|Prostitutes, St. Denis, Marvin Newman
Sunday, June 30, 2019
The heat wave here is broken. I got up this morning, went to the boulangerie on Rambuteau, and on the way back whistled, “We’re having a heat wave”:
“The temperature's rising, it isn't surprising,
She certainly can can-can”
Yesterday it got so hot in Paris that our local library closed. It got so hot that even my cleverness with our ventilator couldn’t hold the beast away from the penetralia of our apartment – and that, with the apartment having a uniquely shady location on a little sidepocket ruelle, with the trees blocking full sunlight and a terrace with plants. In other places, it was even hotter.
Of course, from the Austin, Texas point of view, it was a minor incident of cooling from the usual monthlong spate of 100+ days. But Austin Texas has a big natural pool in the center of it and many an a/c, central or units, to grind up the wattage and cool down the living space. Paris doesn’t.
But as I say, today I’m whistling “We’re having a heat wave”, which connects heat measured in centigrade or Fahrenheit with heat measured in booty and sexual desire. And that gets us to one of the great Parisian heat waves, in August 1983, which featured a bit of a prostitution riot.
“The frontiers of sex. The heat way has elevated the temperature of Parisians. Shootings, fist fights, heatstroke. Rue Saint-Denis, the prostitutes are on the warpath, with impunity… » - Le Monde, August 1, 1983.
Back in 1983, the Saint-Denis district was still the great streetwalker district. It was estimated that around 2000 prostitutes worked the area. There’s little left of that now: a few x rated video shops, a few extravagantly made up sex workers lounging outside them. Back then, though, it was a whole different story. In the U.S. too, there were urban areas, like the famous Combat Zone in Boston, that were officially or semi-officially recognized as red-light districts.
In Paris, the sex trade had a longer, semi-official history, which was marked, after WWII, by the closing up of the maisons closes, the brothels, which had until this point been licensed.
Of course, they did not disappear, nor did the sex workers. The same old mafia-networks with the same old tactics took over. Plus, of course, the seventies and eighties were a time of sexual activity on a scale that took in suburban households as well as avant-garde swingers, much to Norman Mailer’s disgust – see his review of Last Tango in Paris for the details.
All of which contextualizes the battle of “Babylone”, a club on Rue Marie-Stuart that was frequented by nightbirds: ... journalists, transvestites, partiers. It happened that the club held a sort of disco contest, in which its employees participated. This contest spawned a rumor that a sort of team of Brazilian prostitutes were entertaining there. And this aroused the women of St-Denis, who saw these Brazilians as, basically, scabs.
What happened was a classic urban fronde, something out of one of Robert Darnton’s histories. From Le Monde:
"This is what seems to have happened with the prostitutes of rue Saint-Denis on Sunday, July 17. The first time at 4 o’clock in the morning, dozens of them formed a troop on rue Saint-Denis for marching on rue Marie-Stuart in order to give a good lesson to the “Brazillian queers” who wanted to “scab us out.”
Last evening, same scenario. The hunt for the « Brazilians » began again. The anger of the prostitutes swelled again. Monday, almost two hundred of them, with their « protectors » and gorillas, armed with clubs, bicycle chains and iron bars again came up « Babylone » street, to the cries of : Death to the queers, death to the trannies. Anger gave way to hysteria. It felt like a lynch mob. One of the mob explained to a Babylone client that “one of the trannies had been trespassing on her territory” and that they were “looking for her to give her a correction”.
Of course, the cops, many of whom had been regularly paid off by the prostitutes, intervened “softly”. In the end, the trespasser wasn’t found, but the joint was wrecked enough to leave a message. And the heat wave eventually broke.
All of which is urban trivia of the type that is quickly submerged beneath the “important” events of the day.
However, for the psychogeographer and the gnostic historian, the battle of Babylone is as important as any other, since it marks the confluence of everyday routines and rituals, the streetwise, sub-historical passage of time. Daniel Tiffany, in Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance has argued that nightlife – in all its funk and dubious glamor – is connected to a poetic that branches off from the canonical and goes through Villon through Biggie Smalls, with its own set of hells and heavens. They are not Dante’s.
“Tavern talk thus captures in words the orphic subculture of nightlife. A public place providing cover for illicit and sometimes illegal activities, for the mingling of otherwise- stratified classes of persons (rich and poor, lawful and unlawful), the reality of the tavern, like its ragged speech, is fundamentally dissolute. Indeed, the actual existence of the tavern is called into question by the obscurity of its material conditions: its derelict address and graveyard hours; its nameless (or nicknamed) and promiscuous society. In this respect, the nightspot, like the figure of Anon, appears in the world under erasure, its disappearance betrayed by its own apparition. Nightlife, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, may be understood as “the appearance of lost inwardness.””
Tiffany could, here, be talking about Babylone’s fate. After its appearance in Le Monde as the center of a battle in the center of a tropical heatwave, it disappears from history. Even closegrained accounts of the 70s and 80s in the Les Halles and St. Denis area, which pop up on invaluable websites on the Web, filled with the reminiscing of the old boys and girls of past Eldorados, do not commemorate it. Babylone is no more. And we have not even sat down by the waters and wept its transient moment of fame and shame.
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