When Paris was a Pedestrian Mall...
Chapter 9 of Daniel Behrman's The Man Who Loved Bicycles
The recent political history of France has seen an escalation of fear in the streets, a struggle between cars and pedestrians. Gaullians (a term I use so as not to libel the Gaullists I knew in 1944) take naturally to automobiles. During the Great People's Revolution that brought them to power in May 1958 (May was a sacred month on the Gaullian calendar until May 1968), the streets of Paris were filled after dark with processions of cars fearlessly rapping out on their horns: "DE-GAULLE-AU-POU-VOIR"; dot dash dot dot dot, We Want de Gaulle, cars racing through the night like Paul Revere, shouting their message to the dismounted. They once made the mistake of demonstrating in broad daylight on the Champs-Elysées, rubber-tired jackasses braying slogans in a traffic tie-up. There they were caught, helpless as flies in honey, stuck like elephants in quicksand, by the opposition wielding crowbars against windshields.
They did not make the same mistake twice in 1958. From then on, the Gaullians used their cavalry only when it was surrounded by great masses of infantry, a human wall of flesh and blood and fists protecting la patrie and les windshields. It was in this order of battle that I saw the Gaullians on one of their nights of triumph. A great mob had surged over Place de la Concorde, up to Concorde bridge leading to the bourbon palace, home of the corrupt decadent pusillanimous wavering ineffective anarchic French Parliament, the worst form of government that France had ever known with the exception of all the others. Walking through the mob, I came across a patriotic tableau, the spirit of La Marseillaise, the élan that sank the British at Trafalgar, the brilliance that put Wellington to rout at Waterloo. There, high above the seething crowd like the marines hoisting the star-spangled banner on Iwo Jima, was a pearl-gray Cadillac convertible, four blondes on it cushions. One was holding up a sign on a stick, a simple white sign with the black letters: "WORKERS COMMITTEE FOR DE GAULLE."
That was the apogee of the Gaullians. I saw them at their nadir ten years later in May-June 1968 when not a one was to be found in the city of Paris. It was then that the fearless crusaders of the Gaullian press took up their quills to skewer their erstwhile masters, currying the favor of whoever might be their new ones; last-minute Resistance men once more, everyone had a Maoism in his mind as everyone used to have a Jew in his cellar.
At the nadir of the Gaullians, there were no more wheels in the streets of Paris, except for the high-spoked whirring discs of bicycles, mine and others. The polluted auto tide receded first from Boulevard Saint-Michel one night in May. Students were facing the police on Place Edmond Rostand where Boulevard Saint-Michel gathers itself together at the top of the Latin Quarter before tumbling downhill to the Seine, Sorbonne to the right, Lycée St.-Louis (prep school for protesters) to the left, Cluny abbey to the right, Saint Germain-des-Prés to the left, the Seine dead ahead under Saint-Michel bridge where, many a night that May, the police parked their big black buses across the entrance to the bridge. There were no longer enough Gaullians around to traffic-jam the bridge. A way had to be found to stop the Latin Quarter from tumbling down Boulevard Saint-Michel and spilling over the city.
Up on top of Boulevard Saint-Michel, on the other side of Place Edmond Rostand, traffic had been shut off by two successive roadblocks. The first, half a mile away, was set up by the police to keep cars out. The second was run by students a quarter of a mile away to keep the innocent out of trouble. Past their roadblock, a breeze of freedom blew over Boulevard Saint-Michel. The cars were gone, so were the puking buses, the spewing trucks against which the big plane trees wage their losing fight, chlorophyll versus carbon monoxide. Now the plane trees took over, the air was freshly manufactured, to be breathed for the first time by you and you alone.
The oxygen was going to people's heads. They were standing in the middle of the street, talking, not shouting, not waving signs, not throwing slogans, not chanting "Long live me." Others strolled on the sidewalk, watching the new street, Boulevard Saint-Michel transformed into a seashore promenade. Couriers on light motorbikes, helmeted like knights, sped between the front lines on Place Edmond Rostand and the students' roadblock.
