I am going to run stories and other pieces of writing that I’ve published, or not, over the years, and change them on a monthly basis — or when I get around to doing it..
It is copyrighted by the author, and all use of this material, in the entire universe and beyond and for all venues, contexts and times, now and forever — as the Walt Disney Company writer contract boiler plate stipulates — is proscribed without the expressed, (well)written consent of the author. Any unauthorized usage of this material will be punished in this and the next world. (You can see why I dropped out of law school).
The Last Working Girl on the Rue St. Denis
Her name was Marie Ange, and nobody knew how old she was. Estimates ranged from forty to seventy, and higher. Bertrand, the butcher down the street, said she serviced the Nazis during the Occupation, but Bertrand tends to exaggerate. He once told me that France produced over 1100 distinct cheeses, and that was in Normandy alone.
She claimed a doorway near the rue Strasbourg, a dreary part of the Sentier district with nothing much but down market wholesalers selling leather goods to failing businesses in the upper arrondisements. I wondered whether she paid rent on her doorway, or kicked back a percentage to the Vietnamese who owned the store.
Her posture was the classic stance of the professional: one high heel up against the wall, the other firmly planted on the ground. Her wardrobe was seasonal. In summer she was fond of vintage chemises and garter belts under a flimsy robe; wintertime she was wrapped in a faux fur coat from, in all probability, the Porte de Clignancourt flea market that she would part indifferently for a prospective client. This is what you get. Take it or leave it.
Her makeup seemed to be applied in strata, like the pentimento of an old oil painting that had been abandoned in an attic for generations. She must have merely covered over the previous day’s embellishment with a fresh layer every morning – or whatever passed for morning in her life. That, too, was anybody’s guess. Her working hours were random. I would see her at all hours, in all seasons, and then not at all for some period of time. I would
assume she had gone out to pasture, returned to wherever she emerged from, whatever remote village, suburb or neighborhood that had produced her. And then there she would be, in her doorway, in uniform, on the job.
A perpetual cigarette dangled from her caked lips as if it were glued into place, a thin trail of smoke occasionally discharging the acrid odor of black tobacco. They were filterless Gitanes, the kind that no one smoked anymore except Algerian war veterans and period movie actors.
Her pitch was always the same. Any male who made eye contact got the same proposition, “Tu montes, cheri?”
This from the days when the room in which the business was done was across the courtyard and up a flight. Paris real estate being what it was, I wondered where she took her customers these days.
More to the point, I wondered if she had any customers. And what she charged. And what you got for the price? And what she did when she was off duty. And whether she went to church on Sunday. Or watched television. And what she watched. And what she thought about sushi. Or Jerry Lewis. Or global warming.
The hooking business had drifted off the street and on to the Internet. The girls now had websites with pictures and phone numbers. They didn’t have to stand in doorways advertising themselves. The rue St. Denis was rapidly gentrifying. The sex shops were being replaced by mobile phone stores and clothes boutiques. The circus had left town. And
there was Marie Ange still working her doorway. Rain or shine. Like one of those Japanese soldiers still hiding on Okinawa refusing to believe the war was over. I wanted to know why.
One of the occupational hazards of being a writer is the inextinguishable need to know things – often things that have no bearing on one’s life. Their very existence presented the likelihood of there being a story behind them. And writers are in the story business.
Which is why I decided to approach Marie Ange. I wanted to know her story. I wanted to know why she stood in her doorway day after day, night after night, importuning what had to be a dwindling number of clients, if any at all. Just why I wanted to know is another question. I’m not going there.
It was drizzling on the day in question — a Tuesday morning in early October when the days were still longer than the nights and the tables remained on the café terrasses full of people reluctant to accept that summer was officially over. She disdained an umbrella, her body sheltered by her doorway, her lingerie covered by a partially open Burberry that had seen better days. The half-smoked Gitane was jammed in her mouth like a fuse.
