Last week was a week free of McCarthyisms because I was upstate attending what was without a doubt the most simply elegant wedding I've ever seen. I was very grateful to be invited. It was hard coming back to the city after being with friends that I miss so much. It's the fourth Sunday of a month all of a sudden, time for another entry that's too long for a blog. I'm interrupting the series on moving to bring you an unrelated short story.
I had been thinking about quitting drinking. I had very recently taken up smoking cigarettes and thought perhaps I would tell all my friends, as I sipped San Pellegrino, that I had decided to swap one out for the other. I would explain to them, a filter between my lips and an empty paper in my hand, that I had just decided not to drink anymore. No further explanation. It’s what’s left unsaid wherein the romance lies. And then, in a motion almost magical, I would move my thumbs and say, “I think—” pause to glide my tongue along the glue and begin again, “I think for now anyway,” and place the finished cigarette coyly between my lips.
This maneuver would take some practice, and the trouble was that I wasn’t partial to cigarettes. It had been an addiction I had tried picking up, but to no avail. I would smoke when I felt like it, but usually didn’t. I had never really had any luck at developing chemical dependencies. One stiff drink with a bit of regularity was a luxury I enjoyed, but realistically, I could never convince even my apprehensive mother that I had a problem. I would smoke at the bar, or I would smoke two cigarettes in a row at a Parisian café after a dinner of escargot and calves kidneys as I sipped a bit of coffee for dessert. But then, for the longest time, I wouldn’t.
The rolling is what really got me interested. I hoped to meet an affluent chain smoker. I would roll her cigarettes and learn how to do it like the fellow in the metro the other day who rolled one on a packed rush hour train between one stop and the next, almost as if he didn’t know he was doing it. As it was, I was concerned that I didn’t smoke enough to really learn to roll. But that was my chosen smoker’s identity. I would roll my own in Rizla quality papers. I hadn’t settled on a brand of tobacco just yet.
And so that afternoon, when I was sitting at that so-very-lovely Parisian restaurant all afternoon, I ordered a bottle of sparkling water and hoped I would be recognized as sophisticated, not cheap. I ordered a cup of coffee after dinner, and requested an ashtray (one of the first phrases I learned from my phrasebook). I spent the rest of the day feeling keen and quick witted, and I thought that surely this new lifestyle would provide me with the edge I needed to finally get that sharp intellect I had always wanted. I planned on going back to my room and reading Nietzsche. I would become a brilliant cigarette-smoking professor, living anywhere (well enough) east of Cleveland and north of Philadelphia, and wear sweaters to dinner parties and ask the hostess if perhaps she had any San Pellegrino and pretend to be a recovering alcoholic, looking down upon the Fredos of the world with their banana daiquiris. The best alcoholics I knew came in couples, a recovering alcoholic and a functional alcoholic, and whereas I wasn’t a functional anything, recovering would suit me nicely.
The trouble was Terry, as it had been before. Terry’s problems occurred on several levels but began with the fact that Terry was a genuinely nice person, eager to help and relatively happy. That last fact would irritate any decent human being, especially a 20-something who rolled his own cigarettes and scowled sometimes. Terry was a physically fit retired college counselor who had been born to first-generation immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown and spent his life in the Bay Area. He had a passion for traveling and was keeping a room in the Fondation Etat Unis where I was staying myself for a month. He stood at some 5 feet and wore thick glasses that made his eyes look like one of those crude caricatures, with dense black rims and silver paisley in long rectangular insets that ran along the stems. He smiled with all of his teeth and spoke very deliberately, each syllable enunciated with an opening mouth. He was one of the first people I met in Paris, and he had been eager to help.
The first thing that made me begin to suspect I didn’t like Terry, from the very beginning when I first met him a week before the onset of my tea-totaling intentions, was his method of giving directions. He privileged the words “right” and “left.” He would occasionally hold out one of his hands at arm’s length, bend his wrist, extend an index finger and point six inches across at chest level. It was never clear whether the direction he was pointing referred to something in real space, or if it was an abstraction relative to some landmark mentioned earlier in the monologue. Never mind that the Rou Jordan ran directly east and west. He would never, come what may, ever, ever suggest doing anything involving a cardinal direction. If you asked specifically he would pull his head back an inch, turn his upper body slightly as if facing in some specific direction, and say, “Yeah, this way,” pointing a little more emphatically, as if to clarify. At our first meeting, he gave me directions to an office where I could buy a month-long metro pass. I attempted to follow his directions and learned never to do so again.
I decided to give up on the metro pass and accidentally spent 10 euro on ten metro tickets sold by two slim adolescent Italian kids in Adidas pants who stood flapping the note I had given them against their lips as I walked away skeptically. Another five for five came from a kid at the Fondation who had successfully procured his metro pass and no longer had any use for the tickets. It seemed as though I could probably get along like that.
