Paris Blog (or, How a Terrorist Attack Taught Me that Journalism Wasn't for Me!)
In 1982, on graduating from journalism school, I was lucky enough to win a grant from the Correspondent’s Fund for an apprenticeship at a United Press International office overseas. My first choice was Rome, but I got a call one day at my parents’ house on Long Island to say I was off to Paris.
Our office was on the Rue des Italiens, a few blocks from the Paris Opera. I stayed in a broken-down apartment near Notre Dame that belonged to a scientist friend. I could touch the sagging ceiling on my tiptoes. There was no shower and no hot water. Through a series of rubber-man contortions I was able to wash myself in the pencil-thin stream of cold water that came out of the rusty faucet. I slept on an ancient mattress squashed into a metal frame. The only insurmountable inconvenience was the police station next door – motorcycle cops rumbled in at all hours. Stirring from sleep I’d shuffle to one of the platter-sized windows, my blanket around my shoulders, and stare through the diffuse gray light at Notre Dame. I imagined I had awakened into an earlier century. I was in heaven.
On my first day of work, I slunk into the office like a pimply adolescent passing through the unmarked doorway of a brothel, fully expecting to suffer abject humiliation at the hands of experts. The acting bureau chief was pointed out to me by the receptionist. He was stocky and dull-faced, maybe sixty, with wisps of dark brown hair glued down by sweat to his forehead. The tail of his white shirt was sticking out and a heavy paunch rolled over his belt. He had the giant knobby hands of a van Gogh farmer.
I later learned he was Czech and that he had lived in France since the early 1960s. He had been promised the head of the United Press bureau in Prague as soon as the Communists were toppled from power. When I met him, he was still waiting for that blue moon to rise over Eastern Europe.
I’ll call him Pierre, since he may not yet be dead.
Pierre was watching a large TV mounted high on the back wall, in front of a group of burly men. I presumed them to be our reporters, but they turned out to be our two French photographers, Stéphan and Giles, and journalists from other news agencies sharing our telex machines. A French station was airing a report about the Israeli military razing a Palestinian village. Pierre flapped his hand and cursed the soldiers as though wishing to spit in their faces. When the report was over, I introduced myself, and he snapped in French, “I only hope you’re not another Jew.”
I felt my head shrinking turtle-like into my shoulders. If life were a Martin Scorsese movie, I would have had the snide calm to gaze around and reply, “You talkin’ to me?” Instead, hoping to ease the tension squeezing in my gut, I smiled weakly and said, “For better or for worse I am indeed Jewish.”
“Hmmmnnn,” said he, looking me up and down. An insect about to be squashed might feel as encouraged as I did in that moment. I worked for Pierre the Czech anti-Semite all of July, August, and September of 1982. He and the reporters all rolled their eyes at the very idea of abandoning the bureau and doing any pen-in-hand style reporting, so I was sent out to cover ministerial press conferences, burst water mains, golf tournaments, movie premieres, and, most exciting of all, the World Pong Championships (pong being the Model T of the computer games industry). There were also a great many anti-Zionist demonstrations in those days, since it was a cause around which French academics and intellectuals could comfortably sip their Scotch. At a rally in the Place de la Concorde, I learned the going chant, which had some nice rhymes and referenced the then-Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin:
A bas Begin, A bas Reagan,
Vive les combattents Libanais Palesteniens...
Down with Begin, Down with Reagan
Long live the Lebanese and Palestinian fighting men...
All that was missing at these fist-in-the-air demonstrations were a few real-live Palestinians, of course, and maybe Vanessa Redgrave looking chicly defiant in her camouflage jeans and tank top. But the Palestinians exiled in Paris were busy working for a living, and La Redgrave was evidently stuck in rehearsals in London.
If I am making light of these protests, it’s certainly not that I disagreed with much of what the demonstrators wanted to change about Israeli policy. One didn’t need special powers to know by 1982 that the Jewish settlements in what ought to have been sovereign Palestinian territory would become the major impediment to peace over the next decades. Rather, it was because my intuition told me that at least a few of these champions of fraternity and liberty had also painted the graffiti that I’d seen around the city equating the Israelis with Nazis, and many of them would not have lost a moment of sleep if all of Israel were bombed into the sea – except for maybe the oldest parts of Jerusalem, since French intellectuals appreciate the value of a good archeological site when they see one.
To my skeptical eyes, their gatherings seemed adolescent excuses for shrieking clichés and primping testosterone-coated feathers, though maybe it is in the nature of such protests to appear less well-meaning and heartfelt than they are. Also, it is possible that my easy dismissal of them was provoked by embarrassment, in the sense that I myself was doing nothing to oppose ongoing injustices in the Middle East.
