My second trip to Paris got a little bit exciting, then quite scary … and then there were riot police, batons and tear gas.
It’s 1983: I’m the editor of Vertiflite magazine, a publication of the American Helicopter Society. It’s June, I’m in Paris, covering the Paris Air Show, a little in over my head and trying to figure out what’s what at the world’s largest and most confusing air show. I think this was the one where Chuck Yeager blew me off when I tried to interview him. Although it could have been the one in 1985.
It’s the end of a long, sweltering day at Le Bourget Airport, where Lindbergh landed when he crossed the Atlantic, and where they hold the Paris Air Show every other year.
I take the Metro back to my hotel, arrive at my Metro stop (St. Michel in the heart of the Latin Quarter), climb up the stairs … walk around the streets little … and emerge in the middle of some sort of riot. The Sorbonne is right up the street and students, thousands of students, are angry about something.
Being an American, and a journalist of sorts, I had to investigate. I wormed my way to the front of the protest. About 50 meters away were the cops. Lots of cops. In full riot gear: helmets with visors, shields and billy clubs. They looked kind of scary, but come on, these were Paris riot cops. It’s not like I was in New York. Or Moscow.
“Hmmm, that’s interesting,” I said to myself as I watched what was going on.
The students started throwing rocks, the cops held their ground, the students threw more rocks … and suddenly the police charged. Right at us. And then they stopped. And the students started throwing more rocks.
The cops made another charge … and this time they kept coming. Right at us.
Here’s an important tip if you ever find yourself in the midst of a riot, especially one in Paris: If you’re at the front of the riot and the police charge, and all the rioters turn and run, you’re suddenly at the back of the pack, with nowhere to go, your path blocked by a mass of humanity.
Yep, I was hemmed in. Nowhere to go. The cops were getting closer. Tried to push my way through the crowd. It didn’t work. Too many people. The police were getting closer. Surely they’d recognize me as a journalist. An American journalist. With immunity, right?
The cops pounced and one of them whacked me on the ass with his billy club. It hurt. A lot. An opening suddenly appeared … and I ran. Down some side street in the Latin Quarter. Past a lot of restaurants. Uh-oh, the cops behind me threw some tear gas canisters up and over me and it landed on the street, spewing a giant cloud of tear gas. I was trapped like a rat on the streets of Paris: Cops behind me, a giant cloud of tear gas ahead of me.
I chose the lesser of what I thought were two evils … and ran through the tear gas.
“Hey, this isn’t too bad,” I said as I emerged on the other side of the cloud.
Seconds later my eyes started burning and the tears started flowing. They don’t call it tear gas for nothing. I was surrounded by several other tear-gassed protestors, and we all kept moving, trying to get further and further from the cops, and trying to navigate the tiny streets of the Latin Quarter. Could barely see. Couldn’t stop crying. No idea where I was.
Finally, emerged near the banks of the Seine. Notre Dame was across the river. And there, right in front of me was the famous Shakespeare & Company book store.
I had been looking or it the past few days, and had never found it in the labyrinth of streets in the Latin Quarter. It’s the bookstore where Hemingway and James Joyce hung out. And, once you know here it is, it’s so darn easy to find.
“What the heck,” I told myself. “I might as well go in and browse around. I need something to read.”