Chapter 3 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles
The automobile takes fifty-five thousand lives a year in the Unites States alone. How much life does the bicycle give every year everywhere? I do not know, there are no statistics, I can only judge from my own experiences.
Follow the rivers, follow the water. Up the Hudson in Manhattan, you can take Riverside Drive, use the footpath, it is empty. Watch for the squirrels, they scurry up and over the wall separating the footpath from the derelict park. Roll past Grant's Tomb; I once met a girl there, I hadn't seen her in twenty-five years. She was coming in from Scarsdale in a station wagon big enough to be barred from a no-trucking zone. I was riding up from Herald Square on a bicycle in the rain. I had bought what was damn near a diving suit for the trip, it made no difference. The rain squashed down my back and into my shoes. We met on the steps of Grant's Tomb and we sat for an hour in a student Cafeteria on Broadway with our pasts while I fed quarters into a parking meter that was mounting guard on the station wagon with my bicycle locked inside.
Roll past Grant's tomb, past the Claremont Inn and the 125th Street dock of the Hudson River Day Line, past all that is gone, on and up Riverside Drive, over the George Washington Bridge and come out on the Palisades. There is a colony of rabbits on the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge. They are waiting there, biding their time, waiting to move into New York
At the end of the bridge, turn right, hang onto the brakes, let 'em squeal, let the wheels go, down you go down the side of the Palisades, the human fly on wheels, and you are on the shores of the broad Hudson, a mile of sun and scum between you and the heights of Manhattan. There is a road along the river, the trees arch over it in summer, it is as civilized as any gemütlich lane in Europe. A sign says cycling is forbidden; pay no attention to it, the police don't. Just roll along the river, go up the river as Henry Hudson did. Don't knock New York, don't kick America; the city is dead, the country has gone to hell, but I don't know another city that size with a state park on the other side of its doorstep, mile after mile of wilderness and rabbits and heaven knows what else. You can take the bike about seven miles up, almost to Alpine. On the way you come across a house that witnessed the Revolutionary War, then the road ends at a marina with wire fences guarding the yachts from river pirates, protecting them from everything except the Hudson swilling at their sides.
I have never gone any farther north, I do not know what lies beyond. I leave it to others to discover.
There are discoveries to be made; these are new trails, they can hardly be discerned on the maps issued by gasoline stations that mostly indicate roads where gasoline can be burned and bought. There might be a way all the way up to Bear Mountain, I don't know, I leave it to Henry Hudson to find it, Hudson on a bicycle like La Salle; Hudson and La Salle, no wonder those river names did not last on automobiles.
For a cyclist the Hudson is a fresh airway into the wilderness. The city's other waterways are too busy working for a living to worry about what they look like. The East River takes on some airs along Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive but loses them pretty quickly around 96th Street. A pedestrian walk starts there; it is a good place to cycle, you won't bother anybody. No one has seen a pedestrian for years along the East River, where they are as rare as fish in the river. Perhaps there is a correlation with the introduction of chlorinated hydrocarbons into the environment (DDT, if you prefer, but scientists like to say chlorinated hydrocarbons, it sounds like a soft drink).
The pedestrian walk leads to a footbridge over to Randall's Island, one of the most deserted places in New York (where The French Connection hid out its heroin ring). The view of the city downtown is well worth the journey, traumatic though it may be. One day, I pedaled along the walk until I got to the footbridge, I walked up a spiral ramp, then wrestled the bike up some steps to the bridge. It is a lift bridge, it could be hoisted out of the way in case a big ship came up the river, perhaps a de-mothballed United States making a profit at last by hauling tourists around Manhattan Island, the latest addition to the Circle Line fleet; 5,000 passengers at $5 a head, the ship could make a trip an hour running at 40 knots, it would be a license to print money. Nobody would see anything, the whole waterfront would have to be rebuilt to solve the problems of loading and unloading, but people put up with worse to ride airplanes where they see even less.
On the Randall's Island side of the footbridge, a track laid out as an idyllic path ran past broken park benches set on the water's edge, right to the foot of one tower of the Triborough Bridge. It was somewhat eerie, riding there after reading what the papers say about crime n New York. Randall's Island is a lonely place, any lurker could have cut me down without a trace, with no one to hear my screams, just the East River stinking by, waiting like a foul-mouthed hyena to gobble up the corpse, to dissolve me as if I had been dropped into battery acid.
But there were no lurkers, Randall's Island runs right off the danger scale. Jane Jacobs has observed that neighborhoods become risky as they empty out. People in the street police the street. When the little stores close to be replaced by supermarkets, there are no more shopkeepers, they do not keep an eye on the street outside as well as on the stock inside. But if you empty the streets of all targets, of all signs of life, then the predators leave for want of prey. That was the case of Randall's Island. I could not imagine a lurker waiting for a venturesome cyclist, loitering there for weeks, months, or years, living on garbage thrown overboard from passing tugs, growing a knee-length beard an, in final desperation, hoisting a signal of distress in the hope that drivers might see it from the Triborough Bridge.
