Jun '03 [Home]


Travail:  The Word of a Job in Paris
by Patrick Henry

. . .

Working in Paris always seemed to be a kind of contradiction. To be able to support myself and live there rather than existing somewhere else seemed a great attraction, but on the other hand it seemed such a banal waste of time to drudge in such a splendid place where a time of leisure offered a range of experience. My heroes of this city—Baudelaire, Matisse and Samuel Beckett—had not been hampered with a job, creative work being their calling. In fact, I did not work much, most of my time spent looking for jobs that never lasted long anyway. I had provident girl-friends, with an amount of understanding, but such portions run out quickly as francs from the pocket or wine from the bottle, or bread from the cupboard, so work must be found.

My employment centre was the Shakespeare Bookshop, where I also lived a lot of the time when I had nowhere else. Its owner George Whitman put up drifters for a few days in exchange for help in the place, and writers for longer periods for no requirement other than they read and write under his roof. Apart from his endless chicken stew and classic volumes, I also found here all the short careers I added to my CV during those years.

First, it was under Gordon, the English baker, an unlikely inhabitant of this city to practise his trade abroad where the French might think themselves exclusive masters in this field. Gordon was not overawed by this, considering himself good as anyone at everything, especially the French, whose land and cooking and language he rated lowly, not learning a word of it. So why was he here? A hard question to answer. He made English slab cakes and sold them at university cantines from side tables, where students could buy an extra dessert course, style Anglais, a bizarre treat.

A tall, comically cadaverous scarecrow-like figure, with an hysterical laugh like a nervous horse, revealing he had no teeth left, all lost in fighting, he said, that seemed unlikely in such a thin and humorous figure, but his desperate side would be revealed.

He transported his wares across town in a bicycle-driven pannier vehicle of the kind seen in museums of tradesmens' lifestyles circa 1920. It bore the sign, GORDON'S ENGLISH CAKES, UNBEATABLE, in English, and he became quite celebrated in magazine articles and media programmes. The equally unique Mr. Whitman, who sold only books in the English language, became his friend, as did I, from his visits to the shop. So he gave me a job.

My first task was to learn his recipe and destroy it. The formula for plain English confectionery did not seem top-secret material, as many equations of intrigue might be in Paris, but my frivolous reaction was soon corrected. Gordon's skinny hand gripped me tightly, his wild black hair and eyebrows loomed over staring eyes, and the shrill laugh from the toothless mouth turned menacing. I would memorise the recipe right now and swallow it before it fell into enemy hands. Was it on rice-paper? It bloody-well was not. No easy passage in his organisation. I might not like all the conditions of employment, but I would have to swallow them.

The bakehouse was in an alley near Place de La Bastille, site of the prison where the Revolution started. I had been here for the annual Mayday march of labour unions, and carried the red flag for my girl-friend's group. She was a flaming red intellectual.

So I was a leftie, Gordon scowled. Work-shy troublemakers the lot of them, the French worst of all. Here come some now. He reacted to heavy boots down our alley like a rebel army approaching. Would I stand by him whoever came up against us? Quick, an answer. I nodded as a fist hammered on our shutter in the gloom. Two men stood there in high-heeled boots, raffish black clothes, wide-brimmed hats, long curly cavalier hair, of the hippy fashion, like Dumas's musketeers. They had come for the cakes, a regular pick-up, but today Gordon had raised the price. The answer was "Non," a definite French zero. No order, no deal. They argued, then strode off empty-handed. They would not try it on with you here, Gordon said, though he could deal with them single-handed anyway. Had I eaten that recipe? They would be after it more than ever now. Were they coming back with a stomach pump to dredge the secret from me? I wondered. I would never tell that memorised list to anyone, Gordon insisted. So we would work now all through the night, bake hundreds of cakes, and tomorrow take over all the outlets they could not cover, with no stock. We would outsmart these fancy French chefs and bakers and stage cavaliers, a counter-attack by the English. The war of the cakes was hotting up.

A huge Black African entered the Shakespeare bookshop and asked Mr. Whitman for any English writers around; not on the shelves in classic volumes, but in person, ready to get writing. A film-script needed finishing or rewriting, pretty damn quick. I was just near the front desk reading Hemingway again and trying to learn how short, dead-pan sentences can make an author's successful career. So I got this job.

The film's story was that a South African freedom fighter robs a diamond shipment train to fund his cause. This movie could have everything:  race, politics, sex, action adventure, but time was of the essence; rival projects could be in the pipeline, ransacking this set-up whose writers had gone, sacked or drifted off to other pursuits. How do I like the script so far, and how can I move it on?

