perhaps, if everyone weren't so purposefully isolated. We humans react to unwarranted intimacy by sinking into ourselves. Our circles of attention so small as to hold a single thought on repeat. In this position I actively expanded my circle to the people next to me, then to the surrounding seats, then to the whole carriage, then to the whole train. We are all sharing a moment indescribable to man a century ago. Human bodies shoved up each other in a swift ritual of transit. When another train flies by in the opposite direction it's almost impossible to not collapse at the vastness of the life that just passed by -- the minds, the histories, the origins, the hopes, fears and futures -- that just flew past me in less than a second. Within two meters of me. Surely that mental energy must leave a mark on space-time, and yet I feel nothing. My companions wedged up next to me feel nothing. How insensitive we humans must be to not have a deep physical connection with such an incident. Masses of Life passing masses life within a lunge from each other. And nobody notices.
So, the Parisian dragons are connected like the 14 entangled heads of a seven-fold beheaded hydra: each neck, snout, skull, and set of teeth completely unique, with their own scars and battle-wounds, their own thoughts, aspirations and drives, their own preferences for sacrifice; but sharing, nonetheless, a single heart with his 13 brothers. The 14 lines of the Paris metro.
These Paris dragons are old, worn, battle-scarred. Sparsely populated with advertisements which are often bland and ineffective, more like reluctant placations to a capitalist duty than to serve any real purpose. The monochrome walls are scratched with enigmatic French two-word riddles (or, more likely, expletives), written yesterday, or 15 years ago--the grooves collecting dirt. The swallowed masses are quiet and isolated, black, hopeful, secure in a time-tested metal reptile.
The fare is E1.70, no matter how many hydra you enter, no matter how far you go. So, monetarily, economically, and not measured in space and time, one place is the same as any other. As if all stations exist at a single point. The monetary singularity of 1 Euro 70 cents.
The newer dragons live deeper, stories underneath their blood-cousins. Dragon #2 being the deepest. But like a gathering of old men, ranging in age from eighty to one hundred, what difference does ten of fifteen years make? Each Dragon still screams in high-pitched agony as it joints creak and its scales rattle around the bends. His worshippers continue their hushed talk, or their silent introspection as if there were no noise at all, as if their souls already reverberate at the resonant frequency of the dragon's wails. The aging dragon's wails.
Each station a shrine, where you consult the ticket spitting oracle, are admitted, cleansed at the revolving gates, leaving your former self on the other side. You are ready to be swallowed.
Each station, a resting cave, which has its minor personal characteristics; but like tributaries of a single river are of the same mineral consistency and support the same species in their waters, and the same bank-side flora, thus the caves of the Paris Metro are not caves excavated by men and created, but pits torn into by dragons. Their initial uniformity broken overtime, but in essence, by the worshippers who pass through them.
The Difference Between Gypsies and Parisians
I decided to get off at the station name that most appealed to me. There are a variety of names to choose from, ranging from the esoteric to the absurd: Invalides, the Elyssian Fields, Stalingrad-Roosevelt, le Bon Enfants, Liege (Cork).
I chose Invalides. I supposed this was a reference to injured servicemen and not a post-modern affirmation of the aesthetic value of the handicapped, and so exited here to honor their memory (the servicemen, not the handicapped) with my humble act of passing through.
I ended up on a bridge over the Seine, each corner of the bridge mounted with sky-high white phallic columns, each mounted by a golden effigy of Joan of Arc taming a Gryphon. I was amazed by the extravagance, but found that such things were common in Paris and that this particular bridge is actually not very well known.
About halfway through my wonderstruck wander across the bridge an old smiling lady with 4 pure gold front teeth stood up and offered me a gold ring I saw her pick up from the sidewalk.
