There had been all number of things along the way to which I could have attached the sense that we were stepping over the frontier of Paris into the hinterland of the banlieue as we walked from the Villette park up towards Pantin. The frontier is a thick interval around this part of the city, a legacy from the fortifications that hung on long after their sell-by date, creating a strange lull between the increasing noise of the city as it mechanized its map into the screeching inferno of the metropolitain, and the swelling proportions of the suburban towns each turned towards its own station and town hall or mairie. To cross that interval generally requires going under a broad, low bridge, or potentially negotiating a traffic intersection of a complexity that leaves you deafened and unsure whether you have ever really reached the other side. Both the topside and the underbelly tend to be spaces where people get stuck, festering on a mattress propped up against an embankment or weaving endlessly between the constant and contradictory flows of traffic with a bucket and sponge in the hope that someone might stop long enough that a shot can be had at flooding a windscreen with greasy water before returning it back to smeary transparency. This is strange because a lot of effort was made to flatten the space, largely under the Nazi Occupation, with a view to building sports grounds to kick the Paris population into productive health. And there are indeed lots of smooth football pitches and well-raked arenas around the periphery. But as you walk it, there’s no doubt that the moat-like grassy pit that was once there has left its imprint on the space. Whether you go over or under, this is an exercise in scaling a now invisible height.
But for all the slight breathlessness experienced along the way, the full blast that told me I had reached a new plain only came when rounding the corner and pushing through the old-fashioned wooden swing doors to the squat little station in Pantin, the first town the other side of Paris. A scarce fifteen minutes from the nearest metro station, I had nonetheless ventured into a different zone, one conditioned by older structures of transportation and still managed by the national railways, the SNCF, recognizable through the garish purple and red details on the uniforms that garb the employees of one of France’s most successful public-private businesses. To be a cheminot is to belong to a very special caste in France, traditionally one that hailed from the South-West. In recent years huge campaigns have swept through the company to diversify the employee base and to improve customer relations. And this seems to have happened while maintaining a strong esprit de corps, so that it still appears to be the case that the SNCF is an expression of a national culture, that what happens on and to trains all over the country is of concern for France and not just for particular commuters. At least that is what I thought until I hit the turnstile in Pantin station.
The other side of a modest barrage of automated gateways was a serried rank of various grades. Out in front were the customer friendly cheminots with their familiar caps and capes, now no longer the traditional dark blue, but grey with red trimmings, or red with purple lining, depending presumably on personal choice and chosen from a line designed for a recent cycle in the branding onslaught. Their hand-held devices were also red and grey, kidney-shaped wands that they waved in the faces of all those who funneled through, over and under the automated checkpoint. Behind them were a darker mass, clothed in a dressed down version of combat gear, trousers with pockets on the thigh, bomber jackets, hatless but equipped with the heavy leathered-encased notebook that spells the three-colour form, an innocent white upper layer sitting on top of a pink receipt and a dirty yellow after-thought, which goes in directions unclear and unstated. Behind them were their helmeted back-up, also in midnight blue, but jumpered and sheaved in bullet-proof tank-tops too small for their torsos. Their role was not to check or to sanction, and their hands were fortunately less busy for they held long thin bayonets resting across their padded chests.
