Looking Down on Paris, 30 years gone

Below is an excerpt from a “sorta memoir” and work-in-progress, tentatively titled “CRAZY DAYS: Confessions of of a Fallen Altar Boy.” This is a fictionalized-non-fiction account of the night in 1986 when I attended Midnight Mass high above Paris at Sacre Coeur Cathedral — or to use the full French rendering: La Basilique du Sacre Couer de Montmarte. Meanwhile, my Moroccan workmate and fellow traveler Meanwhile, my Moroccan workmate and fellow traveler in helping build a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in a Paris suburb, Abdul-Ghani, was asleep back in a spartan, 7th floor walk-up room a couple blocks away, in a centuries-old building from back in the day when Napoleon was writing odes to his lover Josephine’s lady bits. Free subscribe to this publication’s newsletter for word of when the book is released into the wild. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno.

The interior of Sacre Coeur Cathedral. | Photo by Pascal/Flickr

CHAPTER | Still Paris |

Abdul-Ghani snores on the bed. Framed by his thick, black curly hair, his face is a Renaissance portrait of contentment. On the small table near the two chairs rests our dinner baguette, now half its size, one end looking as if gnawed off by a beaver. The round of camembert has been reduced to a semi-circle, with white, cheesy crumbs around it. I should clean these up lest there be a family of mice descended from Napoleonic times in the place.

The tall green bottle of Castelvin is greatly diminished with more than half the cheap Spanish red wine gone. I reach for my white porcelain cup, one of only two cups found in the room’s single, spare cabinet. Toss back the last inch of raspberry-colored liquid. Abdul-Ghani’s cup is empty, but for what looks like a drop of blood at the bottom. I fold the gold wrapper on the end of what is left of the chocolate bar. I suppose I could leave out a chunk of chocolate on a plate, should Santa and his reindeer deign to land on our building’s rooftop to deliver presents deep into the Parisian night. But how would Santa even know the coordinates of our whereabouts, camped without permission in a Le Service des Jeunes Volontaires apartment not our own?

Besides, my Christmas present is out the window. I flick a wall switch, clicking off the single bare bulb hanging from the room’s high ceiling. The room drops into shadows. The blueish light of nighttime Paris backlights the tall, white gauze curtains. Exactly where I am headed. I gear up for the long trudge down the circular stairwell of the old apartment block, the many floors lit only by the pallid glow of intermittent light bulbs on the long way down.

I hit the old streets of Paris. The air this Christmas Eve is chilly and smells of woodsmoke, charcoal and exhaust. I direct my feet onto steeper, upward-leading sidewalks and cobblestones. After ten minutes of exertion, I take a moment to catch my breath. Bent over, hands on knees. I press on. A reward, a princely Christmas present, awaits.

And so there it is. La Basilique du Sacre Coeur. By any measure and any title, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris is one of the world’s great complexes of buildings. The white building and its domes, illuminated by yellow electric lights, rise so high that I feel like a small bird on a lawn, gazing up at an oak tree. The multiple domes cause the eye to double-take and ricochet, one to the other and back again. They are not quite onion domes of the Russian sort. More like the slender ovoid shape of wild onions. The building complex would fit right into the urban landscape of an alien civilization in a sci-fi movie or comic book.

La Basilique du Sacre Coeur de Montmarte | Colorized rendering.

Yet there are not one, but two awe-inspiring things to admire while standing on the front porch of Sacre Coeur at night. I turn around to to see the other. Sacre Coeur rests upon the highest plot of land in all Paris — the Butte Montmarte. It has always been a popular spot, if not a sacred one, a dip into Paris history reveals. Druids may have worshiped here. And the Romans — ever marking their advances and colonialism with architecture — built temples to Mars and Mercury on the spot.

From this eagle’s nest you gaze down upon the ancient plains of the city, tucked all about the meander of the Seine River. And ‘tucked’ is an apt word since Paris is a cozy, people-sized city which hugs close to the ground. The city is mostly absent of skyscrapers, except for a patch seen to the far left — the suburb of La Defense, which juts up like a small stand of cornstalks in a rolling field of clover.

Looking down from Sacre Coeur, the eye picks out the exceptions to the city’s low profile. There is the Arc d’Triomphe, the mammoth ceremonial arch that appears to need a bridge to go with it. But the arch is indeed a bridge, if an historic one, to the glories — and tragedies, it must be said — of France’s triumphant, and not-so triumphant, conquering past. Over there is the skeletal mass of Le Tour Eiffel, possibly the world’s most recognized landmark. As iconic as the tower is in all corners of the planet, how astonishing to see it from above and know that a host of the city’s residents despised it at first sight as it went up.

