Guns Along The Seine
The gruff security officer at the large department store rifled through the contents of our backpacks, none too gently. No neat unpacking and re-packing. Just pull the stuff out, rummage through it, and stuff it back in. When he finished, he nodded us through the entrance to the store.
Beefed up post 9/11 security, right? Nope. Paris, 1987. It was a hot, muggy, dirty late August day, and as we were about to find out, tension-filled. My wife Nan and I had been on our own day-long walking tour of the City of Light. From our cheap hotel on the Rue de Rivoli we had covered ground from the Place de las Bastille, to Notre Dame, back up through the shopping district, and up to the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel tower. All along the way there were signs that some kind of trouble might be brewing.
There were the backpack and purse searches at all of the large stores and museums. At the Place de la Concorde, a gendarme was directing traffic with the biggest automatic weapon I’d seen outside Schwarzeneggar movie slung around her neck.
Things got even more interesting on the Champs Elysees. Hot and fatigued, we decided to stop for a drink.
“I want to go to that place Hemingway drank at,” I said. “Where’s that on our map?”
“Try and narrow it down,” Nan said in a tired voice. “I think he drank just about everywhere in this town.”
Point being noted, we parked our derrieres at the next sidewalk café. No sooner had our beers arrived, when Nan nudged me. “Hey, look over there,” she said.
“Oh, no! Not a MIME!” I yelped in terror as I saw a man in full mime regalia cruelly aping and mimicking helpless passersby in front of OUR sidewalk café. “Quick, drink up!”
“No, over there,” Nan said pointing farther out on the street. Two more gendarmes, with a little more of a SWAT team look about them, were in the process of shaking down a couple of middle eastern-looking fellows. One of the long-arms was checking their paperwork while his partner kept watch with one of the aforementioned firearms.
“Wow, I’ve got to get a picture of this,” I said, reaching for my camera. Visions of a prize-winning travel photograph filled my head.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Nan said. “Do you want them to come over and have a chat with YOU next?”
My photo fantasies were quickly replaced by visions of dark smoky back rooms, rubber hoses and cavity searches. I put my lens cap back on my camera and downed my beer. “Time to move on,” I said.
Having covered more ground than we had intended to, the walk back to our hotel was grueling. Too tired to dine out, and spooked by the Mime Affair, we grabbed a few provisions at a small store and headed back to our room, which was equipped with a small balcony for our al fresco dining pleasure and a bidet for our evening’s entertainment.
Just blocks from our hotel, we noticed the street ahead was barricaded, and quite a large contingent of Paris’ finest on the scene. As we approached, one of the policemen came to meet us and pointed for us to go back the way we came.
We tried to explain that our hotel was just up ahead, but to no avail, my knowledge of French being limited to bierre and la toilette (which had served me just fine up to that point). He sternly pointed for us to go back the way we cam. We backtracked to the first cross street, headed south to the parallel street, and began walking in the direction of our hotel. We would look down each cross street we came to, only to keep seeing barricades and cops.
Finally, we came to a street with no visible barricades. We walked back up to our original street to find we were almost to our hotel. Looking back down the street, we could see the barricade ended about three blocks from our hotel. Behind the barricade, a large group was yelling, chanting, waving signs and creating one heck of a civil disturbance.
“It’s a riot!” I said, once again reaching for my camera. Nan, looking concerned, suggested we get back to our room, pronto.
“Good idea,” I said. “We’re on the third floor, we’ll get a better view.”
We scrambled up to our room and opened the doors to the small balcony. “Wow, It is a riot!” Nan said with amazement. With the confines of the police barricade, a very large group of dissidents were continuing their chanting and yelling. Unidentifiable object were hurled through the air. The epicenter of the group seemed to be in front of a building with an Air Iran sign and a giant picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Oh-oh. Big-league dissidents. Still miffed about the Shah deal.
“Do you think that police line will hold,” Nan asked, definite concern in her voice.
“Yeah, sure, I said more confidently than I felt. “You saw the heaters those guys were carrying. Would you mess with them? You haven’t seen my Swiss Army knife by any chance, have you?”
We broke out our bread, cheese and beer and went to the balcony and kept a vigil over the action. Things pretty much stayed the same for about an hour, and then gradually got quieter and quieter. On the periphery, French life went on as usual. The outdoor restaurant in the courtyard below our room began to fill with diners. And as darkness descended and the protesters dispersed, a strolling musician with a guitar took up in front of the diners in the restaurant, as had the mime in front of ours earlier. And in perfect French, surrealistic, new wave, avant garde fashion, began to perform is stylistic interpretation of…Frank Sinatra?
Strawnzoors in ze naht,
Strawnzoors in ze naht.
Whot woor ze shanzez,
The serenade continued for several hours. The dull roar of the riot being replaced by thickly accented versions of It Was a Very Good Year and Summer Wind. When the Sinatra catalogue was exhausted, he move on to the Beatles oeuvre, to which we finally drifted to sleep.
The next morning we walked down the street to survey the scene of the riot. Life in the city went on a usual. No signs of the previous evenings events were evident. Except for one. Most of the windows of the Air Iran building were boarded up, the glass shattered. Through one un-boarded pane, the right eye of the Ayatollah stared out at us through a brick-sized hole.
My mind flashed back to the previous day’s excitement – a riot, a mime, and a bad Sinatra imitator. I found I was having a difficult time deciding which event was truly the most disturbing. But I had no doubt about which day of my sty was the most memorable.
“There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air,” Bob Dylan once sang. Well maybe it wasn’t quite a revolution on that hot August night in Pairs, and whether it was music is definitely a matter of interpretation. And well, a mime is (shudder)…a mime.
©2005 Lee Hammerschmidt