Anarchy on the Métro
Recollections from a modern flâneur in Paris
“Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity.”
— Horacio Oliveira, from Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch
Anarchy on the Métro
By Joel Bowman
Who are these people? Young. Old. White. Black. Ugly. Pretty. Prettier. And drunk too. Some of them are very drunk. Good for them…
I was aboard the Métro, riding from Basilique de Saint-Denis back to ‘the fifth,’ after dinner with some new friends. Paella and Beaujolais, in unequal portions. A warm night. The old carriage rattled along, screeching around corners and grinding to a halt at near-deserted platforms. I began to drift off, lulled into reverie by the swaying of the train and the white noise around us.
Who are these people? What are their dreams, their stories? Are they celebrating…or commiserating? What do they want? Will they ever get it?
A man to the left, mirrored in the window, was reading from a tattered novel. Everybody reads on the Métro in Paris, either from their smartphones or, as this gentleman was, old school-style. Paper. Ink. Other people’s dog-ears. An unknown name scrawled on the blank page, just before the acknowledgments. More unknown names, people we’ll never meet but who the author wished to thank. I recognized the title, La Peste. Camus. Probably every Frenchman has read it at least once.
Must read that book again. Add it to the list. Along with Bloom’s Western Canon. And the Loebs, green and red. And Les Belles Lettres. And…
Every few stations the man looked up, semi-confused.
When was the last time a dead existentialist caused him to miss his stop?
Body by body, the carriage filled up. Soon the man disappeared, hidden behind the olive corduroy pants of another fellow and, occasionally, when the train veered right, by Mr. Corduroy’s wife’s dress. A maxi dress, they’re called. Perfect for concealing un étranger, on any train. Arms went up to the bars as more people pushed inside. The distance between the stations and passengers grew smaller by the stop. Several more languages boarded. Russians to our right. Arabic in front. A couple of colleagues, mid-twenties, conversed in snipped syllables, staccato-style over our shoulder. Our train. Babelfish in tunnels.
Must work harder on Spanish upon returning to Buenos Aires, Paris of the South.
Place de Clichy. On hobbled a woman bent by years, pushing a stroller full of plastic bags and socks and tissues and newspapers (not today’s) and an old shoe. A spritely teen, who sat down before seeing her, offered his seat. The old woman offered a newspaper. Not from the top of the pile, mind you, one hand-selected from the middle. The youth smiled and spent the rest of his journey entranced by events from around the world, as relayed by a jaded journalist meeting an October-the-somethingth deadline.
Who are these people? It’s chaos in here. Voluntary exchanges. Absurdist literature and editorial time travel. Anarchy…and on a public train!
Kisses. Two canoodling couples boarded at the same station. One couple pecking, sheepishly, hands touching furtively. The other pair more familiar. Tongue. French. Movies shot under soft lamplight on the Pont des Arts. The time-bent woman smiled at the lovers locked, remembering the movies, silent in black and white. Chautard, Desprès and her favorite, the piquant Bordoni. More people boarded at Saints Augustin and Philippe du Roule and at Miromesnil in between.
Where is that cafe in which Sartre wrote? And smoked. And wrote. Did he kiss de Beauvoir on the Métro? Old school-style?
Mr. and Mrs. Corduroy alighted at Champs Élysées Clemenceau. L’Étranger hadn’t (yet?) missed his stop. He and his dead existentialist sat there, positively engrossed in one and other. Then on hopped a man with burns on his face and an accordion on his belly.
Sings Piaf: Son homme est un artiste / C’est un drôle de petit gars / Un accordéoniste / Qui sait jouer la java…
The passengers, tight-pressed in hurtling carriage, listened and listed and swayed to the tunes filling the space between their weary bodies. A soundtrack for their stories, their embraces, their anachronistic opinion pages. For a sweet tune, the musician’s face appeared full and vital. Two or three gave money, but he thanked everyone just the same.
“Merci. Merci beaucoup. Merci.”
Then silence fell. Two gendarmes board at Invalides. Feet clad in jackboots. Strong jaws. Sidearms. Instruments of torture and pain. No smiles. Just badges. Fellow passengers look nervous, finding excuses to focus at their shoes and abstract points on the floor. The screeching of the train grows louder, violent. The gnashing of metal on metal. The Russians are quiet. The Arabs, too. L’Étranger closes Camus and stares past his reflection, out the window. The music is gone from the space between us. The air through which a bullet might fly hangs heavy instead. Violence, implied and real. And fear.
We aren’t due to change (to the 10) until Duroc. Three stops. What if…?
But Saint-François-Xavier arrives as our savior. Between Varenne and Duroc, his namesake platform shoulders our burden, delivering the gendarmes into the warm, fall night. Once again, peace and anarchy on the Métro.