"Gold?" she asked, and handed it to me. I shrugged the universal 'I dunno' sign, reluctantly took the sure-to-not-be-gold ring and started to walk away. As I plodded along I looked into the inside of the ring and saw a small "18K" carved there. Really? Did she just hand me a gold ring? Why was it just lying on the ground? I'd stopped in my tracks and started biting the ring and scratching it, and all those things people do in movies to test for real gold. In the middle of my inner deliberations she appeared behind me, taped my shoulder, and when I turned around she was standing with outstretched palm making the universal 'I need food gesture.' So it was a hoax...
"Money For food," she said, bringing her hand to her mouth. "Well," I thought the ring is surely a fake, but it does have an 18k carved into it...And she did initially walk away, so maybe it was just good will and she only just realized she needed food after our brief interaction. Maybe she had enough gold already, what with her four front teeth and the bombastic Joan of Arcs everywhere you look." I considered telling her to sell her front teeth if she was so hungry, but couldn't even begin to think about how to say that in French, even with the aid of elaborate gesticulations.
So I handed the ring back to her.
"No, no," she said, in a motherly fashion, "Good luck, Good luck," pushing the ring back into my palm. Then she held out her hand again and made the 'I need to eat' gesture accompanied by a puppy-dog-gypsy pleading with the eyes.
I was won over enough by the elaborateness of the hoax to give her a dollar or two, but I only had eight Euro in my pocket and had lost my credit card, so that needed to last me five days. I was already jumping the gates at the subway stations to save money.
So, I gave her one Euro. That's NZ$2. She wanted more, hand still outstretched.
"For food," she said. So I had a bright idea. I opened up my bag and offered her half my baguette, which was supposed to last thewhole day, and handed over my massive block of brie, which, much to my dismay, she ripped took about 70% of. But cheese (good cheese) is mind-bogglingly cheap here, so I managed not to faint during the ordeal. We ate together on the bridge, flanked on all sides by 4 luminous Joan of Arcs quelling 4 misbehaved Gryphons, and then went our separate ways.
Now I had this ring and significantly less cheese. After wandering through central Paris for the day I ended up in this place 'shopping centre' called Louvre Antiquates. It is a series of private business that sell all variety of antiques from all over the world. This place was really a highlight of the city. There were over 100 stores in there, each one selling no more than 3 overpriced trinkets per year I'd guess. There was also a number of jewelers who I thought could help with my gold woes. I tried to find the least pompous looking jeweler and knocked timidly on the door, bracing myself for my first interaction with a non-gypsy, 'real' Parisian, about whose manners I've heard so many horror stories.
The proprietress looked over the rim of her glasses and muttered "Bonjour" and then something else purposefully inaudible and condescending. She had assessed in a split second that I wasn't going to purchase a $70,000 set of cufflinks. I held the ring up and asked, trying to create a sense of wonder and joy about the whole thing, "some lady gave me this and it says 18K gold!" She glared two fiery pits into my eyes, glanced briefly at the ring in disgust, and then dislodged some phlegm from deep down her throat in a single practiced guttural action. The return glare she then shot into my eyes could have broken any cultural barrier between any two humans from any two places on this earth, at any point in human existence, from cro-magnon until now. It said, unequivocally, and with a strong French accent: "Your life is a joke, and to me you are nothing more than the mucous I presently dislodged from my throat. Please leave me and me and my wares, each one of which is worth more than five of your lives, at peace". I backed slowly out of the store and almost straight into the store behind me, nearly toppling a $6,000 dollar ivory lesbian scene from the Ming Dynasty onto the floor.
Maimed Beggars and Modern Art
I've always been selective about which beggars I give my pocket-money to. I've typically been pretty stingy, giving liberally only to the severely maimed or undeniably disabled. This is a problem in France, where the ratio of maimed beggars to healthy beggars seems to be significantly higher than average. I've had to renege on my former steadfast commitment and be selective even to which maimed beggars I give to. For instance, coming down from the Sacre Couer one day I gave 50 cents to an armless man sitting on a narrow, cobbled, tourist-busy side-street. The single file stream of pedestrians was wedged up onto the sidewalk by the angry Paris traffic, and were forced to walk directly over the beggar, whose legs were splayed across the sidewalk. He was a grotesque sight to look at, with one arm completely missing, unskillfully excised at the shoulder, leaving in its place a large amorphous, bulbous clump of flesh. He (like any good maimed beggar) accentuated his grotesque showpiece with a tank top and a stoic-yet-pitiable face to boot.
