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It’s a day for something familiar, not one for wandering off into a quartier I don’t know or haven’t been to for twenty years. Unfamiliar is not always interesting. You need to invest your time and shoe-leather and be patient because there are not that many things or places worth looking at, but some things or days just try my patience. Yesterday was like that.
In a large concrete emptiness between an ugly modern apartment building and a small public market in the Twelfth, I saw one thing that could pass for engaging or maybe just inexplicable. When the sellers of fruits and vegetables who had set up shop there a few hours before saw the garbage trucks lining up on the side street and the men with brooms advancing on the concrete, they knew the greengrocers’ four hours in the sun were up, and so they up and left—not remarkable, not at all, just an ordinary jig danced to the music of the clock, if not of time. But at least twenty of them decided it wasn’t worth hauling away what they had failed to sell. Not a few scraps of spoiled lettuce leaves and split-open tomatoes, but whole crates—some piled three and four deep—of bananas and peaches, green beans, lemons. Bananas and lemons don’t grow in France and need to be imported, and it’s too early in the season, I’m pretty sure, for local peaches and beans and certainly for cabbages. This stuff has traveled, isn’t cheap, and it makes no sense to me that the marchands de fruits et légumes just leave them there. Do the lemons and beans fall out of the sky or off a truck and cost them nothing? Who knows.
But there they, ready for the picking, and people know it. This must be part of some kind of Twelfth Arrondissement kabuki on market day, the sellers leaving all at once and on the dot, the hunters and gatherers lining up a few minutes early to get the pick of the litter. No surprise that some of the people I see loading up their bags look like street people or just down at the heels, but even more have a well-fed and well-heeled look about them: many of their cabas are embroidered or leather, not old plastic totes from Ikea or Surcouf or Ed, and the scarves knotted around their necks are much nicer than the bandana I am wearing. Even if you can’t haggle, something for nothing is always a good price, and the padding in the bank account seems to make no difference. I get to wondering if it’s only the rich and poor and a few in the middle from the neighborhood who are out scavenging today or if people from elsewhere in Paris have marked the time and place on the their calendars and tell the chauffeur to have the car ready. Even though no one looks at all embarrassed by this urban foraging, it doesn’t seem to be the kind of question that would make anyone love me or even answer.
That was it for the day—over and out in ten minutes. Nothing else for my six hours of shuffling and peering except a shortening of my shoes’ life expectancy, and I don’t need to turn my favorite occupation into something that bores me or merely disappoints. Something familiar will do just fine today, and off I go towards Saint Germain. I knotted the blue bandana around my neck this morning as I left the apartment. It’s something I do from time to time. I have no idea why. Maybe I thought I’d try to look like a Parisian tough guy, circa 1960—the kind who threw women around in some kind of dance you could see on the Ed Sullivan Show. If I tied it around my head like a biker, I’d probably get fewer looks. But there it is adorning my neck. So far today, no one seems to care much, except two young guys who ask me where I got it. I tell them in an Army-Navy store in the States, and we manage to agree that a surplus américain might have it here, except the surplus stores here really sell junk from the military while the American stores rarely do these days. I mean which branch of the service wears a blue bandana with white patterns? I wish them luck, and no, mine isn’t for sale.
The sun is up and bright, people are out in a Saturday stroll, and—this should be fun—there are buskers arrayed along the sidewalks on two sides of the old church. I’ve always wanted to see the parvis in front of Notre-Dame filled with musicians and jugglers and mimes and sword swallowers, but the cops shoo them away. Perhaps it’s less undignified to amuse the public in front of a lesser church where musicians play often but priests no longer celebrate the Mass, and anyway here they are. A man is tying long balloons into animal shapes, and the parents of small children are buying. A little girl wanders off between mama and papa with a balloon band around her head, topped by two pink horns and looks to be the happiest little girl ever. The crowd thins, and to amuse the few older stragglers, the balloon man blows up a blue one about a metre long and after a Watch this swallows it completely—and it doesn’t come back up. I don’t have to think about this any further, and take a look at the seated juggler a little to the left.
