Paris. Winter. The numbers shining from my cell phone warn me that midnight is fast approaching. It was only days before that I’d returned to the city I’d previously called home, and which has felt like it for far longer. I’d just left a rendez-vous with a dear friend, a night cap after attending a poetry reading together. Quitting her, the wine and the company inspired me to do something a little more cozy with my other dear friend, thus the solitary walk in the almost-quiet streets. “Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / Pas à pas je me dis, c’est pas vrai.” [“I had to take to the streets / Step by step I tell myself, it’s not true”]
Heading east, more or less, the Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle turns into Boulevard St Denis turns into Boulevard St Martin as I stroll upstream, toward the Place de la République. I long ago gave up learning all the names of the streets I wandered here, still wander, instead memorizing their beginnings and endings. This particular stretch of by-many-another-name boulevard starts in République and ends somewhere just beyond the Opéra Garnier, aptly adopting the appellation of the man who Haussmanisized all of these Grands Boulevards.”Si Paris va bien, Maître Gims pète la forme!”[“If Paris is doing well, Maître Gims is in great shape”]
It happens terribly often that these wanderings, in the dead of night or full life of day, present to me those intimate, those magical moments that keep me connected to this city. No matter how long between visits, or how long each stay, something happens to remind me not just that I’m fully there, here, but that I’m never absent from Paris.
Now where was I? Ah yes, Paris. Winter. Midnight. Boulevard St Martin depositing me in the Place de la République, eyes alert for the closest entrance to the métro, the subway, so that I might make it back to the apartment in some reasonable amount of time. To my right, and about a block away, I spot said entrance, a few bodies entering and leaving, apace with my own rate of travel. This wasn’t the hurry-and-get-there clip of the morning rush hour, or the I-can’t-get-home-soon-enough trot; those I see are climbing and descending the steps as if weighed down by second jobs, or second bottles of Chinon, or simply slowed by the extra seconds between arriving trains. The casual arrival on the quay complements the less frenetic rush to board.
As my body turns right, out of the corner of my left eye, something bright catches my attention, day-like and massive. Stopping in my tracks, I turn to figure out what’s going on. Some distance away, in the opposite direction of the yawning of the métro, I see a semi truck and flatbed trailer, parked next to the sidewalk, with what are clearly a film crew and a massive set of lights focused on the trailer bed. My initial assumption is of course that yet another movie is taking place in Paris, and at this late hour they might be escaping the throngs of lookers-on, or perhaps simply looking to avoid the traffic common just a few hours earlier in the evening. “J’vois pas Paname du même coté que les touristes … / Derrière le papier-peint pas d’assurer tout risque (Paname!) ” [“I don’t see Paris from the same view as the tourists…/Behind the wallpaper no insuring against all risks”]
I’m not in any rush so, cat-like, my curiosity shifts my weight and then movement towards the action. A few steps closer, the truck is now some thirty or forty meters away. Perhaps I should say some thirty or forty yards away, it’s just that sometimes it’s not only language and demeanor that totters back and forth between arrivals, but perspective, too. Fully facing the truck now, I can start to make out more clearly what’s going on. It’s not a crew working on a film, but rather a music group working on a video. They’re rehearsing on the flatbed, moving (dancing?) in unison to a piece of music I can’t hear at all. From here I can see that they’re all wearing the same outfits, black and gray letter jackets and jeans, some with baseball caps, some without. My first thought, my first instinct is that this is a hip hop or R&B group working on some new clip destined for MTV Base or M6 musique. As I take a few more steps, it becomes easier to distinguish between the members–height, weight, stature, even faces become just a little more defined. The figures taking on their own forms, I start to recognize what I think are the people behind the voices of “L’école des points vitaux” and “Désolé.” Is it? Could it be? I think to myself, but that isn’t quite accurate because I hear the words come out under my breath.
“Is it? Could it be? Mais c’est pas possible!” [“It’s not possible!”] There’s no way that on this, of all nights, I would wander into Place de la République when they are filming a video. Would I get that lucky? I’ll know if I see him. Look for the glasses, look for the aviators. A few more steps, a better viewing angle and the director comes into view, previously hidden by the corner of the rig. His hands are up, giving some directions to the guys, who nod in agreement or understanding. A few more steps, and some movement based on the directions, then a few more and from behind one of the lights comes into view a head, hat cocked to the side, and the reflection of the set lights in a pair of sunglasses.
