Although there is no ultimate answer to the question of veracity in Jean Shepherd’s travel tales, I believe that they mostly conform to his style of telling the truth about what happens during his trips. I believe that what he relates really happens as he broadcasts them. Yet, one occasionally comes across an incident such as this one in Paris. The narrative seems more formal and well-honed than most of those in which he tells us of his adventures. He probably worked on the outline and at least some of the details to a good extent before he improvised it on the radio. It certainly must conform to his attitudes about the French. Near the beginning he insists: “This is a true story,” and maybe, indeed, it is, down to the last detail.
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FRENCH FARCE. Part 1=LE DRUGSTORE.
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All right now, look. Let’s set the scene. Have you ever in your life just—oh, it maybe happens two or three times in a guy’s life where he is suddenly plunged into what could be described as a peculiar inverted-fantasy-nightmare-impenetrable scene—that looks like something that he has seen before—or imagined before—or dismissed before—that he can’t believe it.
Now listen carefully. Here’s the scene now. This is a true story. I’m not going to give you any preface as to how this happened, because how it happened is too long and that would take four more quarto volumes to get into it. Because these scenes—it doesn’t matter how it happened. It happened.
Here you see me, your old friend—me. Here you see me, and I am sitting on the floor of an apartment in the heart of Paris. I am sitting on the floor, scrunched down, and we are all gathered around a low marble coffee table that looks like it is at least four-hundred years old. And on the walls there are ancient, stained prints. It is an apartment of almost exquisite sensibility. Of almost painful civilization. It is the kind of apartment where you feel that the taste is so muted and so quiet, so casually calculated, and yet so long-drawn-out in an infinite number of mirrored walls and years that go back to perhaps the beginnings of the French people, that one does not question. A terrazzo floor. And I am sitting down with my knees cracking.
The first thing you begin to notice about the truly civilized Frenchmen is they’re little. They are little people. Have you noticed this? Little, natty people. Their suits are all kind of cut in at the waist, with little, thin pants, and they wear sparkling white shirts and little thin ties. And all of their hair is very thin on the top. I’ve noticed this among hundreds of the truly—you might say—the end-line of decadent families. And I am sitting down on this terrazzo floor and I am slowly spooning Iranian caviar, a dark, gray, succulent caviar, on thin French bread. I am squeezing the lemon on it. And I’m with a group of people who are total strangers to me.
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Finally, the man who has brought me here, who is a young French count, arises. It is his apartment, which is perhaps only a spit-and-a-half distance from the Arc de Triumph. Right in the heart of Maurice Chevalier country. He gets up and moves to the record player and a moment or two later we begin to hear the sound of Spanish guitar music filling the apartment. My friend Reno has put on his record player—his Columbia 360 Record Player.
And sitting across from him in this little soiree is his wife, Felice, and next to her is Gerard. Gerard, a tall, thin, ascetic, a kind of epitome of French taste. A young up-and-coming avant-garde, and yet, with-touches-of-the-gothic, interior decorator and architect from the Sorbonne. And next to him—next to him is his wife, Colette. O la la—Colette! Colette, the epitome of the French girl, of the true—let us say, zee sexy de le maison, ho ho! The sexy lady of the house.
And next to her is a Corsican. A tall, thin, languid Corsican named Felipe. Felipe, who, I have discovered, listening to their involved, subtle, beautifully muted French conversation—Felipe has traveled all the way up from Corsica, his home, to spend three days in an attempt to see if he can make any time with Colette, who is the wife of Gerard, the young architect. And sitting next to me is Reno, the husband of the family. And suddenly I find myself in the middle of a deep de Maupassant short story. The subtle interplay of sexual inference. And, by the way, the French are exceedingly—particularly if you get high enough up in certain circles—very graphic. Very graphic in their stories. And I am sitting in the middle of all this, attempting to grab ahold of it, attempting to somehow be part of this swirling scene right out of a bad French farce.
And I begin to realize that these French farces are not really French farces. That is the way the French really are! I couldn’t believe it!
And all night long the Corsican sits attempting to make time with Colette. They nuzzle, he nibbles her ear, and all the while Gerald, her husband, pays not the slightest attention. “It is just Colette’s little game.” Later he says that to me: “It is just Colette’s little game. I cannot take her from her hobby.”
I say, “Her hobby?”
“Everyone has his hobby. She has hers, I have mine.”
