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Selling papers outside the American Express office in those days 40 years ago began late and ended abruptly, not to say early. The American tourists who passed near the Opéra in the morning inclined to be corn-fed and not much interested in the New York Times. Besides, the few sophisticates who wanted an American paper were enamored of a girl who was peddling the New York Herald Tribune, looked too much like Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle, and was pretty much cleaning my clock. So, I got off the clock as early as I could and wandered.
Paris by day has its famous charms, and no need for me to remind you of them. But there are places that seem desolate and drab when the sun is up and become worth the trip in the dark. This obvious discovery came to me in a kind of backwards way. I noticed, for example, that the magnificent pet market near the Seine was nothing but empty streets by dinner time, and so it occurred to me that a street or square without life during the day might have something to offer at night: Les Halles, mourned by all now, was obvious enough. And it was on a midnight walk to Les Halles that I discovered the life of Rue St. Dénis.
I had been to the market before and knew the way. Minimalist and commonplace though this information may have been, it was news, and exciting, to a posse of tourists to whom I had managed to flog the Times one morning, and so that evening I led my party off to see vegetables lying on the ground, calves’ heads in buckets, and bowls of onion soup. The route I took led through St. Dénis. Les filles, bless them one and all, propositioned the men and women following in my wake—all of whom dutifully giggled and asked me to walk faster. Instead, I stopped, politely asked after business and their well-being in general. They were equally courteous and suggested that we could do business. They were right.
A couple of days later, I was again playing Sacagawea to a new troop of Lewises and Clarks. (The first exploration had been such a hit that I was getting word-of-mouth-referrals.) I took the same route, and the girls once again approached, but instead of propositioning my tourists directly, asked me to ask my explorers if they would simply like to see—see, mind you, not do—something just wonderful. I explained the deal and, after some giggling, which I began to think was required, they agreed, with my personal guarantee of safety. (If you ever want an metaphor of worthlessness, you could do worse than invoke my guarantee.)
The show the girls put on was mild by today’s pornographic standards: lesbian, yes, but barely so, and more picturesque than erotic, but it seemed to do the trick. Two men signed up for more and vanished. The rest, at my suggestion, offered tips to the girls, which they accepted with a charming reluctance: after all, they were artists who believed in art for art’s sake, but one must live, the life costs dear, and thank you so many times, bon soir.
On the sly, les filles all shared their tips with me, to the tune of about twenty-five percent. This did not make me a maquereau or pimp, since I was not pocketing most of the take or abusing the girls in any way or forcing them to do something they did not like. I learned later that the appropriate title might be mac or mini-pimp, but that is too harsh and a bit nasty.
I concluded I was nothing more than a tour guide, like those who walk you through the cathedral, the ruins, or the catacombs and, at the end of the tour, offer to shake hands which was, is, and always will be the discreet way to offer a pourboire to those who live by them. Besides, what I did was not redundant. The Michelin and the Blue guides could tell you about the flower market, the museums, and the number of steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame, but in those innocent days, who would walk you through the night streets of Paris, meaning no harm and asking for nothing in return?
There was in truth so little competition that I was able to stay an extra month in Paris. And a last thought in case you are curious. I never had anything but capitalist intercourse with the girls, and on my last night there we met early and they treated me to dinner. I gave it three stars and slept well. Still do.