My smitten affair with the city deepens now that I see from this high perch — for scores of miles in all directions — why Paris is called La Ville-Lumière. The City of Light. Looking down from the Butte Montmarte, you see a million lights that radiate to the horizons. As a Paris-phile, my pre-trip homework had instructed me in how the great architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann brawnily redrew the city’s urban grid at the request of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon. He demolished much of medieval Paris along the way — or as he wrote with some satisfaction in his memoirs, “gutting old Paris.”

The Arc at the heart of Paris. | Colorized photograph

Many of the grand wide boulevards that Haussmann conceived center upon the Arc D’Triomphe, radiating outward like a burst of fireworks from the arch’s heart. This singular act of historic re-imagination is impressive at ground level while strolling these beloved avenues. But you get a truly vivid, visceral sense of the poetry of Baron Haussmann’s vision from on high and at night. From my lofty perch, I spy the architectonics of the radial boulevards. Countless illuminated light poles, traffic lights, car headlights, signs and glowing windows pulse with energy across the city’s broad, sprawling plain. It is like looking down upon a vast, multi-colored Tibetan mandala, all lit up in a vast, darkened room.

I peer to the far horizons, pondering what lies beyond. East to Russia. North to Scandinavia. South to Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. Westward leads onward to the Atlantic Ocean and France’s historic nemesis, England, whose King Henry IV once laid siege to Paris from the Butte Montmarte. Not so interested in ogling the view, Henry rained artillery onto the city from where I stand, during the French Wars of Religion in 1590. So, too, did Russian soldiers, who commandeered the hill during the battle of Paris in 1814.

From my lofty perch, I spy the architectonics of the radial boulevards. Countless light poles, traffic lights, car headlights, signs and glowing windows pulse with energy across the city’s broad, sprawling plain.

The phrase jangles in the head. Wars of religion. How that small encampment astride the Seine by the tiny tribe of the Parissi morphed into a world-historic city worth bombarding in order to possess it! Countries forming and dissolving around it. The onslaught of the ever-expanding Roman Empire and its bloody tangles with the marauding tribes of ‘Gaul.’ How France came to be. Went to war. Made peace.

Paris grew.

France went back to war, then a more fitful peace. Yet more war. And still there.

Still, Paris.

CHAPTER | Lake of Fire |

Sacre Couer Apse Mosaic, colorized illustration.

The Holy Eucharist ascends heavenward. The air smells heavenly, too. A troupe of priests sprinkled about the grand altar of Sacre Coeur rock gold censors on chains from their hands. The chains ’ca-chink-a-chink!’ with each back-and-forth arc. Multiple billows of sweet-smelling incense smoke rise from the censors. It looks as if a storm has whipped up grey cumulus clouds above the altar. The clouds tumble upward to the arch of the distant ceiling, clouding a vast painting of Jesus, arms outstretched in sacrifice and welcome for all us sinners.

Many hundreds of people fill the place. I sit in one of the farthest back of the many ranks of wooden pews in the basilica’s vast interior, sniffing the incense. Next to the bells, incense is another of my favorite bits in all of Catholic ritual, although one that makes only rare appearances on holy days and Christmas Eve midnight mass such as this one.

The incense intoxicates me, scattering my attention in multiple directions in time. It smells of woodsmoke, kitchen spices, and something indistinct, yet exotic. Something like the patchouli oil my college roommate daubed on his neck our freshman year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, when we escaped campus to drive south and dance for hours in a favorite gay club called Badlands, up a side street in downtown Cincinnati.

The sometimes cryptic runes of Catholic iconography adorn the wax. A shepherd’s crook. A Latin letter. A resting, obedient-appearing lamb.

The next moment, as if an old movie scene had suddenly popped into my head, I see myself in red cassock and white surplice. I must be 11 or 12 years old. I am wreathed in churchly incense as Father Gerard ca-chink-a-chinks the censor for some holy day inside Our Lady of the Rosary in our Cincinnati suburb. I stand behind his right shoulder at the back of the church. We prepare to march to the altar. What is the event? Easter Sunday? Good Friday? A benediction, perhaps? After which we would earn an ornate ribbon adorned with a square image behind ribboned plastic of Joseph, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, to wear about our neck.

