River of Rats, Part One – Clichy-sous-Bois
It was early summer when Joanna and I arrived in Paris. The spring rains had just cleared and left behind a reflective sheen on the old cobblestones. Everything had a sort of misty quality to it and we were lucky to have a series of beautiful sunny days early that season which made the ancient buildings glimmer like old jewels from across the Seine. My head was filled with the sounds of Serge Gainsbourgh, Django Reinhardt and Juliette Gréco. Sous le Ciel de Paris was my anthem that year; on constant repeat on my CD player. Imagine my disappointment at hearing Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box, blaring from shop speakers at the airport.
A friend whom we had met the year before on exchange at the university in New Orleans (where Joanna was from and where we both went to school) invited us to stay with him in his flat in Clichy-sous-Bois for a while until we found our feet. I had never heard of Clichy-sous-Bois but it sounded very French to me and therefore perfect. Besides, what could be more perfect than having a free place to stay in Paris?
‘It’s a rough neighborhood,’ Sa’id told us, ‘and a bit of a commute into the center of the city.’
‘That’s no big deal, we’ll figure it out, besides, what better way is there to discover the city than riding the metro?’ We replied.
He was right, however; there really was no easy way to get to the center of Paris from Clichy-sous-Bois except by a very long bus ride, which runs under highways and through areas that look like stand-ins for a set piece from Escape From New York, or a documentary of war-torn Sarajevo. Even the police were afraid to go there. Young North African men ruled the streets and neighborhood drug wars broke out with alarming regularity. Our friend, Sa’id, had been polite and effusive in New Orleans. In Clichy-sous-Bois, he was different.
I saw this first hand when Sa’id learned that a young cousin of his had been beaten up in a street fight. Sa’id’s friends came over that night, about seven or eight of them, along with the cousin who looked very young and very scared but had nothing more that a bloody lip. That didn’t matter; they were talking about getting revenge for the kid. They had that desperate look of people who didn’t get enough to eat and spent too much time hungry. They went to a local bar, taking me with them. We got wasted on cheap Polish vodka, then spilled out into the streets looking for the guy who beat up the kid.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Sa’id, ‘just stay on the outside, keep a look out, yes? Scream if you see police.’ Easy enough, I thought that we would never find the guy anyway.
We spent the better part of half the night searching the streets. Intermingled with meeting up with friends of Sa’id’s and some dealers and members from other gangs; A few tokes here, a poke with a syringe there, and then back on our way.
We finally found a guy, barely a boy really, just outside a local grocery store who fit the description: he was male and Arab. I could see that he was very pretty boy, with blue-black neck length hair, shocking light brown eyes and skin like coffee crème. He looked like he could have played a Persian prince in A Thousand and One Nights. The Persian boy saw us approaching with our pleather jackets and scrunched up faces – the universal facial expression of male hostility. The Persian boy’s eyebrows lifted up in surprise. Realizing what was happening, he dropped his bag of groceries, spilling exotic fruits and vegetables on the pavement, and ran. The gang was on him quick, like wolves, in an instant. A hand to the shoulder as the boy turned was enough to make him fall to the ground in a graceful twisting arc, and then we were on top of him, kicking his ribs, legs, head, crotch, anywhere were his arms and hands where not. It was like a dream, was I really a part of this? I was only a lookout, but the drinking and the drugs clouded my judgment. Here I was, a part of this, but also somehow outside of it – as if I had levitated outside myself, was watching impassively, even as I was also taking part in the beating.
Sa’id lifted a pipe – where and when he got it, I don’t know – and brought it down on the boy’s head with a sickening crack. The Persian boy was still and hot urine leaked out him and settled into a steaming puddle around his body. The boy never made a sound.
I felt ill for days afterwards and could barely speak to Sa’id.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ He said, ‘this is how it is here; we have to protect our own.’
‘That boy might be dead.’
‘Yes, that’s true. He might be.’
Later, one night, fairly late, returning home from a jam in the city in which I had played guitar, a group of young Algerian men followed us from the bus to the apartment block where Sa’id lived. They surrounded us like a hunting pack and walked on either side of us, their eyes never left Joanna. They sucked their teeth and whistled. No words, just cht, cht, cht. They didn’t touch us, but we were unnerved. When we recounted this to Sa’id, he simply said, “You must leave, you cannot stay here any longer.”
next chapter: River of Rats, Part Two – Aux Folies
all chapters: River of Rats