A full ten minutes we had before the train that would take us back over that uncertain abyss between here and Paris, so we stood there, brought up short by the mass of people, but confidently patting the pass in our pockets that would produce the required beep allowing us to nip through and quickly down the short flight of stairs from the iron-work bridge with its glass windows spanning the tracks of this old line out towards the plains known first as France (Roissy-en-France, Tremblay-en-France…). The space heaved with surprise and dismay as those assuming that it must be some mechanical failure holding up the smooth flow of people, found themselves caught in the net and serving in turn as the human screen behind which this dirty business played itself out. From the outside, the fagged-out commuter ready to flop on a train this cold Friday afternoon could only see the cheery flashes of the red and the purple, the helpful hats promising an explanation. Little could they know from the street side of the barrage that the failure to produce a ticket would lead to a request to pay directly, credit card accepted, and failing that, to the requirement to produce id papers, the absence of which is sufficient motif to call in the police. A South-American-looking man in work overalls had been detained between two of the bayonet-bearing stooges. I wanted to ask how long he had managed to hold out in and around Paris without papers, but there was around him an invisible wall and I couldn’t see my way over it. To the other side of the curtain of contrôleurs there was a young dark-skinned lad leaping with bristly refusal. No ticket, no card, no money, no papers, probably French, at least able to riposte with invective, but also looking like he was heading for a muscular march down to the commissariat. What sort of rope could I throw him? Pay in his place and hope that his knowledge that the fine doubles if it isn’t paid on the spot would prompt him to repay this favour… the city conspires against that sort of transaction.
Pantin has long been in the business of purification for Paris purposes. The largest mill that ground the flour white to make the finest baguettes is just five minutes away. It sat next to one of the biggest laundries in the region, both now under the ownership of the banque nationale de Paris, the BNP, which does its own version of laundering in derivatives behind huge plate glass windows that seal the iron hulk of the old factory in the unchanging temperatures of a state-of-the-insanity building. The laundry, Elis, has been in Pantin since the beginning of the Third Republic, its factory with its characteristic chimney that puffed white vapor into the air day and night for more than one hundred years, was inaugurated two years before the municipal headquarters that sits just round the corner in its ersatz park like the manor house of a provincial notable. Over a thousand lavandières worked here for decades boiling the sheets, table cloths and napkins of Parisian society until the advent of the automatic washing machine put a stopper on that business. They were housed in a block of flats built by their philanthropic patron directly across the narrow street from the workshops. No commuting or travel costs for them, but life, all of it, under the ever undulating, belching cloud of steam. The block of flats must have been well built for it is the only part of the site to survive the current renovation. Along with the chimney, that is, now described as an emblematic feature and due to form a sort of strange antenna beaming in messages from the past to the new café with glass-paneled forecourt that will keep the traders fed and happy.
The patron of Elis was not only philanthropic: he was also canny enough to see an opportunity as the advent of consumer white goods dried his business up. He switched to a rental service, bringing linen in to the city then fetching it away again at the end of the week, huge piles of greasy aprons and napkins, countless soiled sheets and gowns from the growing number of hospitals in the city, all gathered up then transformed back into clean bundles for a new round of service. The thick white table cloths so characteristic of fine dining were in increasing demand. And so was the cheaper stuff as people slept on sheets and wiped their mouths more and more often on linen that was not their own. The work got heavier, the work force became steadily more male, and the conditions on which housing was made available steadily less favourable. The old lavandières lived on behind the dirty façade of their building, tending their pot plants on the narrow window ledges, watching the flow of men arrive every morning from all directions, steadily more various in age and race. At some point the decision was taken to switch from the traditional white overalls to a dark green zip-up suit, crowned by an orange hair net.
It is probably safe to assume that one benefit that does still come with the job at Elis for the four hundred or so staff who have moved with the company to the new premises on the outskirts of Pantin, is clean overalls for every shift. Not so in all jobs. The tradition of “logé, nourri, blanchi” – housed, fed and clothed – that prevailed in the service industry is no more. In the back streets of Pantin, you can see all sorts of work overalls hanging from windows to dry in the air. The SNCF employees do somewhat better, though. They’re all about to get a new line in work ware when the purple, grey and red that was a Christian Lacroix concept, will go back in the cupboard and they’ll shift to the more sober dark blue again, with a stylish red trimming. A sober look for sober times, and a mere 20 000€ in outlay for the company. They’ll be less visible in situations like the one I encountered in Pantin station, though the women will be sporting little red toques in some sort of Napoleonic throwback. All part of the shifting pageant of national life after all. It’s just a bit trickier today than in the era of the fortifications to know where to look to see the frontiers writ large across our contemporary landscape.