Screw you, Pigalle
by Phantazein Studio
I’ve just finished my crappy croque madame at a tourist trap of a bistro named after some predictable French cliché which I’ve already forgotten. I don’t feel like heading home yet and the wind is bearable tonight. I turn down Boulevard de Clichy and retrace my steps from two years ago when I stayed in this neighborhood.
The buildings and the scenery are the same, but they don’t welcome me as they did back then. My solitary presence is conspicuous under the menacing glare of the illuminated signs and my muscles tense as the breathy mantras grow louder around me.
“Vous êtes trés charmante, mademoiselle. Où allez-vous ce soir?”
I don’t usually feel the need to keep my guard up in Paris, considering the diligently enforced social codes of politesse compared to those of New York (or the flagrant lack thereof), but this neighborhood is different. All political correctness aside -which I gladly leave in the States, this is where the scum of Paris congregate at nighttime to relieve their frustrations.
The hollows of their cheeks and eye sockets are blackened under the neon signs overhead, and I catch glimpses of their weary eyes in between the rhythmic blinking of the lights. They are looking straight at me. Sometimes they blink in synchronization with the lights. Blink-blink. They are searching haphazardly for something, anything.
Two years later, I am unforgiving of their indiscretions and my perception is colored by an unyielding, distancing judgment.
Nonetheless, the energy of this street drives me forward. I clutch my camera against my stomach and walk on.
This street makes for amazing photos. It’s so perfectly cliché, like a movie set on some B movie from the 80’s, set to a soundtrack of languorous saxophone notes weaving through clouds of blue smoke. The viewer accompanies the drunken protagonist with the aid of strategically shaky camerawork, as he stumbles back to some dump of a motel.
I raise my camera up to shoot the entranceway of a peep show stall when a tall figure stops in front of me. I look up at him. He’s a lanky, goofy looking guy with a wide, slackened jaw. Some people’s stupidity is branded onto their faces like a permanent reminder of how they were left behind in the evolutionary scheme. I feel the muscles in my face contracting with disgust. His breath smells of tahini and alcohol and he stares at me as if waiting for something to happen.
I take a swift step to my right, trying to pass him and he shuffles in front of me. A triumphant look on his face.
“Get the fuck out of my way, asshole.”
“Faaack? Elle m’a dit quoi? Faaaack?”
The guy sounds like a verifiable retard in either language.
I shove past him and rush ahead, taking quick strides. Then I feel it from behind. Cold liquid splashing onto my shoulder. Onto my Isabel Marant coat. The unmistakable stench of stale beer. He must die.
I whip around and the siren goes off in my head. I make a beeline towards him and he stops smiling for a second. His hand clutches the empty plastic cup limply at arms length, as if to disassociate himself from the deed. He takes a step back but then stops. The smirk resumes on his face.
A young woman bolts out of the peep show lobby entrance and steps between us.
“Tire-toi!” She sounds like she means it.
The man lingers for a second, eyeing me steadily, then turns back down the street. The woman gestures for me to walk on. She turns around to make sure he’s gone, and then falls into step with me.
“That’s my place, so everybody knows me here. Nobody tries that with me.”
I can’t place her accent, but it’s heavy and musical. I’m touched by her generosity and I thank her. She shrugs. I peer at her sideways. She’s tall, black, her hair pulled back with a silk scarf, showcasing her dignified face. She’s wearing a tan leather bomber and tight jeans tucked into cowboy boots.
“Where are you going? I walk with you.”
I explain that I live several blocks away and that I’ll be fine. She walks me to the end of the street and I thank her again. Her kindness has neutralized my distaste for Pigalle’s inhabitants, if just for a moment.
Turning back onto Rue des Martyrs. I’m determined to get some good photos tonight. Every corner lends itself to a rich story full of colorful, albeit predictable characters.
This street in particular houses nothing but “hostess clubs,” a cross between strip clubs and lounges where “hostesses” lure men in to partake in exorbitantly priced bottles.
I stop in front of one frosted window where I can make out the shape of a seated woman through the silhouette of a pole dancing motif cut out from the surface. She’s leaning into the counter talking to someone, and she suddenly freezes. She’s seen me.
She jumps out of her seat and runs out of the bar.
“Connasse! Arrete!” (Slut! Stop!)
I’m pretty sure you’re the whore, but who’s checking.
She runs towards me and grabs my wrist. A second hostess runs out and stands on the other side of me. She seems to be more amused than the first woman, whose face is contorted with rage.
“Efface-la!” (Erase it!)
“D’accord, d’accord. Desole.”
I show her my monitor as I erase one of the two photos I took. The second hostess giggles. I look up at the first hostess. She’s a woman in her mid forties maybe, bleached blonde hair and eyes rimmed with thick eyeliner. Her plump body is encased in a tight dress bearing her breasts like two bumpy ice cream scoops atop a white tube. Her makeup has settled into the lines underneath her eyes, a fine web mapping out her angst.
She eyes me suspiciously as her friend giggles on, and they swiftly retreat back into the bar.
“Connasse!” She mutters.
I’ve had enough of this neighborhood for one night.