Right next to the roadblock, a small crowd thronged around a priest, a conservative priest still wearing his black cassock, who had a portable radio going. Over the radio came a report of what was happening two hundred yards away on Place Edmond Rostand. The news came courtesy of Radio Luxembourg. Reporters in a car parked near the front lines fed the story to their Paris office by radio. It then went out of Paris, out of France, out of French territory to the Duchy of Luxembourg, where it could be broadcast back to the portable radio on Boulevard Saint-Michel to tell the priest and the crowd what was happening on Place Edmond Rostand.
Later, when May began to look serious, the government took away all the channels that Radio Luxembourg reporters had been using to keep in touch with the Paris office as they raced from one flare-up to another. Without their channels, the reporters had to resort to telephones, putting spotters into houses throughout a sector where something seemed likely to happen. Every telephone in the sector would then be cut off, but no one could prove ill intent on the part of the authorities because telephones in France are cut off in every sector every day of the year. The state-owned phone company is not a communications system but a device for collecting taxes. You never get the right number, but the bill never comes to the wrong address.
It must be noted that channels were suddenly restored to reporters from all stations on the day the Gaullians turned out to march up and down the Champs-Elysées. Coverage was complete, the private radios knew which side was ahead. And summer vacations were drawing near. Student protesters were not going to sweat through July and August occupying the Sorbonne while their parents occupied Majorca. The best way to get Maoist students out of university buildings in Paris is to declare a vacation. In a trice, the occupier is driven back onto the beaches.
That was how the May Revolution ended. Yet the streets had not been ripped up in vain. Fighting tooth and claw, the revolutionaries had clung to their hard-won gains. In one office they wrested a half-hour reduction in their work week from management. Every day, triumphantly, they went home six minutes earlier. They had won their liberté.
The French always use months as adjectives, probably because the same things keep happening over and over again in their history and the only way to tell them apart is to use dates. One cannot imagine the French referring to the Civil War, a term which for them is not an event but an endemic state. For the same reason, they call the Franco-Prussian War la Guerre de 1870 because they have always been warring with the Prussians. It's like the schedule in big-league baseball---there must be a way to know which game you have in mind when you start talking about who struck out in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and a 3-2 count. If it was a Gaullian, it was because he had the sun in his eyes, the pitcher was using a spitball salivated with LSD, and the umpire was a crypto-Radical-Socialist. Gaullians never strike out, Gaullians always win. If the scoreboard says they're losing, they get a new scorekeeper. If a judge says they're wrong, they get a new judge. Then the right verdict comes down, the Verdict of 18 June. A street is named Rue du 18 June to the despair of cabdrivers who previously knew it as Rue du 10 Septembre or Boulevard du 30 Fevrier. The day becomes a national holiday until the republic changes and the street is renamed.
Dates are a good way to describe victorious battles in lost wars. We do this ourselves with the War of 1812, the only year in that war when we managed to come anywhere near a tie. People, too, are called by the names of months. There were the Octobrists of Czarist Russia, there are the Aôutiens, the Augustans of Gaullian Paris. The Augustans, a name I like because it has dignity and I am among them, are the Parisians who stay behind to suffer in their empty city from which the insufferable have fled, leaving behind palaces, parks, and boulevards, cafés and avenues aslumber, stretching drowsily, nothing in sight but foreigners touring the most relaxed city in the world.
The May Revolution brought fraternité and égalité along the liberté. One morning on Boulevard Saint-Germain after a nasty night in which a few trucks had been burned in the street, I cycled up to a group milling about the wreckage. It was during those glorious moments of the May Revolution when the revolutionaries had all gone to bed and the police had not yet straightened out the scenery so that it could be re-wrecked the next night.
