Napoleon III wanted Paris to be the most beautiful, the most well organized, and the most diverse and peaceful city ever known to humanity, so he gave control of all city planning to an architect named Haussmann, and he set about trying to make that a reality. The most obvious of Haussmann’s many reforms are the standardized buildings that line the Parisian streets.
On the ground floor of these buildings are shops selling everything from food to antique firearms. These street level shops make Paris a neverendingly interesting city to wander through. There is always something at eye level to look at, and one never feels like one is intruding on a purely residential area.
Above the shops on what is known in France as the first floor (but what we Americans would call the second) are large elegant apartments with high ceilings and balconies overlooking the streets below. Only the wealthiest of Parisians own these large, whole-floor encompassing flats.
The next three floors above the large apartments are full of what in Paris is an average apartment inhabited by the Parisian equivalent of the middle class. These apartments are much smaller than apartments of similar cost in the states, and if you happen to have a friend who invites you to stay in their place in Paris while they travel in the summer, this is likely the kind of apartment you will be borrowing.
The top floor of these buildings are reserved for artists’ lofts. Tucked among the eaves and ventilation ducts of each building, painters and dancers and musicians practice their crafts and kick back with a cup of coffee in the late afternoon with the few of their closest friends who can fit into the tiny spaces with them at the same time. If you’ve seen An American in Paris and remember Gene Kelly’s acrobatic room rearranging at the beginning of the movie as he folds his bed up and his dining room table down and puts away his laundry, you’ll know exactly the kind of cramped quarters we’re talking about.
It is in one of these lofts that our story begins.
Regis was a painter, though not a very well known one. It is doubtful though that any man or woman in Paris enjoyed spending an afternoon with easel and oils as much as Regis. His painting did not make him much money, but it did make him extraordinarily happy. His lack of commercial success, unfortunately, also made him very often quite hungry, and when he was hungry, he was not happy. This was one of those times.
Late in the evening after a day of foiled attempts to sell a few paintings to the tourists walking along the Pont Royal bridge, Regis scaled the six flights of stairs to his loft, his heart set on a meager meal of bread and wine. He placed his canvases and brushes in the small space behind his door, poured the last glass of Bourgogne from a mostly emptied bottle, and opened his cabinet to take out the remains of the baguette he had for breakfast that morning.
As he opened the cabinet door, he almost fell over backwards as a black bird emerged noisily from the cabinet and flew out the open window with Regis’ dinner in its talons. Regis swiftly swatted at the raven, but it was too late. The bird had taken the bread into the sky, reversing the grace once done for the hungry prophet in the rocky crags of Judea. Reversing the prophets pious blessings, Regis cursed at the bird as it flew away.
Worse than the pangs of hunger soon to be satisfied is the bite of an empty belly with no hope of being filled. Regis settled into this despair on his cot which took up one whole wall of his apartment. As he lay there, he thought:
Whoa is me! The patisserie is closed! This half glass of wine will be my only sustenance for the night. If only that bird would return with or without my bread. I would surely kill him and fry him and make him my meal.
Regis stewed a bit longer.
I know! I will ask my neighbor, Monsieur Ballard on the first floor for a bit of bread. Surely a man as wealthy as he must a little to spare for a starving artist like myself.
Standing up, Regis put on his best-because-it-was-his-only jacket and began the climb downstairs. He thought to himself as he descended to the fourth floor:
What if my neighbor isn’t home? What then will I do? I suppose I will starve…
As he reached the third floor he thought:
Surely he is home at this hour, but I would hate to disturb his dinner which he is undoubtedly enjoying…
As Regis landed on the second floor he thought:
Yes. I will only be a nuisance, and a poor, needy nuisance at that…
Regis arrived onto first floor and began walking down the hallway toward Mr. Ballard’s door:
He will not want to help me, and even if he does agree, he will think less of me for having had to beg…
Regis knocked on the door and waited for Mr. Ballard to answer.
How dare he think less of me for needing bread! How arrogant! How prideful of him! No doubt he will lord this night over me for the rest of my life!
Mr. Ballard answered the door, and before he could say anything, Regis exclaimed:
“I don’t want your bread! I would rather die of hunger than give strength to your pride and vanity! I may be a poor artist, but at least I am humble and kind! Go back to your finery. Enjoy it, if you can, as I go to my grave!”
And with that, Regis turned, stormed angrily down the hall and up the stairs to his loft.