In my hands, I grip a tall, beeswax candle by its solid brass base. The candle and stand are together nearly as long as a baseball bat. The sometimes cryptic runes of Catholic iconography adorn the wax. A shepherd’s crook. A Latin letter. A resting, obedient-appearing lamb.

‘Holy Ghosts.’ | TheStoryIsTheThing.Substack.com photo

The candle is heavy in my hands. It requires my full attention to keep it balanced as we begin to stroll toward the altar. I see my younger brother, Robby, in a pew. He stares at me. Then, he puts his finger to the end of his nose and smooshes it upward. For a moment, he looks more like a small pig or flat-nosed monkey. His goof distracts me. I alter my stride slightly, hitching my footfalls so the candle rocks in its base. I slow. Regain the balance required of the heavy candle. I walk past him toward the finish line of the altar, speeding up to resume my place at the priest’s back. We are now halfway there.

The incense enfolds me as I draw near the priest. I inhale deeply. I adore the smell. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel safe, for some reason of which I am not quite sure. Yet the church, especially on high holy days, could feel like a big, cozy, warm cave lit by candlefire. All my family and friends are there, along with people in colorful vestments. And me in colorful clothes, dressed like a girl! Or a tiny boy priest. Storms may rage outside. But it doesn’t matter as we are gathered together. To hear songs. Recite soothing incantations. Ring pleasing, tinkling bells. To stand, then sit. Then stand, then kneel. Then, line up for the group drama of Communion.

Well, I could do without all the annoying up-and-down, kneel and bow-your-head gymnastics. Then, to do it all again ten minutes later. Much less, fretting constantly about the fate of my soul and the dire threats — no, the contractual promise of eternal torment in a boiling lake of fire — if I didn’t get things right in my young, imperfect life.

CHAPTER | Up There |

‘Proceed to the Route.’ | Photo-illustration | TheStoryIsTheThing.com

We are twenty feet shy of the altar when disaster strikes. As if a thunderbolt from heaven had shot down at me for my wayward thoughts, the candle bobs left, then right. I shift my weight. Move my hands. But it is too late.

The candle tips. It falls, looking like a great tree felled by an axe. I watch it, as if in slow-motion. The flame appears as a smear of lightning, flashing past my alarmed eyes. Beeswax splatters onto the end of a pew and then onto the church floor as the candle clatters and tumbles to a rest, half-in, half-out of a pew. An older man in black suit and tie yanks his wife by the fabric of her ivory dress sleeve, away from the toppling thing. The man looks at me, aghast. I am now down on my knees. Father Gerard has stopped. Turns and looks down at me. I glance up. His expression is stern, insistent.

‘Let’s fix this and snap to it!’ the look says.

I reassemble the candle, placing it on its base. Stand up. The altar boy on the priest’s other side — his name is Bobby something — comes to me. He inclines his candle to mine, bracing it with his other hand. Relights my candle. I heave a sigh. Nod my head at him in thanks. Bobby’s eyes are wide in alarm. Nothing like this has ever happened before. He returns to his place in the procession. Father Gerard gazes at me. Locks eyes on mine — “Are you good now?!” the look says. And then at the candle. He nods his head. We proceed to the altar. The Mass proceeds without incident.

The Case of the Tumbling Candle is never mentioned afterward by Father Gerard. It is if he had chalked it up to some life lesson I had learned on the field of spiritual battle. But Bobby and Robby have jokes to share for the rest of that year about ‘Candelabra Boy’ and ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa Lad.’ Back then, you never missed a chance to come up with a reference to the comic book heroes and villains whose tales we inhaled by night when we should rather have been doing our homework or praying to the Lord, Our God.

The Case of the Tumbling Candle is never mentioned afterward by Father Gerard. It is if he had chalked it up to some life lesson I had learned on the field of spiritual battle.

I pop out of my reverie to see hundreds of people inside Sacre Coeur arranged in multiple long, ragged lines. They await Communion, the very aim and purpose of the Mass. So many Parisians are out late to take the body of Christ into their mouths that a flock of priests, lay helpers, and acolytes populates the altar on all its sides.

My eye is drawn to the red, white, and black cassocks and surplices of all the attendants to this special Mass. What awaits each altar boy in his future life, this former altar boy wonders? Inhaling deeply the sweetly-scented air, I stand. Crab-walk to the end of the pew. The line to Communion shortens, person-by-person, in the aisle in front of me. People cross themselves as they swivel to seek their pew, chewing or gumming the Host along the way.