A little man in overalls was muttering to all within earshot that it was the fault of the foreigners, they had no business coming to France. As usual, I said no one had said that to me on Omaha Beach, neglecting as usual to add that, by the time I got to Omaha Beach, it was as thick with Americans as Jones Beach. A tall man next to me with a well-sculpted face and light-tan skin, no doubt he was from Martinique, took my side in the debate. We recited the Declaration of the Rights of Man, I think he even quoted the Bible. We had the whole quartier on our side; the little man in overalls offered to buy us a drink. The Martiniquais worked for a ministry, he said, he was a chairman of the action committee, things would never be the same. When the morning-after quarterbacks had refought the riot, when the police started to haul the wrecked trucks away, we shook hands solemnly. We knew we had shared a meaningful moment.
A month later on Boulevard Saint-Germain, I was watching road crews pour a thick layer of tar over the paving stones on the street. No longer would the little sons of the bourgeoisie be able to put up their barricades. This saddened me when I thought of all the synthetic experiences they would now have to seek, even more synthetic than their revolution that had filled time so handily between the end of the Easter holidays when it began and the start of summer vacations when it stopped. The paving stones, laid by hand in a mosaic over a sand base, had given rise to one of the most beautiful of the May musings painted on the city's walls: "UNDER THE PAVING STONES LIES THE BEACH." One afternoon, following a long night on Boulevard Saint-Michel, when even trees had been cut down in an attempt to stop the onrushing Cossacks in their black helmets and plastic shields, I was walking on that beach in the middle of the boulevard. Boul' Mich' was really a mess by now, windows were boarded up, a movie theater had been gutted, residents had been evacuated by their families. Picking my way over the uneven terrain, I encountered two American tourists, a middle-aged couple, simply dressed, wearing big smiles, the only two American tourists in Paris during that month of May. They were saying in their New York high school French to a friendly Frenchman (the species, almost extinct in Paris, came back in May): "This is the way we have always imagined the French."
Yet as I watched the paving crew, I could not help but encourage them. They were making the Latin Quarter a better place to pedal in, a paradise for the cyclist, a glacé surface of black tar laid down as smoothly as pancake makeup. No more teeth-shaking over the paving stones, no more backbreaking between the cracks to get the wheel over the humps going uphill, no more hanging on to the handlebars for dear life while running down, vibrating from the tips of one's fingers to the seat of one's pants as if plugged into a 220-volt socket.
Such were the thoughts that skipped through my mind on Boulevard Saint-Michel as I watched the mementos of May being wiped out. Some have remained; there are still no gratings around the Boulevard's trees because gratings can be used to break up even a tarred pavement. Nor is there any railing around the mountain on Place Edmond Rostand, the authorities having decided that it was less dangerous to have small children falling into the fountain than to have large ones ranked against the police, pieces of railing lined up like spears over the plastic lids of plastic garbage cans, shields that could not keep anything out because they cannot even keep garbage in.
And there he was, my comrade-in-words from the month of May, the action committee chairman from the ministry, the man from Martinique who knew neither color nor creed, the freedom fighter. Ah, it was good seeing him among the police and the German tourists who had come to pick up paving stones as souvenirs. It was good to see Monsieur Egalité, it was great to shake the hand of Citoyen Fraternité.
I offered my hand, he looked at me quizzically, coldly. Don't you remember me? The morning on Boulevard Saint-Germain when we got into that wonderful debate about foreigners. "Oh, yes," he said, "the American! The cyclist!" We talked resignedly about the political weather; the barometer was falling, clouds of discouragement could be seen rolling in from every side. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
"No, they don't," he said, with a flash of his old fury, "they're not the same in our ministry." Did the minister call him by his first name? Did he call the minister by his first name? Was he, too, going home six minutes earlier every day? "Don't be childish, you Americans are just overgrown children. This is serious. Before the events of May, our section head used to take the office copy of Le Monde home with him every day. He tried it the first time we came back after the general strike. I told him it was the office copy. If he wanted to read a newspaper at home, he would just have to go out and buy one." A pause to let the import sink in. "And now he does."