Lovers of wild life overlook Randall's Island and they are wrong. I have never seen bigger or wilder rats in my life than the ones that share the island with its other inhabitants, the patients of a mental hospital. The hospital is fenced off from the idyllic park but I once saw the other side. I had ridden over from Queens on the footpath of the Triborough Bridge and, losing altitude, I landed inside the hospital grounds on Randall's Island. I asked a nurse how to get to the Manhattan footbridge. She advised me strongly against gong outside the fence, there was worse than rats there. Yet I had no choice, either I would get to that bridge or I would wander about the hospital grounds as dazed as the other shapes I could see on the island. I found a hole in the fence, I got through, I got the bike through, I almost patted the rats, I was that glad to see them.
Otherwise, the East River is not very frightening. There is the park around the mayor's Gracie Mansion and a hanging promenade over the motor highway leading south. In the 80s and the 90s, there are still two- and three-story houses off the river; there is Yorkville putting up a wall of ethnic identity against nonentity, it succeeds almost as well as Chinatown does. Not quite, though; it is just a little too paunchy from all that wurst and beer. I prefer my East River below 14th Street, that is where I prefer my New York. The bicycle has guided me to all the beautiful cities of Manhattan; the frame houses of Grove Court to the west, the Oriental columns and the pastel walls of the East Village, the inner turnings of Mercer and Greene Streets, Mott and Mulberry. It takes me to places I had never heard of on my native island, Republican Alley and Old Slip. Get there fast while they last, they're coming down.
Brooklyn Bridge isn't falling down, it carries automobiles, it is allowed to stay up. They zoom at your feet when you go over the bridge on the plank path shared by pedestrians and cyclists. I once crossed it in a winter dawn; I have never seen anything like it anywhere, red-pink light like stained glass inside the Gothic arches of Roebling's towers, those stone spires stuck in the bottom of the East River and put to work holding up a bridge. I was caught inside the spun web of the cables. Upstream lay Manhattan Bridge against the redish-pink light, upstream from Manhattan Bridge the power plants were pouring out great clouds of white steam condensing in the cold, they were puffing away at full steam, the last of the tall-stackers, trying to keep Manhattan Island where it is, trying to hold it in the mainstream.
On the other side of the bridge, Jehovah's Witnesses give you the time and the temperature. If they weren't so pious, you would accuse them of lying when they flash 5 degrees at you. It can't be that cold. Yes, it is, the heat that you had stored up overnight is running out, mittens can save your hands but there is nothing you can do about your feet. You are like those European electric radiators that accumulate heat at night on the cheap rates, then trickle it out unplugged all day long. On Brooklyn Bridge, all the heat runs out all at once. You can hardly make it back to City Hall, then over to the diner on Canal Street that stays open every day of the year, New Year's Day included. A glass of tea will warm you hands before it warms your stomach, thereby warming your fee, tingling them back to life for a few more minutes, a few more miles until you are home.
Brooklyn Bridge leads to a number of places. There is bucolic Brooklyn Heights on the other side with the other view of Manhattan, this time with the castles and the cathedrals flattened to a silhouette against the curtain of the World Trade Center. From Brooklyn Heights, the port of new York becomes visible again. Freighters load at the foot of the heights; it would be a good place to stroll or roll if it were not for the infernal six-lane highway plastered against the cliff of the Heights, three lanes at a time. I seldom cross to Brooklyn Heights, I keep it in reserve for the future. Instead I concentrate on the Manhattan side of the bridge, Fulton Fish Market down below, first the aerial view from the bridge roadway, then the market itself at six o'clock in the morning. Around Christmas is a good time to catch the market. The big porters climb up to the tops of open tank trucks to net eels for the Italian and Portuguese trade, the fish-crate fires roar around the pillars of the elevated highway that keeps drivers off the street and keeps the street away from drivers so they can never see it. They do not even know of the existence of Fulton Fish Market, Les Halles and Convent Garden all wrapped up and packaged at their doorstep, they cannot see it, they can only flee it. I push the bike through the market, I warm my rear on a fish-crate fire, a Jewish porter starts a conversation with me. Handcarting fish around the Fulton Market was one of the old trades of the Lower East Side. It is going; when the market is gone, it will be gone. No need to replace the old iron-rimmed carts, they're good for a few more years. You can see some that Stieglitz must have seen with his camera. They are almost big enough to be pulled by a horse, they are still towed by a man over the cobblestone of Front Street.