That evening, Terry found me and asked if I would like to go for coffee in the morning. He was punctual at 7:30 the next day as I stumbled about my room looking for a belt. The first thing he wanted to do was to take me to that missing office where I could purchase my metro pass. It turned out not to be so missing at all, just located west of the Fondation, not east. On the way there, I told him about the tickets I had bought and observed that whereas it was already the 6th of July, and I would almost certainly be gone on or before the 25th, and whereas I already had 15 tickets purchased at quite a bargain, it seemed like it would not be as sensible an investment as it had once appeared. But Terry turned his head in a way that said, “If that’s really how you feel,” and proceeded to tell me all about the virtues of the metro pass. Always eager to please and very eager to get on with coffee (and breakfast no less!), I agreed at least to check it out.
As much as I would have loved to learn a bit of French, having never studied any of it, my typical interactions with the locals always began with a period of time spent standing in the back of the room, swaying back and forth, reciting to myself again and again the single phrase I had managed to piece together out on the sidewalk with my phrase book. Occasionally I would start to move forward toward the counter, but if at that point another human being in the room happened to move or to stand still in a way that made me think they might move again someday, I would stop and go back to pacing and muttering. Once everyone in the room thought I was sufficiently disturbed, they would all stand completely still and watch to see what I would do. Then I would blurt out a string of vowels and mumbled consonants through my nose (my attempt to pass as a native speaker), to which the clerk would respond,
“What did you say?”
“Je swee desolet. Je parl a pen francais.”
“Never mind that. English is okay.”
But with Terry there I barely had time to look up a phrase before I was at the counter. In retrospect, the clerk wanted to encourage me to get something I did not know existed, a weekly pass. I could have renewed it each week, and considering the maximum duration of my stay, I would have ultimately spent less than I did on the monthly pass. Already troubled by the fact that the U.S. dollar wasn’t valuable enough to buy pity in the EU, I was upset when I realized my mistake about two minutes after having set down 61 euro for the monthly pass. When I expressed this to Terry, he revealed that he had the weekly pass, but had for some inexplicable reason encouraged me to get the monthly pass. I was a little angry with him then. We spent the remainder of the morning wandering from one tram to one bus (no doubt to impress upon me the priceless nature of my new pass) to one closed coffee shop after another. Terry told me we were looking for a real deal on coffee, but all that happened was that I began shaking from low blood sugar and blind rage, I still hadn’t had a cup of coffee, and I had just spent 61 euro on something that could have cost me 17. I determined not to spend time with Terry again.
Terry, however, had other plans. He would drop by my room and invite me to this or that and share his tips on how to save money while traveling. You could buy anything for only so much, and “a little salt and pepper, and its good for two meals!” I avoided him as best I could for the next few days, and in the meanwhile decided I should quit drinking. Considering the low cost of French wine in France, I was a little disappointed in myself, but my first day sans alcohol was progressing nicely. I thought my head seemed a little clearer, I had my copy of Nietzsche, my mechanical pencil, my filters, papers and tobacco—my evening was planned. Then Terry knocked on my door.
With little resistance I was committed to “evening coffee” at 9:00. I immediately regretted it, but resolved to make the most of the situation. We walked along and Terry pointed in various directions and talked about grocery stores where one could buy chicken wings for only so much, and with a little salt and pepper it would be good for two meals! He finally took me to McDonald’s for coffee. I was concerned because, being now off the wagon (or on the wagon if you’re one of those people who know the difference and would like to share your esoteric mastery of old adages), I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to fade away into a dehydrated glow that night, especially after riddling my system with a half-dozen cigarettes and a cup of espresso. Nevertheless, this particular McDonalds had a coffee vending machine and I had a Euro, so I got a cup of espresso. Terry, on the other hand, needed change for the machine, and I had just spent my last coin.
So he waited in line to get change, and I went and stood outside of the McDonalds, directly in front of the door. Five minutes later he came out,
“There you are! I couldn’t find you. Okay, I got the change. How do you get it with cream and sugar?” he enunciated every syllable.
“I don’t know, Terry. I drink mine black.”
“Oh. They don’t tell you anything.”
I went in with him, we looked at the machine, and I will admit it could not be solved. So it was back to the line for Terry. I went back to the sidewalk and stood directly outside the door, reading the covers of magazines, all of which seemed to have something to do with sex, but not in a vulgar way, just thoughtful articles about sex or about thoughts on sex. It must have been the anniversary of sex or something. One magazine featured an entire issue devoted to world religions and sex, or at least sex was involved, or perhaps it was only because that was the only French word I felt confident identifying (though certainly not pronouncing). I waited for a while and Terry emerged,
“There you are! You keep disappearing on me!”
I suppose that Terry must have started his search for his disappearing companion by looking under the tables, crouching down and craning his neck as the customers made obscene gestures at him. Perhaps he then wandered back to the kitchen and into the cooler followed by a shouting French McDonald’s manager. When cornered, he very likely squinted through his glasses and enunciated one syllable at a time,
“I’m looking for my friend. He keeps disappearing on me!”