Now we had moved to a bar in on Île St.-Louis in the Seine. Of course I said it had potential which I could enhance. It needs more speed, less explanation; that should come through the action, I thought. "Good, Henry." He got my name backwards, my new boss, like a chief looming over a poor white clerk. "Get me six new pages here tomorrow at eleven a.m. Another beer?"

Two a.m. I got home and at seven I was on the typewriter and by eleven the pages and me reached the island and its Alsace Bar round the corner from his luxury apartment, but here all his script work went on over drinks and meals. Lunch arrived while he went through my new script. In his huge hands the flimsy pages soon got smeared in meat sauce, mustard, alcohol, and his own carping comments. But it was useful, he concluded, if it was cleaned up and rewritten, handing it back to me as a morass of serviettes from a huge feast now over, ready for the bin. Early that morning, I had typed those sheets in my unfurnished room in a poor area nearby where I slept on the floor and balanced my old typewriter on the sink, avoiding the dripping tap, to get these vital pages here to impress my boss that there was word of a future.

Ivan the waiter had a provocative, jokey relationship with Remus, saying it's going to be big as Ben-Hur, this film. It's no white movie, nor history, but reality right now, the African growled; nothing like these French flicks either, that nobody understands. What kind of films do they like here, anyway? "Comedies," Ivan replied. "Escapism." "Typical," Remus muttered. I mentioned a movie in town here now where butter gets slipped down inside someone's trouser-seat as a comically-erotic ploy. Remus had the urge to rerun that scene. When Ivan lingered by our table again, he tipped the butter dish down him in just that way. Ivan cringed, writhed and hobbled off to the toilets to clean up.

Remus said a touch of comedy had its place, but we were making no such thing. Yet the scenario was becoming a farce in my hands. Had I ever been to Africa? Yes I had, Morocco, Egypt. No, Africa is south of the Sahara, hard to understand for anyone who had not been there, and for many who had. Problem was, I had lost the continuity. I kept hold of the time-scale in the script. Not that continuity, but the meaning. Rex, our hero, was a revolutionary, not a gangster, as I depicted him. I saw that Rex was Remus's ideal self, the man he would love to be, a Mandela who overcame all the white trash. He could not write, and had not created Rex, but had identified with him, and wanted me to polish him into a shining icon, liberating Africa. Meanwhile, we had to get through the diamond robbery.

That day, in field research, I went to Harry Winston's office, in the richest part of Paris. Remus had said that this American was diamond-king of the whole world. I only saw his under-secretaries, but gleaned some information on diamond shipment trains. Back at the Alsace Bar, Remus talked with a tall blonde. Where had I been, on his time and money and script team, swanning off enjoying myself? What? I went to Harry Winston's? Am I crazy? Sometimes I wondered if Remus was planning a movie or a real life robbery. Did I give them Remus's name? Well, he wanted them to be aware of his presence. The blonde was Dora, from South Africa, who knew the country, which I clearly did not. Could our man Rex be merely a crook, in his position? Dora said certainly not, but a great political activist. Remus glared at me in triumph and condemnation. My cheapening of the script would be corrected by the new team. "Talk it over with Dora, and then bring her to the apartment in an hour," he ordered.

When we arrived, Remus was in a huge purple silk dressing gown, like an African Emperor. Was I clear on the scenario now? Good, go away and write some pages; he and Dora would stay here and pursue background material. The typewriter perched on the sink in my cold, unfurnished room, I tapped away pages, trying to avoid drips from the leaking tap.

Next morning I flicked through them again, pleased enough, as I waited in the Alsace Bar. The boss she must see. Would she tell him I was not up to the Africa story? No, I was good enough, better than he was, anybody was, the rat. What happened? Did she get the butter up treatment? What? I told her about Last Tango in Paris, and Remus's fixation with that episode. No, he would never get to slip anything inside her lingerie, not even a slice of sunshine spread. He was no lover of women, or freedom fighter or anybody, he resented all, gave her an earful of all his prejudices and never listened to any of her ideas. It had been an awful meeting. Well, I could tell him that, she was leaving right now.

Remus blew in ten minutes later. Okay, no need to say anything, he had watched her go from across the street. He knew everything she would have said. He had not the time or patience to listen to these white female lies anymore. The interview had shown that she knew nothing about the subjects we worked on, while even I was learning, slowly but surely. We could handle it. Well, we did have more help coming onto the script team in fact. She would be joining us this afternoon, Sonia. Then I could bring her across to the apartment. His huge face reached something approaching a smile as he fingered my new pages of script, just as his lunch arrived. A mosaic of beer and gravy decorated the white sheets. It was good to see the boss relaxing again.