It was sad but inevitable to see May end as it did in the June of 1968. The revolution had long decayed, it had turned into a leisure pursuit since its start that night on Boulevard Saint-Michel when the traffic stopped roaring by and, instead, the citizens walked and talked in the shadows cast by the plane trees under the street lights. It was hypnotic, it was heady, it was a potion that I shall never forget. It must be worth cycling the world over to find the Holy Grail containing this nectar of reason, the science-fiction world where the dreams of Tom Paine come true.
Up and down we walked that night on Boulevard Saint-Michel before the police were ordered to charge the barricades, down to the front where calm students faced calm riot troops standing at ease, up to the end of the free zone where traffic was being shunted away by the student cops. Each time, we passed beneath a tree where a man was sitting on a branch with a huge red flag. He was waving the flag beneath his feet, watching it ripple in the wind that he created with his arm, for the air was still. He waved it back and forth, slowly and rhythmically, like a human pendulum. I never saw him stop but I suppose he got down from the tree before the police came charging up Boul' Mich' because I did not see him there the next morning when there was a taste of tear gas in the warm air.
I do not know his final fate. He may have been mobbed for flying his red flag in the wrong quarter---no, not the dreary lanes of posh pushy Passy but the serpentine alleys of the Latin Quarter, the fun fair of plastic cutthroats, instantly inflatable cutpurses and the all-transistorized ghost of François Villon. Fashion awareness is acute there; when Seventh Avenue sneezes, boul' Mich' huddles in its hair coats.
In May of 1968, red went out. Black came marching in, the black flag of anarchy. Red belonged to the parents' revolution, to the grandparents' revolution that hadn't thrown a bomb since Ought Five. No, the students were not going to the barricades under the red flag. The shock troops of the Party, hardheads who needed no hard hats, kept students a safe distance away the day the Communists were turned out to march in the city of Paris, to turn the Grands Boulevards into a human Long Island Expressway eastbound the night before Rosh Hashonah, a clogged cloaca running from Place de la République to Place de la Bastille, from Place de la Bastille to Saint-Lazare station.
I watched that big Communist march from my bicycle. I could circle it, follow it, precede it, a backwoodsman riding around the redcoats. Hundreds of thousands marched, perhaps half a million or more. The first paraders had already reached their destination and gone home while the tail-enders were still playing cards on the hot asphalt of Place de la République, their red standards furled and stacked. I watched the march from Boulevard Sebastopol, from Rue de Rachelien, from other streets and avenues that intersected the Grands Boulevards. It was like peering through slits in the side of a tunnel. I could see only short flashes, never an entity, never a unity. I remember nurses in their uniforms only halfway out of the Middle Ages, their signs asking that French hospitals be moved at least that far from the past. None of the signs went much further. Wild eyed Communists, Red and proud of it, took over the streets of the nation's capital, banners demanding... a forty-hour week... the right to join a union... a chance to negotiate with management. They would have been the dragging sagging Right in the United States during the days of the New Deal.
I found them sad, those great gray masses that rocked, swayed, heaved along the street as if the struck subway lines were back in operation above ground, transporting their inert loads, straphangers without straps, riders without wheels. No one danced, few smiled, there was no tension, just obedient shouting in unison. At my command... WAVE! Out came a cottonfield, a Mississippi delta of handkerchiefs, up rose the chorus from the ranks: "Adieu, de Gaulle... Adieu, de Gaulle... Adieu." But at Saint-Lazare station, half a mile from the shaky quaking seat of power in the République, the victorious local version of the Red Army at the end of its long march simply dispersed, melted, vanished, just like the crowds of commuters that arrive at Saint-Lazare station during the morning rush. No one knew where, no one knew how. The march only showed that people as well as traffic could block the streets of Paris.
