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I jump, startled. It’s always been like this, and I don’t know why. My peripheral vision is as good a reason as I’ve ever come up with, broader than normal, maybe, so that something far off to the side and out of what I think is really my field of vision registers somehow in a lost tangle of neurons before my brain can send a picture to my eye, and that old part of the brain, the reptile in the back of the head, takes over and says, Here’s trouble, get ready to fight it or eat it. A car, an animal, another person wandering down the street—it makes no difference. Something is there, even if I don’t yet know what it is. Better safe than sorry: I start in my seat in the Métro, my hands up slightly, and look off to my right, expecting a rat at least and maybe a snake. It doesn’t matter that I know better.
There are, I guess, a few old-timers—old and sentimental—who still look at a little bird like this one and call it un piaf, but a sparrow is a sparrow in any language and just as much still a sparrow hopping across the floor of a subway car on Line 4 in Paris. I drop my hands back onto my lap and watch him make his way along the car, slowly with the quick cranks of his head from side to side which I suspect is how sparrows power their legs when they hop, like a wind-up motor that needs to be constantly keyed. No use in asking why I think it’s a male: I know nearly nothing about birds and—assuming this one really is a sparrow—wouldn’t now the male plumage from the female, but perhaps it’s the stolid way he moves along the car, checking the floor for something to eat or simply because pecking at the ground before him is what he does when he’s not airborne and what he should be doing if isn’t enjoying the pleasures of flying.
He seems perfectly calm, skirting the feet of the seated passengers and, since it’s not crowded on the train, not troubled about someone standing getting in his way or stepping on him. When the doors open at the next stop, he hops over nearly under a seat—he does know about foot traffic—but the new arrivals find seats, and Monsieur Sparrow continues his progress down the aisle as the train accelerates. After another three metres or so, he turns and makes his way back toward me, still unconcerned, just going about his business. The more I watch him the more he seems to be a regular commuter, an avian working stiff qui fait la navette domicile-travail-domicile, a daily round-tripper, going to and fro, work-home-work, getting on in the world, getting nowhere at all, like everyone else on the train.
I wonder where he gets on every day to start his commute. Do you, I’d like to say to him, start on another Métro line? This one, Line 4, is entirely underground, and I guess you could swoop right in over the turnstiles and make your way down the steps to the platform without any wear and tear on your legs to speak of and watch the timing board to see when the next train is going to arrive. But most of the entrances are narrow and, if I were a bird, I’d be a little nervous about how crowded they get. So I’m guessing you get on somewhere else—say, Line 6 which has a lot of stations above ground and would be more welcoming to a bird, especially since some of the elevated stations have trees growing right up to them. That would be easy, wouldn’t it? Right.
Anyway, have you noticed how hot it always is on this Line? Even in winter? Do you know why that is? Well, as you and I both know—and I just said—it’s entirely underground and the ventilation system is the finest money could buy around 1906 or maybe 1907, can’t remember which. But there’s something else, and I know it’s a fact because I looked it up online. It’s the wheels. They’re different from the trains on the other Lines and it has to do with braking. It’s kind of technical, not sure I really understand—perhaps you’ve read about it too?—but it seems that when they apply the brakes, these old wheels throw off a lot more heat and, being underground and with an old ventilation system, as we agreed, it’s inevitably going to be hotter here than elsewhere. It’s also usually one of the most crowded, though at this hour, as I imagine you know better than I, it’s not so bad, and you can get a seat… though I guess you don’t sit that much. No offense, just making conversation and wondering since you don’t see that many sparrows—you are a sparrow?—on the train. Well, I meant I don’t. No offense.
This is what I would have liked to say to the sparrow, and who would have cared? But like it or not—and it’s an old habit or maybe a curse—when I wander off into a daydreamy, or you could say lunatic, dialogue with someone who is not present or something with which I could not have a real conversation, a bird, for example, after a little while my lips begin to move and then I begin speaking out loud, not loudly, but audibly, clearly, loud enough. And so I have been, though for how long I’m not sure. Long enough so that as I surface from what I thought was my interior monologue, simplified and repetitious out of courtesy for the bird, I realize people have moved away from me, even though my closest neighbor was across the aisle, and the bird is staring up at me. The passengers who just got in stop near the doors. Oh. They are looking—and I have three more stops to go before I get off. They have spotted a loony, and everyone knows insanity is catching, especially in confined public places. I could be embarrassed, perhaps should be, but I’m not. Years ago as a kid actor I acquired what I have always thought of as performance poise, a conviction that you must stay in character, ingest another self and let it rip, play the part to the final curtain. Reciting “To be or not to be” when you have no such doubts about life and death or belting out “Oh what a beautiful morning” in a theatre at night or persisting in an argument with no logic on your side or just chewing the fat with a sparrow—it’s all the same, and the show must go on.
It does. I ask Monsieur Sparrow if he has far to go, since by now the next stop is mine and I’ll be getting off, but I hope to see him again. On my feet now, I say au’voir to him, wish him a pleasant day, and walk to the door, causing the people along my route to lean away from the aisle and towards the windows, backs turned to me. I pass by the crazy man who always sits here, in the third car from the front of the train, on the strapontin by the forward door facing backwards. He’s still having his silent argument with someone I can’t see. I nod to him and ask him if he knows the sparrow.
“I never talk to strangers,” he says, “never on the train. It’s dangerous.”
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