Happy Street

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La rue de la Gaïté was a tax dodge. Its two remaining blocks used to be part of a small country road passing through the town of Montrouge to a customs house at the tax fence that surrounded Paris. Valuable goods, like wine, were taxed as they were brought into the city. Untaxed wine is cheaper to buy and more fun to drink, and so this street housed guinguettes, roadhouses more or less. Parisians drank and danced in Montrouge, and went home to Paris with change in their pockets. Gaiety indeed. Like Houston and Topsy, Paris just grew, but not endlessly. It is the smallest of the great capital cities, its footprint being a dainty Cinderella size. Unlike Moscow and London, which swallowed every town, village, and orchard as far as the eye can see or a car can drive in a day and now contain four hundred and six hundred square miles respectively (about 1100 and 1550 km2), Paris stopped when enough appeared to be satisfactory, at forty-one square miles. The last big bite came when Baron Haussman started rebuilding the city in the middle of the nineteenth century and, along with other communes, had Paris eat up a good slice of Montrouge. But Gaïté was never fully digested. Good thing, too. Les music-halls have gone, but les sexshops have arrived, and it’s comforting to see one kind of entertainment replacing another on the happy street and no less pleasing to notice a new borrowing from English popping up to fill the void. If Bobino, once a music hall and resident on the street for two centuries, is now doing cabaret, its up-to-date incarnation is dispensing a decidedly old-style form of good cheer—less nostalgia than a living throwback—and Aristide Bruant, red scarf and all, could burst into song any day now about the tough life of the underclass in the condos of Montparnasse. Not a bad idea. The porn stores seem a kind of bleak gaiety, but there they are and doing business, and since dodging taxes and general nose-thumbing seem to have been the papa and maman of Gaïté, where’s the harm and what’s the matter? History is on the side of les sexshops. Besides, for the high-minded there are five theatres, and two of them make the real point for me. The Théâtre Montparnasse has been sitting on a corner halfway down the street since 1819, its current building a belle époque bowl of whipped cream. Built after Haussmann, its architect had the sense to turn the theatre’s back on the stodgy handsomeness of Paris’s apartment houses and official buildings. The main floor above the wraparound marquee looks like a willing ample woman overflowing her bodice—and I doubt that’s an accident or just the lone night-walker’s imagination: it’s sexier than the sex shops. But the best, la cerise sur le gâteau, the cherry on top is the Théâtre de la Comédie Italienne. Nothing much to look at, and somewhere between cute and homely, it carries on the history of Gaïté, even though it’s fairly new. When it opened, a little over thirty years ago, it found a home in a former building of the Salvation Army. Five years later, it moved into an abandoned police station. Imagine, just think of it—putting on Goldoni and other Italian smart-alecks, whose characters are drunk and randy and likely to rob you blind, where the tea-totallers and the cops used to sit up straight and make people miserable. La Comédie Italienne is not making history. It’s making it up all over again, as if still just outside the tax fence though no longer outside the law. But, naturally, there’s a puzzle, typical of Paris. Something does not fit for me: the Japanese restaurants, three of them, on a short street like Gaïté, with their picture-board menus. One wasn’t enough? The faded color photographs of food don’t make me hungry, and two of them, just a few doors apart, have the same pictures—not making me hungry twice in a row. Are they owned by the same people and is there a single kitchen connected by an underground passage that smugglers once used to burrow under the tax fence and bring cheap wine and gaiety to Parisians who could not afford or could not be bothered to make the trip to Montrouge? Cool idea. Maybe the restaurants proprietors bought their pictures from the same photographer or stock shop. Too dull for words. Cool or dull, doesn’t matter. Other than the restaurants, Gaïté does not look like le quartier japonais, which is a relief because storefronts stuffed with paper lanterns, bonsai trees, and misty mountains painted on screens are annoyingly cute even on a Japanese street. Gaïté is a lot less imposing than the average street in Paris, but no one would ever mistake it for Osaka. Not to worry—or so I try to say. I guess it’s my inner nit-picker, or historical tour guide, that wants to worry and would prefer a tavern where they sold wine right out of a barrel and served cassoulet, not sake and soba noodles. Anyhow, I don’t think people come here for the food. Dinner after a play at one of the theatres is more convivial, the performance being the guest who animates the conversation. And the two sex shops both feature at least three thousand dirty videos, and I think an after-dinner fullness would slow down the circadian clock just enough to make you fail to get your money’s worth. Since both offer le zapping, more or less channel surfing, you really have to have your wits (or something) about you and at the ready and your eyes wide open. Sex, even alone in the dark in a strange place, is always better on an empty stomach anyway. D’accord, but odd intrusions like the Japanese restaurants and gentrification in the form of expensive apartments make me fret over the future of some streets I have come to know in Paris, defining streets for me. The future will come—but maybe gently…
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