Timing is everything, and my timing was lousy. I had just moved into a charming (which means very small) apartment in the Sixteenth, on the top floor, about 85 stairs from street level. But who cares, I thought, there’s an elevator—small and not climbing at more than a metre every two or three seconds, but why let the better be the enemy of the good? What was good enough for Clemenceau is certainly good enough for the likes of me. Like Sisyphus, Camus would have imagined me happy.
And I was until the seventh day in the apartment when the elevator, like God in Genesis, decided to rest—between the fourth and fifth floors. Unlike the elevators I was used to in the States, there was no phone connected to the concièrge, and had there been one, she would not have answered it, not because she did not like me, but because modernity in all its gears, pulleys, and circuits irked her. What was good enough for Rousseau was good enough for her.
There was an alarm button, and I pressed it. Good alarms, in my opinion, are shrill, rather like the voices of middle-aged parisiennes, suitable for shattering glass and summoning help on the double. The alarm in this elevator was more like the voice of middle-aged parisiens, mellow, charmingly masculine, and audible for a distance of at least two metres, providing the wind was blowing in the right direction. It wasn’t. If it had been, it still would have done me no good.
It was all Sarko’s fault. His lunatic insistence that the French work more than 20 hours a week had (once again) enraged everyone who actually knows how to do anything useful, and this last grève was being led by the union of elevator repairers, supported in solidarity by the pompiers, the only ones with ladders long enough to reach me. What was good enough for Chirac was clearly not good enough for Sarko. Or me.
But it was not all bad. The elevator car being an open cage left me exposed to the sight of my neighbors who, as they made their way down the stairs, saw me and asked, “Do you need help?” No, I told them, I enjoy being here, but I do miss my café au lait. Sarcasm, I learned on the spot, does not work, at least not in the Sixteenth or when uttered by a foreigner. But of course, was the response from M. Déka, coffee is necessary and immediately, and he disappeared while another neighbor, M. Lestrange, asked me if I could balance on the rail inside the elevator car and push open the hatch in the roof. Weird, I thought, but I could.
Within minutes, Déka returned with a florist’s vase while Lestrange climbed to the fifth floor, forced open the gate, and—with a little swinging back and forth—lowered the vase of coffee on a rope he had found somewhere. In the meantime, Mme. Ventreuse had evidently got wind of my predicament and had handed Lestrange a basket with a tartine (butter and raspberry jam), a croissant (still warm), and a napkin, all of which Lestrange lowered with his rope.
Breakfast in an elevator between the fourth and fifth floors, even if the elevator is swinging ever so slightly back and forth, is not such a bad experience. The coffee and bread were good, my neighbors chatted pleasantly with me before drifting off. The coffee was so good that I drank all of it, about three litres. What was good enough for Balzac was good enough for me.
Or so I thought. But the divine Honoré, who drank 50 cups of coffee a day, had available a privy of sorts or at least privacy. I had neither, and coffee, like water will not—how shall I put this?—run uphill. Using the vase as a pissoir may seem obvious, but when rescue came—and it did come a couple of hours later when the grévistes got bored and wanted to put in for overtime—it would be embarrassing to explain the contents of the vase.
Charm, it turns out, can be utilitarian. The old glass sconce in the elevator was the size of the vase and, with the light bulb safely unscrewed, could hold what I no longer hold myself—and it did, with a simple transfer from vase to scone. When the rescuers were gone and it was dark, I returned voided the sconce and made a vow.
From now on, I would take the stairs, no matter how many, and I would do it every day—down from the top and then, inexorably, back up. What was good enough for Sisyphus is good enough for me. Imagine me happy in the city of light and cranky elevators.
© Joseph Lestrange
“Joseph Lestrange is the pseudonym of Joseph Lestrange, a writer from Washington, DC, who yearns to be with the most sensational ex-pat American woman in Paris.”