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Among the Blousards by Wirt Sikes

When the misèrables of the horrible and fascinating old Paris that people used to read about in the works of Eugène Sue and the elder Dumas were drawn into the streets of modern Paris by the ragings of the last revolution, people asked, "Where did these dreadful creatures come from?" Not only did the well-to-do citizen of Paris, who has his habitudes, and never departs from them, and knows nothing outside of them, ask this question, but the American or English tourist who was caught in Paris at the moment asked it. These frightful creatures were not Parisians, surely? Parisians! Why the very word is redolent of ess. bouquet! The well-to-do citizen, sipping his black coffee after dinner in his favorite corner on the Boulevard, explained that they came from the provinces—"Oui, they were provincials, these misèrables" And the tourist knew no better than the citizen where the Communist demon came from, with his flaring torch, his red eyes, his flying hair, his hoarse howl, his sturdy tramp, which trampled civilization in the dust, and his reckless spirit, which let loose all the devils of incarnate vice for a mad riot. There are no such creatures as this under the shadow of the Madeleine! We never meet them on the Boulevard des Italiens! They don't live in the Faubourg St. Germain! There are none such in the Champs Élysées, even on Sunday, when, as everybody knows, the lower orders invade the haunts of the better classes—to wit, ourselves, the tourists.

Nevertheless, these very creatures are still in Paris in great numbers. The most elegant tourist who has walked the streets of the French capital this year, though he kept strictly to the choicer quarters, has touched elbows with these creatures unconsciously; and if he has ventured into the Belleville quarter, into the regions beyond the Place of the Bastile, into the neighborhood of the Panthéon or the Gobelins tapestry-mill, he has been jostled against, on the narrow sidewalks of narrow streets, by thousands of them. They are not such a conspicuous feature of the city's daily life now as they were when the volcano of revolution was belching its lava torrent through the streets; but they are there. They are not now occupied in the way they were then; they make less noise; they dress more quietly; they attend, in one way or other, to the business of getting a living. Some are working at trades; some are playing at soldiers; some are keeping cabarets; some are driving fiacres. I am morally certain the rascal who drove me home from the Gymnase one night was a petroleum-flinger at the most active period of his existence. "Give me your ticket, cocher," I said to him; for the law requires the cabman to give to his fare, without solicitation, a, ticket with his number, and the legal rates of fare printed on it. He cracked his whip at the left ear of his steed, and drove on without paying any attention. "Give me your ticket," I repeated. This time he shrugged his shoulders—it requires a really superhuman effort on the part of a Frenchman to refrain from letting his shoulders fly up to his ears, whatever his determination to control himself—but drove on in silence. Then I brandished my umbrella, and punching him with that weapon in the back in an energetic manner, repeated, "Cocher, oblige me with your ticket, tout de suite." He turned round on his seat in a fury. "Ah, ça!" he roared, thee-thou-ing me as an expression of his direst rage and power of insult, "where hast thou come out of, then, that thou hast no sense left thee at the last?" Yes, I am morally certain he helped burn the Tuileries, that fellow!

Others of the former demons who howled in the Commune mobs are now doing the congenial work of thievery which they did before the Commune days, and especially during them. They are not the worst-looking of the demons. A thief is generally a rather sleek-looking person in his station. Rich thieves treat themselves to the best of broadcloth and the shiniest of tall hats. Poor thieves usually at least shave their faces, and try to look unforbidding. If they wear a blouse, it is because they belong on a social scale which does not dream of wearing a coat. The blousard of Paris may be either a thief or a working-man: he is always the one or the other, and sometimes he is both.

