by Langston Hughes
My ticket and the French visa had taken nearly all my money. I got to the Gare du Nord in Paris early one February morning with only seven dollars in my pockets. I didn't know anybody in Paris. I didn't know anybody in the whole of Europe. But I had made up my mind to pass the rest of the winter in Paris.
I checked my bags at the parcel stand, and had some coffee and rolls in the station. I found that my high school French didn't work very well, and that I understood nothing anyone said to me. They talked too fast. But I could read French.
I went outside the station and saw a bus marked Opera. I knew the opera was at the center of Paris, so I got in the bus and rode down there, determined to do a little sight-seeing before I looked for work, or maybe starved to death. When I got to the Opera, a fine wet snow was falling. People were pouring out of the Metro on their way to work. To the right and left of me stretched the Grands Boulevards. I looked across the street and saw the Cafe de la Paix. Ahead the Vendome. I walked down the rue de la Paix, turned, and on until I came out at the Concorde. I recognized the Champs Elysees, and the great Arc de Triomphe in the distance through the snow.
Boy, was I thrilled! I was torn between walking up the Champs Elysees or down along the Seine, past the Tuileries. Finally, I took the river, hoping to see the bookstalls and Notre Dame. But I ended up in the Louvre instead, looking at Venus.
It was warmer in the Louvre than in the street, and the Greek statues were calm and friendly. I said to the statues: "If you can stay in Paris as long as you've been here and still look O.K., I guess I can stay a while with seven dollars and make a go of it." But when I came out of the Louvre, I was tired and hungry. I had no idea where I would sleep that night, or where to go about finding a cheap hotel. So I began to look around for someone I could talk to. To tell the truth, I began to look for a colored person on the streets of Paris.
As luck would have it, I came across an American Negro in a doorman's uniform. He told me most of the American colored people he knew lived in Montmartre, and that they were musicians working in the theaters and night clubs. He directed me to Montmartre. I walked. I passed Notre Dame de Lorette, then on up the hill. I got to Montmartre about four o'clock. Many of the people there were just getting up and having their breakfast at that hour, since they worked all night. I don't think they were in a very good humor, because I went into a little cafe where I saw some colored musicians sitting, having their coffee. I spoke to them, and said: "I've just come to Paris, and I'm looking for a cheap place to stay and a job."
They scowled at me. Finally one of them said: "Well, what instrument do you play?"
They thought I was musical competition.
I said: "None. I'm just looking for an ordinary job."
Puzzled, another one asked: "Do you tap dance, or what?"
"No," I said, "I've just got off a ship and I want any kind of a job there is."
"You must be crazy, boy," one of the men said. "There ain't no ‘any kind of a job' here. There're plenty of French people for ordinary work. 'Less you can play jazz or tap dance, you'd just as well go back home."
"He's telling you right," the rest of the fellows at the table agreed, "there's no work here."
But one of them indicated a hotel. "Go over there across the street and see if you can't get a little room cheap."
I went. But it was high for me, almost a dollar a day in American money. However, I had to take the room for that night. Then I ate my first dinner in Paris - boeuf au gros sel, and a cream cheese with sugar. Even with the damp and the slush - for the snow had turned to a nasty rain - I began to like Paris a little, and to take it personally.
The next day I went everywhere where people spoke English, looking for a job - the American Library, the Embassy, the American Express, the newspaper offices. Nothing doing. Besides I would have to have a carte d'identite. But it would be better to go back home, I was advised, because there were plenty of people out of work in Paris.
"With five dollars, I can't go back home," I said.
People shrugged their shoulders and went on doing whatever they were doing. I tramped the streets. Late afternoon of the second day came. I went back to Montmartre, to that same little cafe in front of my hotel, where I had no room that night - unless I paid again. And if I did take the same room again, with supper, I'd have scarcely four dollars left!
My bags were still checked at the station, so I had no clean clothes to put on. It was drizzling rain, and I was cold and hungry. I had had only coffee and a roll all day. I felt bad.
I slumped down at a table in the small cafe and ordered another - the second that day. I ate the croissant and wondered what on earth I ought to do. I decided tomorrow to try the French for a job somewhere, maybe the Ritz or some other of the large hotels, or maybe where I had seen them building a big building on one of the boulevards. Perhaps they could use a hodcarrier.
The cafe had begun to be crowded, as the afternoon darkened into a damp and murky dusk. A tall, young colored fellow came in and sat down at the marble-topped table where I was. He ordered a coffee, and asked me if I wanted to play dominoes.
I said no, I was looking for a cheap room.
He recommended his hotel, where he lived by the month, but when we figured it out, it was about the same as the place across the street, too high for me. I said I meant a really cheap room. I said I didn't care about heat or hot water or carpets on the floor right now, just a place to sleep. He said he didn't know of any hotels like that, as cheap as I needed.
Just then a girl, with reddish-blond hair, sitting on a bench that ran along the wall, spoke up and said: "You say you look at one hotel?"
I said: "Yes."
She said: "I know one, not much dear."
"Where?" I asked her. "And how much?"
"Almost not nothing," she said, "not dear! No! I will show you. Come."
She put on her thin coat and got up. I followed her. She was a short girl, with a round, pale Slavic face and big dark eyes. She had a little rouge on her cheeks. She had on a wine-red hat with a rain-wilted feather. She was pretty, but her slippers were worn at the heels. We walked up the hill in silence, across the Place Blanche and up toward the rue Lepic. Finally I said to her, in French, that I had very little money and the room would have to be very cheap or I would have nothing left to eat on, because I had no travaille. No and travaille no prospects, and I was not a musician.
