Readings — From the October 2015 issue

Derelict of Booty

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By Jean-Paul Clébert (1926–2011), from a story written in 1952 and published in the Winter 2015 issue of The Literary Review. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin. New York Review Books will publish Paris Vagabond, Clébert’s book about underground Paris, next March.

Before the war there was, I think, in the Saint-Paul neighborhood, on Rue de Fourcy, a most astonishing public space, a whorehouse for hoboes. This bedlam — now vanished from the earth if not its clients’ memories — whose sorely missed atmosphere can be readily imagined, consisted of two rooms: the Senate, where the rate was ten francs, and the House of Representatives, where it hovered, according to mood and quality, around fifteen. It is pleasant to listen to an old woman who thought she would live out her days as a pensioner there recover her memories of the extraordinary comico-heroic theater that went on: an old panhandler with formidable whiskers making a racket, making threats, shaking his fist at some low-rent floozy, howling at her face in a voice more than soused: Ten francs? You tart! You’re not even worth twenty centimes. . . .

Now: how, where, when, and with whom do they make love, the tramps and vagabonds of this big city, the everyday collapsees of Métro seats, waiting rooms, hospitable bistros, squares, and avenues, alive and well and sleeping head to toe at the feet of stairwells, in the corners of porte cocheres, on church steps, on park lawns, beneath the bridges of the Seine, and on the quaysides of canals, wherever there’s a shady, solitary spot; how do these folks who almost always manage to rustle up a crust of bread, a can of soup, a liter of red — how do they get some? Not the old ones, who don’t care anymore, who settle now and then, whenever a chance is in reach, for stretching out beside some aging vagrant whose thighs are still white beneath her reeking black rags, the skin of her belly still soft despite the gray hairs: someone who, deep in the smell of booze, filth, whiffs of cigarette butts and rotten breath, soon gets her hips back in the swing of things, recalls the slow caresses and, amid a barrage of profanities, the sighs and whispers that punctuate an amorous embrace. Not the old folks, but the young ones. That is, if they’re not built like spiffy sailor boys marauding along fairground shores, if they’re not more or less well dressed and presentable despite no meal in three days, and can’t manage to do maids right outside the movies or ugly girls outside their offices — how do they get some? A mystery difficult to fathom, for none are more discreet than the destitute, and many get their satisfaction with each other, many make do just dreaming about it, one eye wide, gazing at posters, pinups, stars, bra models, panty dummies, pairs of legs flying flesh-colored hose — advertising having, as it does, standards that surpass their fantasies. How many times have I hung around town, tapped out down to the last crumb, no longer stopping in front of charcuterie windows but lingerie boutiques instead — yeah, me too, staring vacantly but piercingly at the splendid photos of splendid girls, with their beguiling bosoms sculpted in soft cloth, then hopelessly feasting my eyes on every woman who walks by, sitting on a bench and keeping a naïve tally — the kind you laugh about later — of all the ones who might have, well. . . .

On the Quai de la Tournelle, I watch a pervert who’s just approached a ragpicker, a woman. He’s got the mug for it: middle-aged, turned-up collar, hands in pockets. He must’ve offered her money to get his rocks off on her, and now she’s giving him an earful. Neither young nor old, she’s a drifter, dirty, her legs sheathed in black varicose veins and red splotches. Bastard, she yells, I’m no whore, I don’t want your money! Bugger off, you filthy animal! Hands off! But the guy insists, keeps following her. She threatens him with a fist, a bottle. Don’t give a fuck about your stupid dough, you piece of trash, my ass is my own, it’s cleaner than yours. I don’t fuck nutjobs, and I’m no floozy, I tell you, I’m not for sale, so beat it, you worthless trash!

I go over and the guy steps back into the shadows between the trees. He’s pulled out his tool, which he points at the vagrant, who spits at him, disgusted. Beat it, she screams, or I’ll break you in two. The guy straightens himself up and drifts off. She comes toward me. It’s Mimi, from the Magasins Généraux. Of course she launches into an endless commentary on this sordid story: Guys like that, they’re coming out of the woodwork, I’m telling you, off their rockers and twisted too, they should lock ’em all up, I can’t sleep easy with them lurking around here, the sons of bitches. Would’ve killed ’im if I’d had my man with me. And she adds, with a knowing air: Probably some American.

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