The great mass of those who rioted in the Commune—the rank and file of that turbulent army—may be found wherever there are blouses in Paris. Occasionally, arrests are made, even now, of men who were prominently active, unduly noisy, in that terrible time: the French police has got a list of such, and will go on tracking them down and bringing them to punishment for years to come, or until the next revolution arrives. In a most respectable street in the Faubourg St. Germain, where I lived, a quiet wine-seller next door to me was arrested and his business broken up nearly two years after the war was over, his only offence being that he had been too active a Communist. Later, an industrious blousard of my acquaintance was arrested at his work, and sent to prison for the same offence: he was a carriage-maker. In the Rue de Provence an old woman who begged very assiduously with a drugged baby, and whom I used to watch from my window by the half hour, fascinated by her practical methods of doing business, was hauled up one day on the same charge, and went her way with the gendarme, to be seen no more. A meeker-looking old creature I never saw as she leaned against the wall over the way, and collected sous industriously from the passers-by, and hid them in a pocket in the small of the poor baby's back; but I was told she displayed tremendous energy as a pétroleuse in those other days when robbery was a better trade than even beggary.

You may have observed, when you have been returning home from the opera some night in Paris, in the gloom succeeding midnight, a dusky figure moving along by the paved gutter in the shadow of a large square lantern which he carries. The lantern has a light only in front, and catches your eye as it glides along two or three inches above the paving-stones, so that you see the figure in the shadow behind it but dimly. Close down to the stones it throws its glare for two or three feet about, and into that glare-emerges a hook—an iron hook—which pokes and prods at>out in the gutters, and now and then fastens like a finger on a wisp of paper and disappears behind the lamp. Following the hook with your eye, you see that it deposits the wisps of paper in a deep basket fastened on the back of a man. The is shaggy, dirty and begrimed. He wears a hat which he has at some fished out of a gutter, a ragged blue blouse, a raggeder apron, which was in its brighter days a coffee-sack, and wooden shoes upon his feet. A short pipe, sometimes alight, but more often empty, is in a corner of his mouth. No one needs to be told who he is or what his calling. In the argot of the blousards he is known as the Chevalier of the Hook.

The ragpicker of Paris has been often written of, but what I have read of him has never shown him to me in quite the colors I have found him in by personal observation and inquiry concerning his ways of life. He has been somewhat idealized in print, I find. Victor Hugo has presented him in a light not unlike that of Cooper's noble savage—with large difference of color and pose, of course. The average Frenchman knows Cooper's noble savage as well as we know Hugo's romantic ragpicker, and he knows nothing of the American Indian besides. (It is a curious fact, which I may note in passing, that the only American author whose writings appear to be really well known in Paris to-day is Fenimore Cooper. Next to him stands Edgar Poe—Poaye, as the French call him, pronouncing both the vowels.) There is a street in the crowded quarter of Paris back of the Panthéon which has the, reputation of being the especial haunt of the ragpickers. It is called the Rue Mouffetard, and includes many of this class of blousards among its population; but as there are over twenty thousand ragpickers in Paris, it needs little argument to show that they are not all hived in the Rue Mouffetard. Great numbers live in the Brise Miche quarter, behind the church of St. Méry; at Montmartre, along the Canal de Bièvre; in the purlieus of Belleville; out beyond the Bastile; in fact, wherever there is dirt enough to suit their tastes. For if the truth is to be written here, it must be said that the ragpicker of Paris is the most degraded creature ever met in the guise of a human being. I have met Digger Indians, too, in California. There is something to be said in defence of the bestiality of a Digger: he has not been exposed to the refining influences of surrounding civilization; he was reared in darkness and ignorance; so were his fathers before him for many generations; the white man and his ways have just dawned upon the poor Digger's consciousness; and so on. These things cannot be said for the ragpicker of Paris. He is almost equally dirty with the Digger, and he lives in the gayest capital of the world. He is also almost equally ignorant with the Digger: neither can read or write; neither has any idea whether the world is round or flat; neither is aware, save dimly, that there are other lands and other peoples than his own; but the ragpicker is in a city full of books and newspapers (and, oddly enough, is a principal purveyor for the mills that make paper for printing); and the Digger has the advantage in the comparison. The Digger lives in vicious sexual relations, but in this particular point the comparison leaves the Indian far in advance of his rival, for the ragpicker's customs in this regard are worse by far than those of even the most degraded Indians of America. There is nothing in any savage country more horrible, more astounding and incredible than the practices of the ragpickers of Paris in respect of the relations between the sexes. They are so atrociously vile that it is difficult to state the truth in cleanly words.

