Against the gray clouds of an overcast sky, the columns and spire of the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette cathedral shoot to the heavens like flora nourished by a glum god. Since the spring equinox, gloomy weather has trudged on for days, rains bucketing down every now and then like the sun showers in tropical locales. Only here there’s no sun. I sprint up the métro station steps two at a time to meet Christine. I’m late, again, the second time this week. She sits listening to headphone earpieces on the granite steps of the church, waiting. She smiles, removing the tiny speakers. We kiss.
“Cissine, bisous. Désolé, I didn’t know it was this far from home. I thought Notre-Dame-de-Lorette was closer to Notre-Dame.”
“Miles. I told you yesterday, no, it was not. You take this.”
Christine hands me a Paris métro map folded into eighths the size and shape of a credit card. I hate maps; she knows this. I don’t want to look like a lost tourist, like an obvious American. The uneven dreadlocks grazing my shoulders already announce my foreign origin, it ain’t hard to tell. But cutting my locks is one thing, carrying a map around is another. I jut it inside the back pocket of my jeans. Tonight it goes into the garbage.
She takes my hand to lift her up. Arm in arm, we turn the corner and walk down to the rue des Martyrs in search of a bank. The Crédit Agricole d’Ile-de-France we discover on the corner was once Frisco’s, the popular 1920s jazz club of Jocelyn “Frisco” Bingham, according to Paris Reflections: Walks Through African-American Paris (McDonald & Woodward, March 2002), the walking-tour book in my hand. The French, they have seven weeks of paid holidays every year, and this tail end of May, Christine takes 11 days off from her gig just on general principle. During her vacation I initiate her into ghostbusting, to help me dig up some spirits. My walking-tour book details the names, places, and dates of black American expatriates, exactly where they impacted Paris back in the day, and exactly when. Today we walk through Saint-Georges and Montmartre to Pigalle, the seedy Ninth Arrondissement neighborhood central to black expats from 1910 till around the Great Depression.
“You’re cold, chéri?”
“Non, Cissine, not at all.”
I’m freezing. I’m wearing a CBGB T-shirt, a beige Nehru jacket that I refuse to wear slung over my shoulder. I left our apartment in a rush, not realizing the jacket matches my tan hemp jeans perfectly. The jeans and jacket together look like a Boyz II Men ensemble or a Garanimals outfit. I choose to suffer for fashion instead.
“It is better to look good than to feel good,” I say. It’s a tired line, an ‘80s catchphrase from a Billy Crystal Saturday Night Live character, and Christine cracks up, having never seen Saturday Night Live. Our relationship is filled with moments just like this, where I say things that I would never say to an American girl. Christine appreciates what made the joke funny 15 years ago because her culture never ran the saying into the ground.
Weather is hard to call here; for the rest of the chilly afternoon I point out the other unfortunates in T-shirts and claim them as my brethren. We turn another corner, from Saint-Georges to Montmartre, and walk down the rue Clauzel a bit before reaching a familiar restaurant with a log cabin façade. The sign says Haynes American Restaurant but I’ve got three different Paris guides that name it Haynes Grill, Haynes Restaurant, and just plain old Haynes. Last April we approached the bistro from a different direction and so we’re both a bit surprised-like, how did it get here?
Haynes serves dry cornbread. The quality of the entrées at any soul-food restaurant in the world can be accurately predicted by the scrumptiousness of the cornbread appetizer. This is a no-brainer. Paris, of course, has no cornbread but Christine knows all about it from the Shark Bar on Amsterdam Ave, from the 15 months she lived in New York City in the late ‘90s. At Haynes, she was not amused.
Arriving in Paris one year ago I took Christine to dinner at Haynes, the very first soul-food spot in all of Europe, established in 1949 by Atlanta native Leroy Haynes. Photos from its heyday adorned the white stucco walls of the comfy eatery: black-and-white shots of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Louis Armstrong, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. A French piano and sax duo immediately switched to Miles Davis’s “So What” the minute we were seated. (And my namesake patron saint follows me around here often. Just last week Ascenseur Pour l’Echafaud trailed me through a Saint-Michel card shop.)
The homely place feels like an old southern restaurant that’s fallen out of favor and relies strictly on its regulars. Yet Haynes has no competition. African-American cooking is only available here and over at Percy’s Place, a recent challenger in the Sixteenth Arrondissement. Contenders Chez Inez, Bojangles, and Jezebel’s have long since closed their doors. I left Haynes last year feeling like Sean Combs could clean up opening a Justin’s restaurant in Montmartre. This is another no-brainer. We walk.
A small truck ambles down the rue Pigalle. We saw this truck parked in front of a grocery store 10 minutes ago, before stopping at the corner tabac for bottled water and batteries for my camera. I wanted to return to the truck for a picture but I didn’t say anything, so we didn’t. The truck is midnight blue and bombed with graffiti, top to bottom. The main tag reads Polo (Christine can’t read this, graffiti illiterate) in shades of orange and yellow, a nice piece. I’ve noticed many trucks bombed like this, apparently with the owners’ permission, fruit and vegetable delivery trucks for Parisian groceries. The truck drives by and I regret not taking the photo.
