dimanche, novembre 20, 2005

Cops on the Train to CdG

From notes taken after arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport, via the RER “B” train:

“…Took a late afternoon (4 PM) train to CdG. Got on at Les Halles, crowded train, had to stand in the forward loading area (a sort of eight foot by eight foot open space where overflow commuters can stand with those carrying large items, like bicycles—we were in the front car, right behind the “engineer’s” control room) 3 national policemen came on board, navy blue fatigues—one, a big guy, strong, with a small, caramel head—one a little clownish, younger, the kid brother type—the third ,the veteran, smaller, white, white hair, grizzled. Two girls from N. Ireland, the two friends dropping them off at the train shout as the doors are closing, “They say there may be trouble—you may have to take the buses from Stade de France!” With that, doors close. The cops stand nearby, looking rearward, back along the length of the car. They look vigilant. But I expect they are like the trios of roving cops I’ve encountered riding random Metros twice before. These guys look more purposeful. Were they tipped off to something? They wouldn’t let the trains run if we were in danger…still, paranoia time. A shrunken man, Indian or Pakistani, stands next to me, practically leaning against me, with a large grocery sack filled with a row of identical boxes of something—looks safe, looks newly bought. He smells powerfully of falafel. Lots of haggard faces around, unkempt, all of us pressed together, making room for the cops, but not too much. We lurch up the line to next stop, Gare du Nord.

“Trio of cops get out, and three more get on to replace them—two females and one giant, hitting his head on the doorframe while entering, even as he stoops. He looks young. The three new national police personnel seem noticeably edgier—lots of “immigrants” get on—everyone looks like a potential suicide bomber because everyone is carrying a backpack, a large tote, a heavy sack, or in bulky coats, with duffel bags, etc. An Indian family get on just before we pull out, the son 11 or 12 and a deva angelic version of his genially bestial father, a man with a hairline threatening to completely devour his forehead from several points. At each stop the police look more fierce. They are conspicuously watching the car behind us. I turn and look down the aisle for suspicious faces, but I see, standing not twenty feet further down the aisle, three more policemen straddling the middle of the car, also looking strictly no-bullshit. This surprises me. Thought comes that I must write about this in blog—next thought, from fear and an affinity for predestination—my blog may turn out to be my obituary. 'A promising writer’s last words, an online account of moving to Paris tragically interrupted by…!'

“N. Irish girls see it, too, and they try to keep chattering between themselves, moving into the furthest corner of the car, huddling together, trying to ignore the tension.

“I see what looks like a newly burned down building just off the tracks as we pass through the blighted inner ring of the outskirts of Paris. After a few stops, the police start monitoring the platforms while we are in the stations, either stepping outside or leaning out the door the entire time we are stopped. Looking for trouble.

“I track the stops as they roll by—make it past Stade de France, no sign of buses. Are the cops just here to get us all off the train at some premature end-of-the-line? Is there trouble ahead, or are they worried about trouble on this train in particular? They looked like they were looking for something specific. Soon we come to Aulanay-sous-Bois, one of the hot spots in the riots of the last few weeks. Read reports of kids, miscreants, whatever, throwing Molotov cocktails and improvised acid-bombs onto and into trains at stops like this. The police are almost off their rocker—a group of kids, a big group sorta like you’d see in the ‘States, but everyone seeming just a little too old and adult for the whole thing, which makes it scarier, more deliberate, leave the train slowly, (were they in our car?); a motley group, with no one of them very intimidating on their own, altogether a sort of sad-sack, second-rate, import versions of a New York/Philly/D.C. “gansta’ posse.” But they are hyped-up and emboldened and project so much fury that I am surprised how quickly their half-assed hip-hop stylings fall-away and how menacing they become. Like in a fight, you focus on their faces and their body position and their hands, and everything else falls away. The trio of mean cops from the center of our car is out on the platform; the Giant is leaning out of our doorway, visibly trying to restrain himself. The kids are unabashedly staring down the cops, making a point to challenge their gaze, but cops remain impassive. “Regardez!” one of the kids shouts at the Giant, who’s standing not two feet from my head. The two female police officers hang back. The kids gesture threateningly as they ascend the stairs at the open-air train platform. The doors buzz their warning, and at the last instant the Giant allows himself to retreat back inside the car. As the train begins to pull out, the kids are just reaching the overhead bridge—is that something whizzing down toward us? Something flies past, no sound.