I have never seen a juggler performing on a chair before, but this is not a shtick, just a medical necessity. His stomach hangs down nearly even with the bottom of his spread-apart thighs: fat beyond belief—in America he might not stand out—and his legs are encased in some kind of elastic stockings. He can’t stand, but he can juggle, not just the weighted balls that jugglers use but Indian clubs, which looks kind of dangerous even if no one is hurt. He offers lessons, and I’m game, but a twelve-year-old boy gets in first and shows enough aptitude that everyone realizes he’s going to be there for some time. The crowd shifts, taking me along, in the direction of music. It’s being made by a band decked out in American country clothes: jeans, plaid shirts, a couple of cowboy hats, big belt buckles. If you saw just the instruments, you’d guess maybe a jug band—no jug, but a washboard, banjo, mandolin, two fiddles, a trumpet, a trombone, a tambourine. But they’re not playing country or Bluegrass. They’re just finishing their second pass through “The Firehouse Stomp,” which is as Dixieland as you’re going to get it, wearing the wrong duds—can you imagine Preservation Hall without suits and ties?—and about two trombones and a tuba shy of a Dixie load.
Que voulez-vous? They’re French, but they can play, and so they do. The washboard man has a scarf around his neck—another wardrobe malfunction, and for that matter his plaid shirt is not flannel—and he eyes my cotton bandana with envy. His looks like silk and probably cost forty times what my sweat-wiper set me back, but I bet he’d trade. Nope. Anyway, I’m off. They’ve started playing “The Saints,” which is to Dixieland what “Scotland the Brave” (or is it “My Bonnie Lassie”?) is to bagpipes, and always an exit Leitmotif for me.
Wedged between two stands selling tourist junk there’s a musician performing. He has a rope—actually a loop of rope at first, then two pieces of rope, then three, then abracadabra and boop-boop-ba-doop it’s two interlocking loops. The junk sellers are less thrilled than the crowd, because the people in the prime spots in front of their stalls are watching the magician, who is now doing card tricks—yes, he guesses the right card. And now for something completely different—not really—he takes a five-euro note from a man, has a pretty girl write something on it (“How about your phone number?”), puts it in his pocket, asks a lady to examine an orange to make sure it’s whole, then cuts the orange in half and produces the same note with the girl’s partial phone number on it as proof and, when reminded, hands the money back to the man. “Could you give me the last two numbers?” he asks, but she’s leaving. I’m also about to, but he looks at me and asks if he can borrow my foulard.
This makes me grin. The French don’t have a real equivalent for bandana—which they need as much as Aleuts need a word for fondue pot. Foulard seems a little too elegant, but I am disarmed and soon disba… without my bandana. He runs his hands lightly over it, from the middle out, as if he’s going to stretch it. But he does not. He balls it up in his hands, then reels it out—and it’s red. Does the same routine and makes it green. The aimless white patterns look the same to me, it’s too sunny out for a trick with lighting, and magic tricks are about the hands of the performer and the eyes of the onlookers being out of synch. Relax and enjoy—and I do.
I retrieve my bandana and he is on to the next act—something with a solid metal ball and a piece of string—and I get to wondering. To produce the different bandanas, he obviously already had them. If I could find the two boys who wanted mine, I could tell them to ask Monsieur Magie, tell them he’s got a dealer, connections, a stash somewhere, with all the colors of the rainbow—or maybe just a couple—and everything’s for sale. But that is not what makes me wonder. Sure enough, he had the red and the green ones in his pocket or sleeve or his left nostril, but when has he ever produced them before? Who but me meanders the streets of Paris these days—it’s not the Sixties, and Crips aren’t taking the tour over the pond these days—with a bandana around his neck? He bought them, stole them, acquired them somehow and simply put them away, but near enough to sweep them into his show, to amaze everyone, especially me, that he could appear to change my bandana into another of a different color when he finally had the chance. How long had he waited for someone to show up and be willing to hand over his bandana? What are the odds? Would you take them? I wouldn’t, but I wish I had his patience.
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