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“Look at that, will you? I never saw anything like that before. Did you?” No, or if I did, it wasn’t worth remembering. But the man who has stopped me is excited. Perched on a small, untrustworthy-looking table outside a little café on a stone-quiet side street is a pigeon. No more or less. If I drew diagonals from all four corners, he would be dead center, which pleases me, but my excitable companion of the moment is not interested in the Euclidean beauty of the pigeon’s roost. It is simply the pigeon itself, sitting motionless except for the constant birdy swivels of his head, unruffled by our presence just a metre away. “And?” I venture that it is a very large pigeon. “No, no,” he says, and I’m not sure what he means.
Perhaps he means size does not matter, not what caught his attention and nailed him through the feet to the sidewalk where he’s been standing in pigeon awe for nearly ten minutes, as he tells me. And I suppose he is right. The pigeons of Paris have always seemed outsized to me, half again as large as the pigeons I have consistently failed to admire in American cities. They look much cleaner than their American cousins, even a touch shiny—healthy and plump: edible. It would not surprise me if a poule en pot or a coq au vin I have encountered was potted off a Parisian roof, though I do not have to think about that just before lunch. This is an ordinary pigeon, and I guess the pigeon-fancier really means that it is truly amazing that a pigeon would stay fixed in one spot for so long, doing nothing, getting nowhere, paying no attention. “There must be a reason” he says. I have no idea, and anyway the café is new to me and could be promising. I say au’voir and in I go.
The café, like the street outside, is so typical of Paris that people who don’t know the city well would think it anti-Parisian. As far as I can tell, Haussmann and his successors upgraded the north side of the street and left the south alone—a common asymmetry around the far edges of their wrecking and building, as here in the bottom of the Fourteenth Arrondissement: old and tatty smallish buildings on one side in a who-blinks-first contest with the tall beaux-arts beauties across the street. You don’t see it so much in the center of town: rue Réaumur is a more or less famous exception, just above where the stomach of Paris used to reside in Les Halles. The café itself, nearly invisible until you pass in front of it because it is not on a corner and the street is narrow and it’s on the old side of the street where the doorways are modest, is charming for those of us who like the non-descript. Not homely, it’s merely faithful to its original design and opening day, probably not long after the first world war, and aside from a discreet sign suggesting Wi-Fi, looks pretty much the same. It has been kept up well enough, but it does not glow with the buffed-up brass and the luster of mahogany you’ll see in the great cafés of tourist guides and high prices. It could be Le Café de la Poste, Le Café de la Gare, or maybe Le Café de la Poste et de la Gare Réunies. It could be anywhere in my Paris.
From the bar where I perch, I can see the tiny kitchen where the cook in a T-shirt is making my omelet. The barman brings it, along with a glass of Morgon, and goes back to his paper, yesterday’s scores being more interesting than the clients, even though my arrival means the staff no longer outnumbers the customers. The other diner, a solitary old man, is sitting against the wall opposite the bar. His dishes have been cleared away, but there’s a bottle of white in an ice-bucket—empty by now, I guess—on the far end of his table, and he’s reading a book propped up against the water carafe. I have seen this old man before, or at least one of his brothers, and he comes from a large family. They are a café necessity, like the espresso-maker, the mirrors in gilt frames, and the bentwood hat racks.
I wonder, as I have before about others, if the old man is happy. He’s alone, but is he lonely? Was his life different, better, twenty or thirty years ago? Did he sit alone then? Day after day? Will I be another brother twenty or thirty years from now? Tomorrow? Other than turning the pages of his book, he does not move. I am done with my eggs and nursing my wine when the barman, without a signal I can see, walks over with coffee and a pousse-café and takes away the bucket and the bottle, not a word exchanged. Without looking up from his book, the old man takes some coffee, some of the Cognac or Armagnac or whatever it is, turns a page, then reads, motionless again.
Now’s the time, it seems to me, the moment. But what can I do? Ask him… what?… about his life, about then and now, about happiness, about the book he’s reading, about the vintage of the wine and the best dish for lunch in his café? I think his age is such he’d think me young—and this, sentence, in accidental iambic pentametre, is whispered in my ear by my own voice so clearly that I jump, startled. But it’s my answer, isn’t it? How could I know or understand? How do I dare to interrupt his reading or his life? Why should he talk to me? It’s not your business, and mind your own, and bonne journée, monsieur.
Finished with lunch and up a blind alley, I pay my bill and ask the barman if the old man is a regular. “Of course, always the same.” I sigh and slouch out to the street again. The pigeon and the man are still there. I tell him the sitting pigeon should fly away, be more like a pigeon—he’s depressing. “No, not depressing,” he says, with a eureka smile, “he’s natural, like us, existential—the same thing over and over, daily life, not bad at all. You know, Camus was right: Sisyphus is happy because he knows his rock will always be waiting for him at the bottom of the hill in the morning. Cheer up, mon vieux.”
Mon vieux? Tomorrow and tomorrow and… No, I’m not coming back.
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