“Cops get off at next station. No trouble. Train empties at CdG. My brush with the ‘Banlieue’.”

Dear Pal Pete finally arrived. He flew in from the 'States via London. I told him I'd take the train out to meet him, and escort him back to the city. I told him it was no problem. Really. Pete's visit would be short (regrettably); he would stay with us in the Bonapartment, on the foldout couch (hey! I didn't know we had that!).

Is there anything duller than a story about fetching a friend at the airport? Especially when it is inflated with pretensions of internationalism?

The ride out adds thrills and social relevance, if all a bit over-stated. But still, a train route passing through neighborhoods stricken with riots for the past three weeks—that’s interesting, isn’t it?

Another aspect of the story: Dear Pal Pete's buddy and fellow musician John Vanderslice was playing a concert tonight at the foot of Montmartre, at the appropriately named Elysee Montmartre. That sort of thing crops up in blogs all the time, though, doesn't it? The concert visit to see an American performer, with emphasis on the narrator’s privileged position due to some “in” with said performer: get ready for the inevitable tales of being on the guest list, going back stage, after party, blah blah blog. Let's just talk about the amazing musicianship required to condense a four-person ensemble down to a duo, and to keep the sound as strong as ever. Dear Pal Pete was particularly impressed. Dave Douglas on drums and foot-activated bass, as well as playing keyboards (or whatever they are called now) with his right hand as he drummed. Ray Manzarek may have played bass with his feet as he played keys with his hands, but playing drums, bass and keys at once? Impressive. JV and Dave opened for the very-big-in-Europe Nada Surf. This is how JV and Dave looked in two-man band mode: ka-zow! How great they sound...

You can’t hear them? Well, check him out at his site, johnvanderslice.com. He sure doesn’t need me hawking his talents or wares, but I like his work. After JV's set, he and Dave and Pete and I climbed halfway up the Butte de Montmartre to sit down at the Bateau Lavoir bistro for a damn fine dinner. JV had eaten there the night before and wanted to eat there again!

Can we even accuse anyone of being an artist anymore without the word coming out as code for either, "incredibly lucky and getting-over on people," or, "worthless in every way except excessive schooling and an outsized sense of self-importance"? Is that what "artist" means now? In this world where we're encouraged to reinvent ourselves as the simplest personification of “our personal dream," has the vocation of "artist" become essentially meaningless? I can't utter it as a self-description without a shiver of shame. Lucky I can describe myself as a sculptor, instead…and since we've moved to Paris, as a "writer." Well, JV is a musician, and he’s an artist.

With all this "JV this," and "JV that," I sound far more familiar with this musician than I am. He is one of my closest friend's other closest friends, so there's a sort of assumed intimacy there. But JV doesn't really know me from Adam.

We all had a good time at dinner. And Piet got to see JV, which was the whole point of the excursion, and all our desperation to be somewhere specific by a certain time. “Mission Accomplished.”

So you know our tale will have a happy ending: on with the local color and airline confusion.

"Airline confusion?" you ask, and groan. Yes, we have Pete’s flight plan problems, another stinker of a subject, and ubiquitous in personal travel narratives like mine. This is just a blog, after all—a blog on expat Yankees in Paris, no less—what sort of subject matter do you expect?

Pete's problems began as the prosaic, flight-cancelled kind, but quickly erupted into a hail of broken promises from British Air. He was scheduled to land in Paris about 2PM today, and at 1PM I was preparing to walk out the door to meet him, but just as I was shutting down my computer, the electronic ping announcing new mail stayed my hand.

Message from Pete, subject line: “dude i’m fucked.”

The flight was cancelled, all flights out of Heathrow were cancelled, and he was waiting to get on another, later flight. It was the fog. He wrote this while standing in a line with "fifty million other fucked people" (notice even in his anger he takes the time to spell out "fifty"--that's class). So I sat back down and waited for instructions. It was four hours later before we heard from Pete again; he’d been standing in that line the entire time, and finally gotten a seat on a flight that would be landing at Charles de Gaulle in an hour or so. Right-ee-O!