At least he had his cream and sugar and, “it’s decent when you have cream and sugar.” We found a spot on a bench and sat drinking our coffee and chatting. I was glad to have finally achieved our initial goal. We talked about the Bay Area and about good deals on pieces of meat that, with salt and pepper, are good for two meals. He would stick two bony fingers in the air to emphasize the key term of his familiar mantra, smile with all of his teeth, and sip on his coffee.
And then I was covered in my own coffee. I suppose that if I live to be a hundred I will probably do that about three or four more times, maybe more as old-man condition sets in. There’s no explanation for it. Nothing startled me, nothing happened, I hadn’t stopped paying attention, I just spilled my coffee all over myself and the leather jacket I had bartered for at a flea market a few days before—88 euro down to 53! And exactly the color I had always wanted! Coffee was all over my pants and shirt, but most of all I was worried about the jacket. It had developed hideous streaks down the arm, and, knowing absolutely nothing whatsoever about leather, I thought maybe I had ruined it.
I’m superstitious. I would never admit to it, and you could hardly tell, but I do cut fruits and vegetables into odd numbers, and I do hope that God will pity my wretched condition and allow me to get the orange peal off in one piece so that I won’t have to spend the rest of my life alone (though it must be a mild superstition since I only sometimes throw away the orange when things start looking grim). When something bad happens for absolutely no reason whatsoever, I know what or whom to blame, and this Terry fellow was bad luck.
The only saving grace was that I had hardly sipped my coffee, and though this was the principle reason for my present condition, the hope was that with less caffeine in my system I would now be able to fall asleep. I simply wanted to go back to my room and try to salvage what I could of my clothes. My concern was spreading to my shirt and jeans, and I asked Terry if I could borrow some of his laundry detergent. He said yeah, he had some kind of tablet, who even knows where he bought it. And I said,
“Is it a powder? Because the machines here only take powder.”
“Well, I think, probably, you could grind it up . . .”
“Well does it work? Have you used the machines here?”
“No. I wash my clothes daily by hand. It’s so easy . . .and cheap!” he perked up on that last word, “And you can air dry it, which doesn’t take very long at all. And you can save a lot of money, because, you know, the washing machines here are so expensive.”
And I thought: this scrawny bundle of joy can’t even wash his clothes like a person. And I said, “I think maybe I should stop at this supermarket if it's still open and get some laundry detergent.”
So he said, “Okay.”
And fifteen steps later he said, “We should take the bus. It’s really fast.”
So we stood at the bus stop, fifty yards from the supermarket that apparently I was not longer going to visit, for three silent minutes. I started to read the signs at the stop, and I started to realize something.
“Terry, does this bus take us to the Fondation? Or are we just taking it to the tram stop?”
“Just to the tram.”
“Well, do you think maybe we should just walk? It’s kind of nice out, and it’s only, like, two blocks.”
“Okay. Yeah, it’s only about four blocks.”
“Yeah. Let’s just walk. Maybe I’ll stop in at this supermarket if it’s still open and get some laundry detergent.”
But when we got there, the security guard, sensing we were Americans, said in English,
“Excuse me, I’m sorry. It’s closing.”
I must have looked heart broken or sopping wet or both, because as Terry repeated the phrase, “You can use some of mine,” over and over and over and over and over again in the background, the security guard asked me what I needed.
“Just laundry detergent.”
“Okay.” And I was off, Terry hot on my heels. I immediately saw the detergent and pulled the smallest package I could find off the shelf,
“Is this laundry detergent?” I puzzled.
“I think so.”
So we got in line, paid and left. I began to suspect that Activateur was not laundry detergent.
In three minutes we had walked the three blocks to the tram, and one came along shortly thereafter. I lamented my jacket, telling Terry how I had just bought it. We made it back to the Fondation, and he continued talking about his deranged method of doing laundry, suggesting that for the leather perhaps “a little soap and water, and it’ll be good,” telling me how much money you could save even as he climbed into the elevator and disappeared.
When I got back to my room I stripped off my clothes and googled coffee stains. Mr. Breakfast provided me with four options. Stain remover (whatever Activateur was, it was not stain remover), white vinegar and cold water (I had balsamic, and I began to feel as if I was in a Mr. Bean sketch), baking soda (nope), and the yolk of an egg with a few drops of alcohol and warm water. I had six eggs from the market and warm water. I assumed that what was meant was rubbing alcohol, but I also knew that I had my duty-free Jim Beam in the closet. Thinking whiskey was probably slightly more fabric friendly than balsamic vinegar and certainly no worse than espresso, I decided to give it a shot. I scrubbed the mixture into my shirt and pants. They were covered in the gooey substance, and, having finally determined that, whatever it was, Activateur was definitely not laundry detergent, I washed them with a bar of soap in the sink. Even my white undershirt came out shining. It was amazing. As for the leather jacket, it looked as though nothing had ever happened. The streaks had apparently just been moisture, and when they dried, there was nothing more to be said.
I decided not to trouble that night with the cigarettes, I didn’t really know how to roll them anyway, so instead I celebrated with a shallow glass of bourbon and fell promptly asleep. When I woke up the next morning I pulled my pants in from where they were hanging in the window. They hadn’t taken very long to dry at all.