If you entered through the double door of the carriage entrance that lead through the front portion of the apartment building to the courtyard and somewhere, usually tucked near the steps, you found a cramped dwelling illuminated by the second-rate light of the vestibule. In this badly-ventilated cubicle there lived the Parisian Concierge. Although considered the lowest of the low on the social scale, she wielded a considerable power over the tenants. The concierge loge was the hub of a spider’s net, its threads reached not only into every apartment in the building but extending out in the street. The tenants were well-advised to remain on her good side. Failing that, their mail could go astray, and their reputation be tarnished by malicious gossip through the neighborhood. Her eagle-eye noticed all the comings and goings, especially past ten o’clock in the evening, when the main door was locked and late comers must ring the bell.
Unavoidable as well as indispensable, she supplemented her meager wages by performing all kind of services for the tenants and often pocketed bribes for keeping secrets. To be at the mercy of a coarse uneducated woman necessarily created resentment. No creature has been more mocked and maligned in literature. Caricatures of the era picture her as a repulsive harridan, either sickeningly self-ingratiating or loftily dismissive, depending on the importance of the tenant.
In fact, the concierge’s lot was not an easy one. Representing the landlord, she had the unpleasant task of extracting past-due rent, evicting non-paying tenants and bear the brunt of their anger. At the approach of the term, her vigilance redoubled, as insolvent tenants tended to slip away. In the old tenements, her quarters–often a single room without running water and ventilation–were nothing more than a stinking cramped hole lacking in privacy. At the beck and call of others every hour of the day, she often had to get up at night to unlock the door. In addition to collecting rent, distributing the mail, cleaning the courtyard, hallway, and the stairs, she scrubbed and cleaned for tenants who could not afford a maid. Running errands, passing on messages, and other innumerable petty services were rewarded by tips, scrapes of food from festive tables, and the occasional discarded piece of clothing. The most profitable day was that of Saint Sylvestre (Dec. 31) when the voluntary–but obligatory!–gratuity was expected.
The repulsive solitary old woman was of course a cliché. The post was often filled by a middle-aged couple. Since the only financial advantage was a free lodging and one per cent of the rental income, the husband had to have an outside job. Scarcely visible, he remained in the shade of the concierge lore.