After days of bone-chilling rain, the sun had finally returned. Parisians emerged into the soggy city, shedding umbrellas and overcoats. Bare knees flashed beneath the hems of skirts, and children in shorts whooshed by on kick-scooters. Even our neighborhood panhandler had reestablished his headquarters in front of the bakery.
We’d skipped over spring straight into summer, and I wanted a piece of the action. I scoffed at the gloves, the jacket, the umbrella, even my phone. I wanted nothing. A free creature on this little planet, I would suckle sustenance directly from the sun.
There’s something invigorating about the city when it’s freshly baked. I followed streets and alleyways. I crossed bridges and climbed hills, relishing the opportunity to sweat. By late afternoon even the limestone had grown radiant with warmth. Finally, miles from home, cheerfully exhausted, I threw myself in a café, choosing a table on the sidewalk where I could loll, adjusting my chair from time to time to get the sun’s full effect, like a rotisserie chicken.
The beer—I’d originally ordered coffee, but in a moment of self-indulgence I’d called the waiter back and asked for a tall glass of a Belgian brew—smacked of summer. Foam coated my upper lip, tickling with its effervescence. This was more than luxury: it was perfect contentment. Before me paraded the spectacle of the city: women strode by with dogs on leashes, vigorous young firemen jogged in formation, tourists studied maps. In the middle of the square, a young couple had stopped to embrace. It was the theater of life, offered for free!
Or almost. The waiter dropped off a plastic saucer with my bill, and I patted at my pocket for my wallet.
The universe suddenly contracted.
In my eagerness to peel myself down to nothing, to bask like a lizard on a rock, I’d forgotten the one thing that matters most in the City of Light: money.
From my trousers I fished out a paperclip, a crumpled shopping list, and three small coins—almost but not quite enough to cover my debt. The choice of beer now seemed rash. Why hadn’t I gone for the coffee—inside, at the bar, where the price was lower, and where small change would have sufficed?
My next thought was to phone for help. I needed a lifeline. I’d call Anne. If she wasn’t there, I go through my list of friends, one after the other, until someone agreed to traipse across town and pay my ransom.
Then I realized my double nakedness: no phone.
What had I done?
Suddenly the scene playing out on the street took on an odd hue. The men, the women, the tourists, the lovers—they belonged to a different world altogether: the world of cash. They were people for whom a euro meant nothing or—if such a thing were possible—even less. Whereas, me? I scanned the ground for lost coins, suddenly willing to grovel, like those men at the grocery store—the unshaven ones with baggy pants, who always stand before me in line at the cashier, two cans of beer on the conveyor, and a fistful of centimes extracted from passersby.
Now it was I who would become the spectacle. There’d be demands, maybe even a scuffle. Perhaps the police would be called. And then, what if someone I knew saw this go down? Would it make the headlines? Would there be footage on the nightly news? And, of course, it would end up on the Internet, where such public humiliations are eternal, the way they used to brand TF on a convict’s shoulder, the indelible mark of guilt, indicating the travaux forcés—forced labor—to which he was condemned.
At the table next to me a couple speaking in Russian prepared to leave. The husband spilled some change onto the saucer for his bill, where the coins sparkled in the sunlight. Chairs scooted, and they wandered off. Who would notice if I…? But then the waiter swooped in and collected his due.
In Paris cafés, for the price of a drink you get an unlimited lease on your chair. People nurse coffees for an hour or two or three, and no one will ask you to clear out to make room for others. My emerging plan was to remain at the table until closing—probably seven or eight hours from now—at which point… well, something else would happen. I preferred not to think about it, rather like death.
A phrase sounded behind me. “Je peux vous encaisser?” The second waiter had approached one of his tables and asked to cash them out. He was finishing his shift, and although the customers were free to stay, they needed to settle up now.
The back of my neck tingled. How long before my own waiter followed suit?
Money! Like everyone, I’d never had enough of it—and yet it had always come through in a pinch. But now, I’d tumbled across the divide, joining the humbling, humiliating side of the have-nots. It turns out there isn’t always a Plan B or a Plan C. Sometimes the alphabet just grinds to a halt.
Then, a miracle. Across the square, a familiar face flashed. From the sea of unknowns, in this neighborhood I never visited, an acquaintance had emerged. It was Guillaume—someone I actually knew, with whom I was vaguely friendly. He spotted me, waved, walked over. I pumped his hand, and when he asked if he could join me, I beamed. Of course he could! Why not? What a fine day for it! It was like one of those surprise endings in a Greek drama, with Zeus swooping down from the heavens to set everything right.
Probably I should have done the honest thing, coming clean and explaining to Guillaume my predicament. But I didn’t know him that well, and now that I’d been rescued from a great humiliation, I’d raised my aim, hoping to avoid even a small one.
As he sipped at his beer, we launched into the topics of weather and politics, soon followed by trains, firemen, dogs, and finally weekend plans. No topic survived for long. Guillaume’s conversational style reminded me of Zorro. Like the masked avenger under attack, he slayed each new subject with a single thrust of his verbal sword, sometimes taking out two or even three at a time. Had a chandelier been available, I’m pretty sure he would have swung from it, the better to repel any new onslaught with his spurred boots. In a matter of minutes, our table was littered with the corpses of the conversation, and a silence settled upon us. This, I realized, was why Guillaume and I had never made it past the friendly acquaintance stage.
Worse, he was only halfway through his beer. I’d been hoping he’d order a second, making it more likely he’d pick up the tab. I considered sending a few more foot soldiers into the conversation.
When his glass emptied, Guillaume just smacked his lips. His forehead rippled for an instant, as if he just realized he’d left his gas cooker on at home. He gave me a tight-lipped smile.
“Well,” he said.
“Right,” I replied.
But neither of us budged. In Paris there’s a strange little ritual about restaurant checks. In the States it’s all based on cowboy heritage, a version of The Fastest Gun in the West: someone whips out a credit card, and the shot is fired. Here, the model is the Phoney War, the strange half-skirmishes between Germany and France in ’39. Maybe someone’s making a move—but maybe not. It can go on for quite a while.
Guillaume sat with his hands folded, his smile somehow wooden. I allowed myself to settle back in my chair, taking in the evening light, fashioning my lips into a grin of contentment. Oh yes, I was prepared to enjoy the surroundings until the End of Time!
It was the waiter who interrupted our stalemate, appearing billfold in hand.
“Je peux vous encaisser?”
Guillaume and I beamed at each other through gritted teeth. Finally he leaned forward and whispered his request. Would I mind terribly picking this one up? He’d left his wallet at home.
Scott Dominic Carpenter is Contributing Editor at Secrets of Paris. The Author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth, Scott writes often about life in Paris.