Yet it gave de Gaulle a stick that he used a few days later to beat the living fear of God into the middle class, middling muddling Parisians. Now things were serious, la patrie might or might not have been in danger, de Gaulle certainly was. No more salon chitchat about Yankee hegemony, no time could be wasted on the Anglo-Saxon octopus choking the breath of France, squeezing the sap from her vineyards, covering her sacred soil with an infamous pollution of dollars. No, this was the time for the old bedtime story about the Bolshevik in the closet waiting to get the gold in the mattress. De Gaulle told it like the great grandpa he was, with the tremolo in the right places, the thunder and the threats, the terrible suspense just before the Red witch opens her oven to clap the little Parisian in, the near-relief of the terror that comes when she slams the door shut, the happy ending when de Gaulle arrives in the nick of time to pull the little Parisian out, slightly seared but so much wiser, and to drive the Red witch back into the woods where he can keep her on tap until her services are needed again.
The Communist march to Saint-Lazare station was the last parade that I really watched during May 1968. By that time, demonstrations had sunk into conformity, there was an establishment way of raising hell, a power structure had taken over from street power. In less than six weeks, the movement had grown up and died. I could still remember the birth, the first hesitant steps through the playpen of the Latin Quarter.
One day, a small band, fifty or a hundred, soon they were two hundred, of serious kids marched down Boulevard Saint-Michel. On their momentum, they crossed the Seine. The bridges were empty, the streets on Île de la Cité were clear. They crossed the Seine and entered Boulevard de Sébastopol where it starts on the river, the hard-working hard-selling extension of Boul' Mich' on the Right Bank---no students, no Drugstores, no mod shops, no pubs, just a broad sweep running right up to Gare de l'Est, the great, elegant East station that sits on top of Sebasto' like a god waiting to swallow up another generation of sound solid kind friendly Frenchmen, to ship them off to the grinding mills on the Marne, in Alsace, on the German border.
The kids marched innocently up Boulevard de Sébastopol, carrying the word from Boulevard Saint-Michel to the Arabs and the whores, the shopkeepers and the housewives of the old Halles quarter that was still raising hell all night long every night except Sunday though already on its deathbed, gasping its last breaths for a few more months while work went ahead on the new markets at Rungis south of Paris, just a mile or so away from Orly Airport, strategically placed by the logic of le plan in the nexus of the biggest traffic mess in Western Europe.
Planners responsible for le plan want to move everything out of the city of Paris so that their friends can buy up the vacant tenements, the deserted market sheds, and mine money out of them, putting up ten or fifteen or twenty stories in the courtyards where once handcarts snored during the day, awaiting their nightly chores. Money grows on the streets of Paris, they are paved with gold if you know the right Gaullian. You buy an old building, where you don't even have the right to polish the brass doorknobs without getting the permission of the Undersecretary of Fine Arts, who has to make sure that you will polish them to exactly the same hue and gleam as all the other brass doorknobs in the neighborhood, classified as an historic quarter. Then you go to the right Gaullian and he changes the classification. Off go the doorknobs to be sold to an antique dealer, down comes the building, up go the cinderblocks and the concrete. Gone are the handcarts, gone are their Arab handlers, stout fellows who could make five or six dollars a night as human truckers, hauling half a ton of vegetables from seller to buyer through the market sheds.
The market people are exiled to the suburbs, the new walls of Paris, weeds of concrete and glass sprouting where green pastures, yellow wheatfields, hand-plucked market gardens grew the year before. At the Sorbonne during May, a poster showed those suburban housing projects as cans for storing labor. The biggest of all, Sarcelles, contains a supply of fifty thousand, who suffer from a disease called Sarcellitis. One symptom, discovered by a weekly catering to readers on the Left Bank Left, is prostitution by housewives who take to their beds to pay the rent. The story sent all the weekly's hand-plucked hand-polished hand-handled readers squealing in horror to their great and good friends about such a state of affairs. In a well-ordered French society with liberté and justice for all (all of which the Left Bank Left is the herald, carrying the good word to the dying farm villages of Île de France, where it gobbles up land for weekend houses, spreading the gospel to Saint-Tropez where it has driven the fishermen to the hills and the hill people to extinction, wiping them from the face of Provence as the Saracens were never able to do), in such a well-ordered society, it is not necessary for wives to whore for the rent. Husbands pay the rent, leaving wives the time and leisure to widen their circle of friends.
