It is a cliché to say that Les Halles is the belly of Paris, but it is not fully understood that the place really does fill the guts of a whole horde of people, that it is a magnet for all the diurnal and nocturnal bums who come there to glean fragments of nourishment—scraps, trimmings and discards quite invisible to the eye of the wholesale or retail grocer stepping on them or of the city worker sweeping them up, yet source of life and bodily warmth for so many old men and women clinging in bunches from the municipal street cleaners’ carts and picking through piles of refuse where only the odd poignant orange retains any luster....
Like all fellows of my calling, which is that of having no trade, that of the good-for-nothing and the ready-for-anything, I once worked in Les Halles: hands freezing cold and eyes stinging, at an hour when ordinary cafés were closing and turfing out their customers, I used to cross the Pont des Arts footbridge or the Pont Neuf (I was living at the time in Rue des Canettes, in a tiny room with a cot for a bed, no window except for a murky transom above the door and not so much as a pitcher for water to wash with), reach the toiling Right Bank, go and drink endless black coffees at the counter of the Pied de Cochon and watch the well-heeled coming in, after parking their cars outside, and climbing the stairs to the second floor with good-time girls in tow to eat steaming crusty onion soup that cost three times as much as it did at sidewalk level where I was, playing the night’s first game of 421 with head washers in stained smocks and aprons who came in to clean off coagulated blood and savor dry white wine before going back to turn powerful jets of water on the bones, still covered with flesh, of animals whose fate it was to become delectable charcuterie.
After they left, I in my turn would walk through those great railroad- station-like hangars as giant trucks unloaded vegetables—almost two in the morning by now—till I reached the stall of Mustapha the Turkish banana merchant who employed me as a weigher and checker, and there till morning I wrestled crates and display tables and bunches of bananas from the stores where they had been ripening and weighed great tottering mounds of them on a scale that when I climbed on it myself barely moved. Sometimes, instead of making a two-hourly visit to Fauveau’s, once it was finally open, there to drink one café-crème after another, laced or not depending on the boss’s humor, I would go to Rue Berger and make a sign to the cashier at the chicken-and-egg seller’s, who always managed to find a replacement for a quarter of an hour, time enough to meet me in the stairwell of the house next door where I fucked her standing up without so much as loosening my belt and she with her skirt hiked around her waist, which she liked, and she would slip me a cheese or a few eggs to build my strength back up and stave off the pangs till my next official mealtime, which was ten o’clock, when I got off work and was free and easy till the next night and would go to Place des Deux-Écus and treat myself to an enormous steak with all the trimmings that cost the better part of my day’s pay and smoked a de luxe cigarette before setting off to beg door to door at all the friendly café-bars thereabouts, especially those in the vicinity of Rue Saint-Denis, in the company of fellow down-and-outs from the derelict throngs around the Square des Innocents—a name that so aptly describes these denizens of the place, wandering among the sacks of potatoes and piled-up boxes much as their historical predecessors wandered centuries ago under the arcades, between the columns and beneath the wooden balconies of the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, oblivious to the fearsomely vile stink of prodigious piles of human remains, dirty-gray entanglements eroded by rain and rodents, like conglomerations of crisscrossed pirate weaponry, or like dry firewood—and indeed they gathered the bones up and tied them into faggots of tibias and femurs to make comforting, warming, blistering flames—joyful fires that they built upon nice round skulls (so leading Rabelais to remark that Paris was a good town to live in but not to die in, for “the starvelings of Sainct-Innocent warm their asses with the bones of the dead”); those transient yet ever-proliferating folk still found ways to hold out their begging-bowls and cry poverty to the gentlemen, merchants and fancy women who came by in the evening to take the air, for the Square was much frequented then, and the living must have smelled barely more fragrant than the dead, with the ladies’ frippery, rumpled and plundered in the shadows, exuding warm, aphrodisiac animal odors that excited male escorts quite unaffected by the sweet rot enriching the earth around them, or by the naive and cruel fresco of the Dance of the Dead so close by. (It was here some time later that a tender-hearted soul named Fradin, most likely a retired shit-sniffer living off his rents, set up a sort of “hotel,” according to the old books, where guests slept all in a row with their backsides on old sacks and their feet sticking out onto the cobblestones and the napes of their necks resting on a cord stretched taut a few inches above the ground, which at the crack of dawn the wily hostel-keeper undid, thus causing a general collapse of heads and putting an abrupt if not too painful end to the dreams of his guests. . . .)
