Marais Men

Two workers on the rue Charlot.

Two workers on the rue Charlot.

I don’t remember what I looked like that day on rue Charlot, but I wasn’t feeling very good about myself, I do remember that. I was just walking along when I felt le regard of these two men across the street. When I saw the way they were looking at me, it was a bit awkward and so to break that up, I instinctively motioned with my camera, “can I take a photo of you?”

It was only later, when I looked at the photo, that I really saw them, their eyes, their smiles, and myself reflected. A reflection so different than the way I had been feeling. There were no words exchanged, no street harassment or power play. Just a couple of human beings smiling, seeming to appreciate the existence of the young woman across the street.

Their faces woke me up.

I thought, the person they think they see should have no reason to be down. So I borrowed their perspective to use as my own and continued the day lighter on my feet.

Amine Benotmane

I was bartending in an Irish pub in St. Michel, it was a very different epoch in my life.  My boyfriend had just moved to London and I was working part time in this bar, owned by a Turkish man who’s real name was probably not Charlie, and part time for a photographer who shall remain nameless but who we, the assistants, un-fondly called Le Monstre.  I was living in a 13 m2 apartment and in my spare time would pile all my belongings into the bathroom and practice taking portraits with lights borrowed from my school.  I lived this way for about a year but it seemed like five.

Amine came into the pub regularly for a Coke.  Our first conversation began with him asking me, “are you Muslim?”  I was pouring an excessively-frothy beer and he saw the ring on my middle finger.  I bought it on my first trip outside the U.S., to Mexico in 1995. It was a silver moon and star that wrap around my finger and cuddle each other without touching.   I had completely ignored its many meanings and uses, and simply wanted to wear a couple of dreamy elements of the night sky on my hand.

Amine is from Constantine, Algeria, and when I talk about wanting to visit his country he tells me, “Danielle, I’ll take you there. You have to be careful, we are savages!” He says this with a big smile and playful eyes. He’s a sweetheart, the friend you can count on whenever needed. When I bought my guitar, he took me to every store on rue de Douai and played guitars for me so I could hear which one felt and sounded like it should be mine.

He makes friends easily everywhere and is a remarkable diffuser of conflict. I’ve seen him completely extinguish another man’s anger with his kindness. The streets of Paris can be aggressive, everyone walks around owning the space around them and pushing you off the edge of it if you penetrate their perimeters. Amine has such an ever-accessible sense of humor and lightness about him, that walking through the city with him, I feel we float above the angst.

In the time we have known each other, he has created a heavy metal band called Acyl. I finally heard their music when they got a gig playing at the Maroquinerie in Belleville and he asked if I would come take photos. It was summer, and I walked in wearing a pale pink tank top, jeans and sandals. I usually like to blend in if I’m going to be photographing, but it had completely slipped my mind that day. I believe I was the only person not wearing black, with heavy boots on. I felt like a spring chic walking into a dungeon.

When Amine came on stage, I was down in front, ready. Except that I wasn’t. For my uninitiated mind, there was no build up, they jumped right into the fire and took us with them. Heavy guitar, heart-palpitating drums, and then Amine started screaming these growling guttural sounds into the microphone, from someplace deep inside that I had never witnessed. I was stunned. Impressed. A little confused. Where was this anger coming from? How do you go from silence, to making the most devilish sounds your human voice can create?

Because I consider him such a gentle giant, I think I smiled like Amelie Poulain discovering who the photo-booth repairman is, fascinated by the contrast and delighted to see my friend expressing himself so fully. I stopped just short of laughing out loud as if on a roller coaster, because I could see this was serious business, this metal music that was so foreign to me.

What I find so interesting, and maybe naïve of me, is the contrast between their on-stage personae and how the whole band is a bunch of really nice guys that wouldn’t harm a fly. Amine was right, they are savages, but only when they express themselves through their music.

The night before the night before Christmas, when Chris was told to f*ck off

A tender story from a café terrace in Paris.

Moping around the Marais in the rain, I was eating Belgian chocolates out of my pocket, longing for Chicago and slipping into the dream of old horse-drawn, cobble-stoned Paris, fantasizing that I’d find a small abandoned Christmas tree that I could drag home and hang my earrings on.

Sinking comfortably into solitude, my eyes hidden under the shadow of a wide-brimmed winter hat, I took the least populated streets until I reached a clean, dimly-lit café terrasse and installed myself in the corner. There were only two other people outside: men bent over smartphones, quietly complaining to each other about their jobs. Inside, the only customer I could see was a young woman standing at the bar, poking fiercely at an iPhone.

The waiter was cheerful and so was I, when he set down my glass of rouge that sparkled so prettily in the over-head heat lights. Two days before Christmas, this normally busy Marais street was wonderfully silent. Sitting in the warm red light, across the street from a building draped in twinkling blue, with both colors swirling around each other on the shiny pavement in between, it was a lovely scene.

Until it got better. The men had just left and the girl from inside the bar came out, apparently needing some privacy to yell at her boyfriend. I looked up and our eyes met. I expected her to turn around and find somewhere to be alone, but she didn’t seem to mind me eavesdropping. She faced me as she yelled into her phone. “T’es ! Un ! Vrai ! Con ! Tu m’as pris du fric puis tu m’as jeté ! Je ne vais PLUS être ta connasse ! Je comprends pourquoi les gens te jettent, Chris ! Et moi, je te jette ! VA…TE…FAIRE…FOUTRE ! ET CREVER DANS TA MERDE !”* With that, she went back inside, gathered her things and left.

Stunned at the beauty and force of her efficacy, I smiled and took out a pen to write it down.

Merry Christmas eve eve Chris, wherever you are with this girl’s money.

Lonely man, green light.

Lonely man, green light.

* P.S. Translation of the rant: “You’re! A! Real! Asshole! You took my money and threw me away! I’m THROUGH being your bitch! I understand why people reject you, Chris! And I’m rejecting you! GO…FUCK…YOURSELF! AND DIE IN YOUR OWN SHIT!

Originally published on Dani’s Blog.

The trash commands

“J’ai envie de dormir, moi! C’est la poubelle qui va me commander!”

– A spunky, red-faced, homeless woman along the Canal St. Martin who found happiness in a mattress thrown out in someone’s trash. She shouts to her comrades, while dragging it across the street to sleep near the water.

11h31 on a sunny Wednesday.