I have never felt more like a man from the Great Frontier Plains than I felt that night. This quiet, muted little interplay of subtle nuance, and all the while I sat, hairy, kind of big, a kind of bulking—and I’m not a big bulking man! But in this company I was a big, bulking, hairy man. I felt somehow that I had been transmuted into King Kong among the Lilliputians among these little Napoleonic prints hanging on the wall.
About ten minutes after the last smidgeon of caviar had disappeared and the first bite of cold chicken was beginning to be enjoyed by the company with a little French bread and a subtle Alsatian wine, the company began to warm to its task of civilized interplay. The intercourse of subtle minds.
Now, you get the scene. This was in Paris.
This is Paris
I had been in Paris many times, but I had rarely been in Paris the way I was two weeks ago. You’ve heard a lot about Paris. So many people talk about Paris. There are more movies about Paris, and they’re all clichés, I find. Just like the movie about New York is always a cliché. You always have the scene of the Empire State Building, but they never show you the Grand Concourse in the movie. And whenever they make a movie, somehow Queens is left out. They never include Flushing as part of New York. Well, that was the beginning of a weekend, the likes of which I have never spent anywhere, in any foreign country. Really. Because I began to see the American against the backdrop of an older civilization—I don’t want to be pompous about it—that was alternately jealous of the new civilization, and resentful of that new civilization. And at the same time, embracing that new civilization.
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And so, we had finished za last beet of chicken, the little poulet. After we had sipped the last Alsatian wine, vin ordinaire, we are out on the dark streets of Paris, whistling through the night in two French automobiles of particular anger, whistling through the darkness on our way toward what Reno describes to me—he says, “I wish to show you some of za life Americane. Za American life is very heep and we Paresians have many things which are very much like the American! And I wish to show you zat.”
I want to see what they consider “an American life.”
He says, “How would you like to go to zee drugstore?”
I say, “The drugstore?” It never would occur to me in America to say to my friends, “How about going to the drugstore with me?”
He says, “The American drugstore.” Always around everything he says is a kind of vague tongue-in-cheek putting down: “Zis is American, American life. Of course we don’t take it seriously, you see. It is a ball, however.”
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Do any of you know what is current right now, the big topic of conversation, the big topic of conversation in Paris, and, indeed, all of France. I mean other than anything political—what everybody really is talking about? Wherever you go, in a cocktail party you hear this, wherever six people gather to wait for a bus somebody will mention it. You ride down a great boulevard or you’re at the Place de la Concorde, everywhere, you see great posters talking about this in spectacular colors, magnificent designs.
And he says to me, “I shall take you tonight to show it to you.” So we head out into the French countryside to see what the French consider part of the American way of life. And it really is about as American as, let’s say, as an average weekend on Mars would be like. You know what I found, in my world travels, for what it’s worth? That anything that the people in the neighborhood in any country—wherever you go—whenever I’ve gone—whatever they relate to modernity, whatever is modern—and they vaguely don’t like it, they ascribe to America. Even if there’s nothing at all in America remotely like this. Whatever a Frenchman does not like about the new France, he says, “Is American.” It’s their own brand of twentieth-century insanity. Somehow, the world has discovered a fantastic scapegoat. That if kids break the windows along a string of shops: “Zat is because zey have seen zee American movie. Zey are attempting to be like heep—zee American Beatnik.” And yet whatever they like they ascribe, of course, to themselves.
So we go whistling out into the dark. I’m having a fantastic time because immediately I begin to dig them, they begin to dig me, and they begin to open up to me. One of the worst insults as an American—at least to me—is when they turn to you and say, “Oh, yes, but of course you are not zee ordinary American.” Somehow implying of course, that all Americans are slobs and idiots, fools, and naves, but “You are zee different one.”
On the other hand I then begin to do the opposite to them. I say to Reno, “But of course you are not the average Frenchman. The average Frenchman, he spit on the street, he throws the beer can out on Place de la Concorde, he drives like he is an idiot, he steals the antenna right off the Fiat, he is a slob, he knows nothing of politics of course.” Ohhh, he is purple! Because I’m giving back to him what he’s giving to me. And there is a kind of funny silence because they’re not used to getting it back in their own terms.
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So we’re whistling out through the night and we are going in the direction of “Paris 2,” which is the number one conversation subject in Paris. Now, what is “Paris 2”? It’s hard to explain it because there isn’t really much of a parallel to it in America, even though in Paris there is the myth going around that it is an American idea.