In the reading room at the Shakespeare bookshop a big American in boots and lumberjacket put down his volume to ask, "Does nobody read real poetry anymore?" Did he mean Poe and Longfellow? Well, maybe. Certainly not this new stuff with no style that said nothing. But Lorca, Rilke, Baudelaire, had I read them? Yes, I had translated them. No kidding? So I must write poetry of my own? I must indeed, a compulsion haunting me night and day. But that did not pay the rent and I was out of work again. Did I want to work in a night-club? Sure. When? Tonight at nine o'clock. The Gargoyle in Montparnasse. Just speak one line of my poetry now:  "A blind man who never saw this made it all up." "That was your interview, so don't be late," he said, going back to his reading.

The door of The Gargoyle opened to reveal Stuart, my new colleague, still in lumberjack gear, a poetry book in his grasp. My instruction was to just watch him a while. We both sat on tall stools just inside the chained door, he reading poetry. I already knew how to do that. But in the next hour he got up to admit numerous people—or reject or eject or argue with them sometimes. The place attracted a dangerous clientele. "Can you fight?" Stuart asked. "If need be," I lied; really I never had. "Here we don't wait for need. Go in first, ask questions after, and not many of them. I was a U.S. marine. You get to sum up a person or situation in a second, lives depend on it, even here."

A fracas erupted. A man and woman leaving were attacked by a girl screeching that they had robbed her, clawing at the other female who retaliated. Sets of long, bright, manicured nails tore at delicate flesh, stylish clothes, coiffured hair. Brilliantly dangerous as a cockfight, this was the female, human version, or almost. Big Stuart stopped the bout, either for transgressing the sporting rules or exceeding its entertainment value. Then he questioned the man over the missing large banknote, and frisk-searched him, finally making him take off his shoes, and there it was crumpled up in the toe. "An old trick," Stuart murmured. All three of them were now banned from here. Stuart went back to his book. Gerard Manley Hopkins, what did I think? Mysticism in a physical, passionate grasp in a modernist revolutionary style, the very essence of great poetry. "Glad you like it as much as I do." Stuart's deep voice affirmed.

Next I was installed in the downstairs bar as it got busy, alert on a stool, drinking free beer. The young Turkish barman admired how many glasses I sank without any outward effect. Nearby, two young men argued over a girl, pushing each other. An alarm went off and Stuart charged in like the attack on Iwo Jima. He bawled out the offenders and made them go. Where was I when that fight blew up, and how many beers had I drunk? Three or four I reckoned, conservatively, and that was not a real fight of the kind to impress me if it ever came along. It will, Stuart promised as he went back up.

The Turk poured me another beer and I said that the upstairs bouncer seems impressive, but he probably starts all the fights anyway. "He is no bouncer. He owns the bloody place," he replied as the beer touched my lips and another alarm went off, splashing it all over the place. "Come on." He grabbed a machete used to slice cocktail lemons, as we both raced up the stairs. Stuart was arguing with two huge guys in dark suits and wide hats. One took the cleaver easily from the Turk and embedded it in the door. "You want these customers to leave?" I asked my boss. "No, pal. Stuart is leaving instead." One man said. "Listen to them," Stuart advised, "they mean business." Each had one hand resting inside a double-breasted jacket. Even I knew what that meant. One of them left with Stuart. The other remaining said, "My name is Eddie. What's yours? We should get to know each other. Now get back to work, all of you."

Back downstairs, I wondered about drinking so much free beer now Eddie ran the place, but I needed to calm down and the Turk served me. Who are these guys? The Mafia from Marseilles. We thought they would get here one day, he sighed. But did it have to be on my first day? A second Turkish barman came down to say Eddie wanted me. My heart sank, was he checking on the free beer consumption already? I drained the glass for courage, maybe my last in the club or on this planet.

Eddie still had the hat on and the hand inside the jacket. He nodded at the phone by the door. "It's for you." I heard Stuart's voice say "I'm relying on you and the Turks to carry on. These guys are holding me under cover. Don't fight them. I'm letting them have the club their way. I need rid of it, it's in trouble already." I said, "I thought you liked trouble." He said, " Don't get clever, not your style, Henry. We rely on you to be true and observant. You're a poet, why we hired you. Write all this how you see it and put it in a Paris magazine, and I'll read it somewhere and I'll see you again someday. Never be less than the man you are, remember that." It was a hell of a way for a company takeover. As I put down the phone, Eddie said, "Can you fight, Henry?" I shook my head, unable to speak. "Good. I like the truth. You don't need to. You look big and serious enough to keep them guessing. Get downstairs and keep your eyes open, and get yourself a free beer on the house. I look after my boys."

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