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Apaches at Work

Encounter of the Apaches with the police on the Place de la Bastille

 

Tourist traps were not invented yesterday. The Parisians have got the hang of it very early on. One of the tourist attractions in the past was the glimpse of the redoubtable Apaches, the vicious gangs that terrorized Paris. (More about them in The Gangs of Paris.) Like other tourists, the American author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb followed this fashion of playing with the fire. We first came in contact with his caustic humor in Jacques Takes a Bath where he questions the local hygiene. In the following text, Cobb explores the Paris underground hoping for an adrenaline high in mingling with the Apaches:

Knowing from experience that every other American who lands in Paris will crave to observe the Apache while the Apache is in the act of Apaching round, the canny Parisians have provided a line of up-to-date Apache dens within easy walking distance of Montmartre; and hither the guides lead the round-eyed tourist and there introduce him to well-drilled, carefully made-up Apaches and Apachesses engaged in their customary sports and pastimes for as long as he is willing to pay out money for the privilege.

Being forewarned of this I naturally desired to see the genuine article. I took steps to achieve that end. Suitably chaperoned by a trio of transplanted Americans who knew a good bit about the Paris underworld I rode over miles of bumpy cobblestones until, about four o’clock in the morning, our taxicab turned into a dim back street opening off one of the big public markets and drew up in front of a grimy establishment rejoicing in the happy and well-chosen name of the Cave of the Innocents.

Alighting we passed through a small boozing ken, where a frowzy woman presided over a bar, serving drinks to smocked marketmen, and at the rear descended a steep flight of stone steps. At the foot of the stairs we came on two gendarmes who sat side by side on a wooden bench, having apparently nothing else to do except to caress their goatees and finger their swords. Whether the gendarmes were stationed here to keep the Apaches from preying on the marketmen or the marketmen preying on the Apaches I know not; but having subsequently purchased some fresh fruit in that selfsame market I should say now that if anybody about the premises needed police protection it was the Apaches. My money would be on the marketmen every time.

Beyond the couchant gendarmes we traversed a low, winding passage cut out of stone and so came at length to what seemingly had originally been a wine vault, hollowed out far down beneath the foundations of the building. The ceiling was so low that a tall man must stoop to avoid knocking his head off. The place was full of smells that crawled in a couple of hundred years before and had died without the benefit of clergy, and had remained there ever since. For its chief item of furniture the cavern had a wicked old piano, with its lid missing, so that its yellowed teeth showed in a perpetual snarl. I judged some of its important vital organs were missing too – after I heard it played. On the walls were inscribed such words as naughty little boys write on schoolhouse fences in this country, and more examples of this pleasing brand of literature were carved on the white oak benches and the rickety wooden stools. So much for the physical furbishing.

By rights—by all the hallowed rules and precedents of the American vaudeville stage!—the denizens of this cozy retreat in the bowels of the earth should have been wearing high-waisted baggy velvet trousers and drinking absinthe out of large flagons, and stabbing one another between the shoulder blades, and ever and anon, in the mystic mazes of dance, playing crack-the-whip with the necks and heels of their adoring lady friends; but such was not found to be the case. In all these essential and traditional regards the assembled Innocents were as poignantly disappointing as the costers of London had proved themselves.

According to all the printed information on the subject the London coster wears clothes covered up with pearl buttons and spends his time swapping ready repartee with his Donah or his Dinah. The costers I saw were barren of pearl buttons and silent of speech; and almost invariably they had left their Donahs at home. Similarly, these gentlemen habitués of the Cave of the Innocents wore few or no velvet pants, and guzzled none of the absinthe. Their favorite tipple appeared to be beer; and their female companions snuggled closely beside them.

apache 1

We stayed among them fully twenty minutes, but not a single person was stabbed while we were there. It must have been an off-night for stabbings. Still I judged them to have been genuine exhibits because here, for the first, last and only time in Paris, I found a shop where a stranger ready to spend a little money was not welcomed with vociferous enthusiasm. The paired-off cave-dwellers merely scowled on us as we scourged past them to a vacant bench in a far corner. […]

For the sake of the conventions I tried to feel apprehensive of grave peril. It was no use. I felt safe – not exactly comfortable, but perfectly safe. I could not even muster up a spasm of the spine when a member of our party leaned over and whispered in my ear that any one of these gentry roundabout us would cheerfully cut a man’s throat for twenty-five cents. I was surprised though at the moderation of the cost; this was the only cheap thing I had struck in Paris. It was cheaper even than the same job is supposed to be in the district round Chatham Square, on the East Side of New York, where the credulous stranger so frequently is told that he can have a plain murder done for five dollars – or a fancy murder with trimmings, for ten; rate card covering other jobs on application. In America, however, it has been my misfortune that I did not have the right amount handy; and here in Paris I was handicapped by my inability to make change correctly. By now I would not have trusted anyone in Paris to make change for me – not even an Apache. I was sorry for this, for at a quarter a head I should have been glad to engage a troupe of Apaches to kill me about two dollars’ worth of cabdrivers and waiters. For one of the waiters at our hotel I would have been willing to pay as much as fifty cents, provided they killed him very slowly. Because of the reasons named, however, I had to come away without making any deal, and I have always regretted it.

