Paean to a Whore
On my seventeenth birthday I found myself broke and close to starving. I had lost so much weight I needed suspenders to hold up my trousers; my waistline should have been taken in eight inches but I didn’t have money for a tailor. In a down market Paris haberdashery I learned the French word for suspenders was not suspendres, as I had imagined, but bretelles. Wearing them, I looked and felt ridiculous, like one of those clowns in the circus who wears a suspender-supported beer barrel.
Usually I, or one of my three pals—two other Americans and an Arab—had enough money for us to eat. In desperate straits, we shared whatever money we had. We all lived at the Cité Universitaire, that wonderful campus housing students from all over the world. Jay, R. F., and I lived at La Fondation des États-Unis ; Djamel at the La Maison Algérienne.
Some days my lycée classmate from California, Jay, and I didn’t have enough money to buy Métro tickets to school. We would wait outside the Porte d’Orléans station, looking for people coming out who looked like newcomers to Paris. These people often didn’t know some of their tickets were good for round-trips and dropped them on the ground. We would pick them up and go to school. Sometimes, our wait was in vain, and we had to skip class that day.
I survived in the following way: Immediately after waking in the morning, I went down to a bar on Boulevard Jourdan and ordered a glass of Alsatian beer –une bière d’Alsace, s’il vous plâit, pas de mousse! No head on top! I needed every last drop of beer I had paid for. The beer dulled my appetite for many hours. What fended off total starvation was my university meal ticket; it provided me with one solid meal a day, lunch or dinner, often horsemeat, and a small box of wine.
The initials of our other American pal’s name were R. F. I can’t even remember his real name because everyone at first called him “République Française.” Later, this elegant moniker somehow morphed into “Rat Fucker.” I don’t know exactly why this happened. He was a very likeable guy. I called him simply R. F.
R. F. was studying to be a mime; he was very good at it. His teacher was Marcel Marceau. One morning after having my glass of beer, I spied R. F. walking toward me down Boulevard Jourdan. I went into a crouch in order to look like a monster, something like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. My right hand was extended out, palm up, fingers bent, looking like a claw. R. F., seeing me, also mimed a monster, with his right hand extended out, his claw-like palm facing downwards. He was much more convincing than I. A Paris city bus filled with people headed to work was stopped at a red light next to the curb. When R. F. and I met, growling, our faces contorted, and shook claws, the onlookers in the bus cracked up laughing. I think we made their day. One day I asked our Algerian pal, Djamel, what he intended to do after his graduation from the Sorbonne. “Kick the French out of my country,” he answered. “Don’t you like the French?” I asked, being a devout Francophile. “Yes, I like them very much. I just don’t want my country to be ruled by them,” he concluded. I won’t say anything about California Jay’s odyssey because that would require a long story all by itself.
At an emergency meeting of the four hungry pals, we learned that R. F. was an accomplished jazz pianist, in addition to his skill as a mime. We decided to find a job for him in a night club, so he could earn us some money. We pooled our resources and found we still had just enough for two Métro tickets to Place Pigalle, the most likely place to find night clubs. But, besides R. F., which of the other three pals would accompany him? Djamel said he wanted to meet a girl that evening he had picked up at the Maison Franco-Britannique, the U. K. house on the Cité Universitaire campus. He asked to borrow my black shoes because he wanted to look sharp, and I agreed. That left only Jay and me; we flipped a coin and I won. I took Djamel up to my room to get him the shoes, and then sat down with a French-English dictionary to learn the most likely vocabulary needed to find a piano-playing job in a night club.
That evening, R. F. and I took the Métro to Place Pigalle. Once there, we were at a loss as to how to proceed. I saw a whore standing under a lamp light near a street corner and, with no better ideas at the moment, decided to ask her for information. As a walked up to her she spoke first:
“Voulez-vous faire l’amour avec moi?” This much French I understood.
“Yes, I would, mademoiselle, but malheureusement [unhappily] I’m a poor student and have no money. We’re hungry. Do you know of a boîte where my friend could find a job playing jazz piano? She looked around and said, with a bright smile, “Venez avec moi.”
She was petite, pretty, with a good figure, and glossy, shoulder length black hair. She didn’t look at all like what I imagined a whore would look like. Probably in her early twenties, she spoke softly and well. Her facial skin appeared to be fresh and clean. She wore little make up. There was nothing flashy about her. Her skirt and blouse were simple and neat; her shoes were high heels, but not exaggerated. She carried a matching leather purse strapped over her shoulder. All in all, if one didn’t know she was a street prostitute, she would have seemed like a girl one would be quite happy to bring home to meet one’s mother. “What’s a nice girl like you . . . ,” I wondered.
She led us into one night club where she spoke rapidly to a young woman sitting at the bar. No luck there. She then led us to another boîte and explained our situation to another bar girl. The prostitute who had taken us under her wing told us that this bar girl knew of a place, near the Champs-Elysées no less, where R. F. might play piano. She then shook hands with us formally in the French manner, wished us luck, and walked back to her post on the street corner where we had first seen her.
R. F. and I, however, had only enough money for one Métro ticket to the Champs-Elysées. The bar girl, really a higher class prostitute, I think, paid for her own tickets back and forth, and later even for R. F.’s return ticket to the Cité Universitaire. I remained at Pigalle, penniless, without a Métro ticket and so was forced to walk from there back to the Cité. It took me all night. I crossed one of the Seine bridges at about three A. M. and arrived at the Cité at six. One thing I loved about Paris was that people felt safe, even at three A. M. on a deserted street. I passed a young woman, perhaps in her thirties, walking in the opposite direction on an otherwise totally dark and empty street. I said “Bon soir, madam,” and she smiled politely and answered “Bon soir, monsieur,” without a hint of fear.
The bar girl did indeed find a job for R. F. playing piano in a boîte just off the Place de la République. His job kept us in food for a couple of weeks, and then I received some money from home. We didn’t need R. F.’s job anymore and he quit. The boîte was a gay bar and R. F. didn’t like being constantly hit on. We remarked on how extraordinarily kind those prostitutes and bar girls had been, and how especially lovely had been the first one on the street corner.
I am almost certain I saw her once again, several weeks later. I was looking out a train window at the Denfert-Rochereau Métro station and saw her walking by, I think, for a split second. The train was moving and, while I feel certain it was she, cannot absolutely swear it was. The woman I saw looked shockingly ill. Her face was a ghastly white with a terribly drawn and frightened expression. Her beautiful hair looked lank and unwashed. I was shocked. I thought she looked as if she had just been beaten or diagnosed with some fatal disease. I flew home to New York the next day.
I felt then, and still feel today, an irrational sense of guilt, and of loss, when I think of that woman. I don’t believe I could have helped her—yet it disturbs me for some inexplicable reason that I didn’t try.