Sunday, November 18, 2007

"He Asked Us If We Wanted To Buy Coke or Ecstasy"

The crowd was so packed that you gave up the idea of simply moving through the crowd and adopting the concept of moving by way of the crowd. You hoped to luck out and get sandwiched in between two lines of people who were moving in your direction so the lines would do the work for you, much like the intestine moves digested materials. By the looks of the floor the digestive system was cleaner than this bar. Despite the density and the dirt, we were having fun. After being abandoned outside an early closing bar we spent nearly an hour trying to traverse the tundra of a city; happiness was achieved by mere warmth. We were with some friends of friends who were visiting Paris for a short time and while I had just met them I felt some strange obligation to be positive for Paris’ sake. We have been to this particular bar quite a few times so my anecdotes about the crowd and knowledge of the bar made me feel even more like a true Parisian resident to our new friends. The fact that I had yet to adopt the slightest bit of French language was a purposefully overlooked factor. I was providing a service to those young French who wanted to improve their English. The universal language. God’s language.

Our visiting friends ducking out at a few four a.m. was just another sign that I had adopted well to the Parisian lifestyle. Stephanie and I were sticking it out; the fact that I had paid seven euro for a drink justified to me staying till close, perhaps sleeping overnight and a complimentary early morning breakfast buffet. Moving out of the most crowded room we spotted an empty table by a few attractive people our age. Compared to the rest of the crowd they seemed to be pretty passive, waiting for us to sit down by them perhaps. Or maybe just on downers. I squeezed in on the long booth seat next to Stephanie and a couple who had begun to display Parisian affection for each other, which translated to English means they were making out to a degree that would make most porn stars uncomfortable. Soon it became clear that we were in the unofficial couples zone, and while we are a couple of people we are most certainly not a couple. We took the time to do some Parisian people-watching, which translated to English means visual judgment. We decided which couples were poorly matched and how they would be better paired. Many of my rearrangement simply had them dating me instead. Our lonely-hearts game ended with the sound of the bar bell, five a.m. had come fast.

We were back on the streets. A street we had successfully caught a cab on numerous times. The cold made the streets seem vaster and made you feel smaller. We finally flagged down an empty cab…he wouldn’t take us. He told us to walk down a block or two and we’d hit a taxi stand. Worn out groups of people dotted the stand, a few barely managing to stand up, and some staggering out into the street as if to get a better look. We were a few people behind in the line but outlook didn’t look dreary. Thanks to the everlasting metro strike I had left the house prepared for a night containing some winter walking: a long sleeve shirt over a short sleeve shirt, a cardigan, a leather jacket that may or may not be bulletproof and a hat befitting of a thin-skinned Eskimo. I might as well have been wearing pasties and a crotch-covering belt. The wide heavily traffic street created an unforgiving wind that mocked my idea of layering. We were huddling together and doing our best to conjure up images of poor abandoned orphans for that certain Daddy Warbucks driven cab. The few people who were in front of us had been successful in obtaining the rare open cab but it was beginning to seem as if our luck was not as strong. Had my rabbit’s foot matched this outfit my night could have been drastically different. I knew a beige rabbit’s foot would have been much more practical.

I have a tendency to obtain a odd smirk whenever I’m nervous or uncomfortable but I was surprised to find out I obtain a wide grin whenever I’m on the brink of frostbite. “Why are you smiling right now!?” Stephanie asked, clearly unaware that I was not in fact enjoying myself. Unwilling to open my mouth and let precious mouth heat escape I simply shrugged and wiggled around more, trying to keep my blood pumping. Stephanie pointed out a group of people waiting by the nearby Metro station and because it was a bit after five a.m. it seemed to suggest that they were anticipating the first Metro passing through. While one would think that a Metro strike means no Metro, the Parisian definition is quite different. With this particular Metro strike (the second of my short time here) certain lines were running, certain lines were not, and those that were running had certain amounts of trains operating and all of these logistics were constantly changing. What was running at 1 metro for every 8 before could be completely dead in a few hours. I had noticed earlier in the night that one line of the 8 was running fairly regularly and this was the line we could take here. I suggested we run to a nearby cheap restaurant, warm ourselves up with greasy food and wait till the Metro started up again. While we were both hesitant to leave our spot in line, every unlit taxi that passed seemed to make me even colder. A few more minutes outside and Stephanie could simply sled home using my frozen corpse.