She answered that this was the cheapest hotel in Montmartre, where she was taking me. "Pas de tout cher." But, as she spoke, I could tell that her French was almost as bad as mine, so we switched back to English, which she spoke passably well.
She said she had not been in Paris long, that she had come from Constantinople with a ballet troupe, and that she was Russian. Beyond that, she volunteered no information. The drizzling February rain wet our faces, the water was soggy in my shoes, and the girl looked none too warm in her thin but rather chic coat. After several turns up and down a narrow, winding street, we came to the hotel, a tall, neat-looking building, with a tiled entrance hall. From a tiny sitting room came a large French woman. And the girl spoke to her about the room, the very least dear, for m'sieu.
"Oui," said the woman, "a quite small room, by the week, fifty francs."
"I'll take it," I said, "and pay two weeks." I knew it would leave me almost nothing, but I would have a place to sleep.
I thanked the girl for bringing me to the hotel and I invited her to a cup of coffee with me next time we met at the cafe. We parted at the Place Blanche, and I went to the station to get my bags, now that I had some place to put them. After paying for the room and the storage of my bags, I had just about enough money left for coffee and rolls for a week - if I ate nothing but coffee and one roll a meal.
I was terribly hungry and it took me some time to get to the station by Metro. I got back to the hotel about nine that night, through a chilly drizzle. My key was not hanging on the hallboard, but the landlady pointed up, so I went up. It was a long climb with the bags, and I stopped on each landing to rest. I guess I was weak with hunger, having only eaten those two croissants all day. When I got to my room, I could see a light beneath the door, so I thought maybe I was confused about the number. I hesitated, then knocked. The door opened and there stood the Russian girl.
I said: "Hello!"
I didn't know what else to say.
She said: "I first return me," and smiled.
Her coat was hanging on a nail behind the door and a small bag sat beneath the window. She was barefooted, her wet shoes were beneath the heatless radiator, and her stockings drying on the foot of the bed.
I said: "Are you going to stay here, too?"
She said: "Of course! Mais oui! Why you think, I find one room?"
She had her hat off. Her red-blond hair was soft and wavy. She laughed and laughed. I laughed, too, since I didn't know what to say.
"I have no mon-nee nedder," she said.
We sat down on the bed. In broken English, she told me her story. Her name was Sonya. Her dancing troupe had gone to pieces in Nice. She had bought a ticket to Paris. And here we were - in a room that was all bed, just space barely to open the door, that was all, and a few nails in the barren wall, on which to hang clothes. No heat in the radiator. No table, no washstand, no chair, but a deep window seat that could serve as a chair and a place to put things on. It was cold, so cold you could see your breath. But the rent was cheap, so you couldn't ask for much.
We didn't ask for anything.
I put my suitcase under the bed. Sonya hung her clothes on the nails. She said: "If you have some francs I go chez l'epicerie and get white cheese and one small bread and one small wine and we have supper. Eat right here. That way are less dear."
I gave her ten francs and she went out shopping for the supper. We spread the food on the bed. It tasted very good and cost little, cheese and crisp, fresh bread and a bottle of wine. But I could see my francs gone in a few days more. Then what would we do? But Sonya said she was looking for a job, and perhaps she would find one soon, then we both could eat.
Not being accustomed to the quick friendship of the dispossessed, I wondered if she meant it. Later, I knew she did. She found a job first. And we both ate.
The day after I took the room, I wrote to my mother in McKeesport, requesting a loan. It was the first time I had ever written home asking for money. I told her that I was stranded in Paris, and would she or Dad please cable me twenty dollars. But I wondered how I would live the ten or twelve days I'd have to wait for the letter to reach America and the answer to come back. I was sure, however, that the money would come if my step-father had it. He was always generous and a good sport, my step-father.
Before I would have written my own father for a penny, I would have died in Paris, because I knew his answer would be: "I told you you should have listened to me, and gone to Switzerland to study, as I asked you!" So I would not write my father, though hunger reduced me to a skeleton, and I died of malnutrition on the steps of the Louvre.
Hunger came, too. Bread and cheese once a day couldn't keep hunger away. Selling your clothes, when you didn't have many, couldn't keep hunger away. Going to bed early and sleeping late couldn't keep hunger away. Looking for a job and always being turned down couldn't keep hunger away. Not sleeping alone couldn't keep hunger away.
Sonya did her stretching exercises on the bed every morning. There wasn't room to do them on the floor, and she wanted to keep in shape in case she got a job dancing. But Montmartre was full of Russian dancers - and no jobs.
She was twenty-four, older than I was. Her father had been on the wrong side in the Russian Revolution and had escaped to Turkey. He died in Roumania. Then Sonya danced in Bucharest, Budapest, Athens and Constantinople, Trieste, and Nice, where the troupe of dancers went to pieces because the manager fell ill, and contracts and working permits ran out. So Sonya, who, like me, had never seen Paris before, had packed up and come north.
Now, her costumes were all in pawn, and her best clothes, too. Still, she didn't look bad when she went out. She walked with her head up. And from the hands of the usurer she had managed to hold back one evening gown of pearl-colored sequins, hanging limp against our wall.
End of Montmartre by Langston Hughes