Excerpt from “Earthworms”
So we set off for Paris. Rolf and his friend Benjamin Schapiro, the ragged fellow with the dark, horn-rimmed glasses from Rolf’s bar, picked me up in a white sports car one sunny morning in late autumn and whisked me away to the Seine. I had no idea what Paris would be like. It was night, when we reached the city center.
We had reserved rooms in a small hotel on Rue St. Honoré. I was strangely excited and impatient. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was happening nearby. I sensed a rumbling in the air, and the smell of life filled my nostrils the way you can smell sea air long before you reach the coast. The sensation was extraordinary and compelled me to explore the streets.
The air was crisp and invigorating. I said goodbye to my companions and headed into the night, burying my hands in the pockets of my trousers and strolling along, full of expectation. Before I knew it, I was standing in the midst of shabbily clad Mediterranean figures moving speedily about in a turbulent hustle and bustle, carrying wooden crates full of tomatoes, fruits and lettuces, heads of cabbage and all manner of vegetables. Their red and green and yellow colors glistened in the halo of the lamps that hung beyond the raised shutters of empty storage sheds along the entire length of the street. Large trucks, directed by booming voices, hummed slowly through the narrow streets and squeezed past crates piled up on sidewalks. Abundant treasures of oranges, apples, peaches and melons surfaced from beneath the truck tarps, exuding their sweet fragrance and casting a spell over the entire scene. Men in berets counted the crates, haggling excitedly here and there; men in blue overalls with tanned, angular faces and shiny, dark, curly hair leaned against the walls. I moved about aimlessly and bewildered in this magical nocturnal world.
In the next street, a mountain of red, bloody flesh caught my eye – massive thighs hanging in a row in the glare of artificial light. Dark-red livers, bony ribs, entire carcasses, all fresh and wet and still dripping. The blood pooled in the streets, until it was washed away by stout men wearing white aprons and caps. In other places, poorly dressed men stood gossiping in groups, blocking the already narrow street. Small Mediterranean types; tall, skinny types; medium-sized, corpulent ones with round, half-bald heads and moustaches; little goblins with grey curls and missing, or gold-capped teeth. On nearly every corner, neon signs announced the open bistros serving espresso from chrome-plated coffee machines. Stoic figures stood at the bar, drinking red wine and playing skillfully on shiny flipper machines.
I took it all in with the greatest of pleasure, and it filled me with life.
Old tramps wrapped in brown parchment slept in corners, sheltered from the wind. I thought they were dead, at first. Elsewhere, they were lying in the middle of the sidewalk, on the grates leading down to the subway that gave off the warm air of the Métro, stretched out and unconcerned about people having to climb over them. The tall, narrow, pale-grey buildings, their high shutters yellow with age, towered into the dark-blue night sky, as if in slumber, leaning against one another to stay up. All was silent at the Louvre. It stood, massive and majestic, in the darkness behind high, wrought iron fences. There was a rustling in the trees, as a cool, mysteriously fragrant wind blew off the Seine, flowing gently behind them. An endless succession of rounded, prancing, black waves, wound its way under the vaults of the bridge, as if flowing through eternity. On the black water – hemmed in, rolling and flowing between high stonewalls – the light danced a quivering, ghostly dance. The water’s surface lay so far below, so wide, expansive and reflective as to be foreboding. Bridges spanning vast distances across the Seine were illuminated and reflected on the waves. They were native to this world of stone and water. The river flowed through them as if penetrating deep, dark caverns. Narrow steps in the walls lead to small boats bobbing up and down on their tethers. I crossed one of the bridges and entered the labyrinth of narrow alleyways and winding streets that make up the Latin Quarter. On the banks of the Seine, the façades of old houses in neat rows with their high windows appeared to be dreaming. A dilapidated archway led me over bumpy cobblestone alleys between desolate buildings. The streets felt dead, so deep was the blackness, so hollow the windows with their blank-faced stares, so lifeless the dirt, the garbage and the fallen plaster on the narrow, uneven sidewalks. I had not noticed the tramps lying in corners until I almost trod upon them. Now and then, a street lamp cast a faint glow into the blackness. My steps echoed in the dark shafts.
It was brighter in the next street. Music streamed from some of the lighted windows, and there were people standing around and walking about, busy and vivacious. I gazed into the restaurants and bars, unassuming on the outside but exuding atmosphere within. By then I had reached Boulevard Saint-Germain de Prés with its street cafés and spacious restaurants. There, in the evening light beneath the foliage of the trees, sat seemingly countless curious and distinctive people. I had never seen so many of their like gathered in a single place before – tall, dark-skinned people with confident, intelligent faces; bearded, good-looking, dark-haired artist types; big-eyed young ladies – their faces were most remarkable. They laughed with peculiar heaviness and there was levity in their sadness. When they spoke, it was in a measured and commanding tone, not at all manic. It can only have been effected by life in this city. These were the children of revolutions of every kind. They had played tag on the Champs-Elysés, football before the Louvre and hopscotch in the Tuileries; they played in the sandboxes of the Jardin de Luxembourg. Even the most revolutionary, the most sensational was to them a matter of course.