What I remember most from these rallies was the profound disappointment in the Jews that I sensed in the French Leftists. Their voices were so hoarse with outrage that anyone looking on would have guessed that each of them had been personally betrayed by Zionism. I couldn’t understand why they might have felt that way – and why it was they always demonstrated against Israel rather than far more horrific regimes in countries like China and South Africa – until fifteen years later, when I read Jorge Semprun’s memoir, Literature or Life. Then I understood how, for many European intellectuals, the Jews had come to represent the exploited and victimized everywhere. Supporting them had become the outward sign of one’s firm pledge to fight against evil in all its guises. On page 36 of the English edition, Semprun notes that he created a Jewish friend in one of his novels for precisely this reason. He writes, “The Jew – even passive, even resigned – was the intolerable embodiment of the oppressed.” When I read that, I understood what I hadn’t all those years before, while watching that anti-Zionist rally in the Place de la Concorde: that the Israelis, in rejecting the role of passive victim – that most tolerant of traditional Christian representations – had also rejected the terms of friendship with the European Left. If Semprun was right, then they’d broken a tacit pact that said, like me for being brutalized.
In fact, by crushing their Arab enemies in successive wars and brutalizing their Palestinian neighbors, they had burned this pact forever and scattered its ashes over the Occupied Territories. As a result, European intellectuals could no longer evidence their commitment to fighting injustice everywhere simply by supporting the Jews. All those well-meaning professors and politicians had had to start over. Even worse, they’d been forced to switch allegiances to the Palestinians, a people with whom they had little shared culture and almost no shared history (and who usually spoke French with thick Arabic accents!)
No wonder their voices were hoarse with rage.
I spent hours perfecting my articles about the anti-Zionist rallies. Nothing of what I wrote was of interest to readers back in America, however, and not a single story I filed with our editors in New York ever made it into print. Instead, given the nature of American journalism, the story I had major success with was the following, which hit the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and several other newspapers that July:
‘Pooper Scooters’ May Save Paris
As every Parisian walking down the Champs Elysées knows, there is trouble underfoot in Paris. Dog excrement litters the streets. But Parisians, ever creative, have decided to battle the problem in a new way. Mechanical “pooper scoopers” attached to the back of slow-moving scooters will take to the streets in full force by September 1.
Working away at the back of the scooter is a brush and hydraulic lift that deposits dog droppings neatly in a bag. City officials anticipate that a force of 45 scooters will be needed to clean the streets. The city has contracted a private company to man the scooters, which will carry out their mission at a speed of about 3 m.p.h.
My busiest day at U.P.I. that summer began when news came in over the Agence France-Presse wire that Princess Grace of Monaco had been injured in a car accident while driving through the steep canyons above Monaco. No one had yet been informed that she was actually dead. Speculations about whether an underage Princess Stephanie had been at the wheel were making the editors in New York grow fangs. Unable to find their way back to the land of composure, they demanded updates every half-hour from our bureau, praying to Pulitzer, the god of newspaper scoops, that teenaged Stephanie had indeed been driving, and that Grace was – at the very least – seriously injured, since the story would then take on criminal and tragic dimensions: Underage Stephanie Takes Wheel Before Crash and Maims Princess Mom: Monaco Holding its Breath as Former Hollywood Star Lies in Coma.
I was all by my panicked little self in the office at the time because the only other journalist on duty, Pierre the Czech anti-Semite, was drowning his despair at being unable to move back to a Jew-free Prague in the cheap chablis of a Transylvanian-dark pub around the corner, as he did every afternoon.
The editors in New York shouted expletives each time I repeated over the phone that he must have been taking an extra long lunch or had maybe stumbled onto an earth-shaking event in the street – a gigantic anti-Zionist demonstration, perhaps. I distinctly recall one referring to him as “That fucker!”
I was not displeased. I volunteered to find him and inform him that he was in great demand.
The editors instructed me not to leave the office to locate “that fucker,” however. So I manned the phones and filed the first stories by myself, adding quotes from various sources in Monaco to the French-language copy chattering constantly over the wire from Agence France-Presse. I even managed to track down the man who claimed to have found Princess Grace unconscious after the accident, though he proved satanically resistant to all attempts to elicit a moving or dramatic quote over the phone. “Yup, I found her,” was about all he could come up with. It sounded as though he talked while chomping his gums, like a French Gomer Pyle. Talking to him, I imagined that the hill people of Monaco had been inbreeding for a bit too long.