Seemingly unaware of the time and place many people were simply engaged in conversation, ordering full dinners. Others were chain smoking over a greasy Greek sandwich; I even spotted a full family. Like most times I need to interact with a random Parisian I simply prepared myself for the necessary vocabulary or sentence and anything else they said I simply sort of smiled making sure it wasn’t a “yes of course smile” or “no thank you smile,” I’ve perfected a very objective, non-committal smile. While I assumed the transaction went okay seeing as I ordered fries, paid 2.50 and the man left without shaking his head or screaming at me he did point to the front fa├žade of the store a few times and I ran over to Stephanie, already seated. “Why is he pointing to the front? I did everything okay, I swear,” pleading for her assistance. Perhaps viewing the mound of fries as proper payment for my incompetence she told the man we were eating here and he gave us the fries. Setting them ceremonially on the table and hovering over them like a campfire we took in their loving heat. Ripping into them National Geographic style we were suddenly interrupted by a large man speaking commanding French to us. I turned my head sharply to stare at him, ketchup still on my lips, I was a Lion interrupted at feeding time. I had no patience for Gorilla antics. “He says we have to pay to sit down here, that’s why they were pointing to the front. It’s more expensive to actually eat inside,” Stephanie explained. Without taking my face from out of the paper dish I handed over the money. The harshness of the rule aside, on a night like this it was simply cruel. I had to use my best motivating skills to get Stephanie to agree to leave our unexpected sanctuary. I wasn’t really tired but I was growing tired of this night. Besides, I had just subjected a family to my late night binge eating; the grease and mayonnaise staying on my thighs, the shame staying on my face.

Believing we had just cheated the system we were excited to simply dash across the street and hop on a Metro, avoiding cab fare the entire night. Happy to actually have a destination in sight, I didn’t mind the fact that it seemed to be even colder out than before. There were less people on the street but I wasn’t sure if the crowd’s absence meant that they had lucked out with a cab, simply walked home cold and defeated, or were the victims of desperate cannibalistic actions of the few sad people left in the street. Running down into the Metro, which seemed even colder than above we passed an old man walking slowly out. He spoke something in French to us and again I smiled. “He says the Metro’s not running. No metro at all,” Stephanie translated. I was in disbelief, I refused to accept it until we marched down to the platform and were forced to confront the reality of our situation. I wasn’t ready to go back into the unprotected cold. I wasn’t ready to do the waiting for a taxi routine again. I wasn’t ready to be consumed by those who are still waiting; they can probably smell the delicious salt and potato on my icy breath.

I had no more nervous grin or frozen smile. I didn’t have the energy or patience for facial expressions. Stephanie was still trying her best at getting a cab but I merely shifted my body back and forth, trying to prevent my muscles from tensing up. My back was doing a scary stiffening action every few minutes.

“Should we try walking to a new area to get a cab, it looks completely hopeless here” I suggested.
“Are you serious, walking?”
“I’ll actually be warmer if I’m moving, and I just want to know I’m going somewhere. I can’t stand this idling.”
“I literally can’t move my feet, I’m not sure they’re still there. I can’t,” Stephanie reasoned.

An old beat up car had pulled up to us and the few other small groups of people waiting; he had offered to drop people off somewhere but no one was going in his direction.

“Is hitchhiking legal in Paris?” Stephanie asked.
“I think so, I think it still might be legal in all of Europe,” I hesitantly stated.

