Time was, this was a little town, a few kilometres across woods and farms to the east of Paris. Not, mind you, a village, nothing that bucolic let alone quaint, but a small town with a big history of making things out of wood and cow hides and plaster, and it had its share of truck gardens and dairy cows behind the houses. Its streets were narrow then and remain that way because land always has been too expensive to waste on roads and now it’s too expensive to mow down the old buildings which were apartments then and still are to this day. It sat on a main road to Paris and was less than two kilometres from the Seine. Not a bad place to make a living.
Nothing changed one way or another when a stroke of the pen made it part of Paris: it took years to turn the pastures and the woods into city streets, and what went up in the old green fields was no prettier or grander than what was here before. An outer arrondissement, fit for the city’s working class—ouais, time was, too, that there was a working class living in Paris—and no one who did not live here or had business here ever bothered to come to see the sights or dit un petit bonjour. Early in the twentieth century, some hungry entrepreneur or perhaps a long-eyed bureaucrat, or maybe they were in cahoots, realized that the big empty centers of the blocks no longer grazed dairy cows or had truck gardens, and built narrow dead ends halfway through some of them—thirteen impasses by my count—to squeeze in very small houses for workers who earned very small amounts of money. Not a bad place to live, all things considered, in those days.
And it still is by all the signs I can see. The little houses are getting done over, and they are just one emblem of the embourgeoisement of this slightly forlorn corner of a border arrondissement. Nowhere near any busy famous streets with shops and restaurants that can make a claim on chic, nowhere near a celebrated covered market, or an artsy viaduc, even so prices are heading north. On the narrow street that looks like a skinny sow nursing her farrow of thirteen impasses, a restaurant is doing a land-office business. Why not—it’s Mother’s Day—no matter that the menu tells me that a maternal lunch, not including the wine, is twenty-two euros and up. Workers don’t live down the little lanes, not now, unless they inherited the place, and aren’t buying maman lunch there if they still do. But—look up and see for yourself in one of the newly done-over apartments—there is still a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Some things in France cut across class lines and never change.
So cheer up, I say to myself, and I’d say the same to you if you were walking along with me, because there are still cheap cafés here and there and stores where you might actually find something you need, like a bar of soap or a carton of eggs or a light bulb of your own to hang in the middle of the ceiling. It’s still a small town, a neighborhood. If its days as a simple quartier are numbered, no sense in counting them: this one will do nicely and, after all, the sun is shining.
Half the people I see are clutching bunches of flowers, either mothers who have just received them and wouldn’t dream of leaving them home while they go out for the big lunch or people on their way to make yet another installment of the reparations for having been brought into the world. I imagine I’m beaming as much as they are as I turn north on a one-way street and walk down the middle of it facing traffic, such as it is, so I can get a better look at the façades of the buildings on either side. Nothing about them is particularly interesting, though down the street to my left there is a marooned fin-de-siècle matron swanning it, with carved stone cornices and plump cast-iron, over the Plain Janes of the neighborhood. Who knows, the area might one day live up to Madame Magnificent Apartment House.
A cheerful thought, but that’s not what makes me realize I am bouncing up the one-way street. I’ve picked up music, music for brass, but with the one-and-only blare and swell of a marching band… in Paris on Mother’s Day? Who’d have thought, but you can’t miss it, coming out of a little plaza straight ahead, not one of the imposing places, like Bastille or République, with big spaces and traffic and eponymous Métro stops. It’s small, but filled up by more than music. There’s an open-air market doing a good business at two-thirty on a Sunday even if the truck gardeners now come twenty-five kilometres or more from the east to set up shop, not from behind the house on the next street over. Who cares? It’s here.
In the center of the plaza there is an ornate nineteenth-century fountain, not particularly grand, but busy—one basin on a long neck above another which is held up by four cupids or maybe just fat kids, deep green top to bottom. And dry. Good thing too because that’s where the musicians are standing. Boys and girls, they all look to be high-school age if not still in high school and they’re blasting away on their instruments with earnestness and discipline. They have studied their music, rehearsed it, and they’re playing it for all they’re worth, which in my ledger is a pretty penny or two. And what a racket! Two drummers, one with two drums, the other with a drum and a cymbal, two trumpets, three French horns, a trombone, a tuba, and a token reedy sax in brassy drag, but giving their all to “Barbara Ann.” Imagine, 1960s American rock ’n’ roll being played in Paris by kids whose parents weren’t yet born when the Beach Boys’ cover of “Barbara Ann” topped out at number two on the charts.
Yet they’re not playing the way you’d expect a marching band to play. Their tempo is strictly oompah-pah, fit for a dancing elephant. And what a shame, because the music is bright and cheerful. I’d like to grab the first woman who looks likely not to step on my toes and whirl around the place, but how do you dance to this? You can’t even clap your hands along with the brass. But you certainly can bounce along to it and see what’s for sale in the market. I find asparagus and chew it happily as I go off about my business.
Photo credit © Gérard Lavalette
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[DVD of live concert in Paris 2002 at New Morning Jazz Club]
One of the best Paris jazz concerts ever & you can catch it at home on this DVD. New Morning is one of the best Paris jazz clubs & this DVD is a “must have” for any jazz enthusiast. Wayne Henderson, “Street Life” & Paris…how can you go wrong?!