UNDER THE INFLUENCE
IN SEARCH OF SMOKEY CAFES: ON ANAIS NIN’S DIARIES, THE CREATIVE LIFE, AND (NOT) TIME-TRAVELING IN PARIS
By Lilly Dancyger
New York City banned smoking indoors in 2002, the year before I became a chain-smoking, black-coffee-chugging high school drop-out, leaning full-tilt into the romantic ideals of an artists’ life on the fringe. I took this as proof that I’d been born in the wrong era, nostalgic for smoky cafes filled with writers and artists surviving on grit and vision in a pre-gentrified city.
I painted and wrote and drew and took artsy photographs with disposable cameras I’d shoplifted from Kmart. I visited the subterranean studios of random artists I met in the park and stayed up late into the night, talking about what it means to live a creative life and how to stay true to what you believe in a world defined by making and spending money. I went to poetry open mics and punk shows in people’s living rooms, and all of my friends were musicians. I did a decent job of creating a bohemian life for myself considering the fact that it was the early 2000s and the folk singers and beat poets of Washington Square Park had been replaced with NYU students dressed like store-brand Paris Hiltons.
But still, it felt impossible to be truly swept up in the artists’ life when all around me gentrification was forcing closures of beloved cultural hubs and the ones that were left were lousy with loud, vacuous transplants spending Daddy’s money on UGG boots and Frappuccinos. I hated the capitalist corrosion around me with a bitter passion only a teenage iconoclast can muster, and ached for a nonspecific “more.”
Then one spring day when I was 15, I saw Anaïs Nin’s piercing eyes staring up at me from my favorite book vendor’s table on Avenue A. I bought Volume I of her diaries without knowing anything about her, and headed into the park with a black coffee, settling in to read Nin’s stories about the artists and writers she spent her time with in Paris, having heated conversations about their work, about art in general, and life and love and all the big questions.
“Ordinary life does not interest me,” she wrote. “I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous.” She seemed to live a life that floated above drudgery (or as she put it, “monotony, boredom, death”); a life that was all silks and wine and art and sex and inspiration.
She described the life I wanted more clearly than I had ever even imagined it. And the backdrop for this magical life became the emblem of everything I desired, like it had for so many idealistic creative souls before me: Paris. Paris became shorthand for a world without all of the yuppie garbage that was cramping my outsider style in New York. I understood of course that time had passed since the 1930s in Paris just like it had in New York, that many of the same problems likely existed there. But in a much more visceral way, it was easy to believe that the uncorrupted, smoky, jazz-filled utopia of Nin’s Paris was a real place I could travel to if I wanted it badly enough. I dreamt of a world that was pure and raw and brutal and beautiful and full of surprise and wonder, never bogged down by trends and kitsch and mass marketing, and I was young enough to believe that such a world was possible.
My best friend Raiona and I saved for two years, stashing away our waitressing tips $5 at a time, spending hours huddled over maps and lists and budgets, reminding each other every time we were tempted to spend money on something trivial that it could go toward baguettes and champagne and hostels instead. Our hard work paid off, and we spent my 18th birthday in Paris, eating strawberry and chocolate crepes, smoking hash under the Eiffel Tower with some random French boys, and drinking red wine from the bottle while walking along the Seine. I described it in my journal (because of course, as a Nin devotee, I kept a meticulous one), as “like a dream.”
I found flashes of Nin’s Paris in an empty café where the surly waitress sat alone at a corner table reading a book, in the aisles at Shakespeare and Company, in the twinkling lights around the Seine at night. But those flashes were more often obscured with hordes of tourists swinging armfuls of shopping bags from the same chain stores we had in New York, talking loudly in English and breaking the spell I was trying to cast on myself. I tried to only see the Paris I’d dreamed of, but everywhere I looked was the same gentrification, the same advertisements, the same McDonalds and Sprint and H&M signs on beautiful old buildings that I’d come here to escape. And very few groups of artists huddled in clouds of smoke. I tried to be swept away by Paris, but there was a sinking disappointment below the surface, in the part of me that had genuinely hoped to time travel.
Smoking indoors was banned in Paris in 2006—just a few months before our trip. Once again, I’d missed the boat. Of course, it wasn’t just smoky cafes themselves that I craved, but everything they represented: gathering places for people who didn’t want to spend their afternoons shopping at chain stores, communities built around ideas and creativity, places and people that let you escape the daily grind to prove your worth through consumerism and instead just sit still and talk about ideas, asking questions that don’t have answers, starting something new, be it revolution or art. It was the idealized artists’ life that I thought might have been a figment of my teenage imagination until I saw it reflected in Nin’s diaries. And I didn’t know where to find it if not in Paris.