When the market is gone, the Seaport Museum will take over on Front Street. I like the museum, but it will not be the same. One must be thankful for small blessings, the museum pier is always open. At any hour of the morning, the cyclist can find a snug harbor of silence there after watching helicopters arrive with their high-priced cargoes of commuters to Lower Manhattan, so much more upper than the Lower East Side. On the museum pier, a cyclist can circle slowly in front of a schooner or a square-rigger or the Ambrose Lightship. At lunchtime, he can eat there, too, without worrying about someone walking off with the bicycle, there is a bike-in counter on the pier. Congress has devalued the dollar, but not bicycles. I don't know how much they are worth in New York I once took one into a shop, I left it in a corner, a salesman told me: "Don't leave it there, it'll grow feet." In Central Park on a Sunday, I saw a racer take his bike into the comfort station with him. I expressed amazement, he knew better; the bike was worth four hundred dollars and he had already lost two outside that comfort station.
There is another pier where a ship sleeps on the Hudson River, a freighter used as a school by the city of New York. The ship's flanks catch the setting sun the way that the towers downtown reach for the sunrise. From the pier, you can see a retired Staten Island ferry. Manhattan seems to rest on its waterfront, where it once worked so hard. The ferry slumbers on the Hudson river, the police in their prowl cars pull up on the walks of the small stretch of park along the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge, sleeping the sleep of the just. The cops bat a sleepy eye when asked for directions, then they go back to their napping. No one is worried by a cyclist. People whose life it is to take the joy out of other lives do not go around on bicycles, such people are too important for that. So the bike is accepted everywhere.
It is even more adept at making friends if the rider happens to be a photographer with a French accent and a fascination for fire engines. In New York the fire engines are like the private garbage trucks, they are great powerful tools, monuments to the high-priced American workingman. They go through the streets like an emperor; no dignitary visiting Paris in a puny Citroën with a motorcycle escort can flatten the city like a Manhattan fire engine. We once caught one down around Houston Street. The crew had stopped to inspect a theater. Two firemen were riding in the back platform; one looked as if he were on a seven-day bat. He had been out on twelve calls on a Saturday night in midwinter. Fatigue slurred his voice and blurred his eyes, he had not shaved in two days. He was glad to see the photographer from France. "You're from France? Why my mother was a hooker on the Champs-Elysées. She worked the right side." He looked at his buddy. "His mother worked the left side." His buddy looked at us. "You know how it is, there's one in every outfit."
We stood in the cold, talking to the firemen who stayed with their engine to prevent a frustrated bicycle thief from making off with it while the rest of the crew inspected the theater. It didn't take long, just time enough for me to botch a picture of the photographer wearing the fireman's hat. Then the driver came out, they all got aboard, the engine shrieked, and off the went, back into the pages of Currier and Ives: THE AMERICAN FIREMAN---Always Ready.
It was in Washington that we made the greatest haul of all these American urban fishing trips. We were in the streets of Georgetown, feasting our eyes and stuffing them on downtown frame houses and trees. A garbage truck came along the street, as it does sooner or later on every street. The cyclist becomes a connoisseur of garbagemen; they must necessarily go through the city more slowly than he does, he has ample time to study them. There are the garbage trucks of Paris with the Africans and Arabs on the back end and the European driver, reading his paper at the wheel. There are the monsters of New York that wrench ten tons at the time off the street. There is the farm tractor hauling a wagon that comes around every other Saturday in Lanloup in Brittany and inevitably stalls in front of the Duvals' café. But I have never seen anything like those Georgetown garbagemen. They belonged in the Olympics; no pro football team could have put on a better passing performance even with presidential play-making Three men in orange worked the street. They sent great plastic garbage cans arching through the blue sky in mortar trajectories that landed them right into the basket on the rear of the truck. Then back went the cans to the owners' stoops in a series of flat lateral passes. One man on that crew was memorable, he was strong as a lion, graceful as a panther. His secret was the follow-through, you could tell by watching him. The garbage cans flew after the truck with his hands still fanned in their direction, driving them on in their flight with the field of force emanating from his fingers. He wasted no time with the photographer, the truck kept moving, so did he, so did she. She loaded and reloaded, focusing and clicking away at him while those trash cans floated through the air with the greatest of ease. There is nothing demeaning about street cleaning, not when it is a game of skill and strength like polo that only a few can play.
It was our bicycles that caught the Georgetown Redskins at practice; nothing can be hidden from the bicycle in a city. It brought me into the courtyards of Paris, even the one next to my own home where twenty years went by before I found Ossip Zadkin's sculptures tended by his widow in the garden of their house. The bicycle took me to the remote arrondissements of Paris where nothing of note ever happens, where the human species will survive a few more years until concrete overruns its sanctuaries.