You may have heard that a ragpicker who has risen to the rank of a boss in his trade, and so remains at home in a shop and goes out with his hook no more, is called an ogre. A woman attaining this dignity is called an ogress. The terms are not idle ones. Like many of the words and phrases of slang they are based on the clearest conception of the merits of the case. An ogre or ogress without a daughter, real or adopted, lacks the first requisite for doing a successful business. The ogre or ogress has his or her especial workmen, who go out and scour the streets, bringing home their load, and being paid in board and lodging simply. When there is a daughter in the business the workmen are her husbands. The process of divorce is easy, and consists simply in the ragpicker's returning with his hotte (la hotte is the basket which hangs on the back) to some other ogre or ogress after his daily or nightly tour of the streets. Marriage among the ragpickers of Paris is so rare an incident as to be virtually no part of their plan of life.

The Paris ragpicker is seldom seen in the streets by day: his most profitable season is the night. And what meagre pickings are his at the best! what despicable bits of paper, of twine, of coal-refuse, of rejected food, bones, potato-skins, he gathers carefully in his hoard! A bit of paper no larger than a postage-stamp he saves. A crust of bread no bigger than a walnut is a prize, for rare are the households in Paris in which a crust that is large enough to be visible to the naked eye is allowed to be thrown into the street. Standing and watching this poor wretch prodding in a gutter after hopeless infinitesimals, I have pictured to myself what emotions would surge through his breast if a New York garbage-barrel were to be set down before him. I am not sure he would be able to refrain from fainting away at sight of such a mine of wealth. Happy ragpicker of New York who takes his morning stroll and his lordly pick from the contents of the teeming barrels our servants set out on the pavement for him! He does not have to work at night: he is a sort of prince, compared to his Paris fellow. If a Paris ragpicker could have the monopoly of the barrels in a single block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, I am convinced he would retire from business at the end of ten years with an independent fortune—that is, if with the New York barrels he could have the Paris market and live on Paris fare. It is an old story that in Paris nothing is wasted. The very mud in the streets is gathered up and sold. There is a market for everything.

An important division of the army of blousards is that composed of the street-sweepers of Paris. They share the Rue Mouffetard and the Place Maubert with the ragpickers, and, like them, are scattered about in various poorer quarters of the city. Ever-picturesque argot has given them a name of ridicule, and calls them les peintres and their brooms their inspired brushes. Every tourist has seen those unhappy wretches at work, sometimes alone, sometimes in gangs of three or four, men and women together. There is no distinction of sex in this branch of industry, as indeed there is in none of the lowest fields of labor in Paris. Women and girls are quite often ragpickers; among the street-sweepers they form a good half of the force; they are also street—peddlers, dragging cartloads of vegetables about and crying aloud their wares; they are porters, lugging bundles on their backs; they are oyster-openers, hacking away with iron knife at coarse shells; they even drive drays and big market-wagons; they split wood and shovel coal, and in a hundred ways confound and confuse those theorizers who pretend that male bone and muscle is by nature brawnier than female. The female scavengers are quite as strong, quite as coarse, quite as dirty, and can smoke their pipes with quite as much gusto as their male compeers.

