In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes my Paris neighborhood as “a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse.” Orwell changed the street name to Rue du Coq d’Or. Take another look. It’s Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris. It’s hardly a slum now, but many of Orwell’s memories, like the sour reek of the refuse-carts and drunken singing in the middle of the night, are vividly present today. I marvel at the fact that George Orwell once prowled the streets there, as did John Calvin and Rabelais before him.
Orwell concludes the first chapter of Down and Out in Paris and London with brief sketches of a few of Rue du Coq d’Or’s denizens:
There were eccentric characters in the hotel. The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people–people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Some of the lodgers in our hotel lived lives that were curious beyond words.
There were the Rougiers, for instance, an old, ragged, dwarfish couple who plied an extraordinary trade. They used to sell postcards on the Boulevard St Michel. The curious thing was that the postcards were sold in sealed packets as pornographic ones, but were actually photographs of chateaux on the Loire; the buyers did not discover this till too late, and of course never complained . The Rougiers earned about a hundred francs a week, and by strict economy managed to be always half starved and half drunk. The filth of their room was such that one could smell it on the floor below. According to Madame F., neither of the Rougiers had taken off their clothes for four years.