I have come to think of the streets of Paris as the oceans that bound a continent. Travel along their shores and you will know the coastline. To know the continent, you must ride the rivers into its innermost fastnesses. So it is with courtyards. Through doorways, one enters another city of town houses and greenery, cobbled lanes and weathered shanties; one, two, three courtyards behind the street, the third level of consciousness. There in the soul of the city are sculptors and upholsterers, locksmiths and printers, the crafts and arts that need bulky equipment and plenty of space. There are fountains and gardens, vegetable farms and châteaux. There are old streets cut off by the façade of a new building on the avenue but running back, back, back into the innards of the black where you can turn around and see that the old street crosses the new avenue and keeps going through the newer buildings on the other side. The courtyards of Paris, I like to think, are its subconscious, where everything is deposited, where all is preserved until the New Parisian comes along with his bulldozers and his hollow bricks to house Eliot's hollow men in co-op coops for battery humans, wiping out all the layers of consciousness, lobotomizing the city, separating it from its memory.
In the courtyards, I found the city that Elliot Paul wrote about in The Last Time I Saw Paris, but not where he found it. His Rue de la Huchette no longer exists as he saw it. The buildings are still there, but they might be in Disneyland, Florida; Mystic, Connecticut; Williamsburg, Virginia. The character is gone, it is replaced by characters, the rich who expensively dress poor, acting out a play that is all the more Living Theater because they do not even know they are actors themselves. Rue de la Huchette has gone through the travail that transforms urban villages everywhere into Greenwich Villages. It would be more honest to tear them down and put glass and ferro-concrete in their stead rather than leave this stage set, freshly painted in trompe l'oeil to look down-and-out, with its smellovision show of stale fat frying in cheap restaurants where the food is dreadful because it is cheap, thereby punishing all the New Parisians, tourists in their own country, who dare sin by stinging on their sacrifices. Adventurers form the far reaches of Auteuil and Westchester rub shoulders in the dives of Rue de la Huchette, providing local color for each other.
I prefer my courtyards where the last time I saw Paris it had not changed a whit since the next-to-the-last time. These are the recesses where humanity holes up, where a way of life survives around a tree, flowerpots at a window, ivy tumbling down the wall. Every courtyard dweller thinks he has a piece of the country to himself in the midst of the infested city. Each thinks his situation is unique because, obviously, he seldom goes out. He need not, has has a full feast for his eyes and his soul. Like the wandering tinkers who once brought the news from one lonely farm to another, I move from courtyard to courtyard on my bicycle. I keep an eye on the stone brow of the city for a new friendly wrinkle that gives away another principality in hiding.
Paris is like Gruyère cheese, more holes than solid matter, almost a Potemkin city that pretends to be a metropolis on its outward side but actually lives as a network of atoms interlinked as in those big molecular models used to teach chemistry. When I began to hunt courtyards, I would pedal off, coast along looking for a doorway, enter when one looked promising, spot some trees on the other side of a wall, wheel around the block, try to get at the trees, climb a flight of stairs for an aerial view, mumble to a concierge that I must have been at the wrong address, brave a dog that suddenly became fierce as soon as it could yap from its own doorway, forget where I was.
At first, I knew only a few courtyards. I was like their inhabitants, I thought them unique. One was behind the city hall near Les Halles. It was a rough lane, cobblestoned, with two bellying medieval buildings arched over it, forming a passage festooned with gas pipes and electric cables. Down at the end, daylight showed where a friend of mine was living in an old stable he had turned into a duplex. The ceilings were low but the house was quite liveable if one went around on all fours. He had been told that the courtyards outside has once been the Court of Miracles where the lame beggars walked and the blind saw in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, making the place at least an ancient as Victor Hugo. So began my miracle of the Courtyards.
The next one I found started with another cobblestoned lane not far from Rue Mouffetard, la Mouff', that street of market stalls, Arabs selling lemons one by one, fruit stands decorated like a feast-day altar in front of the Church of Saint Médard. La Mouff' is dying, slowly choked by the necrosis that seeps down from Place de la Contrescarpe where the cheesy greasy restaurants are taking over along with the pubs imported lock, stock, and Watney's barrel from Olde Englande. An Armenian shoe dealer who sells everything from espadrilles to sabots told me how it worked. A hole-in-the-wall business becomes an antique shop, an art gallery, a bar, all of them busy only in the late afternoon and at night. So, during the day, the street loses people. Shops trying to sell something useful find themselves high and dry, cut off from the sea of humanity in which they once thrived like fish.
