Scooters in Paris

There’s something absurd in Paris and it doesn’t quite fit.  Parisians are not absurd, not by nature and not, I’ve always thought, by artful choice.  The theatre of the absurd flourished here and might even claim Paris as its capital.  Jean Genet wrote in Paris (from La Santé prison in the Fourteenth), and the Irishman Samuel Beckett, the Romanian Eugène Ionescu, and the Russian Artur Adamov came to Paris to write their absurdist plays—and in French, no less.  But theatrical absurdity has ideas, an agenda, a perverse outlook that is to say it has something to get across, a point to make.  That is art, not artfulness. Parisians are much less inclined than New Yorkers, Bostonians, or Washingtonians to dress up as chickens or costume themselves like manga characters.  (The faces painted in team colors at soccer matches all over Europe are considered to be an American infection, but football fervor makes otherwise healthy people vulnerable to all kinds of bugs.)  The Washington kid with no hair except 20 centimetres of a gelled and dyed coxcomb running from his brow to his nape and half a kilo of metal in his face is self-consciously absurd: he is using a low form of artfulness—in other words, a cynical adroitness—to call attention to himself for the sake of attention, not to make a point. Parisians do not do this or, if they do (and if so, rarely), they do it with innate style, not cheap props.  Years ago at the Marché aux Puces a man and woman dressed identically as men turned heads; mine for sure.  They wore two-tone brown and white shoes, tan suits with a pattern, cinched in at the waist and with lapels from the 1920s.  They wore off-white straw hats and smoked with cigarette holders.  But this was theatrical, more art than anything else.  They clearly had rehearsed and it showed as they walked in step, moved their heads in unison, and gestured alike.  Their expressions were… I suppose the word is expressionless or deadpan. No cameras were trailing them, no posse rode in their wake and no entourage made way for them.  They were doing this, as far as I could see, for their amusement, for a sense of style, for a projection of ambiguous sexuality.  They were making theatre on the unlikely stage of Les Puces.  They were cool.  And if nothing else, they gave me a striking memory and a happy one. But not so with the new absurdistes I’ve been seeing this spring in Paris.  They are riding scooters.  Not motor scooters, but the Razor, an American child’s toy that also caught on with some adults in the States, but mostly they were high school and college students.  There, the Razor is passé.  It seems to have caught on in Paris this year, and those who scoot are mostly young children. But there have been too many adult men (I haven’t seen a single woman scooting), and they bother me. They have all been well dressed, though not nearly so elegant as my flea market flashbacks, and almost always all in black.  They have all had two other things in common: they have stood up very straight, unlike the kids who lean over the handlebars, which is natural, and they have the same expression.  It is not a deadpan.  It is the look runway models are encouraged to paste on their faces. It’s usually called “attitude.”  It combines hostility, boredom, and contempt—and it is the same look I have seen on women stripping at clubs and rural carnivals.  The attitude says I am better than you, I don’t need you, I don’t see you, but you, you can’t take your eyes off me.  I have won. Won what? I wonder.  I could take my eyes off them in a matter of a second.  The grown, groomed man on a scooter is even less surprising than someone suddenly shouting “Boo!” but equally annoying.  It is pointless. Nor does it seem fitting in Paris.  Parisian men and women don’t carry themselves with stiff Japanese dignity or with outlandish Italian swagger.  As urbanites, they have always seemed the most natural of people in any city I know, the most at home in their own skins, projecting their own small aura (if that is the word) of style, sex, and expression. The absurd man on the scooter does nothing to undercut them, make them question their reality, or look a second time at nature.  He is not Marcel Duchamp putting a moustache on Mona Lisa.  He may not even be the semi-delinquent painting a moustache on an anonymous model in an advertising poster.  I don’t know what he is other than boring and out of place. Those given to medicalizing all behavior might call such a man a narcissist.  I’ll settle for absurd in the bargain-basement sense of the word: silly.  Not cool, not questioning, and too economical in his aspirations and thus lacking the courage to dress up in a chicken suit and take a stroll down the Boul’ Mich. © Joseph Lestrange
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