The scavengers are six thousand in number, and are employed by contractors, who pay them at the rate of four to eight sous per hour. They use up seventy thousand brooms a year, and the filth they gather is rotted in pits and sold for manure, yielding about seven hundred thousand dollars a year. Until the rubbish of New York streets is made to yield a profit in a similar manner our streets will never be cleaned as they should be. But I fear it is hopeless to expect that New York streets will ever be cleaned as they are in Paris, from lack of the human element that does the work in the French capital. A hard ten hours' work would yield the Paris scavenger forty to eighty sous, and on this sum he would be rich, for he can clothe and feed himself on a sum which would scarcely buy a New York laborer what drink he needs alone, to say nothing about food and clothing. But the Paris scavenger is rarely privileged to work ten hours a day, and his earnings the year round will barely exceed on an average twenty-five cents a day. For this sum he can have sufficient food, and as for clothing, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that he never buys any. At various stages in his career he becomes possessed by a stroke of fortune of some article of cast-off clothing, which he wears, as it were, for life. Ordinarily, the poorest blousard has a new blouse once in five or ten years, and a new pair of wooden shoes in the same time; but the scavenger's apparel is for ever old, and he never lays it off. I have seen thousands of men and women in Paris of whom it would be mere idle dreaming to suppose that they undressed themselves at night. Their clothing was practically as much a part of them as their skins. It is only in the matter of lodging that the lowest classes of Paris are hard pressed. Rents in Paris are high. Few families, even of the better sort of blousards, have a home attractive enough to compete with the fascinations of the street or the café. Even in the Rue Mouffetard there are cafés where wine is sold at two sous the glass, and even cheaper, which would put to the blush some of the most frequented "saloons" of Broadway in point of elegance and comfort for the lounger. Stuccoed walls, frescoed ceilings, huge mirrors, velvet sofas, marble-topped tables, gleaming chandeliers, gilt and glitter that would be called "palatial" in New York, make the place attractive. Yet a man could hardly be too ragged to be welcome therein if he had a few sous in his pocket.

The scavenger and the ragpicker, being the lowest grade of blousards, do not always rise to the dignity even of a blouse. They wear a coat sometimes, but it is a marvel of a coat, and was in the last stages of tottering old age before it fell to the blousard. They wear leather boots too sometimes, instead of the wooden shoes belonging to their station, but they are boots which are but a mockery and a delusion, and yield the wearer no comfort. A respectable blousard—a carpenter or a shoemaker or a member of any honest trade—would scorn to be seen in any other dress but his neat blouse, unless on some great day, a fete, his wedding or at church, when he wears his only coat, or his father's or a friend's. The blouse is in its sphere a badge of respectability to the wearer, and honest blousards look upon the assumption of a blouse by a thief as a gross imposition upon the public at large and an outrage upon honest workingmen. There is a wide range of quality in blouses, too. I bought one in the Rue Mouffetard, to wear as a protection in some of my night-wanderings, for the sum of forty cents: it was a plain frock of coarse stuff, with a string at the neck. But there were blouses of several degrees of fineness in the shop—some of very fine linen, tied with a white silk ribbon, and neatly embroidered. The usual color of blouses is white, blue or black. The material is often a coarse, warm cloth, such as one might make a very respectable overcoat of, I should think. In cold weather it is common to see men wearing two or even three blouses, one over the other. Caps are sold at from twenty to sixty cents each in the same street. It will be seen that clothing is inexpensive to the blousard, and as the fashions never change with him, he never lays aside a garment till it is quite worn out.

One of the peculiar features of low Paris is the shop for the sale of articles at the uniform price of one son. One before which I paused in the Rue Mouffetard was presided over, by two women—evidently grandmother and granddaughter. The former was as grotesque a type of the jolly old vendeuse of Paris as it would be possible to find. A low, winey humor twinkled in her little black eyes, hidden in wrinkly wads of fat; her nose glowed with good feeling; her toothless mouth smirked good-naturedly. A worn shawl covered her chunky shoulders, and a cap like a muslin and flannel extinguisher protected her bald old head from the weather. The granddaughter, being young and rather pretty, was less interesting as a picture of a curious type. The shop occupied a corner, and seemed to literally overflow upon the sidewalks of the two streets, so that care was needful in moving about to avoid stumbling over the profuse array of objects which littered the way. A group of old women were standing near, laughing and chattering in toothless merriment over some mysterious cause of amusement, which I grievously suspected to be myself, the apparition of a foreigner being no doubt an uncommon one in that quarter. But the women of the shop, having an eye to sales, were obsequiously polite to the stranger. I engaged in conversation with the old woman, who proved quite communicative, and set me off on a path of inquiry which yielded information of curious interest.