I walked into the doorway not far form Rue Mouffetard. It looked promising, a high wooden double gate, a stone placed there as a convenience for those alighting from a horse, I imagine, and the rugged paving stones that have never been changed in these courtyards because they never wear out. Beyond the gates of the buildings, the hidden streets of Paris are paved as they were when Ben Franklin walked the city with that fresh all-embracing curiosity of his. Paris is not foreign to me in its old parts, it has more of my past as an American that many an American city where no era tails beyond its end, where every decade apparently has an automatic self-destruct button, timed to explode like a delayed-action mine---its artifacts, its traces on earth thrown away, destroyed like ten years of calendar pages. I go over the city of Paris again and again on my wheels, stopping, prying; each time I ride over it is like another chisel stroke in a woodcut. There is always room for another line, another miniature image in the great mural of a city that I am putting together in my mind.
I rode into the lane running off Rue du Cardinal Lemoine that leads into Place de la Contrescarpe. Beyond the gate, a row of two-story buildings. An illusion of an inner street, not a bad bag for the courtyard hunter. A tall, full plane tree at the end of the street. I ventured up to i. Always go to the end of the courtyard, it may not be the end. To the right, there may be a gap, a winding around a corner and into another corner, even more of a lull in the storm of a city. This courtyard did no end at the plane tree, nor did it wind. It opened into a blossom of lawn and lilac bushes bounded by two old town houses glorious in crumbling stone, flaking paint, shutters askew.
The place, so a sign said, was a pension de famille. Several times, I went into it, where I could smell the odor of measured portions and old lives running down as they, too, were measured to the last drop. I found no one there until, one day, a glum woman told me the building was coming down to make room for studios (a Paris studio, like a New York studio, is a large room that has been converted into a small room with bath and kitchen so that it can get a large rent).
I took the photographer, who is also a painter, to look at the courtyard during its last days, in that pause when old buildings are left alone, locked and barred with their memories, shut up to shut out the bums, before the bulldozers move in to knock down the ceilings and the floors, leaving only a faint imprint, a painted panel, a few bathroom-wall tiles, the pattern of a staircase on an adjoining wall. As we stood in the yard with our bikes, a little boy walked up, took a lilac from a bush, and went off into the street.
His mother emerged from the house. She was as slender as he was, she had the same open look in her face, she might have been her child projected against a screen so as to give a somewhat larger image. We talked to her; she and her husband had bought the pension de famille and they were going to make a small hotel out of it. Mainly, they wanted a place to live, a base from which they could send their two little boys out from a country house off Rue de Cardinal Lemoine to go to school with lilacs for their teacher. Nothing else would change, there would be no studios, the tattered carpet on the stairs would stay, so would the old corner room with both windows opening full into the embrace of the boughs of the big tree I had seen from the street.
Only the dining room would go, there would be no more old gray heads bowed as if in meditation over soup of leeks, wrapped in concentration while teeth, seldom their own, chomped bread and skinny skeiny beef, scraping clean the sides of little glass bowls to get the last cool acid drop of yogurt from them. The dining room did go, but the smells of that cooking lingered on for weeks.
They were not unpleasant, they talked to the painter as she worked in that corner room embraced by the tree. They talked to her in the intervals when she was left alone by the owners' two small sons who crept upstairs like mice, slithered into her room like snakes, then worked like beavers over the paper, paints, and crayons she dispensed to keep them busy while she went about her business. She worked well in her courtyard; whenever she had enough she charged down the stairs, ran over the grass with her big feet kicking high like a sprinter's ran out the double gate on Rue du Cardinal Lemoine to a baker for a loaf of bread, to a cafe for two cups of coffee boiling hot. She could have ordered a large coffee but then the second half would not have been as hot as the first.
I used the courtyard myself as an advance camp for my exploration of the twistings and writhings of Paris-off-the-street. I would return with my tales, my addresses jotted in a shirt pocket-sized notebook; I passed my scout's reports to the painter. Then, converted into a photographer, she sallied forth, camera on her back, lens case on her hip, the two of us awheel as we set out to record another image of the countryside-in-Paris, the city of gardens and children and old women that is going down faster than I can write it up, faster than she can put it onto film. That city is still so much bigger than the mites who are destroying it. It will outlast them, I think and I hope; I think and I hope that it will always be able to offer the photographer a new castle, a new bosk that she has not yet seen, a new cranny of the Paris that both of us had once crissed, crossed so unseeingly. I think it will last; I can discover five courtyards in one afternoon, she can take five afternoons to photograph one courtyard.
Once, she entered the life of an old lady on the verge of eviction from the country house she had occupied in the 13th arrondissement for fifty years. The old lady brought up her family and grew her vegetables there all within sight of the elevated Métro line that ducks in and out of the ground like a demented mole as it rings the inner city. When we met her, she was gathering her things together, he meek meager belongings, to make the move to a studio apartment in a high-rise that had been rented for her by her family. It was not that she disliked the idea of moving, she simply could not imagine it. She had no idea of what life is like in the city of Paris if one does not have a house, a tomato patch, a few hens for fresh eggs and, as neighbors, old workmen who come by every day to tend their allotments, turning over the soil, planting vegetables, pruning fruit trees, eating cherries off the branch, all within sight of the Métro.