As we prepared to set off for the next stop on our trip, I felt dejected and aimless, betrayed by Paris or like I had betrayed Anaïs Nin; like I really had been born at the wrong time, but there was nothing wistful about that notion anymore, it was just unfair.
We bought tickets for a ten-hour bus ride from Paris to Amsterdam because it was cheaper than the train. The bus only left once a day, at 7 a.m., so we decided to stay up all night and sleep on the bus rather than risk missing it, teenaged late-risers that we were. So on our last night in Paris, we set out with our big suitcases, with no plans other than to stay awake until sunrise.
We sat at a bar and nursed one glass of champagne each, trying to stick to our strict budget and knowing that drinking too much would make it harder to stay up all night. As bars started closing and nightlife dwindled to quiet, we set off wandering; smoking cigarettes by the Seine and taking photographs of empty streets. The streetlights were a romantic shade of yellow and when the narrow, twisting side streets were empty of tourists they could almost have been the Paris we’d been looking for. We stood for a long time in front of Notre Dame, the gargoyles so much more magical and imposing in the dark and quiet than they had been when we first saw them a few days earlier, pushing through a crowd for a clear view.
Around 3:30, we were starting to drag, no longer exclaiming at every picturesque corner, tired of carrying our heavy bags. We saw a café up ahead and decided we could spare a few more Euros for a place to sit and some caffeine to get us through the next three hours. Soon after our cappuccinos arrived, we noticed that too many people were going up and down the stairs in the back for them to lead to the restrooms, as we had originally assumed. People were emerging sweaty and grinning, and it was clear there was something going on down there. We went to check it out and found a bouncer at the bottom of the stairs. We asked what was going on behind the door he guarded, and when he answered flatly, “cabaret,” our eyes lit up. But then he continued: “20 Euros each.” That was more than we’d allotted to spend each day, and the cappuccinos had already put us over budget. We turned to go back upstairs, but, seeing our disappointment, the bouncer ushered us quickly inside with a wink.
Inside was a cavernous space with stone walls which someone later whispered to us had once been part of the catacombs. The space was lined with picnic tables, crowded with people drinking and singing, and atop each table a mostly-nude woman draped in feathers and beads danced to lively jazz being played on the stage up at the front. The air was filled with cigarette smoke.
We stood at the entrance, aghast, for several seconds before people trying to come in behind us brought us back to reality. We squeezed in at the end of a bench, a foot away from the baby blue sparkly shoe of one of the dancers. We accepted our tablemates’ offer to share their pitcher of beer, and struck up a conversation with them during the lulls in the music. They were a group of locals, a writer and a few musicians, friends of the performers on stage. We talked about what it was like to make art in our respective cities, and enjoyed the show, Raiona and I periodically catching each others’ eye in amazement. They asked us about New York, and I saw in their eyes that they romanticized our city as much as we did theirs, and wondered if they would be disappointed if they visited. Or if, on their last night, they might find exactly what they’d hoped for.
This—a room full of people enjoying music and dance and booze and each other, singing and talking under a cloud of smoke, all in on a secret together—was exactly the kind of “high moment” Nin described living for, the “marvelous” she searched for, the Paris we’d dreamed of. I’d been so disappointed when we didn’t step off the train in Paris and straight into a scene like this, but I realized finally that I’d been thinking about it all wrong. Part of what made this so spectacular was the way we’d stumbled upon it; that we could have missed out on this perfect last night, our moment alone with the gargoyles of Notre Dame and then this cabaret, if we just sat and waited for the bus instead of exploring the city in the middle of the night when the streets were empty, if we hadn’t questioned what was going on downstairs in the café.
I realized then that of course the Paris Nin described was the world she had created: it was the people she surrounded herself with and the conversations she had—there had never been a time when the whole city was like that, but all along the Paris (and the New York) that I’d craved was there, hidden, available to those who knew how to look. The magic of her and her writing was not just in the world she inhabited, but in the way she saw it, and her determination to see it that way—“I am possessed by a fever for knowledge, experience, and creation,” she wrote. I understood, then, that the kind of exultant, creative life where everything is art and the “monotony, boredom, death” of ‘normal’ life is kept constantly at bay is not a place that can be traveled to, or a time that I missed out on: it’s a verb. A way of living and a way of seeing that Nin was a master of, and that I could be, too.
“I want to be a writer who reminds others that these moments exist,” she wrote, and for me she was—it just took a few years, a trip halfway around the world, and a long night of waiting up for a bus for me to really understand what she meant.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lilly Dancyger is the Memoir Editor of Narratively, a Contributing Editor and Writing Instructor at Catapult, and Assistant Books Editor at Barrelhouse. She's the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women's anger, forthcoming from Seal Press, and her own writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Rumpus, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @lillydancyger.
Header photo by Alice Colin.