While others fought to avoid him and ignore the amorphous outgrowth at all costs I pushed a gap through the crowd to deposit my humble gift into his empty tuna can. 50 cents is not a lot to me, and certainly not a lot to all the other people passing by. But if everyone gave him 50 cents he'd make a killing. So, I propose that there really should be more order around this whole maimed beggar thing in Paris. Because their numbers are so high that in a functioning democracy surely numbers like that can't be ignored. The maimed beggars deserve some attention. The mentality of most tourists and passersby is, of course: "I could give this maimed beggar 50 cents, but then I'd have to give every fucking maimed beggar 50 cents." That is why there should be a city ordinance in place where, upon entry into the city, the authorities ask you where you're staying in the city and then assign you a maimed beggar into whose tin can you ought to feel obliged to deposit your 50 cent pieces. Then there would be none of this guilt about passing maimed beggars, nor any of this blow to one'sbudget as a result of liberally giving to every maimed beggar one comes across.
Seriously, in most other cities this is a problem that doesn't deserve that much attention, but Paris is truly overcrowded with the maimed, and not just in the of beggar category. Could it merely be that I've been away from big cities for so long that I'm deluded, and in fact every major city has a noticeable population of the maimed? I don't remember this phenomenon in Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, London. Maybe the Asian cities actively exterminate their maimed beggars or hide them away from the public gaze. Maybe it's that French predilection for strange art that entices the city planners to put the maimed on display. The central gardens boast hundreds of oversized amorphous modern art statues of bronze. Rather expensive, and often of questionable aesthetic value. Quite like maimed beggars, strange looking, aesthetic in post-modern, neo-gothic way, but still of questionable value. Maybe the city keeps them around as a sort of roaming art installation.
They truly are everywhere. On a number of occasions I saw entire parades of wheelchair bound citizens rolling around, looking depressed. An incredibly stunted man of about 30 who was perched in a throne-sized mega-wheelchair which would put Hawkins to shame, seemed to belong to a local Capoeira group practicing on the Champs de Mars. I don't know he contributes to the team. My fist day there I stumbled upon an entire day dedicated to the maimed and wheel-chair bound. I heard a really bad rapper on a main stage set up at the far end of the Champ de Mars. He was projected up on the big screen, and even though he was rapping in French I could tell it was horrible. The 300 or so chairs placed before the stage were mostly empty. Well it turns out the rapper himself was wheelchair bound. It really was very post-modern.
I strolled through the Montmatre cemetery, peeking through the windows of the private family sepulchers to see the cracked and crumbling effigies of Christ, the toppled Mother Mary's, the discolored skin of baby Jesus, the cracked stained glass, the neglected fabric plants covered with 50 years of grime and dust. False plants someone assumed would last for eternity, and so wouldn't have to worry about anymore upkeep. But when the upkeep is so bad that the iron bars guarding the private shrines have rusted to nothing, maybe there should be more attention paid. But it seems to be the norm.
Then as a nice juxtaposition I walked to the high point of Paris where a church called the Sacre Couer (Sacred Heart) presents a massive Jesus leaning over his gathered lambs, sunbeams blasting from his backside (I presume) and spilling out over his shoulders and ribs and hips. From there I walked down through that park in which Amelie left those clues for her soon to be lover.
