So I’m in Paris and it’s late at night and I’m feeling a little sick.
Earlier in the day I had hitched a ride in Barcelona with this American guy who was driving around Europe in a VW van and he drops me off at this youth hostel somewhere in the middle of the city. As I walk into the hostel I notice there’s a long line of ragtag young travelers and hippies waiting to buy tickets for the night.
It’s autumn and everyone has on jackets and scarves and hats. And almost everyone is carrying knapsacks. I’m tired from being on the road and half-asleep so I decide to circumvent the line and walk into the hostel from a side entrance. The inside of the place looks like a large gymnasium with dozens of cots positioned in neat rows across an old wooden floor. Some of the cots are already taken but there are many empty ones available. That’s a good sign, I think. Maybe they won’t all fill up for the night, maybe I’ll get lucky. So I pick out a cot toward the back of the hostel floor, take off my knapsack, jacket and cap and lie down.
I conk out right away, and I’m asleep for maybe an hour or two when I suddenly feel these cold stiff fingers, like little pool cues, poking me in the shoulder.
“ Excusez-moi, je dois contrôler votre billet,” I hear a voice say. I know a little French and can figure out what he’s getting at, but I feign ignorance.
“What? What did you say?”
“I should have guessed,” the concierge says smugly, reinforcing the French stereotype. “Where is your ticket for this bed?”
“Oh…” I pretend to search through my knapsack. I can’t really see what I’m doing; the only light, aside from a muted one on a far wall that creates an eerie penumbral effect, is the light that comes from the concierge’s flashlight.
“I can’t seem to find my ticket,” I say. “I must have lost it.”
“Of course you did,” he says with a capital P for Prick. “Please gather your things and leave.”
I get up from the cot, put on my shopworn brown leather jacket and cap, and throw my knapsack over my shoulder. As I make my way around the concierge, I notice there’s a young guy wearing a rasta cap standing beside him waiting to take my place; as I pass him by, he flashes a big smile and waves his ticket in my face, as if he’s just won the lottery.
I give him a dyspeptic smile as I exit stage left.
“Bonne chance!” I hear him proclaim with a sarcastic chuckle.
“Here, bonne chance this!” I mutter under my breath.
Truth be told, I’m going to need some luck because it’s pouring rain outside and the cold or flu or whatever the hell I caught seems to be getting worse.
I’m coughing now like I have a case of the croup and I’m shivering like I just stepped out of an ice plunge. To make matters worse, I don’t have a goddamn map and I have no fucking idea where I am.
I check my watch and it’s two o’clock in the morning; everything looks closed. So I zip up my jacket as far as it’ll go and start walking. I figure eventually I’ll find something that’s open. Maybe a café or a cheap hotel. That would be nice. In the distance I can see some lights flickering in the rain so I head in their direction. The more I walk, though, the farther away they seem. This doesn’t help my morale any, and I’m beginning to feel kind of weak and feverish.
Jesus Christ, I think to myself, am I just going to pass out and die here in the street on my first night in Paris?
But then I realize—no, I won’t! It’s against the hitchhiker code. Anyone who has ever done any hitchhiking will tell you that something always turns up. No matter how desperate you feel or how bad of a predicament you’re in, something always turns up. At least that used to be the case when I was young and the world was a friendlier place.
Anyway, I keep walking toward the lights and hoping for the best. And don’t you know, a few blocks later I bump into these two young Spanish guys who also had been hitchhiking. The taller of the two, whose name is Ramon, speaks English; he tells me he knows Paris pretty well and the Gare du Nord is up ahead about a half mile and we can find shelter there.
We don’t say much to each other as we walk through the cold hard rain.
As we approach the train station, the lights become brighter and I can see the tracks leading into the massive structure. Ramon leads us through the main concourse, down a corridor, to what appears to be some kind of waiting room. Because of the late hour there aren’t many travelers about and everything seems very still and quiet. Ramon looks furtively to his left and right as he opens the door to the waiting room. He explains that it is a private waiting room that needs to be reserved in advance.