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Jacques Takes a Bath

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duel sable

“Le Petit Journal” November 1st 1902:

There are Apaches of both sexes as seen recently in the rue du Général-Morin. Louise Henin, a beautiful girl of twenty, became mortally angered by Andrée Merle, twenty-three years, for reasons difficult to specify. They resolved to meet in a single combat, but refused to choose common weapons such as knives or revolvers. They sought and found the most unusual. Each took a single sock – probably emptied of their savings – and filled it with sand. Then they went into battle with all the wham! and splash! to the amusement of the street. The fight, however, ended abruptly when Louise Henin collapsed after a blow so violent that she had to be transported – in a very poor shape – to the Hotel-Dieu hospital. As for her terrible adversary, she quickly melted into the crowd.

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gigolette

The following text by Octave Uzanne comes from the book The Modern Parisienne, published in 1910. 

A much more formidable species is the gigolette, who is also to be found on the outskirts of Paris.  She is the mistress of the garroters of La Vilette or the stabbers of Grenelle. She it is who beguiles the passer-by, decoys him into an ambush, and she whistles for her souteneur, who rushes up with his companions  “ to do for the cove”. She frequents the evil places known as bals musettes, a sort of dancing halls, where the habitués empty salad bowls of mulled vine à la Française and where every dance costs a penny. The dancers are workmen who have fallen into evil courses, souteneurs, garotters, thieves of all kinds, servant girls and workgirls on the spree, the vilest prostitutes, and “police narks”.

The gigolette is almost always young, and often pretty or else she has the fascinating ugliness which in many Parisiennes is a more deadly bait than beauty. She evades the vigilance of the police as much as possible and tries as long as she can to avoid being “put on the list”. If she is arrested as a result of some robbery with violence: or taken up in the course of a police raid, she regards her term at St. Lazare as a disagreeable experience: but she is not in the least reformed  when she is discharged, and the very severe regimen of this prison has no effect on her except to breed ideas of vengeance, in which she is sedulously encouraged by her amiable friend and bully.

So long as she is not registered she wanders hither and tither, following her “p’tit homme” from lodging to lodging: for owing to the attentions of the police, with whom he has often a crow to pick, he is frequently obliged to change his address. As soon as she gets on the list, a definite  space on the side of such and such street or a certain beat on a boulevard is assigned to her. There she “does her turn” and walks backwards and forwards hooking her arm into those of passers-by. If she transgresses the limits set by the police, she is liable to a fine: but when their backs are turned she does so all the same, and this leads to terrible quarrels with her colleagues who are in possession of another part of the street—quarrels which end in blows and are conducted after the fashion of the dog-fights of Constantinople. When she secures a customer she takes him to a room at some low hotel.

Meantime, her souteneur sits at a table at a neighbouring wine-shop or hides in the recess of a door, keeping a close watch on her movements. If she lets slip an opportunity he abuses and beats her; he insists that she shall “give her mind to her work”. When he thinks she has made enough he fetches her back to their headquarters at Belleville or La Vilette, or in one of the streets  in the Clignantcourt Quarter which are affected by this class. She surrenders all her money to the souteneur, and if she attempts to divert any and is awkward about concealing it he gives her a sound trashing. When times are good and she has got hold of some “oofy Johnny” or cleaned out a drunken man, her lover allows her a night off, and then they go together to the dancing-hall. As a rule she spends most of the night drinking, so she sleeps late, rises about eleven, has her absinthe, and she spends the day in taverns with her bully and his friends, who for their part are accompanied by their women. She is usually faithful to her man. If he goes to prison for a short term she is not unfaithful to him and does not join forces with another “type” unless her original master is sent to penal servitude. In such a case it is not unusual for the bully to choose one of his boon companions whom he indicates his successor.

However constantly she may be beaten and maltreated by her petit joyeux , she continues to adore him, and even if he ends by stabbing her she dies heroically without peaching. If by exception she does denounce him she very rarely escapes the vengeance of other souteneurs.  She may change her quarter as much as she likes, she always ends by being knocked on the head. With the women of her own class she has frequent disputes , especially if they try to take her man away from her. Then follow battles in which the knife plays its part. The happy man who is the subject of the quarrel watches the fray as a gratified spectator, and awards himself to the conqueror as the prize of victory. The fortune of these women are so closely linked to those of their souteneurs that if by any chance, such as the passing caprice of some rich protector who sets up house for her, one of them rises a step in the ranks of prostitution, she does not leave her bully, but installs him in some corner of the flat. From which he emerges if the miché is not generous enough.

Prostitutes of this type pursue their occupation so long as they are not too old or too much exhausted by debauchery, drunkenness, or disease. The older they grow the younger are their souteneurs. I heard of prostitutes of forty or fifty whose souteneurs were only from sixteen to eighteen years of age. Of course, as they age and become faded their takings diminish, and instead of walking up and down the pavement, they hire a room at a franc a night in some house of ill-fame, where, half-invisible in the shadow, they call for custom.