“C’est pas possible! Ce n’est pas possible!” I talk to myself a lot; like a sports announcer I often have running commentary in my head and in my mouth. In France, it’s not unusual for me to do all of this code switching. “It’s them, it’s really them!” Sexion d’Assaut tourne un clip right here in Place de la République, and I’m about twenty meters away. I feel my pace quicken, so I force myself to slow down, lest I look too eager to become an on-looker, wide-eyed groupie, psycho fan.
So here I am, self-induced almost-crawl, not so slow as to appear creepy or stage five stalkerish, but certainly not the racing pace that would have given my pulse a good run for its money. I’m still eyes-wide, but if I can just keep a low profile, perhaps the others milling about won’t take too much note of my presence. It is all I can do not to run up to the trailer. Are they going to take a break? Pourrai-je parler avec eux? If they stop, I’m going to talk to them. If they stop, I’m gonna talk to ’em. Another five minutes of rehearsal; they seem to have the steps down, everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to. Or at least I think they do, hell I don’t know what the director told them or whether they all did their thing. At this point, I’m all If they take a break I’m gonna talk to ’em. If they take a break I’m gonna talk to ’em. I feel the words generating in my throat. “Qui a eu l’idée pour ‘Désolé’? Qui sont vos poètes préférés? Je vous admire depuis la sortie de “Antitecktonik’!!! Je suis américain, stupide mais je kiffe trop la musique!!” [“Who had the idea for ‘Désolé’? Who are your favorite poets? I’ve admired you guys since the release of ‘Antitecktonik’!! I’m just a stupid American but your music rocks!!!”] Who the hell is this white guy yelling at us? In French? We’re trying to make a video here.
Thank goodness such an outburst never leaves the voice box; thank goodness the knees didn’t automatically kneel themselves near the tires. I’m stuck right here, a good twenty feet (yes, twenty feet) away, and as the others loitering about seem to be over the chance sighting, I keep my focus on the trailer, on Sexion d’Assaut.
Another three or four minutes (oh how they stretched into what clearly felt like the end of an LP, spinning the scratchy silence, too lazy to lift the needle) and then a shout: “Alright, we ready?” A rousing “Yeah!,” then someone climbs into the cab, puffs of black smoke indicating the diesel engine is up and running. They take off, easing into traffic in a manner only possible after midnight. They turn right onto Boulevard St Martin, heading towards Opéra. Automatically, my legs turn, too. Yep, we’re following the rig. A determined mosey, surely the rig will get caught at a light.
Again, my body’s trying to do one thing–keep it cool, keep it cool, we’re just out to flâner un petit peu, take a little stroll tranquillement–but my mind is racing–what are we going to say to them? how do we start? when they stop do we run up, or just stroll by? what if we get drinks? am I going to get drunk with Maître Gims and Black M?
And so I keep following as the truck passes one green light then another green light (Who gets this lucky with intersections?). Mutter-breath, “If they stop I’m gonna talk to ’em, if they stop I’m gonna talk to ’em.” Another green light. Their height decreases by half. Another. Half again. Another. My legs, no longer suitable for running anyway, cultivate the saunter in a perfect field test; I am not speeding up, but neither am I slowing down. I am Baudelaire’s flâneur incarnate, his midwinter night’s hip hop flâneur chasing the metal carriage that rumbles past those dandy, agèd arcades. Another. Brake lights become twinkles. Is that a street light or the lights for the camera? Another. They must have a code or a cop for les feux.
Ten blocks. Or twenty. Or four-twenties. My mind out of breath from its relentless racing; my legs, still in amble mode, ready for the next twenty, and the next. But I’ll never catch up. This is Paris, at night, in the winter. Behind me, the Place de la République beckons, so I turn, then return. This time, on the north side of Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle turning into Boulevard St Denis turning into Boulevard St Martin. Appropriately enough, even the switch to the opposite side of the street from earlier gives everything a completely new perspective. “Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / pas à pas je me dis c’est pas vrai…”
Totally worth every moment I’ve ever spent learning French.
“Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / pas à pas je me dis c’est pas vrai…”