“Look! Yeah! She’s my sister,” I say, pointing to a teenager racing by on roller skates. Not inline Rollerblades but skates: the old school, four-wheel, plastic kind. She’s wearing a T-shirt, a toothy Japanimation character smiling widely on the front.
“Maybe she’ll lend you her skates?” Christine says. We laugh.
A neon green pharmacie sign blinks at the intersection of rue Pigalle and rue Fontaine. In 1929, fresh from singing staples like “Insufficient Sweetie” at Le Grand Duc (now a bistro called Miss China Lunch Box, up the block), Ada Louise Smith a.k.a. Bricktop capitalized on her popularity by opening up Bricktop’s here at 1 rue Fontaine. Now the place sells drugs. The Chicago-born Bricktop was a redheaded legend in her own time, parallel to Josephine Baker in local popularity, and her club famously entertained the likes of Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson, and Cole Porter during the Jazz Age.
I need floss. Christine talks me out of it; dental floss costs too much at pharmacies, better to try the supermarket.
Many guitar stores and music shops populate the area, Marshall amps and mixing consoles in the windows. Music and sex continue to dominate the neighborhood. A sleazy looking cabaret called Carrousel de Paris still lists its prix fixe menu in francs behind a gated window. (Euros replaced francs way back in 1999.) This is the former location of Chez Josephine, the nightclub of the most famous black American to storm the French capital. Josephine Baker-born Freda McDonald in St. Louis-first arrived in Paris as a La Revue Nègre dancer in September 1925 and sped to fame and fortune so fast that she opened her own club by December of the following year.
The red windmill of the Moulin Rouge twirls languidly in the near distance at the very next street, the boulevard de Clichy. Christine asks me to deviate from the prescribed path of the walking-tour book. She’s rebellious that way. “We always walk around Paris,” I say. “Today the whole point was to follow the-” “D’accord, d’accord,” she says, rolling her eyes. Such a universal sister gesture.
The book mentions Le Moulin Rouge, a 1955 painting by Loïs Mailou Jones. This Boston-bred black woman lived here from ‘37 to ‘38 on a fellowship from the Académie Julian, and intermittently thereafter. I like Loïs, for a baby girl name. Anyone who knows anything about me knows I have a thing for the comics. And so Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Loïs Lewis, alliteration and all that. But it’s not pronounced Lois. It’s Loïs. Like Eloise with the Es lopped off.
I have a thing for accent marks too: names like Hélène, Zoë, Beyoncé, I think they’re pretty cool. Then there’s the Louise factor. You see, Christine had a grandmother named Louise, and it’s the middle name of her mom as well. Okay, cool. But it doesn’t stop there. My grandmother and her mother, my great-grandmother, they both shared the middle name Louise. What a coincidence! And so Loïs, you know, it sounds a bit like Louise without sounding so, shall I say, mature. Loïs is like an evolution of Louise, the new millennium Louise. Loïs has a lot going for it. Christine isn’t crazy about the name. Loïs is growing on her.
Reaching the boulevard de Clichy, we turn down the rue Blanche, back in the direction of Bricktop’s. We walk past the site of the Music Box (the old Chez Florence, which Bricktop renamed when she briefly took it over prior to premiering her own club) at 61 rue Blanche, make a left onto the rue Chaptal, and end up right back at the drug store that was Bricktop’s.
Christine and I hold hands and hang a right onto rue Pigalle and viola, another graffiti truck! This one is a van actually, parked at the intersection with rue La Bruyère, where The Flea Pit used to stand, a favorite hangout of Langston Hughes. Two artists worked the van over, Miel and Trorg? Trobg? Trorc? I can’t handle homeboy’s wildstyle technique, it’s way over my head! The colors are fantastic. Miel works with tan block letters outlined in a sky blue over a burgundy backdrop. His throw-up covers the van door. Trorg is all over the place though, covering the body of the van in tan, burgundy, and sky blue, but also aquamarine, lime green. The colors of his piece erupt violently from the ride. I reach inside my canvas shoulder bag for the camera, carefully slipping its strap around my wrist.
“Miel? What does this mean, Cissine?” Click.
“That’s what I said!”
“Miel is honey.”
“Wow, yeah? What about Trorc?” Click.
“What about Trobg?”
“That says ‘Thor.’ We see this jazz history all afternoon and you want a picture of a truck?”
“This is a van.”
“Let’s go. Allez ” Click.
This is my third camera in five months. In December I took a friend to a Broadway play, Gem of the Ocean. We left to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant afterwards and when I draped my wool overcoat across the chair, my digital camera dropped a two-foot distance from the inside pocket to the floor. Broken. Long story short, I received a new camera under the warranty and dropped it weeks later at a train station: broken. (I strapped it to my wrist, yes, but removed my gloves waiting for the train and ) The warranty folks were all, “you’ve got to be kidding.” This third camera cannot be dropped; I place it gently back in my bag as we stroll up rue de Clichy.
