The sign has been there for a few days anyway, but I haven’t crossed the street to read it. I could see it was an ordinary piece of paper with a fringe on the bottom, a poster selling something, with phone numbers on the fingers of fringe. Probably the usual, like an American law student willing to teach English or maybe a mime or a tap dancer offering lessons, the sure sign—literally in these cases—of the trailing spouse or the Francophile who can’t get a legitimate gig in the land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité without the right paperwork. A tough way to make a living, but you don’t really have to have a license, and I can think of tougher ones, like the subway singers and musicians.
The worst of these is the guy with the portable drum machine singing what he must think is a rap about something I could never figure out, but the Mafia is in there somewhere: after hearing him, the lady with the accordion playing—so help me—La vie en rose or the guy reciting Rimbaud come across as Chopin and Gielgud. My favorite is a beat-up looking woman who sings a very long song.
The thin voice coming out of her doesn’t match the rough face and clothes, but better to be pierced with a reed than bashed with a boot. Then she stops singing. In a much stronger speaking voice—one that everyone can hear from one end of the Métro car to the other—she announces she accepts subway tickets, restaurant vouchers, cigarettes, and, I think, cash. No one pungles up though had I known before she began singing that a few American-made Marlboros would keep her quiet, I’d have given her the remains of my pack and blessing. Instead, those of us close enough to hear the emaciated voice listened to her sing, like it or not, about the letter she wrote to the president, urging Sarko, as far as I can tell, to release his true socialist sentiments, chasten his crypto-fascist heart, and do something nice for her and the memory of her mother. Something about cops and prisons, too. During one chorus, she bows her head and raises her right fist above her head, channeling Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968, but without the black gloves and socks. A little off.
But the part about restaurant vouchers is really good. French law requires employers to subsidize their employees lunches. If they don’t have a cantine on site, the bosses must hand out discounted chèques déjeuner, reasonably interpreted as food stamps for the well-fed and tenured, so I think the singer is asking capitalist wage-slaves to share their socialist bounty with her, which is about as French as logic can get. By the time I reach this conclusion and think she deserves something by way of pourboire, she is gone. She’s been on my mind and I’m thinking of her as I get near the sign with the fringe on the bottom and get a surprise.
Like all the other signs offering a service for money, this was hand-written with smallish letters, but, unlike the others I have grown used to seeing, it is very brief and remarkably to the point.
Jeune fille noire
Tous les genres
Erotic massage young black girl all genders one hour. No verbs, no conjunctions, no punctuation, no syntax—and who needs them? She has a point and makes it with the clarity of a semaphore on a sunny day, along with two fragrant whiffs of political correctness in the three words of the third line. Not sexes, but genres, and offering to accommodate all the genders, rather than two, presumably including the transgendered, the bisexual, and the stoned. This is better, this is more like liberty, equality, and fraternity (or sorority), and I like this girl. She’s a democrat.
But I think I am alone. I don’t know how long the sign has been up. It could have been there long before I noticed it last week, and it’s looking a little tired and tattered, acquiring new fringes from the wind and the weather. But in all the time it has been there, no one has torn off a piece with the girl’s phone number—and it’s a local call, right here in Paris. Not right, not fair. I tear off her phone number as an act of solidarity and admiration, tuck it in my pocket, and go about my business.
But I worry about hers, have been for a week now. Why has no one taken a number? It’s not as if she has placed her ad in a stuffy neighborhood. The street is big, commercial, and busy. Sticking your nose in the air in this part of Paris would be an unnatural act and, besides, the girl’s sign is about twenty metres from the front door of a sex club. You can tell that’s what it is because the drinks menu posted outside the front door in a glass case, nicely lighted, offers four centilitres of whisky or vodka for 20€—or about twenty-seven dollars at the day’s exchange rate for an ounce and a third of liquor, and no one’s saying it’s top shelf. You’d think—anyway, you wouldn’t be surprised—if thevoyeurs who watched the action but didn’t get any would be eager customers for un massage érotique, in the kind of privacy that wouldn’t inhibit performance. I mean, wouldn’t you? I would. She says she would have, too, and that’s why she put up her one and only sign where she did, but no longer thinks so.
I decided to call the number. The voice mail asks me to leave a message, but this is a little awkward for me because there is a woman in the picture—that is, a woman in my picture—and I don’t think it would be a really swell idea if I got a callback from the erotic masseuse while I was out. I leave a message asking her to change her announcement giving the time when she can be reached. I try for the next two days with no luck. The next day, the voice I have been hearing is live and answers, yet something doesn’t feel right, so I mumble about the sign. The sign? What sign? The voice, a woman’s, is perplexed and not pleased. I continue to mumble, say I must have le mauvais numéro, beat my breast with sorrow and regret and having dérangé madame (and perhaps madame is feeling slightly deranged by my unwelcome call), and hang up. The hell with it: I try one more time the next day—pay dirt. When I call early, the recorded voice, which is not the same as the other announcements and the perplexed live voice, tells me to call very early the next morning, and I do.
The voice answering the phone is the second one, whispered and accented and very hurried. It gives me the name and address of a café, says five o’clock this afternoon, and hangs up. I’m there on time, and she is too and easy to spot, being the only black person of any genre in the café. We shake hands, I ask if she would like something, and order two glasses of wine and some olives. She is embarrassed about the trouble with the phones, the problem being that Madame, for whom she is working as a nanny, just decided the other day to feel guilty about colonializing the upbringing of her bébé and decided to work part-time, at least for a while. Before that, one of her jobs, even whenMadame was present, was to answer the phone, but now Madame wanted to be a homemaker and had learned to answer the phone herself. That’s what Maricami, as she introduces herself, tells me.
It will do. But the sign, I want to know, did you put it up near the sex club expecting what I guess you did? She tells me yes, but it didn’t work and she doesn’t know why. What if someone had called you? I would have told him to come right over—I have my own room upstairs from Madame and my own entrance. But no one called. Sorry: have you ever given un massage érotique? She eats two olives, one at a time, contemplative, dispassionate, like Brillat-Savarin trying out a new recipe of his own. But she doesn’t like the dish she’s cooked up and served me. “No,” she says, “never,” adding, however, that “I am not a virgin.” “And if someone had called, would you really have said to come right over?” “I wanted to…”
She wanted to, yet the unspoken but is shouting in my ear and, I think, hers. I supply it: “But you didn’t… couldn’t?” “I’m an artist, I sing, I wanted material. You know, post-colonial life for Africans in Europe. I could have… I wanted to.” “Still want to?” I smile. She doesn’t answer or offer me a massage or even mention a price. We finish our wine, say goodbye, and I head home wondering where she had planned to sing her songs.