Back when my wife Nancy and I were looking for our first apartment to buy in Paris, our real estate agent called one day and said that he had a wonderful place to show us. He was right: it was in Montmartre, our first-choice part of town, spacious, nicely laid out, in good condition and priced well within our budget — in fact it was a real bargain.
There was only one thing wrong: it was right above a sex shop. And that sex shop was next door to a sex shop. And next door to that sex shop was a strip club that was next door to, of all things, a sex shop. As readers who know Paris, or saw the title of this article, have already surmised, this was in Pigalle.
For readers who don’t know Paris, Pigalle is the name of a dead sculptor who gave his name to a street that gave its name to a square that gave its name to a whole district — what in Hamburg and Amsterdam is called “the red light district” but here in Paris is called the “zee rhed laight dee-streect”: a nearly unbroken string of establishments devoted in one way or another to the pleasures of the flesh, lining the Boulevard de Clichy in northern Paris. And the fleshly pleasure spills, or sometimes spurts, over for a couple of blocks into the streets on either side of the boulevard.
When I mentioned to my realtor the proximity of strippers, pornmongers and 24/7 drunken revelers as a reason not to buy the apartment, his response was, “Oh, but the neighborhood is going to change!” That was in 1987.
Today Pigalle is still a hotbed of hotchacha, just as it was 26 years ago. And 26 years before that, and 26 years before that, going all the way back to the middle of the 19th century, when the first dance halls were opened at the southern edge of Montmartre, establishing the area’s reputation as the prurient playground of Paris.
At this point, I think it’s safe to say that this is a neighborhood that is resistant to change. In fact, it’s so change-resistant that (this is true) the prostitutes who used to troll Rue Houdon when I lived just north of Pigalle in the early 1980s are not only still there, they’re still the same ones. And they still charge the same prices! Or, ah, so I’ve heard.
The distribution of lubricious commercial activities in Pigalle is so consistent and orderly it might as well have been dictated by a “little Paris” zoning commission. It breaks down like this:
1) Boulevard de Clichy is devoted, except for the occasional convenience store or Moulin Rouge, to porn mills, NSFW apparel and accessory shops and lapdance joints, most of the latter with an employee or two posted outside to rope in male passers-by.
2) North of the boulevard are the streetwalkers, who are indeed on the street but do very little walking, because they rarely stray far from a hotel whose rooms have turnstiles instead of doors.
For some reason, most of the scantily dressed, remarkably sociable women in this zone are, when you get right down to it, men. Customers who are sticklers for anatomical authenticity have to go to Rue Saint Denis, 2 kilometers to the southeast. Again, zoning.
3) South of the boulevard are the massage parlors, mostly to the east, and, mostly to the west, the bars. But not just any bars: hostess bars. As the name implies, they are very welcoming and accommodating.
If you’re a man and you find Paris just too gosh-darn inexpensive, here’s a great way to get rid of that bothersome extra cash: go into one of these places.
You will be shown to a seat at the bar, behind which stands a gentleman who looks like he used to be a bodyguard for Hulk Hogan, but actually worked for Snoop Dogg. He will promptly take your order. Then, at least one but more likely two or three young women will emerge, both literally and metaphorically, from the shadows and sit next to you.
They will order champagne, which, when the bartender pours it out of a fancy vintage bottle, will look, smell and test in the lab very much like ginger ale. They might or might not exchange words with you, let alone eye contact. In fact, they might make a visible effort not to breathe the same air as you, but when it comes time to pay, you will notice that your bill includes expenses of, say, around €250 for “company.”
Yes, those women were the hostesses. They were there to provide you company, they did, and now you have to pay for it. Plus their champagne. Cash only. The bartender will be glad to accompany you to the nearest ATM. Just to make sure that you don’t get robbed. By anyone else.
Supposedly, should you happen to actually want the company, and whatnot, of a young woman, many of those bars have private booths in the back where you can spend a quiet quarter of an hour discussing the eurozone crisis and the most recent UN climate change summit. Although, if you get this far into the deal, you’d better have as much disposable income as Snoop Dogg.
From a purely financial point of view, the hostess bars actually provide quite an admirable business model. Their rent and facial tissue bills are probably high, but they no doubt save more than enough on lighting, staff training and champagne to make up for it. They only hire employees who are unskilled, or at least can’t (yet) get life-experience diplomas for the skills they have, but the customers are charged top rates for their services. Whoever came up with the formula deserves a life-experience MBA.
And, from a purely practical point of view, Pigalle is not at all a bad neighborhood. In fact, I have lived most of my years in Paris near (but not in) the area, first to the north around Place des Abbesses, and now, since the late 1990s, just to the south.
If you’re not living right over them and subjected to the neon, noise and crowds of gawkers, the sex shops and strip dens are not a problem. And as long as you stay out of them, or win the lottery, the hostess bars aren’t either.
Which is why earlier this month I noted with interest an article in The New York Times about Pigalle entitled “How Hipsters Ruined Paris.” According to the author, local resident Thomas Chatterton Williams, the neighborhood is finally changing. And not for the better — for the (gasp!) hipper.
Apparently the hostess bars are closing faster than a lapdancer’s fist on a €100 bill. Worse, the casualties include one of my favorite inadvertently ironique Paris business names, a b-girl boudoir with an “Old West” theme whose owners, in a divine flash of inspiration, decided to call it the Dirty Dick (mentioned in a previous Ironique).
What’s Paris coming to? Mr. Williams reports that the Dirty Dick’s name and facade have been (ironique-ly) preserved, but that the interior has been replaced by one of many new “upscale cocktail lounges,” which, along with “high-end streetwear,” kale frittata, burrata salad and other manifestations of international “hipster good taste” are wiping out the grit and authenticity of historic Pigalle.
Williams is absolutely right that we should be wary of encroaching transcultural homogenization. But I think it’s too soon to lament the demise of Pigalle as we know it. The hipster fad is just that — yet another fad — whereas the business model of spinning testosterone into gold is as old as humanity itself.
Hipsters and hostesses may come and go, but I predict that the apartment I looked at 26 years ago will still be over a sex shop (selling virtual-reality body suits and painstakingly realistic androids) in 2039.
And that my old real estate agent’s grandson will be telling a New York Times correspondent that the neighborhood is going to change.
And that, in the meantime, Mr. Williams and I will both be able to savor that base but basic human pleasure that comes from strolling streets that have about them an air of corruption, wickedness and home. Having grown up in a small town in the Midwest, I find something appealing about this, probably because it underlines the fact that I am no longer in a small town in the Midwest.
An illustration: walking down Boulevard de Clichy one night, shortly after I had moved to Abbesses, I was accosted by two shills outside a strip dive. Just as shill A was launching into page one from the Strip Shill’s Hard-Sell Handbook, shill B looked at me with a glint of recognition and said to his partner, “Never mind, he’s from the neighborhood.”
I admit: it made me feel proud. And, I guess, hip. For me, that was a happy ending.
And free of charge!
Reader Cara Black writes: “I’m devoted to your column. All this furor over hipsters and Pigalle, and I think you’re the one who has got it right. P.S. My next book, Murder in Pigalle, comes out in March – it’s set in 1998 and I hope I haven’t gotten it wrong.”
Reader Kathy Mattern writes: “Thanks, David! Love your columns. And Cara – looking forward to the new book, since your books, too, are one of my ‘loves’!”
© 2013 Paris UpdateFavorite
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