Several years ago, my colleague Ross and I were plodding the streets of Rouen, a small city on the northern banks of the Seine. As we strolled up a dark cobbled street, our eyes were caught by a shattered window. An impact point, about the size of a human head sat in its centre. Spreading from it were a network of cracks that splintered off in every direction like a spider’s web. Graffiti decorated the whole facade. “Pub Zooloo” hung above the door.
“This has got to be the place, right?”
“Bon soir, monsieur, bon soir, bon soir!” cried the owner as we walked through the door. He was short and stocky with a face that told a tale of debauchery. He could have been forty-five or just as easily thirty-five. With an ageing only a life of booze, fags and god knows what could have caused. The lines of his visage folded over at each end of the satchels under his eyes. He grinned as he lined up an arsenal of shots. A large bottle of orange stuff sat on the bar. The narrow interior was plastered in more graffiti than a New York subway train in the 80’s.
“Musique, monsieur, musique!” he exclaimed, signalling to a computer by the bar. I ordered a beer and lined up a few tracks. He bounced in approval and insisted we join him for a chilli infused shot.
The place was empty bar some street urchins, a couple of winos and group of rude boys who looked like they’d just walked off the set of La Haine. One of the them wore an all white shell suit, his hair slicked back above his pockmarked face. Everything about him said grease ball pimp. He had the air of a man who’d sell you his sister then mug you at knifepoint. He postured like a stroppy chimp and kept kicking off at his mates. Just as we thought we’d wandered into some back street stab factory more punters arrived. But instead of pimps, pushers and piss-heads, each wave brought a different dynamic. First a group of African guys, then a gaggle of students. As the crowd swelled I made my way to the toilet to find a kicked in door and shattered mirror. A waft of hashish smoke drifted in from the back room. I came back to find a group of suited-up yuppies had joined the mix.
The owner threw a few pens around, encouraging people to vandalise his bar. We were the token Englishmen. Everyone wanted to meet us or buy us drinks. Then came the blur.
The next day my head was banging. Ross went green and spent the day vomiting in his room.
“It was the orange stuff,” he reckoned. That night at dinner he accidentally ordered andouilette, a sausage made from a pigs colon. He wouldn’t forget that in a hurry.
Every time we worked in Rouen we’d come back to Zooloo. We’d be greeted with the call of “bon soir, monsieur, bon soir, bon soir!” and find the owner lining up shots in his empty bar. Then the place would swell with it’s familiar cross-section of French diversity. I talked football with a huge guy from Senegal, had French lessons from raging alcoholics, and debated modern hip-hop with fresh faced teenagers.
One night we met a French Algerian called Wassim who lived in London. “This street is notorious in Rouen,” he told us, “I’m visiting my brother who lives in town, but if he knew I was here he’d kill me!”
“What’s the owner like?” I asked him.
“Him? Oh he’s gangster. I don’t mean he is a gangster. But he has a code. You know? If anything happens in the bar. Any shit. Or out on the street there, he wont talk to the police. He’s a good guy. Me, I don’t don’t like the French police. I used to steal as a kid and they’d beat me up.”
“Well I guess a lot of people did a bit of crime when they were young,” I replied.
“Oh I still do,” said Wassim.
“Fraud,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, “I’ve been in prison in France, England, Italy. Many places, but I’ve done my time and nowadays I’m mainly straight. Just a bit of fraud. I promise you. Wallah, I tell you the truth. I’ve a wife and kids that need me, you know? Anyway, let me buy you a drink. Welcome to Rouen. Santé!”
That was Zooloo. A level playing field where regular folk of a Friday night mingled with the fringes of society. An open house where if you weren’t judgemental, you’d have a good time.
But the last time we went there, things got weird.
It was quiet. No students turned up, no office workers. We recognised a few regulars, a Moroccan guy named Souffian, who helped tend the bar, and the big Senegalese man who hung by the door smoking hashish. Two French guys were in, drunk and singing. A young north African with a jarhead cut marched in. Quick as a flash the owner grabbed him and frog-marched him out. A few minutes later one of the French guys came in bleeding from his eye. He’d been smoking outside when someone bottled him. Then it all went off. Bottles flew and the big Senegalese locked the door. Just before it shut we saw the owner go down from a punch as more bottles rained over. The door was quickly opened long enough to let him back in. His head was bleeding and his knuckles were bruised. A wild look gripped his face.
“Ca va?” I asked him as he downed a beer in one.
“Oui, ca va, ca va,” he nodded.
We were barricaded in for half an hour.
Once they opened up the owner and the jarhead traded insults across the street. My French isn’t good but it’s good enough, “Fuck you!” was the first cry, “Fuck your bar!” was the next, “Fuck your mother! Fuck Zooloo!”
“You’re a dog!” replied the owner, “A DOG!”
“I can’t protect you here,” said Souffian the barman.
We made our excuses and left.
We went back to Zooloo in Ocotber after a year away. I had a feeling as I walked up the cobbled street that maybe it wouldn’t be there. Sure enough it was closed. The front boarded up and the whole facade ripped out. The flats above were gutted. Not even glass in the windows.
“It’s gone,” is all the shopkeeper next-door would say.
We drank a beer on the street outside and lamented the passing of a unique place. Wondering what had become of the owner with the rock and roll convict visage. Then we scoured the streets in a fog of disappointment, before finding ourselves back at square one. A faker than fake Irish bar charging €6.50 for a plastic pint of Fosters. A teenage crowd. And not a craic to be found.