Excerpt from Paris! Paris! by Irwin Shaw and Ronald Searle, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1976
"American in his late sixties, dressed in fine dark clothes topped by a black slouch hat. For one incredible day, when he was a lieutenant commander in the American Navy-although that heroic branch of our armed services did not have any craft nearer the Port Maillot than Cherbourg-he found himself, by a freak of organization, our military ruler of Paris, and was the one man who could direct me to the hospital where a private in our outfit was lying after being wounded in an air raid. A Francophile and a lover of horses, he was instrumental in restoring racing as an essential feature of the Paris scene. Close-mouthed, a man of rigorous probity, he has the run of all the tracks, including the sacred precincts of the jockeys' dressing rooms. As he arrives with two or three smartly dressed ladies, whom he ritually picks up at fixed points en route to the track, his car is waved in deferentially to the best parking places near the grandstands. He rarely bets, although there is a constant stream of trainers and jockeys' agents who come to his box or where he is standing in the paddock to whisper into his ear. On the other hand, the ladies who accompany him bet with abandon, usually with no more success than someone who has never seen a saddle and makes, his choices with a Ouija board. So much for inside information.
There was no inside information to be had at the café on the corner of the Avenue Bosquet and the Rue du Champ de Mars, which had a betting cage for the patrons of the P.M.U., the Pari-Mutuel Urbain, the organ of the government that runs the off-track betting for all the races in France. In the café there was only hope, calls for divine guidance, and suspicion of all journalists who wrote about racing. The local zeal for plunging had been fanned within the memory of man by the coup of one of the waiters, who had won sixteen thousand francs on a tiercé bet of three francs and who then had sworn off all gambling for life.
Observing that I was not averse to a flier from time to time, the owner of the café had attempted to lure me into a poker game with a group of his friends. But French poker has a tendency to be so wild, with so many tricky variations, that I had sensibly declined, feeling rightly that being dealt hands under unfamiliar rules while encircled by a table full of Frenchmen who knew each other's bluffs by heart could only lead to impoverishment.
The café itself, with its two rows of tables on the sidewalk, was the best place to get the full flavor of the neighborhood. It was the meeting place for the teen-age students of the nearby school, boys and girls roaring up on one cylinder bicyclettes, loud but capable at best of thirty kilometers an hour, the girls sometimes achingly beautiful in their embroidered blue jeans, the boys often bearded, with unkempt long hair dripping out of their crash helmets and not worthy, in my eyes at least, of the kisses showered upon them by their female companions.
Because of the jumbled nature of the neighborhood, it was a marvelous place to sit and people- watch, which, after war, is the most ancient of human amusements. There were always children, playing with dogs or dashing by furiously on minute bicycles equipped with two small extra rear wheels that could be detached when the rider grew sufficiently or became expert enough to no longer need the additional support.
There were smartly turned out army officers striding by, briefcases -under their arms, in good shape even if they spent their days at a desk. There were tall, beautiful black African ladies sweeping along in gorgeously colored flowing robes and turbans. There was a man with a grotesque goiter who made you feel grateful for your own comparative good health. There were ambulances, their sirens going, on their way to accidents, comforting you in the realization that you were going nowhere that day by car. There were buses, sparklingly clean, uncrowded and with no disfiguring airbrush graffiti, that with a change at some junction here and there could take you on a pleasant, unhurried tour of the city. There were housewives, holding the hands of brightly dressed infants, going shopping. There was an abundance of pregnant young women, proclaiming faith in the future of France.
Late in the morning, ladies who looked as though they had stepped out of a perfumed bath and the pages of Vogue at the same time, adorned the avenue, on their way, you supposed, to flirtatious lunches. There were boys in sweat suits dribbling basketballs or footballs and plump girls in tennis shorts with rackets stuck in the bags behind the saddles of their bicycles.
There were one-armed men with decorations in their buttonholes to remind you of a war you had survived. Across the avenue you could see dark men handling giant earth-moving equipment like toys, under reassuring signs that they were working to improve the justly maligned Parisian telephone system. At two o'clock, when Le Monde, always dated for the following day, arrived at the newspaper store a few doors away, you could see distinguished-looking gentlemen reading the paper as they walked, shaking their heads at what they saw on the front page.
The many Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants of the neighborhood added an Oriental touch of color as the cooks and waiters hurried past to their jobs, as smooth in their gaits as though they were on wheels. In the café itself, stenographers whispered hurried lunchtime professions of love to undernourished young men who themselves had only an hour to spare. At the bar itself, there was always the standard drunk or two, voices hoarse and face veins broken by years of honest drinking.
Occasionally there would be a few tourists, somehow lost on the way to Napoleon's tomb, menus in hand, asking each other in English or German or Dutch if they knew what a croque-monsieur was. Or there would be a large, bubbling American family with children of all sizes, happy to be abroad, the grown son carrying a full carton of beer, heading for a picnic on the wide lawns of the Champ de Mars. And always the waiters and waitresses hurrying through the traffic with big baskets of long loaves of hot, sweet-smelling bread from the bakery facing the café, and the hairdressers in their white smocks jiggling gracefully across the pavement with trays of small cups of black coffee for their colleagues in their places of work.
The spectacle of two policemen, dismounted from their patrol wagon to give a ticket to a violently protesting motorist, was always well-attended, especially if the motorist was a woman. And everyone watched approvingly as a young cop, dressed like a mechanic, deftly immobilized a car that had been parked in front of the café for three days and three nights by locking a yellow iron contraption to a wheel, thus ensuring that the car's owner would have to report to the police and pay his fine.
In every city there are people who wander the streets talking and gesticulating to themselves, and the street had its share of those, adding an invigorating touch of madness to the usual strict sanity of the thoroughfare. On one memorable occasion, a shapeless old lady carrying a bag of trash and old newspapers, infuriated that the prim middle-aged woman in front of her paid no attention to her conversation, kicked the offending pedestrian smartly in the calf of the leg. The tolerant spectators intervened to prevent the police from being called, and the shapeless old lady, cuddling her ragged bag, went her way, orating."