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One-man band

One-man band

Kitchen ware supplier

Kitchen ware supplier

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Cigarette butts picker

Cigarette butts picker

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Pencil merchant

Pencil merchant

 

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James Tissot: Too Early, 1873

The occupations of the higher classes in Paris are much the same as they are in other capitals; both sexes are more fond of taking baths than they are in London, and even when they have that convenience in their own houses, the men often prefer lounging to the most fashionable public baths. The young sparks of fashion are very fond of sumptuous breakfasts at the most stylish coffee-houses in Paris, and often begin by taking a few dozen of oysters by way of giving them an appetite; beefsteaks dressed in the English style, a few choice French dishes, two or three sorts of wine, desert, and coffee, generally compose the repast until the dinner hour. The time is filled up with walking, riding, driving, practising gymnastic exercises, pistol-shooting, fencing, etc. After dinner, which usually terminates about eight, and is in fact the same thing as the breakfast on a more extensive scale, they proceed to the theatres; those most in vogue with the beau monde are the Italian Opera, the French Opera or Académie de Musique, the Comic Opera, and the Théâtre Français. After the performances are over, they generally lounge into some favourite coffee-house, and then close the day to recommence another, following much the same course, with some trifling variation. But now the favourite pursuit amongst young men of fashion, is that of riding and everything which is connected with horses, such as racing, leaping, steeple chasing, and discussing their different qualities and the various modes of breaking them in, in England and in France.

Although their pursuits are not so numerous nor so various as those of the men, yet women opportunities of killing time are greater; as shopping alone employs often some hours of the day, the importance attached to a bonnet, a cap, a turban and above all to a dress, causes many and long dissertations. Exhibitions and morning concerts frequently occupy also much of the ladies’ leisure, a little walking in the Tuileries gardens at a certain hour and in a certain part whilst their carriage waits for them, an airing in it, or a turn on horseback, fill up the rest of the day, and after dinner, if not at the theatre, they either receive or pay visits, as it is the fashion to do so of an evening in Paris.

I must not quit this sketch of the Parisians and their occupations without giving my readers some idea of what is called La Jeune France, which consists of a number of young men, who wear comical shaped hats, their hair very long hanging below their ears, and let the greater part of their beards grow; they also have their throats bare and their shirt collars turned down; they have rather a wild look, and their political theories are somewhat wilder than their looks; they are republican in principle, and in manner, adopting a sort of rough abrupt style, as far from courteous as can well be imagined. They amount to perhaps a few thousands in Paris, comprising a number of the students in law and medicine, many of the painters, musical professors, and at least half the literary characters in Paris; some of them are either the editors their subs or the communicators to two-thirds of the newspapers at Paris.

How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

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Edgar Degas: The Bellelli Family

 

Amongst the middle-classes, both husband and wife keep very steadily to business, particularly the latter, and as they live frugally, they generally calculate upon retiring from business in ten or twelve years, and mostly effect their object, as they are perfectly contented when they have amassed enough capital to produce three or four hundred a year, which is the case with the major part of them; many are not satisfied until four or five times that sum; but they are seldom ambitious, nor care to get out of their class, as the persons with whom they associate and are intimate, are mostly relations and connexions to whom they are attached, and do not seem to fancy any pleasure in extending their acquaintances. But before they retire from business they have their occasional recreations; in fine weather they are very fond of spending their Sundays in the country; in the winter they frequently visit the theatres, but very rarely have company at home or pay visits, except on the New Year, and in the Carnival they give one ball, and go to several others given by their relations; this description alludes to what may be termed the respectable class of shopkeepers.

How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

 

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The working people in Paris are extremely frugal in their mode of living; bread being full seven-eighths of their food, what they eat with it varies according to the season; if in summer, mostly such fruit as happens to be ripe, and perhaps once in the day they take a bit of soft white-looking cheese with their bread. In winter they often add instead a little morsel of pork or bacon, but more frequently stewed pears or roasted apples. On Sundays they always put the pot-au-feu, as they call it, which means that they make soup, or literally translated, that they put the pot on the fire. Many of the wives of the working people contrive to muster some soup for their husbands when they get home at night, and almost all manage to have a little wine in the course of the day.

On the Sunday in the summer time they contrive to have a degree of pleasure, and go to one of the houses round Paris called guinguettes, something in the nature of the tea-gardens about London, but in Paris and most parts of France the husband takes his wife and even his children with him if they are old enough; indeed, you generally see the whole train together. At these houses they mostly take beer which is not very strong, but they make it less so by mixing it with water, as they do almost every beverage; sometimes they have wine, lemonade, or currant juice, which is called groseille, and that from the black currant cassis; there they will sit looking at the dances, in which they sometimes join, and return home about ten o’clock. This is pretty much the routine of a regularly conducted working-man in Paris, and it must be admitted that they form by far the greater number, particularly those who are married.

How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

Parisian family going to the “guinguette” (circa 1790)

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