It’s drizzly, and I’m sniffly. And anyway, I’m completely at loose ends without a clue or a hunch about what might be good to do next. No ideas, but I have a book in my pocket, the wide-fronted café is right here with several empty tables and its heaters thoughtfully firing away. I find a table, ask for coffee, and close my eyes. Just off to my right, I hear an Anglophone couple trying to find out from the waiter exactly what he is offering them when he says le museau de bœuf is a specialty of the house. The translation of the word escapes him, so I lean over and say—though my English is especially woozy today—that it means beef snout and it’s really very good. They evidently believe only the first part of my declaration and order other things. My coffee comes, I close my eyes again, and sigh.
This is an old habit, and an odd one, too, and one of many, but I often sigh for no particular reason other than it makes me feel good. It does not signify passion or disappointment or vexation or a full belly: merely a deep exhalation, more a cleansing of the mind than of the emotions, let alone of the respiratory system. I open my eyes and my book and begin to read. Paris is not, in my experience, a more bookish city than any other I know, but a person reading in a public place seems to display an invisible yet unmissable Do Not Disturb sign. Perhaps it was the small and depressing apartments with lousy lighting and not enough heat of the not-so-old days that turned the café—and the railroad station and park bench, for all that—into a cross between the living room and the library carrel. But I think if I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, I’d be more likely to be interrupted or at least spoken to than with my elbows on either side of a book.
That belief or mere notion is not put to the test today. Nobody bothers me, but the book isn’t holding me. I close it. Two minutes may have passed, no more, before a man walks up and asks in ragged French if I speak English. I tell him I do. “I heard you talking in English to those tourists,” he says, not liking the word or the idea of tourists. “So, are you French? American?” I tell him I am here and ask him what he wants. I want to go back to the book that was boring me. “I just wanted to talk to someone, in English. For a while.” What can I do?
He’s older than I, a good deal, maybe, but he looks as if he does not always sleep in a bed. His clothing is clean, rumpled, and studiously beachcomber—heavy white pants, no socks, old-style canvas tennis shoes, something that I guess could pass for a pea coat, and a scarf knotted around his neck. He’s only missing the bashed-in captain’s hat with the black visor. A duffel bag and a parrot wouldn’t hurt either, so he’s not quite ready for his close-up, but it is Paris in the fall, not Corfu or Nevis or Tahiti where it’s always summer. I tell him to sit down.
What the hell, I even offer him a cup of coffee, figuring it he’s going to spin me a yarn, I’ll drop a coin in the jukebox or anyway offer a tip. But he doesn’t serve up Gauguin or Ryder Haggard or Conrad, no tales of girls in the tropics, dockside bordellos, and smuggled dope. He drinks some coffee and sighs—but deeply and purposefully, as if letting something out or clapping his hands to get attention: not my kind of sigh at all. “I’m tired,” he says. Yes? “I’m getting old.” Who isn’t? “It’s no fun.” Who ever said it was? “They say that growing old isn’t for pussies. It’s worse than that. Growing old is a helpless hurt.”
This may be better than I thought. He has just channeled Bette Davis (sometimes people say sissies, but she wouldn’t have) and quoted Willie Mays. Poor Willie. He said this at the very end of his career, after they started cutting the center-field grass shorter so his tired-out feet would have less resistance as he tried to run down fly balls, the ones he kept losing in the lights. Willie felt helpless, and that hurt him more than any bean ball or head-first slide into second ever could have.
I tell him it’s a fine and fitting phrase. And? “I’ve lived too long. I didn’t expect to live this long. It’s not that I don’t feel well all the time. Most days are okay in that department, you know? But I ran out of money. When I came to Paris, I had run away from everything. I was bored, sick of everyone I knew. Didn’t like what I was doing for a living, working in a bank, sitting at a desk, talking to customers who couldn’t balance their checkbooks. I quit, sold my house, invested the money. In those days, the dollar bought a lot of francs and at first it bought a lot of euros. So, money wasn’t a problem. And I didn’t want a fancy place to live, so I lived well enough and had a good time. But I thought I’d never run out. Either I’d be dead with a few bucks to go or everything would go on as it had before. I got it wrong.”
This is getting much better. Maybe the Bette Davis was just something he picked up—and most people don’t know the attribution anyway. The Willie Mays was a bit peculiar. But even if I was wrong about Conrad & Co., I had the idea: bon cheval, mauvaise course. He’s telling me a story straight out of Somerset Maugham, even down to the bank clerk part. Of course Maugham’s character moved to Capri, not Paris, which may somehow explain his wardrobe—or not, depending. “I don’t know what to do.”
Any minute, you’d think, he’ll ask for money—a loan, you bet—and that will be the end of it. I’m guessing he won’t, that’s not his point. He’s got a different scam or just a shtick. He’s going on and on with always a little more detail of how he has lived, how the changes were gradual, barely perceptible, then came more quickly, the moves from a big apartment to smaller ones, then to cheaper and cheaper hotels. His plain way of speaking, with repetitions, with slightly awkward dialogue, is rehearsed. I think—though I’m having a hard time staying focused on his tale because I’m trying to see under or around it or him—that a few other famous quotations are slipping in here and there. Did he really just give me George Bernard Shaw and a paraphrase of Swift? Should I give him a little George Herbert and tell him ironically that the best mirror is an old friend?
“I really don’t know what to do.” He’s come around to that again. He looks at me as if I can tell him something. Why would he expect that of a stranger whose nationality he’s not even sure of, who’s barely said ten words to him, who is probably a bit glazed over around the eyes and getting fidgety? “Any ideas?” Me? No, I haven’t any ideas, I tell him.
That is not the truth. My idea is that this baloney sandwich, this rube stew he’s trying to feed me has nothing to do with money or any possibility of my helping him with advice or anything else. Is he working on a book? Gathering material? Rifling the stores of the anonymous strangers he stumbles into in cafés as blithely as he has pilfered from writers and books of quotations? Or is he doing all this not for a book, but to create an interesting persona, an avatar, a retouched photo of the man he really isn’t and never was? Or something else, over my head or beneath contempt? I could ask him, but if I’m right either way, I think he’ll be unhappy. He doesn’t want me or anyone to see through him. Whatever for? “Any ideas,” he asks again, “what do you think?” I shrug and smile weakly. What do I think?
I think I’ll have a museau de bœuf sandwich with mustard and horseradish. Do you think they have rye bread?
See more of Paris! Here are some of Bonjour Paris’s favorite tours:
Medieval Churches of Paris: Discover some of Paris’s most beautiful and lesser-known churches in the company of a medievalist, a perfect theme for the holiday season.
Paris Holiday Walk, Culinary Traditions: Take in the holiday cheer with one of our gastronomic experts. Visit a traditional Christmas market and food shops, savoring the delicious holiday specialities.
Louvre French Masters: Escape the cold and the crowds in the Italian wing of the Louvre by learning about the evolution of French art from the late Gothic period to the monumental 19th century paintings of David and Delacroix, accompanied by an art historian.