My worst day was August 10, 1982. The day before, two assassins from Abu Nidal’s terrorist group, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, had tossed grenades and fired machine guns at customers eating in Jo Goldenberg’s, a well-known deli-style restaurant on the Rue de Rosiers, the main street in the Jewish quarter of Paris, the Marais. I was off-duty when it happened and didn’t read the newspaper that day, but the next morning I was sent first thing to the Hotel Dieu, the centuries-old hospital next to Notre Dame and my apartment, to interview an American who’d been hurt in the attack. (Dead or injured French persons were of far less interest to newspaper editors in America, of course.) Six people had been murdered and twenty-two wounded. One of the victims had been the American man’s wife. For some reason, I cannot find the article I wrote about our encounter, which was published in several newspapers, most prominently in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, since he and his wife were from there. I remember the name of their daughter though – Clara. She was three. She didn’t yet know her mother was dead because her father, in shock, couldn’t think of how to tell her. He and his wife were academics and had been spending their summer vacation doing research at the libraries in Paris.
Clara’s father was shuffling across his hospital room when I arrived. He was thin and pale, and there was a cavernous hollowness in his cheeks that I have, forever since, associated with death.
I explained who I was and said I would leave if I was intruding, but he had been desperately hoping for a chance to speak to someone fluent in English. I sat with him all morning, mostly listening to his glassy-eyed account of the attack and what had happened since. He and his wife had tried to crawl together to the back of the restaurant, but she had not made it. He thought he had covered her with his body – was sure she’d been protected. He couldn’t understand how she’d been killed. Or why. It made no sense. If either of them had to die, he should have been the one.
After the first hour, I stopped taking notes. What he was telling me of their lives together was too personal. This wasn’t news – at least not as I defined it; this was a marriage blown to fragments.
While I was sitting with him on his bed, one of the Rothschilds – I believe it was Baron Philippe – stopped by to offer condolences on behalf of the Jewish community of France. He was elegantly dressed and had a stooped walk. We shook hands. He did not look surprised by the violence. I would imagine he was wondering if the Golden Age of anti-Semitism was about to come around again – and gain a Middle Eastern polish this time.
I left Clara’s father with Baron Philippe for a time to visit one of the other victims of the attack, just down the corridor. She was an elderly Frenchwoman with closely cropped hair and large brown eyes. We talked for a time and she was glad to have company. Her legs and arms were so pocked and perforated with shrapnel wounds that she looked worm-eaten. In a hesitant voice, she asked if she looked as frightening as she felt; they’d taken the mirror out of her room and she could not trust her son and daughter to tell her the truth. I replied that she looked fine – that none of the wounds looked deep enough to cause scars.
She didn’t believe me. “Let’s put it this way,” she said in French, covering some of the crusted holes on her chest with her hand, “if I were dropped in a swimming pool, would I sink right to the bottom?”
Her mixture of bravery and humor made me burst into tears as soon as I reached the hallway.
When I got back to the bureau, the reporter who covered fashion began shrieking at me. I’ll call her Marlene, because she, too, may still be alive. She was a barren, yellow-eyed harpy whose hennaed hair seemed to have been cut around the rim of a soup bowl and who, despite having lived in Paris for forty years, insisted on speaking with a gum-chewing American accent that was meant to arouse hatred in all our French employees, whom she despised for not being Americans.
“Why the hell didn’t you tape record your conversation with that guy whose wife was killed?” she demanded. She explained to me that U.P.I. had a radio service and that we could have cut up the interview into bite-sized morsels for eager listeners all over the world. I could even get Clara on tape. It would be a major scoop.
If Clara doesn’t yet speak so well, you can just get her crying.
Marlene didn’t use those words, but she implied it. I told her I didn’t consider a recording of the girl or her father appropriate.
“Appropriate!” she sneered. “Give me a fucking break!” Crashing her small recorder into my hand, she told me to get my ass back to the hospital.
When I explained what my orders were to the grieving American, he said in a terrified voice that he really hoped I wouldn’t record what he had to say.
For bringing a blank tape back to our office I was railed at by both Marlene and Pierre the Czech anti-Semite later that afternoon. He screamed at me in both English and French, since one language couldn’t contain his anger. God only knows how he cursed me in Czech inside his head. I was just thankful that he didn’t spit on me.
And so it was that I learned that I didn’t really want to be a journalist, though for the next eight years I would make believe I did.
(I've written about more of my experiences in Paris in my novel, The Search for Sana.) For my Facebook posts, go to: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Richard-Zimler/179279892106230?fref=ts
Causes Richard Zimler Supports
Save the Children, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)