Stephanie now had new inspiration for getting us home and all it required was a different hand position. Unlike my reaction to the unbearable cold, Stephanie seemed to have the vocal energy to beg and shout for help from those who would be willing to drop us back near our respective homes. Some cars would look over surprised and unnerved which made me question my knowledge of hitchhiking legality and some would drive past in stoic silence.

“We look like normal, decent people, right?” Stephanie asked me.
“Look like? We are normal decent people. Normal, decent people popsicles,” I assured her. The concept of hitchhiking didn’t even register in my head. It was one of those crazy things that my Mom tells me about from her time in Europe or even during her college days; or else it begins a horrifying accounted of murdered travelers on Fox News, but it’s not one of my recognized mode of transportation; let alone in a city I can’t understand. An unassuming car a few years old pulls into the taxi stand but past us and right to another couple of people. My hands deep in my pockets for warms I waddle into the street, looking for a sign of hope in the distance.

“He’ll take us!” Stephanie screams out to me. She’s leaning next to the car, which the other two people have already crammed into. For Parisian standards it’s a fair sized car but in America standards it’s a Razor scooter. Stephanie slides in next to the couple who are barely fitting as it is, the one propped up on the other’s lap. I forgo any sort of formalities or questions and sit on top of Stephanie, but I have to tilt the upper half of my body towards the center of the car while leaning forward; my stomach turns into a series of wrenching muscle knots. My neck and shoulders are against the stained upholstered roof and I rest my tired head on the back of the driver’s seat.

“We’ll have to give me a little bit of money, I said we would. He knows these other people,” Stephanie whispers to me. I nod in agreement. I have only a few Euros in coins but I’m not outside and therefore everything will work out.

A few destinations are shouted, Bastille being Stephanie and ours, it’s not really where my apartment is but it’s an easy twenty-five minute walk I’ve done too many times to count. The shouting doesn’t cease and I can sense Stephanie’s voice getting tense. “No” is the only word I can understand during the ride and the frequency with which it’s used should be alarming but the part of my brain that registers fear has yet to thaw. I stare at the mess of feet and try to look up to the other two people to gauge their expressions. I realize that me speaking loud enough for the driver to understand that I don’t speak French is a poor decision so I continue my silence. The car pulls up to a street I’m not familiar with and the other two slid out and slam the door. It’s just the driver and us and as I sit down properly I can see a woman, silent, next to him. She’s looking out the window and I join her. It’s well past the six a.m. mark but the city shows no signs of morning. The driver is playing loud techno music and it makes the car move a bit faster. Stephanie leans in close to me and whispers, “He wanted to charge us fifty dollars, I told me we needed to get out then, but he lowered it, I have him down to fifteen but I only have a twenty but I told him fifteen is all I can afford.” I pull out the coins from the pocket and systematically add each one up; almost seven euro. I don’t want to keep speaking in English so I try to give Stephanie an encouraging smile but it might have come out as objective, non-committal.

I wonder if he frequently ends his Friday nights by driving around, picking up cold, desperate strangers and charging them extensive fees. I look over at his female companion, still silent, holding her large bag in her lap. It doesn’t seem like she approves but she seems to accept it. The music is still too loud but it’s making the silence understandable. The driver and Stephanie are talking again now, I barely pay attention but I can tell it’s not as heated. Stephanie later tells me he was asking if we wanted to buy cocaine or ecstasy. How much would he charge for cocaine to strangers who just told him they couldn’t afford a fifty-dollar car ride? We spot the Bastille; Stephanie gives up her last twenty.