"Voyez!" cried out the younger woman from behind the broad counter open to the street, and spread with a literally innumerable variety of articles—"Voyez! All one sou! your choice in the sale!"

To study the shop was to find many suggestions of the types of people living in the surrounding buildings—alphabets and whistles for children; playing-cards for gamesters; camphor cigarettes for invalids; sewing-cases for work-girls; mirrors for coquettes; and toys innumerable, "all one sou." In the grand shops on the fashionable boulevards you may see the last new mode in toys—for no season goes by in Paris without bringing some especial toy or toys to become "the rage"—but in the Rue Mouffetard the toys are all classics. They have been handed down from generation to generation precisely in the forms you see them here. Babies who are now tottering grandfathers and grandmothers played with the toys of the "boutique à un sou" in their day, as the babies of the present do, and paid the same price for them, in spite of the changes of time and the decreased purchasing value of the son in most respects. I bought a large collection of these toys purely as objects of curiosity, and it was really amazing to see, when spread out on a table, what a collection I had gathered for the incredible price of sixteen cents. Many of the toys would be readily recognized as old acquaintances in America, but others, common here for a hundred years past, I never saw at home. The articulated monkey chasing his nose over the end of a stick; the wooden snake undulating in a surprisingly life-like manner; the noisy "watchman's rattle," which in our village was popularly supposed to be the constant companion of the New York policeman on his beat; the jumping-jack, the wooden sword, the whip and the doll,—all these are household friends in the humblest American homes. But not so the frog which jumps with a spring, the wooden hammers which fall alternately on their wooden anvil by the simplest of contrivances, and the horseman without legs, whose horse has a whistle instead of a tail. How any one of these articles could be sold for a sou passed my comprehension until I learned details so surprising as to throw this one quite into the shade.

There are blousards whose whole lives are passed in carving these toys from the wood of the linden tree, and daubing them with the most flaming reds, the most glittering yellows, the most dazzling blues, that ever colorist beheld. The toy whips with handles decorated with gilt paper wrapped about them spirally are said to be exclusively made by Israelites, but the ingenuity of the human mind has not devised an explanation of this curious fact. The papier-mâché sheep is one of the most elaborately fashioned toys sold for a sou, and the mode of making it is this: The workman takes old scraps of paper and mashes them in water to a pulp: this he sticks around the inside of a rude mould, which is in two parts, one for each side of the sheep. When the two sides are moulded, he sticks them together and dips the whole in a pot of white mucilaginous paint. When this coating is dry, he tattoos the sheep according to his fancy, covers its back with a bit of sheepskin, and ties a red string around its neck. And all this work for a sou? is one's incredulous question. Why, our blousard would think his fortune was made if he could get a sou for it. The retailer in the Rue Mouffetard sells it for a sou: the man who made it would be happy if he could sell it at the rate of eight sous the dozen, but, like most other workers, he must deal with a middleman. No retailer could take his stock off his hands in sufficient quantities: he must sell to a wholesale dealer in the first place, and the wholesale dealer sells to the little shopkeeper at eight sous the dozen. All this work for half a sou, then! And when it is added that the workman has to furnish the materials for his work besides, it really entitles the toy to a niche in the realms of the marvelous. I have found my eyes growing moist in New York as I listened to the tales of sewing-girls who made coarse shirts at six cents apiece, and found the thread, but such cases were exceptional, and could only be viewed in the light of intolerable hardships; while the poor wretches who make these toys at these prices are following the trade to which they were bred, and which their fathers followed before them, and their only fear is that they may be unable to get enough of this work to do. Each of the other toys in my collection is made at the same or a smaller price. The little lead candlestick is sold by the wholesale dealer at four sous the dozen. Whistles are sold at two sous the dozen. There are little watches of stamped brass with a crystal, movable hands, and a cord of yellow cotton with an occasional gold thread running through it, which are sold wholesale at seven sous the dozen.