“Cissine, regard: a casino,” I say. “You’re a gambler, no?”
I’m teasing Christine and she laughs. On my most recent birthday she drove us two hours to Deauville a chi-chi town on the Atlantic coast of France as a surprise weekend getaway. Deauville’s claim to fame is an annual American film festival, a second tier Cannes that attracts the same mix of celebs and wannabes every summer. We couldn’t leave Deauville without riding by their famed casino, at Christine’s insistence. Then there’s our bet (her idea) over the sex of the baby in her belly. I say female. The loser buys dinner.
“But this is not a casino,” she says. “Not like you’re thinking.”
The Casino de Paris at 16 rue de Clichy is the place where jazz was introduced to Paris. Louis Mitchell’s Jazz Kings, so the story goes, performed here in 1917 and started the French love affair with the black American art form. Reading this in my walking-tour book reminds me of the New York City Rap Tour of 1982, the first time hiphop crossed the ocean commanding Europeans to throw their hands in the air. I caught Kelis at Le Bataclan in the Eleventh Arrondissement last year, the same sweaty venue where Afrika Bambaataa, the Rock Steady Crew and others performed hiphop for the first time outside of the States. I tell Christine, and wonder if information like this will be in a book one day. And I wonder privately how much longer particulars like this will continue to matter to me; I don’t even listen to rap much anymore. As a first-generation follower of the hiphop lifestyle, am I predestined to wave a flag for this culture my entire life? And isn’t the fact that only I would take a question like this seriously answer enough? We walk.
Christine and I pass the place d’Estienne d’Orves and the Saint-Trinité church talking about Yannick Noah, a former French tennis pro, a dred. Now he’s some big-time singer. The whole thing sounds to me very John Tesh, the former Entertainment Tonight host who quit to pursue a schmaltzy New Age music career. Yannick Noah has sold out the Casino de Paris.
“My friends saw him two years ago at Bercy,” Christine says. “He’s good, really.”
We cross the busy rue de Londres thoroughfare and Christine points to the nearby Théâtre Mogador.
“I performed there,” she says. “Remember my salsa tape?”
“Oui,” I say. “That’s the place? This is where we’re going.”
“After my first year learning salsa, we had a ceremony here at Théâtre Mogador.”
“Like a graduation, ouais? I remember watching that, that was here?”
“Oui, the class was excited to perform, like we were big time at le Théâtre Mogador.”
“The book says Josephine Baker filmed movie scenes here, for La Sirène des Tropiques”.
“I didn’t see that.”
“It was 1927.”
I recognize the Galeries Lafayette mall in the distance, down about three streets. Police officers mill around a barricade blocking rue de Provence, a side street on the rue de Mogador. Flowers are attached to the metal bars of the barrier, dead petals strewn on the ground. Ribbons of red, white, and blue (recalling the U.S. flag for me, the French flag for Christine) are tied around some thin beams in the fence. A notice handwritten in marker taped to the steel railing reads of someone named El Houcine, and residency papers, and walking a child to school, and the healing of terrible injuries. I ask Christine to translate. She’s staring upward. I follow her gaze across rue de Provence, above the deserted Délices de Fleurs shop to the Paris Opéra hotel.
Traces of black ash halo several windows, the clear evidence of a recent fire.
“You don’t know about this,” she says softly, as if speaking to herself. I don’t watch the news in my own country, why would I start now?
“There was a fire?” In the face of uncertainty, I state the obvious.
“Twenty-four people died,” Christine says. “Eleven were only children, and all of the dead were Africans.”
“They were waiting for papers to live in France legally. Paris puts people in this situation into hotels that are very cheap, sometimes for many years, but you would not want to stay in places like this. They have mice and roaches, and many of the rooms, they have no windows. The fire started because the How do you say, the man who watches for the-”
“The night watchman?”
“Oui, the watchman, he was arguing very loud with his girlfriend in the lobby, and there were candles on the floor. I think they were drunk. She went to the police last week to admit that maybe she knocked over some clothes onto the candles during their argument, but she did not do this on purpose. She left after their fight. The candles may have burned the clothing and spread up the staircase, the only staircase in the hotel. This street is behind the Galeries Lafayette stores, which are very chic, but prostitutes work this street directly behind. A prostitute noticed the fire first. Africans were jumping from the windows. Some rooms had no windows.”
“God. The watchman is dead?”
“The watchman is in a coma.”
I stare at the blackened hotel. Rudy Guiliani hasn’t been mayor of my native New York City for years, yet as I gaze at the burned-out Paris Opéra, I find myself wondering what his callous administration’s reaction might have been to homeless immigrants burning in a death trap Manhattan hotel, much like this one.