A decade ago the neighbourhood bistros that were an integral part of French life were one by one bought out by McDonalds as the country entered the fast-food age. McDo, as we call the chain over here in France, was quickly followed by several others and now your average Frenchman under 25 doesn’t know the difference between an entrecôte and a faux-filet. Now it is the turn of the traditional French café to bite the dust.
Soon Starbucks will be everywhere and we will enjoy the extra choice but not notice the bland standardization. I’m not complaining, it is in the way of things, death comes to us all so that others may live.
Before the worst happens, if you have a moment to tarry, would you care to accompany me, one last time before it dies, to the Café du Coin? Shall we push open the comfortably heavy door with its polished brass pole handle and see what low-life lingers therein?
Unlike the premises, few of these people will get the chance to benefit from refurbishment and new upholstery. They are like woodlice wriggling under the upturned stone, the light will doubtless kill them.
The first thing we notice as we cross the threshold is Rex, the mangy doormat dog with his noble nose and sad fur. He occasionally lifts his head in bored languor but otherwise doesn’t move much from his spot, taking up too much room in front of the entrance. If disturbed he will push himself laboriously up to the sitting position and then bend his head to lick his penis a few times – in memory of past glories. It’s been many a woof since he last used it.
The same is true, one suspects, of Jean-Claude, the head waiter, who everyone calls Jean-Clo [pronounced “Jonclo”]. He’s a gaunt-cheeked man with brylcreemed hair and he has the long bony fingers of a pianist.
Years ago, when the Café du Coin would be full to the brim on sunny days, Jean-Clo could be seen spreading his pianist’s fingers beneath a huge, round, wooden tray laden with the entire order for all the tables outside on the pavement. Thrusting it upwards, he would duck his shoulder beneath the heavy tray in one smooth movement, such that it was aloft above his head, where it would remain perfectly stable while he weaved and wefted between the tables and the throng, a purposeful “chaud devant!” on his lips.
On the tray sat gaudy green mint cordials known as diabolo menthe, along with troubled yellow glasses of Pastis, complete with strangely shaped bottles containing tap water with which to dilute the aniseed liquor, as well as half a dozen petit noirs (expresso coffees), tea with milk (“beurk!”) for the English ladies, and an assortment of ice-creams and cat’s-tongue biscuits to go with them.
That was a very long time ago and now Jean-Clo stands statuesque at the end of the bar, absent-mindedly polishing the same glass over and over again with a corner of his grubby apron, while he thinks about Cécile.
At a high wooden chair, behind the heavy typewriter-like till, sits massive Mme Gaston. Her surname, like her husband’s, is Dubois, but she is always known as Mrs her husband’s first name. Gaston himself is at the other end of the bar, stony-faced and smelly from last-night’s cheap table wine and Calvados.
Just how Monsieur and Madame Gaston came to be together nobody understands, least of all the protagonists themselves. Mme Gaston considers herself respectable and decent, unlike that smarmy skirt-sniffer of a husband of hers, who had tricked her into marriage with promises of future comfort, afforded them by his waiter’s job at the swank Café de la Paix, sitting opposite the Palais Garnier – the Paris Opera House.
And Gaston? Well Gaston likes the ladies, he has to admit that, but only because they like him. Or used to, before he developed a paunch and scowl. Now all he has is a pain in his nether regions and Geneviève, the blowsy blonde who is sitting unsteadily at a bar stool opposite him.
Geneviève, known as Genny in these parts, drinks Martini with gin and smokes Gauloises Caporal through a cigarette-holder, as befits a former call girl in the chic’er parts of town but who sticks to her roots. The earthy aroma of Genny’s Gauloises meets Gaston’s fetid breath over the counter in a sordid embrace that echoes their furtive monthly meetings in the cellar under the passageway to the dirty toilets, while Mme Gaston is away visiting her sister.
Genny, one feels, must once have been beautiful; indeed, parts of her still are, when she’s sober. Her ankles seem not to have aged much, so she perches on the stool and crosses her legs, making one foot protrude in front of the other, so that we can see the fine curve it makes as it penetrates the expensive glittery shoe which is her only luxury. Let’s not allow our gaze to linger too long upon the skirt riding up her scrawny thighs, nor the sagging cleavage or the baggy, liquid eyes. Nor on the wretchedness engraved upon her features, that no amount of smeared make-up can hide.
Genny is deeply unhappy, always has been. Except for those few short weeks, long ago, when she had picked up her Arab prince with the golden teeth and manicured toenails in the avenue de la Grande Armée and he had taken her back to his gold-tapped, marble-floored flat and dressed her in veils and rubbed almond balm on her legs and spoke to her of desert nights. She had lapped up his every word and, in an enthralled reverie, got laid but not paid.
A few months later she visited him in prison, where he had ended up after the true owner of the flat returned and found his driver in bed with Genny and called in the police, for her Arab prince had also helped himself to a princely sum with which to finance his penchant for fine Parisian ladies of the night.
Such is life and Genny always came off worst. Like on that occasion in the remand home to which she had been sent as a teenager…, but let’s not talk about that.