A graffiti stained panel truck pulled up in front of the store, and an African in a skullcap emerged carrying a pile of cheap pocketbooks. The man didn’t even give her a glance. It was as if she were carved into the doorway like a bas relief.
“Tu montes, cheri?” This was said with a minimalist smile that revealed nicotine stained teeth behind layers of lipstick.
I smiled back, which seemed to disarm her. She looked more closely at me, squinting in the hazy wet light of the rue St. Denis.
She repeated her question, with even less enthusiasm than the first time. I asked if I could talk to her.
“Parles? Tu veux parler?” She said this as if talking was not on the menu of services she provided, as if it were some deeply perverted activity, beyond even the large scope of what she was prepared to do for money.
I nodded. She shrugged, and then said, “Cent euros.”
When I hesitated she lowered the price to fifty euros. My French is functional, though not overly nuanced. Still, I managed to explain that if she were willing to repair to a nearby café I would buy her a coffee and a pastry, a glass of wine, something to eat. An hour of her time. That was all I wanted. Taking a final drag off her Gitane, she inhaled, tossed the butt into the gutter, and made a counter offer.
We closed at twenty-five euros and walked across the street to a bistro inappropriately named “Café Bonheur.” As far as I could tell there was little happiness in sight. It was mid-morning, and the place was deserted except for an old woman who sat in the corner with her old dog under the table. The patron stood behind the counter of his bar stoically watching a silly French quiz show. Canned laughter punctuated the gloom.
Marie-Ange ordered a carafe of Muscadet and an ashtray. Two glasses in, she began to talk. It didn’t take much prodding. Once she started, she went on like a machine gun that had had the safety on too long. She only stopped to take a hit off her wine glass or a bite of the steak frites she’d ordered to go with it.
This is what she told me, translated as best I can from her colorful patois, somewhere between that of a film noir heroine and a truck driver. It came out in no particular order, chronological or otherwise.
“…you probably think I grew up poor. N’est-ce pas? Au contraire. My father owned a pharmacy. He was doing okay. This was in Clermont-Ferrand, a dreary shithole of a place, let me tell you. The air smelled of rubber from the tire factories. Michelin practically owned the city. The mayor and the whole goddamn city council got free tires. Half the girls I went to school with had fathers who worked there.
“We lived in an apartment above the pharmacy. Me and my two older sisters, Genevieve and Pauline, my brother René, and my mother, who helped out in the pharmacy. She worried a lot, my mother, walking around in a sweater with her arms folded, shaking her head and murmuring shit about not knowing how we were going to survive. We were surviving fine. Especially my father, who was plugging the wife of a tire dealer down the street, and a few others to boot. He’d come in late at night, and my mother would yell at him. He would yell back. Then he would come kiss us good night, bending over the bed I shared with Pauline his breath smelling of Pastis.
“I learned about men early. Used to watch my brother jerk off in the bathroom. The door didn’t close tight. He did it all the time. It decided to try it out. My father caught me rubbing myself against the edge of the mattress. He slapped me hard, told me that if he ever found me doing that again he’d really slug me. It pissed me off. Why could René do it and not me? I tried to talk Pauline into doing it to each other, but she was too scared. She said the nuns told her she’d fry in hell if she touched herself down there.
“We both went to St. Thérèse — a catholic school next to the church. The place was run by a bunch of skinny old bitches with bad breath. If you didn’t know your lessons, you had to stay afterwards and recite them to one of the nuns in her room. There was one of them, Sister Elizabeth Agnes, who’d invite me to stay after school and have hot chocolate in her room. After a while, she started asking me to do things, like lift up my skirt, and she’d stick her fingers up me and tell me that Jesus loved me. And she’d give me money so that I could buy a pain au chocolat on the way home. Then she’d give me some more money if I took off my clothes.
“So that’s what I learned at St. Thérèse. At the lycée I had a lot of boyfriends. I used to give them hand jobs in the bushes behind the football field. Pretty much the whole goddamn team. Why not? It was fun. I got a kick out of how much they enjoyed it. The look on their faces when they shot their load. They would have done anything for me, I swear.
