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This is really going well. Luck of the draw, no question about it, but the driver who picked me up in his taxi at Charles de Gaulle is really flying. He doesn’t like the Périphèrique any more than I do and he’s heading right through Paris from the north, picking his way between the railroad stations on streets I don’t think I’ve ever seen, making surprising turns, and obviously coming out ahead. When I try later to figure out where we’ve been with my map, I get lost.
He points at the tall railing surrounding a park. During les événements de mai in 1968, he tells me, they tore down the fence and used it to barricade the street and, over there, they dug up the street so the cops couldn’t get across. I suspect they included him. Anyway, I tell him I made it to Paris in June that year and the place was silent. “Juin? En juin la guerre était finie.” He’s as right with his history as he is with his sense of direction: in June of 1968 you couldn’t tell there had been a war except for the presence of the soldiers with Tommy guns everywhere, big guys, péquenauds right off the farm, who probably could not have found their way back to their barracks on their own. I think they had bus drivers for that. The driver tells me that’s right and laughs. The streets had been repaved and the fences mended by June.
A good ride and the sun has come up since I got in the taxi. Better yet, the fare is just 38€ and a few centimes, the cheapest ever by a lot. I give him a generous tip. He laughs again, then hands some of it back, roughly about seventy-five cents at the day’s exchange. Too much, he insists. I put it back in his hand and close it into a fist. You earned it, nice drive, and the best deal I ever had from de Gaulle. He starts to open his hand. I squeeze it. He thinks this is hysterical, thinks I’m a con, and I tell him he’s a connard which breaks us both up, our whooping echoing in the quiet street and finally bringing a few people to their windows. He points at them, so do I, and the peepers vanish—they were never there, of course—which is even funnier for both of us. He wishes me a good day and a good stay in Paris, and off he goes. If the dumpy café on the corner had opened on time, I’d have bought him a beer. I head upstairs.
I know I’m not a jerk, despite what he may have said, and I’m pretty sure he’s not a schmuck. Even with the extra tip, I had saved—how much?—maybe ten, twelve euros. I don’t remember a cabdriver anywhere—and certainly not in Paris—declining a tip or giving instruction on the art of offering un pourboire. I thought I knew the rules of that game well enough, but I missed something. I didn’t get it, still don’t, and no one else I tell the story can figure it either.
Maybe it had something to do with the old days, a memory shared out between us and not all that many other people any longer. We were there. Maybe when he has given the same guided tour to other passengers, they hadn’t even heard of the Events of May or had been, like so many foreigners, scared away. But I can’t be the only one. Maybe it was pride on his part. When I gave him the address at the airport, he didn’t know the street—it’s only one block—but when I told him the cross street at the end, he knew exactly where to go and didn’t want my map—and he’s the only driver I’ve had recently without GPS in his cab. Discounting his tip could have been his own penalty for not knowing one street out of the 6,003 in Paris, not counting the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes—of course, only 4,936 are public, so maybe…
Still don’t know, don’t. It doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t anyway stay with me, a one-time event, an eccentric cabby, but the unaccountable experience quickly acquires a sibling. Three or four days later I leave a friend’s house late after dinner, heading for the Métro. The street is busy, lots to take in, but I’m distracted because I’ve decided to take a taxi instead and I’m trying to figure out how to get around the place up ahead, which is an utterly chaotic traffic circle, to the taxi stand on the far side. I must look a little startled when someone says, “Pardon, monsieur,” usually a pretty innocent statement. I look over and see two men, who are looking worried. One of them says, “Je ne veux pas vous déranger, monsieur,” and seems to step back, maybe to think better of saying anything. I tell him that he and his friend haven’t bothered me and smile. They want to bum a cigarette.
This is convenient. The pack I have is half full of really sour-smelling French smokes—not even as atmospheric as the always-putrid Gauloises—and I’m too thrifty to throw it away. I hand them the pack. They look startled now—I think they would have been thrilled to get one cigarette to share. They make gestures, meaning more or less no, no, thinking, I guess, that they have scared me, extorted the pack for protection.
It gives me a wonderful idea. I could start running, telling them to leave me alone or yelling Au secours, au secours! I imagine them chasing after me, trying to explain they meant no harm, offering to return the pack—and a crowd running after them, coming to help me in my moment of need. I’m tempted. But it occurs to me that these two very polite miséreux, not exactly panhandlers but not bankers either, are pretty certain to be foreigners, maybe with defective papers, and even in this culturally varied part of Paris that could be costly for them. I assure them that I am glad to offer them the cigarettes and hope they smoke them in very good health. I want to ask them why they did not want to accept the pack, but they have vanished in the other direction, even though they had been walking parallel to me. Is there some décret concerning smoke-bumming in Paris that has eluded me? I had smiled at the men, after all, and walked right up to them to hand them the cigarettes: I didn’t throw them or drop them on the ground, walking backwards. But it’s a relief when the cabdriver who brings me home accepts a generous tip with Merci and drives off without another word. Perhaps Paris hasn’t completely come off its hinges.
Or maybe it has because within a week another child is born into this freak show of a family I have been acquiring in Paris ever since I got off the plane. A man and a woman, nicely dressed and having the air of being married down to their fingertips, are standing on a corner with a piece of paper in their hands. They do not look certain about something. This quartier sees very few tourists: it’s residential with stores and cafés meant for the locals. Haussmann’s wrecking balls barely winged it, so odd and vagrant streets still survive, and navigation is a matter of practice. I know my way here because years ago I found a little market that I liked, and I’ve come to look in, but it’s gone.
The man and woman are holding what turns out to be a map they must have found on Google or MapQuest and printed out. They’re talking, more or less past one another, and turning their heads this way, then that. I remember years ago coming out of a Métro station and trying to get my bearings. A man said, “Vous êtes perdu.” It was not a question: are you lost? It was a statement of fact: you are lost. I liked it and tried it, twice I think, with lousy results, so instead I wish ’sieur-dame good day and ask them if they need directions. No, says the man, don’t need any, not necessary, maybe adding merci, but it was mighty soft-spoken. No surprise here: men everywhere are pretty much the same about this, and equally dismissive. The man will say no and the woman with him will say yes. In this case, the woman says no thanks. They are both French and, I’m pretty sure by their accents, locals to boot. The idea of accepting directions from someone who is not Parisian and possibly a foreigner is an unnatural act, surely not God’s will. I shrug, say goodbye, and walk off.
Within ten seconds the man is calling, “Pardon, monsieur, attendez, s’il vous plaît.” He trots up to me and says directions might be good after all, please. A Parisian asking a foreigner for directions in Paris? If the sky had opened and rained down frogs, I would not have been more surprised. They are actually from Neuilly, which would make no one throw up his hands in surprise, do not know this quartier, and they’re looking for my old market which they’d heard was pittoresque. I tell them it’s fini. I sighed, I guess. I must have. Oh, they both say, I’m so sorry and she pats me on my shoulder. He shakes my hand and says again, I’m so sorry for you. They are sincere. So help me, it is raining frogs in Paris.
After all these years, wearing out more pairs of shoes than I can count and looking into more faces and alleys than I can remember, I thought I knew Parisians as well as I know my way around the Parisian map. I thought I knew the rules of the game. I don’t. Or maybe after all these years I’m finally paying attention.
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