“But it is late,” he adds as we walk in. “We’ll probably be OK until morning.”
The room is warm and plush and filled with two over-sized couches made of soft leather. The walls are solid wood with hand-carved trim and wainscoting. There is also a set of diffused lights ensconced in brass fixtures on the opposing walls, and underneath one of them sits a most welcome sight: a vending machine. Ramon and his friend immediately get hot coffee and I get a hot chocolate. We remove our knapsacks, spread out on the couches and sip our hot drinks.
As the hot chocolate flows down my esophagus and into my stomach it feels glorious, the perfect anodyne for my cold and weakened condition. Even my coughing has subsided. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a hot chocolate more. In a little while we finish our drinks and nod off to sleep. I don’t know how much time passes, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour when the door to the waiting room suddenly swings open and two gendarmes enter shining flashlights in our eyes. Judging from our appearance, they correctly assume we had not reserved the waiting room, so they just usher us out of our sanctuary and lead us down a long corridor to a large dimly-lit room filled with people sitting in straight-back metal chairs.
“We can spend the rest of the night here,” Ramon explains to me.
I look around. The place is packed. We split up and look for seats.
I don’t have to walk very far before I am hit with the overwhelming stench of urine, body odor and vomit. I take out my handkerchief and place it over my nose as I hunt for an empty seat. Judging from the looks of things, this salle d’attente is not for passengers waiting for their trains, but a public refuge for the dregs of Paris to spend the night so they don’t have to sleep on the streets.
I look at my watch. It’s almost four o’clock. I guess I’ll just have to tough it out until it’s light. I find a seat, take off my knapsack, and sit down on a straight-back metal chair, a far cry from the soft leather sofa I was asleep on just ten minutes ago. I close my eyes and keep my handkerchief over my nose. Even though the conditions are disgusting, I’m so tired I begin to fall asleep. A moment later I feel the seat next to me shaking. I look over at the guy sitting to my left.
“Oh, for crissake!” I say out loud.
The guy is whacking off at full speed like a goddamn jackhammer!
Fortunately, it doesn’t take him very long before he moans and shoots his load onto his ratty shopworn jacket. Praise to the gods, none of it splatters on me, and the guy keeps his head down and doesn’t look in my direction for any commentary or approbation.
I mean what could I say? How was it, laddybuck? Or– nice job!
The truth is, I feel like throwing up, but I don’t. It would be against the hitchhiker code. You can’t be too sensitive when you’re on the road, or get upset or angry too easily. You have to take things as they come, learn to detach, stay positive. So I fall back asleep. At six o’clock in the morning the lights come on and the gendarmes usher everyone out of the waiting room and onto the street. To my surprise it has stopped raining and the sun is peeking out from the clouds and shining its rich glow and warmth on me.
Not knowing which way to go, I start walking southeast toward what looks to be a main thoroughfare, and I end up on the Rue La Fayette.
The shops and bistros are beginning to open and I find a café with outdoor seating. I sit down at a small table and order a café au lait and a croissant. The beauty and majesty of Paris overwhelm me. The classical architecture, the magnificent buildings, the fashionably dressed citizens walking down the streets. The French definitely have a flair for art and life that is absent in the good old USA.
As I sip my hot coffee and let the sun languish on my face, my inner core begins to warm up and I feel stronger. And sacre bleu! My cough is gone!
I finish my breakfast and ask the waiter if he knows of a cheap hotel nearby. He is very helpful and down to earth, the antithesis of the French stereotype, and gives me the card of a hotel a few blocks away.
I head out to the hotel with a new spring in my step. I’m already fantasizing about taking a nice hot shower and catching up on some sleep at the hotel. Then I’ll do some sightseeing. Maybe the Louvre, maybe Notre Dame. After that I’ll drink some wine and check out the Parisian night life.
After all, I can do whatever I want. I’m free and unencumbered and in the hands of Fate. I’m living the hitchhiker code!