It’s way out in the French countryside somewhere. We drove up and down through lanes past little villages, through tiny streets with walled houses until suddenly, on a hillside, there it was, “Paris 2.” As we drew closer to it, it looked like we were approaching Disneyland. A kind of Disneyland. How can I describe “Paris 2”? I will begin to say that they think that it’s an American housing project. What they call luxury American housing, the kind where you buy an apartment. But actually when you get close to it—I’ve never seen anything in America remotely like it.
“Paris 2,” believe me, is really controversial in France. A group of French builders have built this fantastic cooperative housing project just outside of Paris and they sold eleven-hundred apartments when it opened the week before I arrived. This peculiar, strange-looking, other-world, vaguely fairyland, vaguely Howard Johnson, vaguely Texas place. That has no relationship to anything I ever saw in America, even though I may be describing it in American terms. And yet everybody in France believes firmly that “This is one of them American ideas. Very bad.” I couldn’t explain it to these people—this isn’t American!
At this point I’m really having a wild time. I’m really enjoying myself because the people I’m with are beginning to warm up. Gerard is beginning to feel his Alsatian wine, and Colette is beginning to tell dirty jokes in French, and Felipe is beginning to feel his oats, and Felice is having her fun, and Reno is nervous with me—he is supposed to be showing the better side of France and now they were all drunk. Oh, we were having a wild time. So Reno says to me, “We should go to the drugstore.”
[There are several “le drugstores” in and around Paris.
This is the one on the Champs Elysees.]
I said, “The drugstore.” It never occurred to me to go out on a big night on the town and go to the drugstore. Now get this—this is the country, friends, way out in the country, the equivalent of being somewhere near Flemington, New Jersey. There’s nothing. But right in the center of “Paris 2,” the hub of this establishment, on the hillside, is this thing! It looks like a sort of big mushroom all lit up.
Fantastic lights all the way around. Inside of it there must be a thousand light bulbs hanging at all different angles. It is lit inside like a stage set. Yellow, green, purple, mauve, amber spots all over the place. There it is, sitting on the hillside. Big thing. Must be the size of a football field. I can’t figure out what it is. He says, “This is the drugstore.”
We drive closer, a big cloverleaf in front of it and a giant parking lot. The place is mobbed with people, all sitting at different levels in big, plush, white, round booths that are like nightclub “conversation pits.” Gigantic things, white and puffy and sort of 1933-Jean Harlow style. Fluffy boudoir sort of things, all kind of very feminine, by the way.
Inside of this place are all kind of little shops—cashmere sweaters, very expensive perfumes and things. But they have absolutely no pharmacy or drugs anywhere. The drugstore in Paris has done away with drugs. You cannot buy any. I say to myself, “I’ll buy some razor blades.” Forget it. This is not a drugstore. It’s just called a drugstore.
And all the lights and the place is just blaring—it’s throbbing with rock and roll—dungadungadungadungadungadunga—and everyone is quietly sitting, nobody is dancing. It’s not a discotheque. They’re all in these conversation pits. French waiters are hurrying back and forth and up and down bringing frozen oranges and they’re bringing pressed duck and they’re bringing all kinds of magnificent food and ice cream and the whole business.
I’ve never seen anything in my life like this and we sit down in this thing and Girard turns to me. Girard the architect. And he says, “This is the sort of thing which I think has made the American not very well liked anywhere. Zis kind of American thing we have here.” He says, “Zis is fun to go to, but zis not French!”
I say, “This is not French? Are you kidding me! French? I don’t know what it is, Girard, but it ain’t American.”
He says, “Ah, come on, this is American. American drugstore.”
I say, “No! This is not like Liggett’s, This ain’t like Walgreens. This is like no drugstore. I’ve been in drugstores out on the Coast. I’ve been in Schwab’s in Hollywood. Nothing like this! There is nothing remotely like this.”
We spent the evening in The Drugstore. Isn’t it fantastic how the American is blamed all over the world and he doesn’t have anything to do with it? It doesn’t do any good to deny it. You just might as well go along with it and pretend like, “You think this is a drugstore, you should see the drugstore at home! Ohooo! Zis is nothing compared to what we have! Ohooo. We have zee drugstore that covers fifteen or seventeen or twenty blocks, we have seven-story drugstores. And I’m sitting in the middle of this, one of those wild nightmare nights, and I’m eating a mocha sundae, trying to pretend like this is my scene, this drugstore scene.
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