I gaze up at the great Jesus painted on the ceiling. His visage has come clear now that the censors have slowed their cloud-making.

Who were you?

I mean, really?

I turn on my heels. Head toward the great wooden back doors of the cathedral. Push out into the cool night and the newly-born Christmas Day, all of Paris gleaming to the far horizons.


Paris is cold and still, my footfalls echoing on cobblestones. Montmarte is usually aswarm with tourists wishing to stroll the same sidewalks as Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso and Van Gogh. Walking the quiet streets at 1 a.m., it feels like I am the only one out this late, except, perhaps, for the shades of legions of penniless artists, writers, dreamers, revolutionaries, and fabulists whose spirits remain.

Outside a shuttered shop, I encounter a shrub-high Christmas tree, its trunk fastened onto a cross-section of boards. The Charlie Brown tree rises no higher than my belt. Maybe it didn’t sell. It looks forlorn, all alone on the quiet sidewalk. Abdul-Ghani and I had spotted it earlier on Christmas Eve, as we roamed the neighborhood.

“Un arbe de Noel!” he had said. “C’est triste.”

A sad Christmas tree, my companion has observed.

“At least it’s in Paris,” I had responded.

But, here, an hour into Christmas morning in France in 1986, this will not do. What is the next degree of description past ‘forlorn’? A lonely, miniature Christmas tree left to die on the streets of Paris is against the Proper Order of Things. I stand it upright. Grasp its trunk just beneath its crown. Hoist it airborne.

You’re coming with me.

And so, dear Reader, may you appreciate the spectacle of a solitary American and wannabe ex-pat, slowly wending his way through the early morning dark of Paris on Christmas Day. A Charlie Brown Christmas tree floats beside him in one hand. I will not delve into the sweaty details of the exertion needed to haul a small, yet not light pine tree home across the City of Light and then up seven flights of a circular stairwell, in a building constructed around the time Napoleon was writing soft-core porn letters to Josephine.

A lonely, miniature Christmas tree left to die on the streets of Paris is against the Proper Order of Things. I stand it upright. Grasp its trunk just beneath its crown.

It’s true. I here transcribe one for you one, written in 1796, to while away the time as your interlocutor grunts and curses, fusses and pauses to catch his breath, hauling the dwarf arbe de Noel to the seventh floor flat:

“I am going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image… I cannot wait to give you proofs of my ardent love… How happy I would be if I could assist you at your undressing, the little firm white breast, the adorable face, the hair tied up in a scarf a la creole. You know that I will never forget the little visits, you know, the little black forest … I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the moment I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields. Kisses on your mouth, your eyes, your breast, everywhere, everywhere.”

Herald-Tribune masthead and journal still life | Christmas 1986, Paris, France

I unlock the door. Abdul-Ghani has turned toward the wall in his sleep. The room is quiet, barely lit with muted light from the city of the world beyond the curtains. With one last effort, I haul the tree into place alongside the table. Next to the remains of our meal lays a copy of the Christmas Eve-Christmas Day edition of the International Herald-Tribune. I flip to the comics. That one will do. I root around in the cupboard for another ornament. Retrieve a colorful laminated map.

So it is that as the light of morning pours through the window hours later, Abdul-Ghani awakens to a Lilliputian Christmas tree. It is adorned with a ‘Nancy’ comic strip. A bag of Polish black tea found on a shelf. A Paris Metro map. And — the angel capping the tree — the renegade skeleton key to the flat which made such a morning possible.

“What dis?” he says, groggily. Then, he beams.

“L’arbe de Noel!”

“Oui!” I say, rolling onto one elbow from my place on the floor at the foot of the bed, where I have slept in a cheap sleeping bag I have brought.

“Joyeaux Noel, mon ami!”

“Joyeaux Noel, c’est vrai!”

It is true, he has added. He goes to the window. Yanks it open. The December air of the city chills the room with a welcome slap of briskness.

“Par-EESE!” he says.

“PEAR-is,” I say.

We differ in our pronunciation, but not in our appreciation of the City of Light.


SORTA MEMOIR CHAPTER: “Stormtoopers & Grandmas’: The balls of his black pupils stare at me intently, oddly echoed by the round marble of a self-shaved head. Moments later, I have second thoughts about my diplomacy as “Speak English or Die” batters the room in the old farm estate in the French countryside.

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