Climbing Notre Damme – how my life of (victimless) crime began

As usual, this year’s New Year’s Eve sucked.

I always remember the cusps of a new decade, because they signify a transformation between one era and the next. But more often than not, they’re pretty lame. 2010 began with a trip to the bathroom in “November House” – the minimum security tent jail I was recently stuck in. I had a cold and a wicked headache. Sort of reminds me of how 1980 began – being sent to bed early … but by my Jewish Grandmother instead of by a prison guard. 2000 began by me and a lover driving back to Grand Forks from a hot springs we couldn’t reach because it was too snowed-in.

The only real cool decade-starting New Year’s Eve I ever had was the start of 1990. I was watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Paris with my high-school sweetheart Nicholette. As the bells struck midnight a Frankenfurter look-alike made his way amongst the theater seats kissing every audience member on the cheeks. Little did I know at the time, but this innocent event was the beginning of my 20-year life of victimless crime.

Nicholette and I had been in Paris for slightly over 24 hours … we were going to leave soon because the cheapest hotel was 60 bucks per night per person and we just didn’t have the cash, but as luck would have it my attractive lover met a crazy Frenchman in the theater ticket line-up. He had hitch-hiked in Canada and had enjoyed the hospitality Canadians had shown him, and because of this he offered to put us up in his apartment for free.

He ended up staying at his girlfriend’s place for a week … which allowed Nicholette and I to enjoy a magic week in Paris alone together. At the end of the magic week he returned to his apartment with a wild plan for our last evening in Paris. He suggested we climb up the side of one of the most famous churches on Earth – Notre Damme – and check out the view from the top. The Frenchman – barely in his twenties – assured his two teenage Canadian guests that he had climbed Notre Damme with his crazy buddy many times before and had never gotten caught. His particular brand of insanity was infectious, so off we all went – the crazy Frenchman, his crazy pall, my young lover and me.

We took the metro to the small island in the middle of Paris where Notre Damme stood. Nicholette and I had visited the church earlier in our tour of the city to check out the inside. It was truly an architectural masterpiece. (An interesting aside – as I wrote this in prison Notre Damme appeared on TV at the end of an episode of the Simpsons – the one where Krusty almost gets married).

This world famous icon of Christianity is also – according to Wikipeida – where Joan of Arc’s mom pleaded for clemency on behalf of her daughter, who was facing charges of heresy – and if you believe Jack Herer – she was also charged with using cannabis to hear voices. Regardless, Notre Damme had an ancient connection with at least one previous victimless criminal.

The entrance to the church is on the west side – also the site of the most elaborate adornments of any building I had ever seen. My French guides chose the north side of the Church to begin our accent, as it had a handy eavesdrop to hold onto. It turned out that Nicholette had trouble with the first stage of the climb and elected to return to the apartment. Unfortunately, she took our camera with her.

Having climbed up the eavesdrop, the three of us found ourselves walking under the flying buttresses – the exoskeleton of the church that allowed the inside walls to be so high and yet so stable. We walked east under the buttresses, around to the back of the church and then back west again until we were on the south side. One of the crazy Frenchmen put his ear to a window and then motioned for me to come listen. Somebody was playing the organ inside the darkened church.

One of the Frenchmen free-climbed the next stage, and the other strapped me into a safety harness – which I didn’t end up needing to use (much to my surprise). Finally, all three of us were on the upper rim walkway of the roof. We could see all of Paris on that clear night – from the Church of the Sacred Heart to the east all the way over to the Eiffel Tower to the west. The view was spectacular. The other thing I noticed was that one of the twelve apostle statues was facing towards the bell tower. I later learned it was because the architect had put his own face on that statue.

No sooner had we walked across the walkway above the Great Rose Window towards the west side of the roof … one of the Frenchmen called out to me – it was all over. The police were there. We were busted. We had only been on the roof for three minutes.

The police had taken the easy way up – a spiral staircase inside the church. We jokingly asked them permission to repel down, but they refused. They took us down the staircase and stuck us in a paddy wagon parked out in front of the church. We got driven to a police station somewhere in Paris, where they stuck us in a hallway with another bunch of small-time victimless criminals – one fellow was in there for possession of a small knife, another was there for possession of a small amount of hashish (or “shit” as the Parisians were calling it). The criminals who actually had victims were locked up in cells. Us victimless ones amused ourselves with jokes En Francais, and I held an impromptu juggling workshop using rolled up socks.

They held us for about three hours, finally deciding to not punish us. Instead they made us all sign an “admission of guilt”. I guess, given the fact we didn’t steal or break anything, it was the Christian thing to do to us.

They let us out at around 3:30 am, and the metro was no longer operating … so we walked home … first through the red light district, then along The River Seine – singing filthy French songs all the way home, happy to be alive and free.

You may doubt my story … but if you hunt down Nicholette or look through a certain Paris police file circa Jan. 7th 1990, you’ll realize everything actually happened. I’ve been an inspired, confident victimless criminal mastermind ever since.

David Malmo-Levine