Naturellement, the hand jobs eventually turned into the real thing. How long are you going to be happy drinking decafe, right?”
She smiled at her analogy. It wasn’t a pretty smile. When she opened her mouth you could see a couple of decades of cut rate dental work.
“The guys promised to pull out in time. Right? How dumb was I? So I got knocked up. I didn’t even know who it was. I’m sixteen and pregnant and don’t know what the hell to do. My parents would kill me. But first they would disown me so they wouldn’t have to go to the funeral.”
She laughed a thin rattily laugh followed by a volley of cigarette coughing.
“I go back to St. Thérèse to talk to Sister Elisabeth Agnes. I figure if anyone knows how to get an abortion it would be a nun. She makes me show her my belly and she fools around a bit, then she tells me there’s a doctor in town that’ll do it for three hundred francs. The football team takes up a collection, and I go see this doctor – a Latvian or a Lithuanian named Vladevov or Valdevov or something. He was a thin old guy with hair coming out of his nostrils. He said that if I the bleeding didn’t stop in two days I should go to the hospital and not come back and see him.
“Meanwhile, I was failing half my courses at the lycée. It looked like I wasn’t good for anything. My mother said my only chance was to get married. So I grabbed the first guy I could find – Guillaume. Guillaume Morand. He was ten years older than me and worked on the line at Michelin. After we did it a couple of times in the back seat of his car, he proposed. I figured I wasn’t going to get a better offer. My parents were thrilled to get me out of the house. They sprang for a cheap wedding reception at the church hall and that was that.
“I was bored out of my mind sitting around his shitty apartment all day while he was at work with nothing to do but clean and make dinner for him. So I started hanging out at the café during the day, letting men buy me drinks, and then taking them back to the apartment. So one day Guillaume comes home early and finds me in bed with a guy. He nearly kills the guy, then he nearly kills me. I run home to my parents and they say I should go back and work things out with Guillaume. Fuck that, I said. I went back to the apartment the next day, while Guillaume was at work, and stole the stash that he kept hidden under his socks. He didn’t think I knew where it was, the idiot. I washed his goddamn socks. There was close to a thousand francs there. Enough to get me to Paris. I found a cheap hotel on the rue Monsieur le Prince and tried to find a job in a shop…”
She stopped for a moment to ask for some more bread. I got the feeling that she hadn’t eaten much lately. The frites were already gone and half the steak. The patron plopped down another basket of bread. Grabbing a piece and mopping up the béarnaise sauce, she plunged back in, as if she hadn’t even paused.
“Eventually I got a job at La Samaritaine selling ties. I was good at it actually. I knew how to make men feel good. I would put the tie around their neck, under the collar, and tie the knot for them. Like I was their girlfriend, or their wife. My supervisor told me to stop doing it. It was too familiar, she said. Maybe, but they came back, these guys, and bought more ties. And they started asking if they could buy me a drink, after work.
“That went on for a while, until I fell for a guy named Gilles. He was good-looking and had money, but the problem was he was married. He offered to set me up with my own studio, in the 17th. It was a nice place in one of those old buildings near the Parc Monceau. All I had to do was be available for him when he was in the mood. So that sounded like a good deal – no rent, nice neighborhood.
“But then he wanted me to leave La Samaritaine in case he got a hardon in the afternoon. Well, I tried that for a while, left my job, hung around the apartment waiting for him to call. Watched a lot of TV. He got really pissed when he called and I wasn’t there. If I was out in the park getting some fresh air. It gets fucking claustrophobic sitting in an apartment all day waiting for the phone to ring.
“So we had a big fight, I think I punched him, and that was it. No more Gilles, no more apartment. I couldn’t get my job back at La Samaritaine. That fucking supervisor said I was setting the wrong tone for the store. Tone? What the hell was she talking about? I was selling more ties than anyone else.
