Skeletons / by Brian Beck

It turns out Paris is full of skeletons.  Deep underground all over the city, in the tunnels and quarries that supplied the limestone to build monuments such as Notre Dame, there are six million skeletons stacked in orderly piles, rows of tibias to the front, skulls on top.  According to the helpful signage at the entrance to the catacombs, Louis XVI ordered all the cemeteries cleared to deal with public health "risks."  In keeping with modern sensibilities, that is quite the understatement.  By the late 1700s, there were so many people buried in Parisian graveyards, that the level of the graveyards was 10 feet or more above ground level.  What's more, the burial "mounds" were spilling through adjacent structures (nothing like having the wall of your bedroom give way and a fresh corpse come rolling in).  Shallow graves were easy targets for grave scavengers (human and animal) and putrid runoff water was spreading disease.  For a person living in 1775, risks (and I mean serious ones) were constant.  Let's be frank, this wasn't a public health risk, this was a public health crisis.  Surely people had better things to do than to move six million bodies to tunnels under the city.  Apparently, it was that bad.  Oh, and recovering all of that prime real estate, not too shabby either.

I heard a story on NPR a while back about homelessness. The story made reference to the fact that the cops refer to the strung out worst-of-the-worst as "skeletons." A few weeks ago we took the Gold Line from Pasadena to Boyle Heights to go to one of our favorite restaurants, La Serenata de Garibaldi. On the trip back, a guy got on (actually more like fell on) the train in South Pasadena with an open bottle of tequila sloshing in his pocket. He was swearing about spilling it on his shirt (it looked like he'd taken a bath in it) and shouting at everyone who looked in his direction. Fortunately we only had one stop to go, and so when we got out, I took the opportunity to explain to Parker what was happening. I remembered the story about the skeletons and it seemed like a good vehicle to explain what had just taken place in a way a 5 year old could understand.  So I explained that the guy on the train was scary because he was a skeleton, he was killing himself with alcohol and would probably be dead soon.  He acted that way because he was partly dead.  Seemed like he got it.

We went looking for a restaurant yesterday and while we were waiting for our iPhone to load a map of the neighborhood, we were accosted by a very drunk guy on the street. We circled the kids in between us while the guy staggered around, alternately muttering incoherently in French and slurring "Bir Hakiem," the name of a nearby Metro stop. This went on for a minute or so and then he suddenly lunged at Parker shouting the French version of what I can only imagine was "boo."  Parker is pretty sensitive to scary stuff (the Cars ride at Disneyland scared him to death) so it had the desired effect.  I often carry a tripod around, a 10 pound Manfrotto that's heavy enough to support a pretty sizable camera.  Back in the film days, I used it for a Pentax 67II, which was the Sherman Tank of medium format gear and it did the job admirably.  I'm more than aware that when I go out shooting late at night, I'm by myself, often in places no normal person would go, and I've often imagined how I would get myself out of a situation that I didn't want to be in.  I'm not stupid about it.  I try to be very aware of my surroundings and almost never wear headphones.  I've skipped some shots too over the years because there were some lurkers that just didn't seem right.  But if it came to that, my tripod is the perfect defensive weapon--folded up, it's like a cricket bat.  So for the first time, I instinctively I picked it up and got ready to put it use.  Fortunately the guy backed off, and we made our escape, but as soon as we got away the kids wanted to know what the hell just happened.  We went through the whole skeleton discussion again and this time it seemed to make a more meaningful impression.  Skeletons are scary, you avoid them, you don't look at them and you don't talk to them, you just keep moving.  And yet, for the rest of the afternoon, they pointed to every sketchy person and asked, "Daddy, is THAT a skeleton?"  It's nothing like the L.A. homeless issue, but if you start looking, you'll find you're stepping over them here too.  The difference is that the six million of them you don't see are actually dead. 

 The Paris Catacombs contain 6 million skeletons, arranged in neat piles.  On the public tour, you only see a very small fraction.  My recommendation is to purchase tickets in advance online or come in the late afternoon when it's less crowded.

The Paris Catacombs contain 6 million skeletons, arranged in neat piles.  On the public tour, you only see a very small fraction.  My recommendation is to purchase tickets in advance online or come in the late afternoon when it's less crowded.