And their kids were marching up Boulevard de Sébastopol. I tagged along behind on my bike, I sprinted ahead. People in the street stopped to watch out of curiosity. They stared at each other uneasily the way city people do when someone makes a spectacle of himself, when a drunk mouths obscenities. Along the sidewalk, an over-forty was striding briskly in a raincoat, he was carrying a briefcase. Every few steps, he would bellow like a brazen bull: "De Gaulle!" And the marching kids would chorus back: "Assassin!" Point and counterpoint, priest and congregation, up Boulevard de Sébastopol the leader strode like a pied piper, the kids following him, boys and girls in jeans bringing up the rear, closing in on the stragglers. Such words had not resounded in France for nearly eight years, not since the pathetic putsch of 1961 when three insurgent generals proved they were as incompetent at rebellion as at any other form of action. It was then, when the three generals were the masters of Algiers, that General de Gaulle took to the tube, the terrain of his greatest triumphs, to appeal to his people. "Help me!" he begged. They did and he never forgave them. To punish them for having created him, he placed them under a pall. He put a shroud over their verve, their wit, their joie de vivre. They lived like a canary with a black cloth over its cage, never singing because the sun never came out.
"De Gaulle... assassin!" cried the pied piper and the children. Street cries came back to Paris in May. The last to go had been the old clothes man and the glazier who pedaled slowly under your window on his bicycle, a big pane in the back of his neck. The old cries were gone, so were the old criers. The city heard only the bleat of forbidden car horns when traffic piled up to the point where the herd could moo with none of the individual steers being singled out for branding. Now the cries came back:
"De Gaulle... assassin!"
"Ten years... that's enough!"
"Liberate... the Sorbonne!"
When L'Humanité, the French Communist Party's organ, as it says under the masthead without specifying which one, when L'Humanité said that Dany Cohn-Bendit, the student leader, was a German Jew, his comrades marched along Boulevard Raspail to the chant of: "We are all... German Jews!"
The new cries became a new way of speaking, they were the sound track for the slogans on the walls, those truisms written as if to be read in slow motion: "ADVERTISING MANIPULATES" I once saw on a wall on the old scaly flaking side of Rue Saint-Jacques that is due to come down some day when the street is widened to provide a pendant to Boulevard Saint-Michel, to strike the balance so beloved by the French architect, general, planner, politician, husband. Only one lane can now stack up in Rue Saint-Jacques southbound, but Boul' Mich' holds four suppurating ranks of cars. This will never do; down will come half of Rue Saint-Jacques so that proper circulation can be restored to the arteries of the Latin Quarter, so that the throat-ripping, eye-rasping haze now over Boul' Mich' will be spread over Rue Saint-Jacques. Then traffic will be able to speed north on Boul' Mich', turn right at the Seine, turn south on Rue Saint-Jacques until Boulevard du Port-Royal, then right again and back north on Boul' Mich', back and forth, to and fro, round and round we go around the Latin Quarter looking for a place to stop, waiting for the day when the vaults of the Pantheon will be opened and the tombs of the great men exhumed to make room for an underground parking lot.
In May, the walking and the cycling were good in the Latin Quarter. Cars refused to go near it. They balked like dogs yanking at the leash, clawing at the pavement to brake their masters. Their steel souls knew the instinct of self-preservation.
In the Latin Quarter, any innocent car ran the risk of being converted into a barricade or an unguided missile to be sent charging downhill at the serried ranks of cops. Or it could fall into the clutches of the barricade-breaker, that police bulldozer that turned a Renault Floride into a smear of rubber, grease, and tin foil reduced to two dimensions, a monolayer on the sidewalk of Boulevard Saint-Michel.