“Okay, I thought, I’m not going back to Clermont Ferrand. And I’m not going to sit around an apartment all day waiting for some rich guy to show up. I’m going to go into business for myself. And I‘m going to sell what I had been giving away for free all my life. Why not? Like my mother said — it was the only thing I was good at.
“So I start off in Pigalle. Place Blanche. The johns would drive by in cars, pick you up and take you to the Bois de Bologne. A hundred francs a pop was the going rate then. You
could get two hundred if you let them go in the back door. A lot of the traffic was married guys from Aubervilliers or Bobigny. But you had to be careful. There were weirdoes too. And out in the Bois you were alone with them.”
She lit a new Gitane and blew the smoke over my shoulder. Then she went back to her lunch, the cigarette in the hand that she used to cut what remained of the steak.
“One night this guy picks me up. Little guy with glasses and a wispy moustache. We go out to the Bois and he wants me to take off my stockings and wrap one around his neck and pull it tight just as he’s getting off. I tell him that it’ll cost him another fifty francs. The little guy starts getting pissed off. Yelling all sorts of shit at me. What the hell did I think I was doing? We had a deal. A hundred francs. I tell him what he wanted to do was not included in the hundred francs. Then he grabs his scarf puts it around my neck and starts to choke me. I kick him in the nuts real hard and take off. I had to walk all the way back.
“So I decide I’m not going alone to the Bois anymore. But that cuts into my business because that’s where they want to go. They like it there. No hotel clerks, no cops, nobody recognizing them. That leaves the rue St. Denis.
“I pick a doorway and start to work, and I’m there for less than an hour when this big black girl tells me that I’m working her doorway. I say I don’t see her name on this doorway and she says that if I don’t fuck off Marcel would deal with me. I have no idea who the hell this Marcel is but I soon find out. This Pied Noir in an expensive suit shows up and tells me that no one works this particular street without his protection. ‘Oh, so you’re the local
maquereau.’ He doesn’t like this. They want to be called business partners. Right? What the fuck do they actually do besides sitting around counting money?
“I’m just enough of a wise ass to tell him I’m not going to be shaken down by an Arab in a suit. And two hours later, I pick up a john, and when I take him upstairs I got Marcel waiting for me with two big Algerians who break my nose. This puts me out of business for a couple of weeks, and I go back and play nice and hire Marcel, who takes a seventy percent cut. Seventy percent! Can you believe that? The guy runs maybe fifteen, twenty girls on the street. He’s making a fortune, and we’re doing all the work. But I keep my mouth shut. I only got one nose.”
I could still see the aftereffects of the broken nose, the little ridge hiding beneath the patina of foundation. It actually gave her some character. She polishes off the remaining bread in the basket and finishes the carafe, orders another one. I stop trying to calculate what this is going to cost me.
“So I’m working the street and doing okay. Even with Marcel’s fat fingers in the till, I’m putting away a hundred, hundred-fifty francs a day. A lot of repeat business. I get myself my own studio, in the twentieth, near Père Lachaise. Rents were cheap there and I’m five metro stops from Chatelet. It was nice not to live in some cheap hotel room, with the toilet in the hall, and people coming and going at all hours. I take a day off now and then, quit by midnight. And Marcel starts giving me shit about not working enough hours.
“And so I decide to shop around and see if I can get a better deal. This was risky back then, because if a pimp finds out you’re thinking of leaving him, he could break more than a nose. Unless the new pimp bought out the old one. That’s how it used to work, they’d trade us like we were shares on the fucking Bourse.
“Jean-Claude let me take home fifty percent and was okay with my hours. I don’t know what he paid Marcel for me, but he told me it was a lot. The thing with him was he liked to take a little out in trade. You had to fuck him once or twice a week. He was a little guy with a big dick. And he could do it for hours. It’d would wear me out for business.