To get out there, I employed the same ticketing technique first taught to us by the highly competent RATP agent who’d assisted us on our trip to fetch Kindly Friend Kev, (the good advice appreciated all-the-more for being delivered at 6:30 AM): I bought one all-day RATP pass for me, the one that goes all the way out to Zone 5 (CdG Airport—and the dreaded Banlieue), and I bought one return ticket from CdG Airport for Pete. Saves a few bucks (maybe a buck), and gives more flexibility, which is the name of the game with travel, I’m learning.

Wait, this is getting boring again? I just thought I’d throw in some travel tips—it’s added value, old boy—you’ll thank me if you have to fetch friends or family at a French airport.

And, again, for the aspiring traveler’s information, I took our local Ligne Quatre up to Châtelet station, and there boarded the big RER Ligne “B” train (c’mon, this is incredibly vivid for some former resident of Paris who may—or may not—be reading this).

Everything became interesting upon boarding the big train. The ride out to CdG was so noteworthy, so fraught with vivid uncertainty and tension, that upon arriving at the airport, I had to buy a small notebook and pen so that I could sit and write out a dozen-page description of the trip. Donc, the notes that began this entry.

I then used the pen and pad to write out Pete's name in big letters (as big as the pocket-sized pages would allow), and preceded to hold this up, blank-faced and chauffer-like, awaiting the moment he would step through customs. But I spelled it “Piet,” because we were on the Continent, and he needed something spiffy, but “Pierre” just wasn’t viable.

Piet was preceded through customs by the (I'm not kidding) South African National Rugby Team; by all the coaches, all the players—dressed identically—and by their mountainous carts of equipment. The two female customs agents were anxiously gathering signatures from the cutest or most famous members of the team. They were all in very natty suits of silvery grey, with white dress shirts and sky blue silk ties. A rich look, not very sporty at all. Some were tall, but most were simply bewilderingly wide and dense looking, most of them blond and blue-eyed. The most striking trait by far, and one they all seemed to share, was the enormous size of their heads. Some of their melons seemed physically disfigured by the extent of their hyper-enlargement. Facial features no longer aligned properly, and the ratios between certain landmarks were off. They appeared to be leaving the realm of Homo sapiens. Each one was a weird collage of human, Neanderthal and man-of-tomorrow—and this didn't look at all like you’d expect, nothing like a straight prehistoric physignomy, like the sort you see on those articulate Cro-Magnons in those recent commercials, (I forget the product), where they have dressed up to dress down an ad-man for his insensitive depiction of their kind in some other, fictitious commercial (uncomfortable viewing because you're not sure for a while if they're supposed to be Cro-mags or Aborigines)—no, that sort of primitivism we’ve all seen before. These rugby guys—all of ‘em, whether blond or black-skinned—looked very different from the mythic “cave-man;” when viewed up close, they looked more like a new “race,” something meta-human, re-engineered for hyper performance and consequently no longer like us in some profound, alien way. A strange sight as they wandered out among the airport crowds, moving with curt, awkward steps, drifting in small packs. None of these observations were tinged with any celebrity tingle, I was simply fascinated as an artist, an anatomist, and Homo sapien.

Was it the steroids, or were they just truly different?

I was so caught up examining them, I missed my chance to shout, “Go the All Black’s!”

Piet came out, received his continental christening, and told me that they lost his bags. What?

When Piet boarded a US Air jet in Rochester, NY, (and was still “Pete”), he handed them a modest sized, bright green suitcase, and a black guitar case containing his newly purchased Fender bass.

Neither one of these have come to Paris.

From a ballast and stowage viewpoint, this made attending Vanderslice’s concert much easier. From the airport we took the B back to the Gare du Nord and sped for a Metro that would get us up to the nearby Boulevard de Rochechouart, which is just the Boulevard de Clichy as it continues eastward. Don’t believe me? We got off at the Anvers station, right in front of the venue—go ahead, check your own Metro map and see how we did it. We made it into the auditorium a couple of songs into JV’s set (sorry, Piet, but it was yr g-d flight that f-d us up in the f-st place!). Took us a while to talk our way backstage (it took JV coming to the rail to get us), but I was surprised to find myself for the first time among company (Piet) to whom my command of French seemed something like…a command of French. Pity poor, credulous Piet! Only a fellow son of Chino could be so happily deluded….