Too exhausted to properly assess the progression of our night and again faced with the brutal reality of the wintertime weather we quickly separate. I start my walk home, the driver’s bad music still thumping in my head. I quickly pass a few clumps of post-partying walkers and from then on my walk is mostly devoid of any sign of human life. It’s down one single street and I know that if I start my pace quickly I’ll get into a groove that will get me home quickly. It’s never fully dark in Paris but it still seems dead. Without really questioning, I know which streets I can pass through without checking the stoplight. I’ve done this walk so many times, mostly with me that I have begun to think of it as my own. If I begin to start seeing another regular walking down Daumensil between the hours of 4:30 – 6:30 a.m. I’ll think of them as an imposter. I make my steps louder, not only to make my presence known but the cold air makes the echoes more pronounced. I begin to see the Daumensil metro stop which means only a few more minutes, it’s at this point where I can start to really visual getting home and right now nothing exists except my bed and the covers I have piled on top of it. I’ll have to pull the curtains tightly closed because it will be light out soon and while I doubt it will wake me, I want to be sure.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Free Parking

I’ll always be surprised to see a pony. Last Sunday I decided to explore the hint of a park I had spotted from my permanent seat at McDonald’s. There were ponies; in fact, there was everything beautiful and picturesque that I’m a bit hesitant to go back for fear I’ll merely find an expansive landfill or parking lot and I imagined the whole park, not a pony in sight.

It was one of those Sundays where doing the dishes and listening to music was actually considered “doing something,” and when you live in an apartment without real TV or any internet the dishes tend to be spotless. In Paris, few things are open on Sunday, but being here for such a brief time I am constantly viewing a day inside as one that could have been spent strolling the Seine and growing a pencil thin mustache. I had just shaved and this park was closer than the Seine. Often when I go out to explore Paris my time is dictated by my stomach, for once I start to get hungry I often have an hour-long window before I’m delirious with hunger: unable to hold a conversation, menstruation moody, and physically anxious. Rarely will I actually see the fiscal benefit of grabbing a sandwich where I am and continuing with my adventuring. Once home I rip into a bag of chips or bread and jam unable to contain myself for the five minutes it takes to make pasta. This afternoon I ate to hibernation standards and even grabbed some Pocky and a water bottle just in case. Viewing this as a possible means for executing the romantic visions of Parisian parks I’ve had before I packed my sketchbook and art supplies. The majestic pony is best captured via pen and ink.

Past the McDonalds is unchartered territory and away from the center of Paris so everything seemed even more foreign. “What could that grand building be over there, so pristine it positively glows,” I thought to myself, “Oooh it’s a Laundromat!” I began to notice that my pilgrimage was a popular one and I was constantly being flanked by small groups of families or smiling couples. The park has a few entrances that are preceded by large gravel walkways bordered with benches and a large wooden map, which gives the feeling that you’re entering an old-fashioned amusement park. I was greeted with ponies and small children. This park is virtually unknown in Paris and I have yet to visit the truly famous ones; I expect to walk into the Luxembourg gardens and see small jockeys riding giraffes and emus. Little kids could pay a few Euros to ride around a small part of the park on pony-back while their parents strolled leisurely next to them. Only one parent was adjusting the child for gratuitous picture taking, the others were casually talking and laughing with their children; probably some lighthearted preschool anecdotes or friendly disagreements over Sartre’s philosophies.

Unlike most of Paris, the park seemed be straightforward in its layout. A large kidney shaped lake was in the middle and the park stretched out around it, the main path encircling the lake. I thought a lap around the lake would be the perfect route to take in order to scope out the perfect grassy knoll for my Parisian doodles. The path was a virtual trip through Norman Rockwell’s greatest hits, images so heartwarming I literally made a list as soon as I sat down to draw. A little girl rode past me on an old bike, she was carrying a pinwheel high in the air. The lake featured couples on rowboats that somehow managed to row while leaning in to give each other little kisses. I passed a man who was playing with a miniature wooden clipper ship, hand-painted of course. A group of children (let’s say they were once orphans) were skipping stones by the lake’s edge. A father and a son were leaning over a small wooden bridge, fishing. These Kodak moments aside nearly everyone else who I passed were smiling couples, well behaved families or old friends with non stop chit-chat. It was enough to send Mr. Rodgers on a three-day drunken binge that ends in him setting fire to his now inferior neighborhood. I could see him waving a white cardigan, a man defeated.