“But he gave me a better doorway, down across the rue Reaumur, where the live sex shows were. That’s a good place, see, because if a guy is sitting in a booth feeding ten francs coins into the slot watching people fuck and he doesn’t get off, he leaves looking for someone to help him out. Makes the job easier too. A minute and a half, two minutes and he’s done. You don’t need some john wants to do the Kama Sutra with you. Believe me. I got a few of those every now and then. If they came back I told them the meter was going to double every fifteen minutes. They should get themselves a fucking girlfriend with time on her hands. You know what I’m saying?”
I nodded instinctively. It was clear by now that Marie Ange did not like to be contradicted. Besides, she was an expert in on the subject. Who knows more about men’s sexual habits than someone in her profession? It was her life’s work.
“I learned all the tricks. And, believe me, you have to know what you’re doing in this business. I learned how to shake a man down to make sure he wasn’t dripping. The last thing you need is a case of the clap. If your pimp finds out he’ll run you out. Nothing’s worse than word getting out that a girl isn’t clean. Affects everyone on the street. I learned how to get a guy off faster, so you’re not wasting a lot of time. I learned what to say to them to make them feel good. You see, that’s really what it’s about. It’s not sex so much for men as it’s feeling like a stud. They think we’re worshipping their goddamn cocks. The first thing I always say when I see it is ‘Ooh la la, comme c’est grand!’ Makes them feel like God’s gift and not little guys that have to pay for it. So you’re learn to have that look on your face while you’re doing it – like this is a fucking religious experience for you.”
She was not only a hooker but a philosopher. And she had no shortage of opinions.
As the morning mist burned off and it grew brighter in the café the fissures in her makeup began to reveal more than they concealed. I was beginning to wonder if Bertrand the butcher wasn’t exaggerating after all. But at the same time I could see her appeal. She had a way of looking at you that make you feel that she wanted you. She didn’t bat her eyelashes or lick her lips; it was something that I was unable to define, but I felt it.
“I tried to quit a couple of times, but it never worked out. I took a job out in Rungis selling apricots. I got a job at the BHV behind the stocking counter. I even worked as a secretary for a plumbing outfit, but my spelling was so bad, they canned me. I just wasn’t
very good at any of that shit. It wasn’t only that. I missed the street. I missed being my own boss. You know what I missed mostly?”
This time I shook my head with sincerity. I really did want to know.
“I missed the satisfaction of doing a good job. You know, that’s really why people work. Not to make money but to feel good about themselves at the end of the day. I make men happy. They appreciate my work.”
She ordered dessert. Tarte Tatin à la mode. And a café crème. She disposed of both efficiently as she expanded on her theme.
“Most of the girls on the street don’t like men. They look at them like that pathetic creatures that have to pay to get laid. I don’t look at it that way. I like men. I understand them. I understand why they pay. Why not spend money on something you like? I mean, if you’re going to go to a restaurant, or the movies, or take your kids to the zoo, what’s wrong with spending a little on yourself? You work hard, you deserve it.”
Again I found myself nodding rhetorically. I couldn’t help thinking she was right. Why not pay for it? It beats the hell out of the zoo.
She glanced at her watch, a pricey Phillippe Patek that had to go for close to a grand. I tried to calculate how many tricks she had to do to afford that.
“Your time’s up,” she announced with the last forkful of her tarte.
We had been there almost exactly an hour. She must have had some sort of built-in timer.
“Another hour, another twenty-five euros?” She proposed.
With her lunch, we were already over a hundred euros – a lot of money to satisfy my curiosity. When I didn’t reply immediately, she went into pitch mode, turning the wattage up.
“How about coming up with me? I’m still very good. I haven’t lost it.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“I’ll cut you a deal. Seventy-five euros. You won’t regret it. I promise you.”
It took a lot of strength to say no. And it wasn’t just my curiosity. There was something about that smile, distressed as it may have been, that made me want to say yes.
She got up, right on the hour, and walked away not bothering to thank me for lunch. I paid the check and watched her take up her post in the doorway across the street. The drizzle intensified and she moved further into the doorway. Men walked past her without a glance. I wondered if they knew what they were missing. I wondered if I knew.
But there was only so much I would do for a story. And this one was already written.