Before you’ve gotten off the escalator that spits passengers from the belly of the metro onto Rue Barbès, you can hear the chorus:
MALBURRO LAITE MALBURRO RAED MALBURRO LAITE MALBURRO RAED MALBURRO LAITE MALBURRO RAED MALBURRO LAITE MALBURRO RAED MALBURRO LAITE MALBURRO RAED MALBURRO LAITE MALBURRO RAED
Men lined up along the sides, four, five packs of contraband smokes stacked in each hand, throwing numbers. Two euros, three euros. Why pay five at the tabac? You want KHAMEL? No?
Once you’ve made it past them, pushed past the bars of the metro street exit, beyond the flyer boys for the local psychic (“IL ou Elle sera pour toujours comme un toutou — EXCELLENTS RÉSULTATS”), it’s corn. You smell it first, blackened and hot, ears roasting over makeshift BBQs the men wheel around in shopping carts. They don’t yell prices. They don’t have to.
Turn right, cross the street, allez tout droit. It says Rue de Poulet on the sign, but here we call it Rue des Cheveux. Hair everywhere. Knotted strands, stray braids, clumpy bits of weave, red, black, brown, and brassy blond. The neighbourhood storefronts are plastered with images of glossy locks or twisties piled and arranged on smiling models. These high-heeled hairstylists, forever sweeping excess from their floors, shoo much of it into the garbage. But then, there are the pieces that escape. Freed by front door breezes, they roll south along the hill, blow in wisps toward Château Rouge, and down the stairs to the next metro in line.