From here I went down through a 'bad' part of town. I say 'bad', but what I mean is 'ethnic', and what I mean by 'ethnic' is African with a pinch of the Middle-East. I say 'bad' because, as a white American, that is the adjective that has been drilled into my head to describe neighborhoods where black people are living out their everyday lives. I was annoyed at being there because for the past 30 minutes I had wanted to eat my daily baguette and gigantic roll of cheese. But I always need a secluded park to this because I feel embarrassed digging my fingers into soft sticky cheese, then smearing the melting, sticky clump (along with the grease and grime of subway car handrails, other people's hands, and filthy, dying European currency) onto the hurriedly broken baguette. It is embarrassing, you see, because people in Paris don't often eat in the streets. Well, they do, but it has to be on table that is thrown out on the street by an expensive restaurant. Then its okay, but any non-commercial eating on the street is so uncouth. They, it's true, are often seen running off at high speeds with two or three baguettes in their grasp, confidently wielded like swords of national identity, but they are never caught eating in the street. Well, sometimes people eat sandwiches. But certainly no one is ever caught sucking the day old camembert off their filthy fingertips, licking the corners of their mouth fiercely to remove built up crusty residue, clearing the passageway with a gulp of Giardia-filled tap water right before shoving another fistful of cheese-impregnated baguette down their throats. This is very uncommon behavior. That is why I always seek seclusion to partake in these activities, to shrink away from the patronizing, condescending Parisian gaze.
But the parks, and other relatively secluded areas, in this particular 'bad' part of town were chock full of happy families and active community life. "Bad part of town," I grimaced to myself as I pushed down through street after street. But I couldn't seem to escape. And to top it off I had to pee. It’s fairly commonplace for people to pee on the first wall in view when nature hits. They are fairly discreet about it, but the reek of piss around every corner is telling and not discreet at all. Fairly thick and poignant actually. Anyway, I had to pee, I was hungry, and there was no seclusion. So I just sat on a bench in front of the florist, pressed my bladder inwards in a rage, and dug in, baguette crust tumbling down my clothes, slimy cheese caked in my facial hair. Many a Parisian slowed their gait to glare at me disapprovingly, but I didn’t stop. This was the moment, I remember distinctly, becoming a part of Paris.
People talk about Paris being “Magic”. I don’t subscribe to this kind of Romantic wish-wash, but after only a few days I was convinced that of the truth in the cliché. But it is not the kind of Magic that the word Magic normally conjures up. It’s not 'Magic' in the way the tourism bureau would like you to believe it is magic. It’s not romantic or uplifting. Inspiring it certainly is, but rarely uplifting. Imagine a majestic palace of story-book kings ruling over their grateful and cared for populace, honorable warriors, beauteous maids. Now imagine that palace ruined and slumped to the ground, ravaged by time and bickering armies, now with dark clouds resting overhead and moss growing all through the stone foundations. When the lightning strikes illuminates the eternal midnight and the untold numbers of indescribable creatures night come crawling out of the cracks, yellow eyes reflecting the cold light of moon: It's this kind of magic. It's a dark magic. A post-magic magic. It’s something about the new African and middle eastern immigrants holding massive Sunday markets (spice trade spices of every variety piled up into the sky, all specie of strange fruits, screaming hawkers, overcrowded halal butcheries, not a single Caucasian face) all underneath a church inside whose walls every creepy King of France is entombed. Every single King. The Magic is something to do with the stench of piss wafting up from tent villages under classical stone bridges erected in splendor by Louis XIV. It's something about the old creaking trains, the depressed introspective people, the metaphysical conversations on midnight subways: “The human body is ill-designed: hips weaken and crumble, dislocate mid-stride down the street. Joints produce grotesque clicking at every convenience. Women suffer severe pain in child birth, their sexual organs designed to function somewhere between pleasing a man’s rather diminutive phallus, and depositing the head of a rather large human being."
It's the graffiti splayed above the cobblestone side alleys, broken effigies of Jesus, a lone mentally handicapped clarinet player perched on an thin strip of walkway by the side of Seine, drenched in sunlight. The WWII munitions factories turned theatres, where actors live and eat together, luring Parisians to the outskirts of the city to witness their odd spectacles. To move from surreal to surreal and then, one day, to die.