Later on, no longer employed in Les Halles but living nearby, I holed up like so many others in an abandoned back room, a choice, cheap hideaway I found in the bowels of a wholesaler’s shop in Rue Saint-Honoré, for the neighborhood as a whole had no solid base, and resembled a great perforated basket, each building secreting within its walls a mysterious labyrinth leading to God-knew-what cellars, sewers or catacombs, and every shop on the street being more of an antechamber than the usual cube with no back exit, so that by pulling aside a rough curtain or moving a pile of empty boxes one found one or more passages leading off into obscurity, descending and narrowing, getting darker and darker, dirtier and dirtier, and more and more cluttered by piles of loose masonry, fallen earth and stray objects that had survived the passage of time and now jostled one another and accumulated like silt; the walls of these tunnels, as beams and architectural features diminished, tended to retreat abruptly from the groping hand or eye, and extreme caution was advisable when making one’s way through such mazes, which owners preferred not to know about, where strange mineral and vegetable odors of humus, fungi, verdigris, saltpeter, rotting flowers and damp earth flared the nostrils and invaded the throat, while candles provided but a feeble, vaguely worrisome and usually unwavering glow, and it was best to stop in good time and give up any hope of discovering the causes of such speleological wonders, for, lacking chalk, string or wire ladder, you were liable to get lost, go round in circles, batter at the walls, panic, split your lips or bang your head on stalactites, fall with your heart in your mouth into pits, snares and booby-traps, you would scratch yourself, sweat, try to keep calm, piss, call out, laugh hysterically, wring your hands and rack your brains, pummel your memory, call upon your primal sense of direction, only to end up sitting, waiting, fighting hunger and thirst, gently fading, long after striking your last match, huddling, rolling up into a ball, shrinking, crumbling, letting flesh and bone rejoin the mineral, the geological realm.
As for me, I was living, eating, sleeping and dreaming on a heap of sacks of potatoes, having spent my entire fortune on illumination, venturing out only to scavenge and take the air, each time passing the employees and proprietor of the shop, who gave me vegetables or oranges but clapped palm to forehead behind me as I left. It was here too that my friends, who had digs just like mine or were the proud owners of shadowy corners of this providential quarter, came to visit me, slithering like worms through the gaping holes and cracks that rent all the façades of the block.
One autumn evening we indulged in an orgy that was quite fabulous, albeit peaceful and indeed devoid of the sensuous pleasures of fornication, for we were all men, with only rats and bats for company. I had won a little dough in the lottery, a tenth prize paying out ten francs on a ticket bought at a stand at the Foire du Trône, and for fear of seeming ungenerous my fellow bums had come up with a host of inspired ideas, contrived the most artful dodges, saved up for days on end, and striven to outdo one another in stratagems designed to provide for this now famous blowout, and if possible buy out an entire butcher’s shop, or at least send two of the more presentable members of our company off, armed with capacious shopping baskets, to requisition (sic) meat, poultry, cold cuts, and drink, the results being more impressive in terms of quantity than of quality: a ton of food of every variety which we consumed in about twenty-four hours by virtue of rapid, eclectic, and joyful ingestion followed by slow, massive, and dolorous digestion. All this took place by the smoky and eclipse-prone light of glowing embers, with us reclining on our sides Roman style, stuffing ourselves likewise Roman style, and likewise ready to withdraw to the fringes of the darkness to empty our stomachs one way or another. Eventually, one by one, we sank down replete, swollen, hiccupping, hands crossed over rumbling bellies, seeing stars above them, imagining a breath of fresh air, and listening to oaths, and to the burps and farts of bestial satisfaction, to the accompaniment of a young fellow playing the harmonica.
Those were the days.
But memories butter no parsnips, and now that I was a citified tramp in quest of the two things essential to the welfare of any honest man, namely food and lodging, it was time to bestir myself.