The old lady used to have many neighbors. The wasteland around her had once been a city of coopers making the big barrels for the Halle aux Vins, the Left Bank wine market that has also died, its site marked by a tombstone of the usual glass, steel, and concrete into which science students have been funneled. I visited that wine market many years before, it wasn't a bad place in those days. There was one small building on stilts for the science students while tank cars full of Beaujolais and Big Red were switched between its legs. I had to do a story on the leading Paris dealer in Beaujolais. Next to the big clean vats in his market shed, I traveled through the litany of villages that make up Beaujolais, saying my beads with him: Saint-Amour, Moulin-à-Vent, Juliénas, Brouilly. The leader spat out the wine we tasted. I didn't. I had to write the story from memory, my notes were deep purple. I walked through the market into the dark cellars where I met an old man bottling his own brand of wine, sticking labels on by hand, truly an anachronism in his comfortable sweet-smelling cellar room under the high vaults that had been built in the days of the first Napoleon. The old man knew he had to go, he did not mind for his own sake; he only thought that he and his kind were more of a help to humanity that (a wave in the direction of the science school's first building) the others with their atomic bomb.
When the wine market went, the city of the coopers was bound to follow. I discovered it only by accident, following my glances into side streets, back alleys, front yards. Nearly all of the coopers' village had been demolished by the time I found it. There were only the houses of the old woman and her family, lone hummocks in the steppe of dust and ruts and weed-grown walls around them. The old woman was eighty but she had the blue eyes of a child, a diaphanous skin that was almost luminous at times, and white hair that covered her fragile head like a delicate veil of thin silk. It was the hair that bothered her, she had just done it, she did not want to pose with a scarf on her head. The photographer agreed; she came back the next day without me but there was not enough light to photograph the old woman in the yard of her house. She went back to the house at least twice more before she was able to get her pictures. Occasionally, I joined her and we prowled in back of the old woman's house, eating a few fresh cherries from a tree that had been left to its own resources in the few weeks of life remaining to it.
Through the orchards and gardens of the 13th arrondissement we roamed until we were met by a powerfully built man and his German shepherd dog, even more powerfully built. He was the watchman; he had been keeping an eye on us from his perch in the attic of a deserted two-story house. We got along well with the watchman because we took him seriously. First intruders, we quickly became his guests. He gave us a conducted tour through a magnificent town house that was coming down in a few days in the name of urban renewal: winter garden, billiard room, butler's pantry with call board, bathrooms upstairs and down, fireplaces, parquet flooring, all to be fed to the wreckers. The watchman was taking care to see that none of this fell into the wrong hands. While we were there, we watched as he and the dog and a friend moved a great mirror that had once looked down from over the fireplace. They heaved it and they hauled it, backing and filling and tacking downstairs through entrances until they reached the watchman's command post in the deserted house that was coming more to resemble a warehouse.
The watchman talked readily. Most people do in the courtyards of Paris. They are not city people fearful of strangers and movement but villagers at home on their own turf, confident and therefore not defensive. He told us everything except his name. He was one of those leftovers from the fall of the French Empire: l'Indochine is gone and so is l'Algérie. There is not too much demand for easy-talking men who swim best in troubled waters. One often meets them as watchmen outside some of the treasures of Paris, where they display the alert wariness, latent strength, and social ease that go with their role as men of the world, professional pacifiers in retirement. They are left with their dogs and their lonely patrols, waiting for the Viet Minh or the fallagas or Abd-el-Krim to turn up in the 13th arrondissement within sight of the Métro.
This arrondissement is my despair; it is here that rural Paris is getting hit the hardest. Since it borders on the Latin Quarter, it allows the promoters to boast that their concrete filing cabinets for carbon-copy humans are "Left Bank residences." I rush at the 13th arrondissement on my bicycle like a man who has been placed before a smörgasbord and told he has only five minutes to eat all he can. I tote the bike through streets that end in steps where, on top of one, I found a parked bicycle with wooden rims on its wheels, wooden mudguards over them. It must have been there for years and years, left perhaps when its front tire went flat during the exodus from Paris in 1940, overlooked by occupiers and liberators alike, moldering peacefully on top of the steps. No one would steal a bicycle with wooden wheels, not even in New York.
Two doors away from the bicycle, I sighted a house with a telltale bust outside in a wall niche, almost a sure sign of a fallen mansion. I entered, I saw tall doors that had once opened into a stable. An old lady came out, the concierge who had been there since 1910. The house had been a hunting lodge for King Henri IV, she told me, and there were rooms upstairs over the entrance where the king could enjoy a little variety in his game. There was also a country pump she had to show me; she pulled away a few flowerpots, pried loose some boards, and there in the wall was the old pump, its long iron handle rusted but recognizable. The old lady did not mind living in the king's hunting lodge now that she had electricity, but she had to wait until the end of the Second World War for that.
