Monday, October 8, 2012

The Secret Behind the Bookcase

A week has passed already. Paris has been great, with a few problems, nothing severe. We’re settling into our odd apartment. The furniture is tattered but fairly comfortable. There are two three-quarter-sized sofas that can support us for an evening of reading, writing, laughing. One is rose red, the other a canvas-gray.  A lumpy queen-sized bed, a luxury, fills the small pink bedroom. The unfathomable telephone is on a tiny table near the kitchen door and underneath is a tangle of French wiring and cables for the TV, Internet, phone and DVD. Every year that we stay here I hope nothing goes wrong with that crap, or that it ignites. Four floors up a narrow 16th century staircase, we’d be done for. The sisal floor covering smells sour on humid days and every day is humid, but it’s tolerable. There are no goddamn closets and the oven is a complete mystery.
The toilet is always a laugh. I’ll bet a lot of people can’t say that. The big bathtub, sink, mirrors and shelves full of towels and bedding are in a well lit tiled space connected to the bedroom. The toilet, or WC, itself, is right off the living room behind a bookshelf. Over the years tenants have left behind paperback books, everything from Kerouac and LeCarre to Danielle Steel and Agatha Christie. A couple hundred abandoned books. Ours are here from the past five years, my copy of Les Miserables, a couple of pulpfiction airplane books and some Graham Greene. Three walls of shelving have been built to accommodate all of this literature and behind one section is the toilet. The thick, cork-lined wall swings out and, voila, there is le toilet, discretely stationed in a closet that sticks out into the living room, two feet from the red sofa. For some reason there’s a full-length mirror on the wall, facing the user, which is a bit daunting. To watch one’s form? To see oneself at one’s most vulnerable. It sort of works. The first time we saw the positioning of this most intimate of appliances, we were surprised. It’s like something left over from the pre-revolution days of intrigue and romance. A secret passageway/toilet for discrete liaisons.
We Americans have a great need for privacy, particularly when it comes to personal sanitary functions. The French, I think, are much more open about bodies and how they operate, and now, so are we. There is no way to use the loo, which for all intents and purposes is located in the living room behind a thin layer of cheap paperbacks, without acknowledging the existence of anyone else in the room. We grow more intimate with each passing jour.
I promise I’m not going to write too much about the bathroom. I am not fascinated by what happens there. Sure, I like a bath from time to time, but the rest of it is just the confidential detritus of the day, so to speak.
I’m a self conscious American and have spent much of my life trying to understand the world or how it operates. It wasn’t until I began traveling extensively that I found I was a part of a really big picture and I didn’t matter all that much. It was a revelation and an interesting feeling, that of insignificance and anonymity. I travel and learn from those around me.
Paris is full of hip, skinny, well coiffed overdressed youngsters, barking and gawking and hopping up and down. It’s too late for that and I’m grateful.
But there’s an old dude who I’ve seen several times as he wanders back and forth on the Rue de Rivoli. He’s anywhere from seventy to ninety years old, short and bent. His shoes are scuffed but serviceable and he wears an old tweed suit with a yellowing shirt, wrinkled and stained, unlaundered, I’m afraid, for years. The green overcoat falls below his knees almost to his ankles and his brown cap sits squarely on his head, like a roof. He has thick hair in his ears, is unshaven with bushy eyebrows. He moves slowly, much more slowly than the rest of the foot-traffic on the busy street. Everyone passes him. He keeps his hands in his pockets, an unlit cigarette hanging off his lower lip and he strolls.
That’s it. The image is one of absolute unconcern and blankness. He has given up hygiene, style, and companionship. He is self-assured and confident. I may be inventing a lot of these traits for him, but what convinces me is that his zipper is always down. His fly is perpetually opened.
I don’t think he’s purposely exposing himself; it’s not a perversion. He’s not an animal, for Christ’s sake. He ambles and when the need strikes him, he steps into an alcove and relieves himself against a wall, modestly engulfed in his shapeless green coat. His life has been reduced to a slow walk and necessary functions. Other people, culture, politics, history and philosophy are of no concern. I am curious about what goes on in his mind, if anything. I haven’t given him a name; it would be unfair.
He’s either a demented old Frenchman who has completely given up or else he is self-contained and living in the absolute moment, admirably indifferent about the complications and enigma of the modern world. He may be drunk.
I don’t know what to believe. It doesn’t matter, I guess. I can only make up stories about the old guy, watch him and wonder if I could live that way, totally insane or totally free.
I have a long way to go; I admit it. I am concerned that the sleeves of my sport coat are an inch too long and I try to keep up with traffic as I barge along with the rest of the pedestrians, dodging buses and bicycles. I’m embarrassed when a native laughs at my pronunciation of French words and I’m a little claustrophobic on the metro. Suppose I order the wrong thing for lunch? Should I buy a hat or use an umbrella when it rains? Am I eating too much butter?
And I’m still getting used to the toilet behind the bookcase.

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