Now she drinks her Martini gin and doesn’t pay for it and Mrs Gaston looks on sourly and disapproves, for she knows why the slate gets wiped clean once a month while she’s at her sister’s.
Around their usual table, in one corner of the café, sit playing dominoes Michel, the unemployed furniture salesman, Gérard, the ex-maths teacher and expert on wine of the cheaper, all you can drink variety, old Mr Montfort, who is deaf and nearly blind but is still the finest domino player in the quartier, and Aziz.
Aziz? How did he get in here? Young Aziz is Tunisian, well French if you prefer, but his Dad, who beats his wife daily because that’s all she understands, had had Aziz born in Paris so that he might have a better life than he had had. In another corner, a woman clutching a plastic Carrefour shopping bag sits alone, spooning coffee to her lips and sipping it loudly. I don’t know her name, nobody does.
One day she came in and pointed at the coffee machine. So Gaston thumped the stainless steel scoop with the black plastic handle up against the ground coffee container, clicked the latter a couple of times to release a dose of brown morning-powder into the scoop, compacted it deftly and levelled it off by pressing it up against the metal stop designed for the purpose. Then, with a flourish of the wrist, he slotted the scoop sharply into a hissing coffee machine Made in Italy, and pulled the lever and stood watching the slow brown froth ooze luxuriously into the warmed waiting cup.
Today, as then, Gaston places the cup on a saucer, wipes its rim with a dirty teacloth, adds a spoon with a clink to the saucer. Putting the finished article on the counter with absent-minded pride he glances at Jean-Clo, who comes and takes it over to the plastic bag lady, who sips but never speaks but who comes in every day and the ritual repeats.She keeps a few coins folded in a dirty handkerchief which she takes from another, smaller plastic bag inside the big plastic Carrefour shopping bag. It’s remarkable how fastidious the chronically sad can be.
Sometimes, when Mrs Gaston’s not looking, Jean-Clo rings the till but puts no money in the drawer, and hands the full amount back to the Carrefour lady as her change.
A mist of sadness that matches the yellow walls hangs in the air. Thankfully, Mrs Gaston has made some pots of caramel cream and the young man from the boulangerie has brought in the day’s baguettes and smiles at Mrs Gaston as he always does and makes her dream of what might have been.
But what’s this? Why has Gaston’s bilious expression lightened? Why has Jean-Clo stiffened and smoothed his hair? What makes Genny and Mrs. Gaston catch each others eye for a fleeting, knowing moment and then flick away?
The door is opening and a ray of sunshine has entered. It’s Cécile, the student who’s studying literature at the Sorbonne, popping in for a croissant and a café crème on her way to the metro station.
Old Rex raises himself laboriously in welcome, manages a double thump with his heavy tail and then does what you know he does, but this time with an extra lick or two.
Cécile is fresh and oblivious to the silent sordidness going on around her. Everything about her is new and healthy, like the soft down on her forearms that glistens in the morning sunlight. But Gaston has seen her thighs and notes how firm they are and Jean-Clo notices how her breasts are round, just the way he likes them.
Genny thinks disdainfully that Cécile knows nothing about what a man likes or what they are really like – they’re all the same, look at these two slobbering over her instead of me – and Mrs Gaston disapproves, she’s not sure why, the child is nice enough, at least she doesn’t flash her wares like Gaston’s slut at the other end of the bar, just look at her knocking back the gin at my expense.
All conversation in the Café du Coin has ceased as the innocence that is Cécile passes. She flops herself with unwitting grace behind a round table with aluminium rims and crosses her legs. Genny surrepticiously uncrosses her own in order not to be compared; Gaston is spell-bound, and Jean-Clo is unaware that he is still holding a glass aloft in suspended animation, or that the corner of his apron is likewise mid-air, some six inches from there.
The unhealthy moment of defiled innocence passes and conversation restarts, lighter than it was before. Jean-Clo stands in front of Cécile, takes her order and watches her longingly as she opens her book to page 326 and starts to read, shaking her hair back from her face and stroking her hand along her neck in a gesture that hits Jean-Clo in the loins and snaps Gaston out of his stupor. Old Mr Montfort has a bout of coughing and… what’s this? Surely, not another surprise?
It’s young Aziz. There he is, as large as life, going over to Cécile and asking her what she’s reading. She flashes him a smile warmer than the coffee. Aziz knows the book, at least he says he does. May I sit down?
Regardez ce salopard de bicot , look at that arab bastard, thinks Gaston, as if Cécile should prefer himself, with his slobber and his stink. Jean-Clo is crestfallen. But Genny, with a hiccough and her legs crossed again, best foot forward, is dreaming of her Arab prince and almond balm.
And so we must leave them.
As we push open the comfortably heavy, brass-handled door for the last time it seems to me that Cécile and Aziz will do just fine in Starbucks, don’t you think? As for Mr and Mrs Gaston, Jean-Clo, Genny, the Carrefour lady and all the rest of the sad crew, I don’t know what the future holds for them. But I fear the worst.