Road to Elsewhere, Excerpt #1: I Was a Wee Man in Paris
Your life has to begin somewhere. Mine did when I stepped off an airplane at Paris-Orly, extravagantly alone, and took a bus into the heart of Elsewhere.
It was morning in Paris. Also, the dawn of my adult life. And as a post-collegiate unemployed nincompoop, I was free.
Free to fly to Paris on a one-way ticket.
Free to study French for no apparent reason at the Alliance Française, 101 Boulevard Raspail.
Free to be walking north next to that leafy boulevard, with empty pockets, a vacant mind, and no prospects for filling either.
Boulevardier-ing toward me, forty meters down the sidewalk, was a well-preserved
Parisian artifact: Homburg, charcoal great-coat with black velvet lapels, silver-handled walking stick, polished black oxfords, impeccable grey mustache, promontory nose. He was fishing around in his coat pockets, perhaps in search of a flintlock pistol to plonk an invasive American.
He produced a golden ten-franc piece from his pocket, pinching it between the thumb and forefinger of his black-gloved right hand. But this particular coin wouldn’t make it to the caisse. His grip slipped and the coin fell, hitting the sidewalk with a cheering impact, like the chiming of a small bronze bell.
I watched the coin sprout free-will, and possibly even legs, and hurry along a graceful, curving path before it dove into the freshly swabbed Parisian gutter. My street companion stopped and looked about him in bewilderment; he had failed to follow the coin’s rolling arc.
What was an approaching nincompoop to do?
I feigned ignorance of the dropped coin and walked forward, more slowly, now. The gentleman scoured the sidewalk from wall to gutter, then summoned up that most French of gestures — the shrug — and forged ahead, ten francs lighter. We had no interaction at our nearest approach; perhaps he was hoping that Haughty Youth hadn’t noticed Vulnerable Age.
When Rich Oncle Moneybags turned onto Rue Stanislas, I reversed direction and dove into the gutter. My guilty fingers closed around the ten-franc coin. I was still flush with momma’s-boy morality at this point in my life, plus grandpa’s money. But this was too much to resist in Paris, where a Stella Artois cost 4f, and a baguette sandwich 3f. Suddenly I had lunch money, with 3f to spare for my dining companion, the International Herald Tribune.
And what’s a soul worth, anyway? Like the blues guitarist in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, I wasn’t using mine, at the moment.
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