Many years ago, when I was still in my twenties, I spent a year in France. I had dropped out of my white collar career, disgusted with what life was bringing me, taken a bicycle, and gone to Europe with no particular plan other than to ride, carrying my kit in saddlebags, and see what each day would bring. After that first summer (of what would turn out to be three spent in various Western European countries), I had to find a place to hole up for the winter. I chose Paris.
One of my former distributors had told me in an offhand way while I was still his data communications equipment supplier, that if I ever wanted to come to France, he would hire me. So, I looked him up, and, after some shenanigans with the French government about work papers, and some slight of hand that got me an apartment near the Centre Pompidou in the middle of the city, he took me on as a document translator and general English speaker.
Not long after, I fell in with the receptionist, who was insatiable. Life was good. I was out of the cold, putting food on the table, and socially occupied.
It happened that the distributor was celebrating its 10th anniversary of being in business that year, and the chief decided to fete everybody with a night on the town. He rented a restaurant, which closed its doors to other patrons for the evening, and about 30 of us ate and drank the way the French are known to do.
The establishment, whose name is long forgotten, was somewhere in Pigalle, a suspect district on the far right bank, full of night life, small restaurants, and disreputable people, not too distant from the famous cabaret, Moulin Rouge, and also in close proximity with one of the city’s notorious slums, in other words, vintage Paris, the sort of place where people who love to party go. We sat at long tables way in the back and toasted into the night.
At some point, unused to this level of indulgence, I decided that I needed some air. I was wearing a three-piece suit, dark blue, with pale yellow shirt and tie, and for footwear, I had thin-soled black leather dress shoes. Stepping out into the night, I noticed that most of the activity in the area had died. The restaurant was on a narrow back street, and traffic was nonexistent at that hour. Cars were parked densely on both sides, and our street ran into another just like it about three storefronts down on the left. Streetlights cast a feeble yellow glow, but the area, spooked by deep shadows, was mostly dark.
I looked back at the restaurant. It was completely black. The only lights were in the back where the party continued on, but they couldn’t be seen from the street. The manager had shut off everything in the front so as not to draw any regular traffic. If I hadn’t just come out the door, I would never have guessed it was open. Everything was quiet.
Perhaps it was the dimness of the district, but some instinct drove me to step between the parked cars in front of the restaurant and into the street, where I began walking right down the middle between the rows of cars, toward the intersection, less than fifty feet away. I decided to take a right, toward what looked like a better lit area. As I rounded the corner, I looked back up the street I was entering and saw two young Arab men. Even back then, Paris was filled with North Africans, particularly in the 17th arrondissement, which was right next door. They were wearing jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, and as I glanced at them, one leaned toward the other and whispered something in his ear. They both smiled when they saw me looking their way.
Five alarms went off simultaneously in my head. All hands on deck! We’re in big trouble now! I had seen them exactly as soon as they saw me, and so none of their gestures was hidden from me. My disadvantage was in being one person in slippery leather shoes and a stiff formal suit against two in sneakers and loose, comfortable clothing, possibly concealing a weapon. My advantages were instant awareness, knowledge of the likely course of events, my cool, and a rabbit hole about which my adversaries knew nothing.
I stayed in the street. Without quickening my pace, but lengthening my stride, I turned around and headed back the way I had come. They split up. One went wide and came all the way to the other side of the street, opposite the restaurant door, and, walking down that sidewalk, asked me softly, “Vous avez du feu?” (see below). It was the old “got-a-light” gambit. I stayed in the street between the row of parked cars, answering him briefly, “Non!” as I continued back toward the restaurant. The other had slipped around the corner, remaining on the near side, also on the sidewalk. As I crossed the street toward the restaurant, darkened just like all the other storefronts on that block, the fellow with the unlit cigarette moved swiftly to cut off the exit on the far side while his pal continued to sidle slowly toward where I was heading.
The “got-a-light” gambit: Unforgiving Geometry in the Moulin Rouge Neighborhood
At that point, no one had broken into a run. With long, decisive steps, I was moving fast, but keeping an even pace. They had managed to surround me without quite appearing to. As the adrenaline mounted on both sides, I strode between the two cars in front of the restaurant. Now, there was only a sidewalk — and an alcove — between me and the door, which to them appeared locked. As I crossed the sidewalk, my two assailants eased into place about five feet away on either side.
They weren’t in any hurry, probably figuring on trapping me in the alcove. I took two quick steps just as they were raising their arms to grab me, opened the door, and slipped past them. A tango choreographer would have been happy to sign his name to such work.
Inside, my colleagues greeted me jovially, welcoming me back to the festivities. Not wishing to alarm them, I kept the incident to myself. But I did drink water for the rest of the night.