Missed Train

Missed Train
They said Mussolini made the trains run on time and praised him for it. Sarkozy has made them run early, and no praise from me. I was cutting it closer than I liked, but I was on the platform at twenty past ten when the train was supposed to leave the station, and it was gone, long enough gone so I couldn’t see it, gone and making its way through the dismal path it cuts through the Eighth and Seventeenth Arrondissements. Swell, two hours to kill at Saint Lazare, one of the dumpiest stations I’ve ever seen. The neighborhood isn’t much either. Other than Arman’s wonderful and goofy clock sculpture—a reply to Dali? an explanation of why there are fewer and fewer public clocks in Paris these days than in the good olds—there’s not much to look at here and besides with all the people lugging along bags on wheels and shoulders, the sidewalks can get bruising. Even with two hours on my clock, I don’t want to go far—this is the only train I have ever missed in my life and I can’t bear two in one day—so I rule out a church just a little farther away for comfort, a church I like because I think it is the second ugliest in Paris. A street or two down from where I am, there’s a café that’s anything you’d like it to be: on the awning it says Café Bistrot Restaurant—take your pick, I guess, whatever you want, so how can I go wrong? The terrace is crowded and a touch too cool in the shade. I go inside and sit. The place isn’t ugly, just homely. The lights need to be brighter or darker, but not where they are. Other than two large mirrors, which were probably delivered the day before it opened, unloaded from the same truck as the stove and the espresso machine, there is no décor to like or not. The floor misses the broom. It is simply a café or bistrot or restaurant for transients, for people just off trains, waiting for one, or missing one. Unlikely that there are many regulars, the pillars of the establishment who hold up the bar, if not the roof, and pay the rent next month and the month after until the ending of the world or the advent of the wrecking ball. It needs me. It will do. It’s also not the kind of place where I like to take a chance on the cooking. I ask for a glass of wine and a sandwich, figuring a wine bottled, rillettes chopped, a baguette baked, and a mustard ground up elsewhere are safer bets than the efforts of this kitchen. To my right, there is a girl with strawberry blond hair, an American, who is giving the waiter her order with a great deal of help from his café English. She is trying to explain what she does not want in her salad, which puzzles the waiter only slightly more than it puzzles me. She is adamant that there should not be any capers, anchovies, or horseradish. I’m not sure he understands, but he guesses these are things they don’t have anyway, and I think he’s right. He looks slightly disgusted. The other waiter, the one who took my order, brings me my wine, looks at the girl as if his colleague has explained the exclusionary technique of ordering a salad, curls his nose and squints, then hustles off. I taste the wine, put it down, and take in the girl. She is prim, no other word for it. You’d expect her to be wearing white cotton gloves and a little hat, maybe with a veil. Her jeans and T-shirt do not do justice to her primness, once a commonplace quality, now as hard to find and root out as truffles, though not worth nearly so much these days. Her waiter returns with her salad and a glass of orange juice—ah, that’s why he looked disgusted… or maybe not—mumbles bon appétit, and bolts. I don’t blame him. She peers into her salad, looking for offense lurking in it, finds none, and starts drinking her juice as my sandwich arrives. I thank the waiter, and start to eat—not bad and the mustard helps. After a bite or two, I look over at the girl who has dug into her salad. That is not a metaphor, even a dead one. She holds her fork in her left fist and plunges it into the bowl with the force and intensity of a laborer digging a ditch, spears a bunch of greens the size of a pétanque ball, opens her mouth wider than I have ever seen a mouth gape, and stuffs the food inside. She chews broadly, with her mouth open, then lays down her fork. After very adequate chewing, she picks up the fork in her right fist and repeats. She eats like an ambidextrous lion. Amazing. I finish my sandwich in small, prim bites, and look away. All I can figure is that I’m no longer annoyed that the train left without me. I can thank the girl for improving my mood or at least taking my mind off the perfidy of the SNCF and President of the Republic. Maybe I can return the favor somehow. When I can, promise. Meanwhile, I need to finish my wine and I have plenty of time to kill. I peer around the room. It looks like a first date a couple of tables to my left. I had noticed them when I first sat down and before the girl with the strawberry curl distracted me. The girl, a little past twenty, I think, had been sitting bolt upright, her back a little swayed, her eyes wide and barely blinking, an unmoving smile on her face—all the cues of interest or possibly the desire to persuade herself that she’s with the right guy and this…

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