"Voyez! Make your choice, brave parents! If the little one pulls in pieces the object of his affection, no matter: it will not derange your resources to replace it."

Courier, in the preface to his translation of Herodotus, tells us that Malherbe, the courtier, used to say, "I learn all my French at the Place Maubert," and that Plato, who was a poet and did not like the lower orders, nevertheless called them his "masters of language." The gamin of Paris, who is the father of argot, long ago gave to the quarter of the city through which the Rue Mouffetard runs a name which clings to it tenaciously. He called it the "quartier souffrant"—the suffering quarter. A designation like this, given by a magazinist, would be fitting enough, certainly, but received into the current slang of Paris, it becomes a really striking phrase. It is nothing to read of a suffering quarter, but it is almost startling to hear an omnibus conductor call out, "Place Maubert! Rue St. Victor! Panthéon! Quartier Souffrant! Anybody for the Suffering Quarter?" and to see a rheumatic old woman, tottering with years and clad in dirty rags, get down and go clattering off into the quarter to which she so palpably belongs.

The Rue Mouffetard, which in old times was a continuation of the Place Maubert from the river Seine, then extended in an unbroken line to the Barrière d'Italie, at the remote southern limit of the city of Paris. The Haussmannizing reform which set in under the Empire went at the horrible neighborhood with a sort of sublime fury of destruction. Whole blocks of dark, forbidding buildings were obliterated by the pickaxes of the blousards, who thus assisted at their own regeneration. The result is, that there is a long and wide avenue now stretching its lines of lamps into the distance from the point where the Rue Mouffetard stops and the Avenue Gobelins begins. The old street—the portion of it which remains—looks with a dazed and dirty sorrowfulness up the broad, clean avenue which once was dirty and narrow like itself. The work of transformation ceased with the breaking out of the war with Germany. So did the like work in numerous other quarters of the town which needed it quite as badly as the Rue Mouffetard. But under the government of the Septennat the work has been resumed in some degree. The double purpose is hereby served of letting in light on the dark spots of the town, and of giving employment to the needy blousards, who might get into obstreperous moods again if crowded too hard by poverty and want. It seems at first sight an awful destruction of property, this work of demolition, but I believe it has been proved that the rise in value of the real estate thus regenerated more than compensates for the losses sustained, in the long run. All the blousard cares about the matter, however, is that it gives him work, and that is what he craves.

To see gangs of brawny fellows tearing down walls, ripping off doors, carrying away timbers on their shoulders when a street is in its decaying stage, is to see a most interesting sight. At the entrance of the street a sign is put up: "RUE BARRÉE." The front walls of buildings torn away, winding staircases are seen climbing up with all their burden of years upon them and all their secret weaknesses exposed. Sometimes these stairways are of stone, sometimes of wood: when the latter, if in a fair state of preservation, they are taken away bodily, to be put up again in some remote quarter of the town. Shop-windows are offered for sale for like purposes. At night the scene is made lurid by the glare of triangular lanterns, which throw out their warning red light, and the entrance to the street is carefully guarded. Gradually the old buildings are taken to pieces and removed, bit by bit. New walls of creamy stone, with modern windows, handsomely carved cornices, stone piazzas, and the like, are built up. The street has become widened where it was narrow, and straightened where it was crooked. The very sidewalks on either side of the new boulevard or avenue are as wide as was the whole of the old street which has now disappeared. And with the old street the old tenants have disappeared too. Handsome shops occupy the ground-floors, wealthy citizens live in the richly adorned apartments on the upper floors. The blousards who hived in the old street have found a nook in some other old street, or they have fled to the suburbs—the best place for them, as it is for all people of limited resources in all large towns.