The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs
By Elaine Sciolino
294 pages, $25.95
By Lee Coppola
Ah, gay Paree. The City of Lights. Notre Dame, the Louvre. Fine cuisine, fine wine and locale for a half-mile stretch of street a Buffalo native calls home.
So we all thought of it before last week.
To Elaine Sciolino, the Rue des Martyrs is the only real street left in Paris, so she decided to share it with the world. She came to the street by way of Buffalo’s West Side, New York City, Chicago, Beirut, Tehran and Baghdad, places, except for Buffalo, where she worked as a reporter.
A stint as bureau chief for the New York Times brought her to Paris, where she lives with her husband, an attorney, and their two daughters.
With a reporter’s keen eye for nuance, for culture and for man’s foibles and triumphs, she takes her readers for a stroll down the Rue des Martyrs.
Meet Jean-Pierre Gauffier, who lives in the apartment above the author in a six-story building dating to 1837. Gauffier, a preservationist, opposed fellow residents of the building who lived on the upper floors and wanted an elevator installed. Gauffier’s group convinced the local government to declare the building historic, which deep-sixed the elevator.
Now, he occasionally finds chewing gum jammed into the keyhole of his door, a kind of silent guerilla-type warfare waged by his pro-elevator neighbors.
Meet the Chataigners, Yves, in his 80s, and Annick, about 70. They run the cheese shop at No. 3 Rue des Martyrs. No cash registers or computers for them; they keep purchases on tiny slips of paper and rail against foreigners who don’t greet them when they enter the shop. Yves gave the author a cheese lesson. It ended with him offering her “a smelly yellowish-brown cheese” that “smelled like socks that had been worn for three days, then left in a damp clothes hamper to ripen ever more.”
Meet Laurence Gillery. She gilds frames and mirrors and fixes barometers in a small shop that has no set hours. A self-described “fossil,” she’s the only woman in Paris able to repair barometers, which collectors and interior decorators crave for display.
Gillery learned the trade from her father and has been running her shop since her father retired 31 years ago. “I always put myself in into the era of the object,” she told Sciolino. “Then I speak to it. I study it. It gives me pleasure. I become a part of it.”
Meet Michou, well into his 80s. He operates, and has for nearly 60 years, a transvestite cabaret at No. 80, in the Montmartre portion of Rue des Martyrs. It reeks of seediness; the windowless front door stays locked and patrons must ring a bell for admission, if the hostess lets you in.
“I used to walk quickly when I approached,” writes Sciolino, “nervous that at any time of the day or night a customer full of liquor and lust might tumble out onto the sidewalk – or on to me.”
But her reporter’s curiosity eventually led her to go inside, where she found Michou eclectic and, in all respects, a consummate showman. His cabaret, she writes, was said to be the inspiration for the play “La Cage aux Folles,” which was adapted into a Broadway musical and then, for film, became “The Birdcage.”
Sciolino seems comfortable writing about the street she frequents. She moved to the Rue des Martyrs from a tonier residence in a more prestigious part of Paris when her daughters left for college in the United States and she and her husband felt the need to downsize.
“It is the tenacity of the small, traditional merchants and artisans that keeps the character of the street intact,” she writes. “I’ve spent so much time on the street that I’ve learned the landscapes of their lives: their aches and pains, their vacation destinations, the names and ages of their children.”
Sciolino relates her street and those who inhabit it to her life growing up near the Peace Bridge, the granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants and the daughter of a father who ran an Italian grocery store in Niagara Falls.
That upbringing, once they learned it, inured her to her neighbors and allowed her to delve into their lives. Her education by the Grey Nuns at Holy Angels School and Academy and by the Jesuits at Canisius College, for instance, opened the door to discussions about religion normally denied American tourists.
Her upbringing sometimes convinced the people she met in her strolls that she was no interloper, that she was no high-brow American, but someone, like them, from a modest background familiar with the travails of the working class.
And, like a good reporter, she used that assimilation to enrich her writing. How else would she know who has diabetes, who takes a long, hot shower every morning, what marriage ended in divorce when the husband found his wife in bed with another man, who has a fantasy of meeting actress Sharon Stone, and who talks to barometers before she brings them back to life.
“Street” reads like a lyrical recitation of history and the lives of those who made it and continue to make it. Jules Verne, Sciolino was told, once lived in her building. Other famed artists and writers frequented the bistros and coffeehouses of Rue des Martyrs. “Liza Mnnelli – she comes here often,” Michou bragged about his transvestite cabaret. “She sits on the bar, on the bar! Not on the stool.”
It’s touches like Michou’s braggadocio and Gillery’s simplistic view of her trade, of the vengeful chewing gum stuck in a keyhole, and a cheese shop that keeps tabs on sales with little slips of paper, that make “Street” come alive.
No wonder Sciolino enjoys where she lives.
Lee Coppola is a former print and television journalist, a former federal prosecutor and the former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.