Saturday, June 21, 2003

I returned to Paris from the country on Wednesday to find that the hotel I'd wanted in the Latin Quarter had booked my room so they shuttled me across town in a taxi to their other hotel, trois etoiles, monsieur, she assured me. All the way there was traffic, traffic, traffic and the cabbie played horrible French easy listening on the radio. There were cops too, cutting through in their little French cop cars, and I wondered where they were going but there was always something wasn't there.

I got to the hotel, a ludicrous tourist trap by the Champs-Elysees with a tumble of faux Louis furniture in the lobby and a tapestry behind the desk. In the room I put the TV on at once, and it was the news, and today people had set themselves on fire in the streets of Paris and there it was on the screen. Hysterical Iranian mujahideen expatriates were protesting the capture of their leader and one, then another, then another set themselves ablaze. The first rose to her feet after others had smothered her. Her burns made her face appear ashen and otherworldly; she extended her arms and fixed the camera with a haunting, vaguely recriminating gaze. One of the immolators died the following day, maybe her, I don't know. The footage of the others showed only angry flashes of scarlet and then police furiously dousing them with clouds of extinguisher. The next day there were more protests, here and in other cities, and this time there was a man racing down the street, on fire from head to foot.

I wondered, Where is he going?

There is a medieval quality to these self-immolations that makes them seem almost appropriate to Paris, as appropriate as they possibly could be I suppose. They are consistent with my view of Paris as alternately refined and savage, precious and perilous. It is a beautiful city and the statistics might show that crime is low but I never feel safe here. There's an aura of menace everywhere; it's as though Parisians are more accustomed to a certain level of risk or pain than are New Yorkers. Here catastrophe is integrated into life whereas in New York we repel it with all our psychic might. We don't want to believe in it. I still think of the story Eliane told years ago about the pedestrian who was decapitated by a car in the nasty intersection in front of their apartment – not just of the story itself but of the way she told it: brusquely, with a little shrug. C'est la vie. This is a city where the blood has never really been washed from the streets.

I was in a phone booth on the Boulevard Magenta, on the phone with my sister, when a young guy, he looked like a young Arab guy, walked up and rapped on the glass door.

I was all annoyed and I acted like it too. I opened the door.

"Je n'vous demande pas d'argent, j'vous demande une unité," he said. He didn't want my money, he wanted to borrow my phone card.

He was gnawing on a piece of bread.

I felt helpless and a little stupid, inside with the phone in my hand, him outside. But annoyed, really.

"Je suis au telephone," I told him. I'm on the phone. I felt like an idiot, like maybe I really did owe him something but I was denying it.

"Pas la peine de vous ennerver, merde!" he said. No reason to get all worked up.

"Vous m'avez interrompu," I insisted. You interrupted me.

He slammed the door shut and, looking to his left, took an angry bite of bread and walked away.

When I got off the phone I thought of finding him and handing him my card, to fuck him up, to prove a point. He was nowhere.

Bless those who travel from the third world to the first I love them every one.

At the Chope du Chateau Rouge at the end of a burning hot day, the longest day of the year, the festival of music tho I haven't heard a lick of music yet. A drunk man just walked into the bar with a bag of celery and a roll of Euro coins.

The DJ came in and set up and after terrifying us with an accidental electric shriek he played some Indian hip hop thing and it lifted up the room and the sidewalk too, and even the old timers at the bar felt it and said go on, keep it up, after he turned it off.