Friday, March 25, 2005

Umbrella Beating

The station at St. Michel: Serves Notre Dame, that fabulous tourist hotspot. Thus, one of the most likely places to be pickpocketed. Two annoncements in English frequent the loudspeaker, urging tourists to be vigilant. Announcement A, the warning: "Don't attract pickpockets. Secure you wallets and close your handbags." Sound advice. Announcement B, for red alerts: "Pickpockets are active in station. Be vigilant." Parisians blink, oblivious as they finish the paragraph they're reading or turn up the volume on their mp3 players. Tourists clutch their bags to the front of their bodies.

These announcments weren't enough to save an elderly woman heading down the stairs. She grasped the railing with both hands, taking the long steps down one at a time. As I started down from the next landing, I saw them: two boys about my age, unzipping the woman's bag and fumbling through her belongings. Commuters brushed by.

Having already been the victim of a genius pickpocketing scheme just a few months prior, I rushed down to help. Like a fussy old woman shooing a cat off the table, I hit each of the boys on the back with my umbrella, scolding, "Stop it! Scat!"

When I had played this scene in my mind just a few seconds prior, the offenders had been startled and run off, afraid. In reality, they turned on me, much taller than I thought. They got in my face and threatened to hit me. I could only stare at them dumbly, and luckily, they walked off.

I went up to the woman, heroic, ready accept her gratitude. I'd placed myself in harm's way--I'd saved her from the perils of the Paris metro!

Instead, she looked at me for a moment and grunted before returning her attention to her descent. She muttered her thanks as I passed her: "What do you think, I'm an idiot?! I might be old, but I'm not stupid. There's nothing valuable in this old bag! I keep my money in my socks."

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Eight: Corniest line in Paris

My fascination with the different metro lines in Paris nearly rivals my obsession with 60’s glam Communist propaganda. Particularly the “Red Detachment of Women” ballet orchestrated by Mao’s wife. Damn the consequences, as long as there’s some glam involved. Deportation to a Siberian work camp? Who cares when those Soviet propaganda posters feature such rosy-cheeked, scythe-slinging workers with names like Ilya and Ivan? It’s always the packaging that counts.

That’s what I was thinking when the Eight screeched to a halt in the middle of a tunnel between stations last night as I was on my way to a dinner party. “Please God, if I die in a horrible metro accident or terrorist attack, let it not be on the Eight.” The Eight is the metro line with the least personality. It’s slow, it serves unglamorous neighborhoods, it’s represented by a non-descript purplish color on the RATP metro maps, and its upholstery is a mysterious “psychologically calming” blue.

Poison gas attack, dirty bomb, hostage crisis, subterranean shootout – I’m willing to die a bloody death in any of these events. Just let it be on a cool metro line.


I was exhausted, heading home on the Two after a long day. We pulled into Blanche. I was actively visualizing my teleportation directly into my bed when I heard a loud screechy voice:

“Marcy, are we all on?”

Yep, they were all on, about six of them. It was as if the Alps decided, in unison, to board the Two: oversized American tourists, all wearing white starter jackets. All of them immense. They called to one another from across the car, like military commandos carrying out a dangerous operation in hostile territory:

“Okay guys, we get off at the next stop. Get ready to say perdone.”

Right, perdone. Pardon?

We arrived at Barbès, my stop and theirs. I sat transfixed, as the ringleader—the woman who obviously had taught the others how to scream “perdone”—stood facing the wall of tired commuters who were all uneager to make way for the herd from Omaha. “Perdone, perdone, perdone!” She of the copious flesh stood perplexed as the human mass failed to part on command. No Moses, she risked humiliation in front of members of the tribe as the magic spell’s effectiveness seemed in doubt. “PERDONE!”

A small passageway formed. The Alps filed out. Exiting the car, usually an ordeal during rush hour, was easy as I slid into place in their wake.

The Boob Squeeze

Running westward, the RER A transports much of France's businessmen and women to the shiny architectural circus that is La Défense. I arrived on the quai this morning at eight thirty. The quai was already three meters thick with stressed commuters anxious to get on board. I scoped out the least crowded section, calculated where the doors would open, and stood perilously close to the tracks.

Perfect placement, that's my trick. The doors stopped just to my left, allowing me to be the first one on board. On mornings like these, you can't even hope for a seat. You aim for a wall or corner where you'll have the least amount of contact with the other passengers.

This morning's car was oddly shaped. I ended up on a corner that jutted out, not in. I awkwardly grabbed the corner and tried to press up against it. Hey, it was better than pressing against the fat and heavily wheezing man next to me. There was no way to avoid contact with the passengers pushing their way on from the platform. The buzzer sounded, and with a mighty push, a woman with enormous breasts lurched toward me.

My arm was caught in her cleavage, and there was nothing we could do. I tried to move, she tried to move, but in the end, all we could do for three stops was stare at my upper arm disappearing into her bosom.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Puking Car

In standard Seat Vulture fashion, I was ready when the Eight finally rocked into the station at Concorde. As the doors opened in front of me, I made to rush for the empty seats, but stopped just short of Seat Glory.

My toes were inches from a puddle of fresh, yellow-and-pink vomit. I wondered what the sick passenger had eaten while fleeing to the other end of the car. Easter candy? Eggs and ham?

Women pulled scarves over their noses to filter out the smell. Men discretely blocked the odor with finger mustaches.

The boy with his mother would have done well to follow suit in the minutes that followed. He stared at the vomit, grew wide-eyed, and began heaving himself, quickly and efficiently clearing the section of any remainding vomit-brave passengers.

The mother patted the child on the back, said "come on, baby," and when the doors opened, led him to the next car. There, no one would know his responsibility in the mess.

Old Man with Cane

The man’s hands shake to a disobedient pulse as he totters through parting legs to the empty seat across from me. He props his cane on my foot and his knees touch mine, but I don't mind. Blinking slowly and steadily, each deliberate movement exaggerating time's lines around his eyes, he watches the passing buildings. And I watch him. The comb's fingers are still fresh in his hair. Lesser-tamed hair grows from his ears, and suddenly, I love him. I wonder if any woman has ever whispered these words into those ears: I love you. Did he turn to her, earnest, this old man alone on the train? Did she quiet his hands?