Burrowing through Paris, I came across another old woman in the 15th arrondissement who was lighting with gas. I asked her what she did for wicks. She said there was still a shop on Avenue Emile Zola that handled them but she did not know what shoe would do when they closed. The possibility that her landlord might electrify never crossed her mind. There was no reason why it should have, the building was doomed. It stood in the way of the Paris of the Year 2000 that is going up on this other left Bank flank of the Latin Quarter, edging out factories, rooming houses for Arab factory hands, and more more more gardens, farmhouses, backyard woods.
It was in this disaster area that I wandered one morning, fleeing the dust and the monstrous mixer trucks. I ducked into alleys and lanes, I had no idea where I had landed. And I saw a blacksmith shoeing a donkey. He looked up in irritation when he saw he was being watched, because the animal was skittish, then he went on with his work. He had a leather apron tied around his waist and a leather sling around his neck. He placed the donkey's hoof in the sling. This left his hands free; he took some nails from a pocket in his apron and hammered them home. It was serious business, he had neither the time nor the inclination to chat. He was shoeing the donkeys and the ponies that rot out every day from that unpaved courtyard in the 15th arrondissement to the Luxembourg Gardens and the Camp-de-Mars, where they carry children, some in carts, some on their backs. A country boy leads the animals and reassures the city children, delighted but a little fearful in the presence of beasts almost as rare as the panda, as exotic as the platypus, almost as extinct as the dodo in their city.
I was once riding down Rue de Sèvres, a Left Bank artery in the vein of Carnaby Street, when I pulled up at a red light next to a panel truck with a donkey inside. The driver told me he sold sachets of lavender, bottles of lavender toilet water in the street from a big basket on the donkey's back. The donkey provided an authentic touch of Haute Provence, where the lavender grows. The light changed, the truck moved off slowly. The driver said he was looking for a place to park. I asked him why he did not use the new underground parking lot that had been gouged out below Boucicaut Square, leaving the square with a layer of pallid grass and puny trees trying to grow over the scene of the crime. Oh no, said the lavender-truck driver, the donkey didn't like to go under the ground, he baulked in the darkness where the shoppers parked. He may have been a donkey, he was no ass.
Rue de Sèvres is a good street for courtyard shopping. I go down it at least once a day; it always changes, depending on which gates are open. Two lead to convents and church schools; this is a neighborhood of nunneries and residences for the clergy. When the gates open, it is like looking into a magic Easter egg, an image of flowerbeds, shaded lanes, sleepy provincial old church schools. But the gates seldom open and they do not work automatically when you push the bell button. That is a trick I often use: I see a promising gate, I ring the bell, the doors swing open, I glance inside, take some mental notes, drink in what I can, then shut them softly. On Rue de Sèvres and other Church properties, this will not do. There is always a little grille at the door where one must state one's business. In many Paris convents, it is hard to find someone willing to allow a photographer to photograph the gardens and the henhouses and the sagging verandas. Nuns are well-trained to pass the buck; the ultimate power of decision lies somewhere in the provinces, they tell you with uplifted eyes.
This limits my activities, because nuns control so much of Paris behind the walls; businesslike nuns who run neighborhood dispensaries; wing-hatted nuns who dispense handouts to bums, shuffling respectfully up to the convent door, hobbling on canes, pushing three-wheeled baby carriages loaded with gleaned garbage; lithe nuns in sweatsuits who teach physical education; young Irish nuns who speak French to you with a brogue. They are the vestals of the old city of Paris; they watch their sanctuary being nibble away as the Church sells off properties to the builders. Half a convent goes down so that apartments can go up. The other half stands next to it, the paint of inside rooms on outside walls, old dark walnut doors that now open onto this air. Every time we cycle by, the photographer says she expects to see a nun walk out one of those doors and fly away on the wings of her hat.
Adjoining houses are the best places to spy on convents, so I have been told. One Peeping Tom watches nuns work their vegetable gardens in the 7th arrondissement and tries not to miss the moment of their daily recreation when they relax with a wild game of volleyball. He is not really a Peeping Tom, he designs grandfather-clock-sized pocket watches or arm's-length-thermometers in a shack three courtyards behind Rue du Cherche-Midi that runs back to back to Rue de Sèvres, providing a long swatch of country in the busiest part of the Left Bank, a rural stretch between two traffic-occluded colons, Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard du Montparnasse. I like riding down Rue du Cherche-Midi; cars always use it to beat the jam on Boulevard Raspail, then they get caught behind a moving van standing still on an all-morning job and the street is mine.