I could commiserate with ol’ Rodgy; it’s hard being surrounded by such imagery. It’s a lot for one man to take. Paris’ beauty can be isolating. I often enjoy doing things by myself: errands, movie-watching, public transportation, using the bathroom; all perfectly exceptional solo activities. My trip to the Pompidou wasn’t hindered in the least by my solo status. Sometimes after going to a Museum by myself I’ll be reduced to coming home and putting on Celine Dion’s version of “All by Myself” on repeat or imagining a sort of “museum relationship” where you notice the same person over and over again until you believe they’re following you; making an exceptionally coy attempt at flirtation. Then you realize they’re merely moving from Picasso’s blue period to his cubist period, along with the rest of the museum traffic.

The happy couples aside I couldn’t help but realize that unlike the pony I, as a single individual, was a rare breed in this park. Renting a rowboat I’d be limited to humiliating circular movements. I’d look comically large on a pony, and despite my lack of Sartre knowledge, I’d be disappointed at the Pony’s silence. Paris has been testing my sense of independence with the internal conflict between the appreciation of your surroundings and the desire to experience it with someone. Public displays of affection in Paris could be given MPPA ratings; and they’d often be at the PG-13 level; although the other night in a bar I saw a couple so into their romance they didn’t notice that the woman’s right breast was hanging out, gasping for air during their suffocating make out session. Thankfully this didn’t make me feel bad for myself.

Rounding the halfway point in my lap around the lake I noticed that the park stretched out even further than I had imagined, too expansive to see an end. This was the perfect time for me to make a detour to my artistic landing. I couldn’t take any more laughing children or fresh picnic lunches; my bitter attitude could be channeled into duck and tree sketches. Now knowing that the park was quite expansive I didn’t want to go too far off the trail that I would get lost, but I also wanted to veer a little bit, away from those friendly faces. I needed a spot that both Robert Frost and Rand McNally would agree upon. I found one by a trashcan. My little sketching gave me a sense of personal accomplishment; I was finally beginning on my goal of drawing more. An individual goal that could only be motivated by myself. Or maybe, a perfect Parisian park.

The Sunday sun was starting to leave the Sunday day. My stomach was surprising me with its temperance, but I decided to forge my way back with the families and couples. A peace walk of sorts. The budding sunset was making the trip even more grotesquely gorgeous and I needed a peeing hobo or overturned trashcan to cleanse my visual palette. For a city and a person that virtually shuts down on Sundays my day proved to be somewhat eventual; I like to think there was give-and-take in my relationship with the park. It gave me a reason to walk past the McDonalds and it provided the only time I didn’t find rollerblading to be an egregious error in human judgment. I gave it a much-needed dose of individualism and infinite blog fame. I’ve started to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and while I’m just a few pages past the preface I appreciate the possibilities of Paris in terms of artistic inspiration; my sketches are barely past the doodle status and I’ll never feel fully ready without a set of crayolas, but I’ve never written so much and Film school was been jarringly hands-on. Just don’t ask me how my French is coming along. I now know how to properly pronounce Oui, and I say it with a turret’s like fervor.

Despite my seemingly well-chosen spot to sketch I soon realized I was a little lost. I looped around the walkway a bit, where the rowboats were all tied up now, and where the man with the clipper-ship was sailing, a few people were still out with their dogs (not Poodles) but the picturesque sights I was recalling acted as trail-markers and I soon found myself back at the beginning. Much to the children’s dismay, the ponies were now being packed up into the trailer. Having been greeted by the ponies I was more prepared to face their presence upon exiting but just as I was about to leave I noticed that the only one that still had a child on it was shitting what appeared to be one full month’s worth of food. It was the perfect way to cleanse the squeaky clean image I had of the park and gave me hope for a better, brighter and more inspiring future here in Paris. Mr. Rodger is putting the Jack Daniels away, finally putting a shirt on under his cardigan and realizing that he might have overreacted at Paris’ perfection.