May had not yet become a sound-and-light show the day I saw my little band of students march up Boulevard de Sébastopol. Ahead of them, police lines were hastily forming at the Réaumur-Sébastopol intersection. The kids kept shouting their slogans. The noise gave them air cover, it laid down a protective rolling barrage. It carried them along, no doubt, as we used to be carried along in the Air Force when we sang as we marched.
The gap between the front ranks of the kids and the police lines was closing fast. I squeezed into it on my bike. I could see that the roadblock was on the far side of the intersection. The kids turned right, just grazing the helmets of the cops, and walked towards Place de la Bastille where another police contingent, like the corner cushion on a billiard table, was waiting to bounce them back at the Seine. The police moved ponderously ahead of the procession with their motorcycles and black buses full of gawking country boys, gendarmes brought into the city to reinforce the local talent.
But when the little parade and the pied piper reached the river, they did not cross back to the Latin Quarter. Instead, they turned east along the Seine, marching down the absolutely deserted streets leading towards Lyon station, the Bercy wine market, the Porte de Charenton, and the city line. A packet of police brought up the rear, escort motorcycles wobbling at the pace of a ragged walk. They moved out of sight, out of hearing. I do not know whatever became of those kids. Perhaps the pied piper took them to the Peripheral Boulevard, where they marched around the gates of Paris, shouting their slogans, waiting for the walls to come down.
What I thought was going to be my most serious brush with the Paris police in May occurred when they were supposed to be picking up anyone who looked suspicious or foreign or suspiciously foreign. I was on my racing bike in the Bois de Boulogne, heading for the Longchamp circuit where the cyclists run for that B.O. Grand Prix. Right before the road that goes around the racetrack, there is an intersection that cannot be negotiated without breaking some kind of law, if not your neck. As I got through it, one of those boxy black Renault police vans that do double duty as paddy wagons and riot patrol cars passed me. I got onto the racetrack road, the police van slowed up. I passed it, then I began to dig at the long flat imperceptible hill on that road, so imperceptible that you have to know it is there or else you start taking your brakes apart, pumping up your tires, or making appointments with your physician. The black police van got on my tail as if it was slipstreaming.
I was being followed by the Paris police. I accelerated, so did the police. I was getting up near the top of that slight grade, right where cyclists who have made the grade park their Open Commodores and take out their handmade bikes for a lap around the track. The police van drew alongside, the policeman sitting next to the driver rolled down his window. He had a stripe on his uniform, he was a brigadier, he had a big florid beefy face and a heavy black mustache (a brigadier in the French military hierarchy is the equivalent of a lance-corporal or a private first-class; in the British Army, a brigadier is a brigadier-general and that is one of several reasons why the two countries get into trouble). As the van drove by, the brigadier called out to me: "Quarante!"
Forty kilometers---twenty-five miles---an hour. I shook my head. I indicated that it couldn't be true. "Si! Si!" said the brigadier with a hearty smile of encouragement, pointing to the speedometer of the van. I did not argue with him; never argue with a policeman's speedometer. It was this clocking cop who started a very happy triangle involving me, my bicycle, and the Paris police. At the risk of losing the last Alamo of allies I may have by now, I must state that I get along very well with the police, whether in Paris or New York. Like theirs, my business is in the street; like them, I have to stay there come rain, hail, or high water.
I did not have too much in common with the five or six thousand young demonstrators on bicycles who tied Paris up in April 1972 when they rode en masse across the city. I was not among them, I was working in Brittany, but two of my bikes were there, borrowed by a couple of American girls.
I do not know exactly what the Paris bike-in was all about. What I do know is that the following week, on a cold wet day, I was riding a bicycle in the city and, as usual, I was an oddity. Out in the rain, I had only the traffic cops for company. The summer soldiers and the sunshine cyclists were nowhere to be seen.
Chapter 10, Is This Bum Trip Really Necessary?
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