On Rue du Cherch-Midi, there are those high old doorways, tall enough to let a carriage through with baggage on the roof, tall enough to let a horse rear, that give away the presence of a mansion in the old aristocratic quarters. From under such a doorway, so a plaque tells me, Rochambeau left to fight alongside the revolutionaries in America. Two courtyards behind, an upholsterer works at his trade in one of those slanty wooden sheds, all splinters and fire hazards, that creak happily behind the frosted façades of Paris. The upholsterer will talk to you; courtyard people talk to the infrequent passerby once you assure them you are there to admire their courtyard and not take it away from them. They can understand this, they bask in your admiration, they show you a secret fountain, a hidden tower, a sculptured pediment. It is a good rule on Rue du Cherche-Midi, Rue de Varenne, Rue de l'Université, Rue de Lille, Rue du Bac, Rue Barbet-de-Jouy to look behind the high doorways. Space opens beyond, a preface of paving stones leading to the steps of a town house, to the half-timbered walls and low gables of a stable where a Rolls is groomed, or even a road that runs up to houses facing a wood, parents lying in hammocks rigged to trees, reading and relaxing, unaware of their kids climbing out the attic window, wooden swords in hand like d'Artagnan, teetering on the edge of the roof gutters, whispering to us on the other side of the wall where we watch silently, with complicity.
Courtyards are rife in these quarters of Paris where nobles built without a car for space, leaving an odd acre of English park below their windows, a wilderness that betrays its presence to the street outside only by the cool breath that comes from the doorway on a hot summer day. In the back streets of these quarters, Rue de Verneuil, Rue Saint-Dominique, Rue Cler, Rue de l'Exposition, Rue du Gros-Caillou, the tradesmen work in courtyards of their own, overlooking more wilderness planted in flowerpots, oil drums, old tires, anything that will keep soil in place on top of cement. On a small street of Rue de Sèveres, a lady has a parasol and a table in the garden behind the little hotel she runs; she sits at the table and writes poetry when the sun and her inspiration are out.
There is also much for the eye to rest on in the working-class parts of Paris where space was laid on lavishly because land values were low. There, the gardens run off bumpy private streets never paved for the motor age, some still with center gutters to take what used to come out of the houses. I know an apartment house with allotment gardens behind it, to each tenant his own garden below. Population densities are high in these streets, but so are amenities for the population. Houses can stretch back a block or so, hidden forever from whatever is happening on the big streets. These little streets are called villas or cités; many were built to provide the most modest possible housing for workmen and artisans who now enjoy air, trees, gardens, grass, solitude, the most royal of privileges in the city of Paris. In the heat of June or July, kids romp naked through the cités and dogs run unafraid.
The situation is gradually being righted; step by step, little by little, these pockets of sanity and humanity are being cleared away, houses knocked down as if they were of cards, trees uprooted so that the soil can sprout high-rise beanstalks. Or even worse, the walls stay up, the roofs stay on, but the insides are gutted, the intestines are torn out to make way for rich stuffing. Such is the urban plight of Paris; the rich can destroy a city far more thoroughly than the poor. They can turn it into a exurb with none of the inconveniences of commuting. The suburban trains and the Métro are the lot of the fugitives chased from the city core. The result is the same as Westport or La Jolla; work is banished, dirty hands are the sign of the pariah unless they belong to maid or plumber. On Sundays, holidays, in July and August, these inner suburbs look as if someone had spread the word the Russians are coming.
It is among the aristocrats and the artisans, Faubourg Saint-Germain and Faubourg Saint-Antoine, that life still edges out death in the courtyards that the bicycle enters and leaves without a trace of its passage. This could be a model of urban planning, a city polka-dotted by the countryside. This could be the Paris of the Year 2000, the Paris of eternity, but the up-and-coming and the here-and-now will have none of it. The doorways of Passy are twice as high as those of Faubourg Saint-Germain, a double-decker bus could get through with everyone standing up; the concierge's lodge is twice as humble, the promise is that of a Versailles or, at the very least, a Fontainebleau behind the gates.
So I go in and there is a frosted glass door at the other end of the entrance. Bad sign that, must be something to hide. Open the door, a yard that looks more like an inch; the used to call it an airshaft in Hell's Kitchen. A monotony of yellowish brick, cheaper than the hewn stone outside, a building whose tenants enjoy neither light nor air, just the address out front. Behind it, more of the same. Those that built here knew the value of a square meter, they did not waste a millimeter, they raised their vertical deserts for the cream of Paris, letting it rise to the top by elevator. In the morning, the desert Bedouins become nomads in their cars, clotting the streets, clogging the air, agreeing only that le progrès has made city life possible.
Chapter 4, The Built-In Breakdown
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