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The magpie in me has just shoved all the other beasts of my field aside, and that’s the beginning of my problem. My tiger, assuming I have one or ever had, is not all nerves and code-red alert, but languid beyond human understanding except when hungry beyond bearing and then, after the hunt, the kill, and the eat, sleeps eighteen hours a day at least. But not my magpie, the sleepless bird—and my tiger is no match for him, even supposing he exists at all. No matter that I’m sitting on a jump seat in the Métro and getting bounced around pretty fiercely. Br’er Magpie spots something shiny rolling around on the floor, something my foot won’t quite reach, so to oblige him I have to crouch forward and squat down to pick it up, then sit back, forgetting that the strapontin is spring-loaded and is now folded up straight against the wall. I sit, all right, right on my coccyx, puff out my cheeks, make a funny noise, and start to get up.
The young guy sitting opposite comes over to give me a hand up. I thank him and drop the bolt I picked up off the floor of the train into his hand. He regards it seriously, thanks me in turn, and, very carefully, puts his own bottom down in his own jump seat. My back hurts, so does my side, and I’m feeling dim-witted—and anyway how do you explain about magpies over the noise of the train let alone across a cultural pond that doesn’t know about Br’er This and Br’er That, my constant companions, friends forever, and roomies for life? If people want to stare, wonder, and shake their heads, just help yourselves, folks, shake and wonder away because my back is too sore to care any more than a Br’er Rat’s ass and I’m thinking I’m dumber and clumsier than you could ever imagine me to be.
But the dumb guy who sat down on the floor is not that interesting any longer, now that a youngish man and woman have got onto the train—she by the door opposite where I’m sitting at the end of the car, he by the door in the middle. She is not pleased with this entrance stage left and stage right at the same time. After all those years of studying Corneille and Racine, her belief in the unités of time and place are so deeply drilled down that they cannot be shaken, let alone extracted—and voilà, her boyfriend has violated both in a matter of seconds. She explains this clearly and distinctly to him, easily gliding to center stage with him in her lee and shadow, slightly upstage of her, and the rest of us rapt and waiting for more.
She is costumed for the part, in a nice red dress, her blond hair tidy and just so, her neck up and slightly arched back, her low shoes silvery and elegant: ready for public consumption, for her close-up, for applause. He missed costume and makeup, with dumb shoes, an untucked tee-shirt, a superfluous backpack, and he really needs advice about the frames for his glasses—no doubt forthcoming when she gets a chance to get around to it. But there is more on her mind. The separate entrances were an interruption or just foreplay, but who can tell since the scene began sort of in the middle of the middle of something that this particular audience missed, and more’s the pity.
The show goes on even so. He was late. He was very late. And being late is not polite, especially with her family, and having made a phony excuse didn’t help, not at all, actually made things worse, because everyone realized right then and there that it was a phony excuse which made being late that much worse. Don’t you see? He doesn’t. Or he’s reading from his own script because—and you really have to wonder—he is explaining to her, using gestures that are more than a touch too big, that read as hammy at the top and back of the house. Kitty-corner from me, two metres or so away, and roughly the same from the young guy who helped me up and is across the aisle from them, the action is not convincing, but he keeps laying it on. And the more he gestures the more she speaks, explains about good and bad manners, pays no attention to his gestures which are supposed to be warm, perhaps, but are cutting nothing but the air, no ice with her, certainly, and it’s just getting worse.
My Samaritan neighbor and I are really trying not to catch one another’s eyes, trying to be serious about his phone and my book, but I doubt we’re doing much of a job—except, of course, it does not matter, since red-dress and dumb-shoes are so deeply into their unconvergent scripts that we could surely dance naked around the pole or stand on our heads and pee on the ceiling without distracting them. Well, her.
I want to tell dumb-shoes to stop explaining, to say, I’m sorry, honey, pardonne-moi, chérie, t’as raison, yeah, I’m wrong, my bad, you’re right, miséricorde. I want to tell him he is reading from the wrong script, the one the director threw out two weeks ago—check: two millennia ago—or if you want another bunch of metaphors, mon vieux, you can’t win this hand, t’as misé sur le mauvais cheval, cut your losses, take your lumps, and they still sell roses outside the Forum des Halles at this late hour on a Saturday night, I think. And that’s where they’re getting off the train, together, same door, if not hand in hand. I silently wish him, and I guess her too, the best. Daisies will do I, say out loud startling myself and my pal across the way. Relieved that we can grin at last, we both do and then crack up. He mumbles something about women and I ask, as I get up because my stop is next, if he thinks they are going to get married.
His eyes pop open wide, he claps his hand over his mouth, and starts laughing again. I wave as I get off at the next stop, and he tosses me the bolt: Gardez votre gri-gri, and I drop it in my pocket. Good luck charm? Not so sure, but I can’t thank the quarreling couple enough for distracting attention from me. Who knew life in a Paris subway car could be such fun? Who knew anyone paid more than a second’s attention to a clumsy guy winding up on his ass or to yet another couple not getting along? And who thought anyone cared?
Then what about the dogs? As I walk through the tunnel to make my connection, there are three dogs, perhaps not strays because they have bandanas around their necks, but not attached to anyone. They look confused, plowing ahead, swapping the lead, dodging passengers feet, not barking, as mannerly as they can be. I try to talk to one, but he’s not interested in my friendly hand or in sniffing my shoes. And no one else pays them any attention at all, just as people routinely ignore the addled starlings and pigeons you can see flying around the Métro any day of the week. Isn’t this amazing?
On my platform and waiting for the next train—four minutes to go, according to the sign board—I realize I have lost any notion of what is interesting in this city, that I really don’t know a goddam thing after all. Is it just the stupid old familiar things that amuse, that engage, that entertain? And… and if I threw Br’er Magpie’s bolt onto the tracks and managed to hit the third rail? It’s an easy toss, underhand. One, two…
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