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It looks like a war zone, a couple of weeks later—no smoldering joists and beams, no plaster and rock dust blowing onto my shoes or into my lungs, just dunes of inert rubble stretching thirty metres from the sidewalk to a mongrel fence of chain link and scrap boards at the back of the property. But Paris hasn’t been bombed or shelled since the Franco-Prussian, and the bombs they had in those days weren’t all that impressive, unless you happened to be standing near enough to one of them get blown up. No, this isn’t bombed out.
To look at the buildings on either side of the wasteland, I’d guess it wasn’t a fire that brought the building down, either. No scorch marks, no blackened brick and stucco, no twisted window frames, none of the scars that the flames and the pompiers, right on its heels, leave when it’s all over. Maybe whatever was here just fell down. It’s an old street half way out in the Twentieth Arrondissement—the street rises noticeably enough as it heads east—and whether you call it luck or indifference its buildings have been left alone since they were built in the days when Stendhal and Balzac were writing about a Paris that took no account of this street. It’s still a no-account street—isn’t it? —but it’s showing signs of coming up in the world. On the first floor of the building to the right is a kosher café-bar with high prices—and I don’t want to know about the pareve wines, even if they are dans le style of the Rhône and the Loire. To the left, a fragile young man and a scary, thick women in her mid-thirties are running a flower store selling the things that used to be alive and others made of silk, metal, paper, and what looks to be cobwebs. They and other stores like them don’t yet outnumber the second-hand shops, the money-wiring services, and the forlorn markets selling nothing that does not come out of a can, but they are gaining on them.
What makes is all the more amazing to me that this empty space is still sitting here. The middle class, which has been rising since Homer told tales about Troy, is surging all over Paris, and that includes here, right here on this street with satellite dishes sprouting out of walls and windows, with new cars outnumbering the junkers by the curb, with geraniums in boxes on windowsills and balconies. Land is valuable in Paris. A building falls down, burns to the ground, is demolished—well, this happens everywhere. But in a rising quartier in crowded Paris, how can the land stand empty and, I learn, empty for quite a while?
Bumping up to the sidewalk is another cobbled-up fence, on the inside of which are improvised mailboxes, like the pigeonholes in an apartment house, with faded names and notes to the facteur about whose mail goes here or needs to be forwarded—twenty of them, more or less, including the names of businesses that tell me nothing. Of course, there could be a question of insurance, of an estate, of tax obligations, of some tangle of red tape beyond my comprehension. And so I should shrug, as I have learned to do more and more often as time goes by, and go on my way.
That is what I did a little over a week ago when I first wandered down this street for no particular or even good reason and came across the piled-up rubble of a used-to-be house in the middle of a block in the middle, more or less, of the Twentieth Arrondissment. The shrug filed away the mystery—or consigned it to the list, growing longer every year, of things I don’t get. But I had a reason to come back. It was the shovel. I think it is a shovel, though someone may call it a spade. As a recovering gardener, I know a spade has a long handle. This one is short—which does nothing but hurt the back—and was surely first designed and presented to the world in the Middle Ages when a man of the well-fed classes stood about a hundred sixty-four centimetres or no more than five feet four and wouldn’t have to bend to dig in his garden, if he actually did that, probably leaving the work to a hungrier and shorter neighbor. So, this is a D-handle round-point, but it’s a shovel, and shiny and new and showing no signs of ever having been used.
That’s why I have come back. I wanted to know if the shovel would still be there. It is, as it was, in the same position as far as I can tell, point on the ground, concave side facing out, handle leaning against the fence by the sidewalk—by the sidewalk where anyone can see it. Who would leave a brand new shovel standing by the sidewalk in a neighborhood that is still more shabby than chic and expect to see it a week or more later? Why? Did he want it to vanish, to get lost, to wind up in the possession of a neighbor, a passerby, a vagrant like me? Unwilling to touch it, I squat and look it over, front and back. No traces of blood, no bits of hair, nothing to suggest a crime. Was it stolen and left here in a moment of regret or perhaps rationalization, the thief figuring if he didn’t keep it, it wasn’t really a theft?
Or was someone thinking of digging up the rubble and—and what? There are tons of it, not counting the confetti of glass and plastic bottles and cans and fast-food boxes, it’s more than a metre deep, thicker in some places, and looks like work for a bulldozer, not a man with a shovel and—no matter how picturesque—a donkey with baskets on either side. It would be a race to see which would break first, the shovel, the back, or the picturesque donkey: No.
The barman in the kosher café knows nothing. His place opened two years ago, the rubble was next door then, no one has told him anything about it, and he hasn’t asked. And what shovel? At the flower shop it’s no better. The fragile young man scoots behind the scary, thick woman who tells me, in a pleasant song of a voice, that they opened the shop six months ago, business is good, the rubble was, is, and no doubt will be there. And what shovel?
I want to tell her as I wanted to tell the kosher barkeep that this is important, that shovels do not materialize for no reason on the streets of the Twentieth Arrondissement, that they do not stay long if they actually happen to, and there must be a reason—actually two, one for its appearance, another for its failure to disappear. They won’t listen. It must be the nature of shopkeepers: what comes in from the street matters, but what sits out on the street, doing them no business and no harm, doesn’t. You wonder why they get out of bed in the morning.
But I want to tell someone, get an opinion, some sympathetic belief that shovels should not be mysterious, appear for no reason and remain, and there must be a bottom to this enigma pit. I stop a woman, maybe thirty, pretty, and ask her about the shovel. She looks at me as if I have just swung down from a tree by my tail and accelerates. The coast clear after a few minutes, I ask an older woman, pushing her bicycle, what she makes of the shovel. She looks blank: I point to it. “Maybe the baker left it there?” No, madame, not that kind of shovel, not for bread, the kind you dig with, you know, for potatoes. “Are there potatoes over there?” she asks, pointing to the rubble. No, no potatoes, but why would a baker or a potato farmer leave a brand new shovel standing on the street? “I don’t know. Do you?” Merci, madame, I don’t know either. She pushes her bicycle and is gone.
Another ten minutes and its all the same—except more people are walking around me, their eyes turned toward something very important up near the rooflines, rather than pondering the shovel down here with me. I’m set to leave, cross to take a last look at the shovel, and a man a bit older than I am walks up and says, “Nice shovel. Yours?” No. It’s just there. Been there for a week. “Really?” Really, and I tell him the whole anxious story. He smiles and I think I have an idea. I ask him if he wants the shovel. “Not really, thanks. I have no use for it. I mean, I live right here in the middle of Paris. Anyway, you saw it first. Do you want it?” Oh. He’s caught me. He smiles again, from ear to ear, and laughs.
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