Friday, October 29, 2004

Love serenade

I was coming out of the 7/11, the newspaper under my arm. There are always guys standing in front of the store, usually in the morning, waiting for work. A pick-up truck will come up and two or three will jump in. In the evening, it's much more unusual so the group attracts my attention. As I get closer I can hear the sound of a guitar being played softly, not to attract any unwanted attention. The three guys around are singing in whispers. I hear the words "Mi amor" as I walk by.

Sometimes, Cupid does not give a damn

Yesterday on my way back from the political evening. I left the subway to take the bus back home because the stop is closer to my place than the subway stop.
I sit next to a young guy, a little plump, talking on the phone. As soon as he ends his conversation, a fellow sitting in front of him asks about his phone. "Is this the latest model with e-mail and PDA included?" "No, it's not" smiles back the young guy, "it's an old model, maybe 2 or 3 years old." In technology, this is ancient, warrant of throwing it in the garbage already. "I'd like to get the new one", the young man continues, "I've seen kids with it and it looks really cool". The two start a discussion on the different options available on the new models. I notice that a woman sitting right in front of me is getting restless and wants to join the conversation. The guy sitting next to me gives her the opportunity to do so when he says "Shopping for cell phones, it's like women shopping for cloths. It take them hours and I would stay in an electronic shop for hours". She immediately interrupts "I don't like to shop for cloths. I find something I like and buy several in different colors." She is dressed with a stretch black pant, a blue jean jacket. She is slim and small and has a large braced smile.
They both laugh and the cell-phone guy starts to argue gently with her. The other guy stands up and leaves to go sit at the back of the bus. The move is unnoticed and they keep talking. They're laughing, flirting gently. I can see the moment when he is going to ask her for a phone number when a woman comes on board. She is wearing a tight pair of jeans that squeezes her flesh out. Her jacket does not go that much down and the ripples of flesh are exposed, waves of bared skin despite the chilling temperature. Both look at her and fell completely silent. She gets out one stop before mine, but the conversation between the two has died. When I get out finally, I see that the young woman is also coming out. The young man raises his voice for a last minute "Take care!" She turns her head and smiles as she exits the bus.
Il est des jours où Cupidon s'en fout...

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Only in Washington

Tonight I had the quintessential Washingtonian evening in one of the conference room of the US house of representatives. The Committee on Science. A talk on future missions to investigate life in planets in and outside our solar system.
The room is really big with three large screens, displaying the presentations on each sides of the room. We are all facing the doors, sitting on plush chairs with microphones and paper pads in front of us. The pads are marked "Committee on Science. U.S HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES" and I fight the urge to take one home. We're also facing eight imposing portraits of white middle aged guys all wearing dark suits, white shirts and red or blue ties, except for one in which a jovial, round and smiling man wearing a red sweater over the white shirt, is holding a book. Two of the portraits show men with rockets, the moon and the space shuttle in the background. I don't recognize any of these guys. They're probably all dead.
The talk goes on for about an hour and half. People in the audience are dozing. I am too when I hear "We have a planetary protection officer whose job it is to make sure that we are not contaminating other planets". The whole audience is laughing. Talk about big government...

I walk back from the building near the Capitol, enjoying the night and the unique view. The streets are closed to traffic for security reasons. I meet only police officers carrying large weapons and laughing. Later in the subway someone comes to sit behind me and I hear him asking "Are you getting off before Friendship heights?". The answer is hesitant. A young woman voice. "I think so. Tenleytown". "Yes, one stop before. Perfect, you'll wake me up." He goes on "I am so tired. I've been traveling all week. Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania". The set-up is perfect, the temptation irresistible. She can't help it but asking the question: "Are you working on the campaign?" His voice sounds bored when he answers "Well, I'm covering it. You know. The press. We are following the guys". I can't help but to think this is complete BS. If he is covering the campaign, what does he do in Washington 5 days before the elections? The woman next to him does not seem to mind. She seems just captivated by the thought. When I get out, they are rattling names of campaign stops. "Toledo, Des Moines, Pensacola,... "

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Hearts and minds

I am in line at the movie theater box office behind a man who is asking for a refund. He seems quite unhappy, explaining that his card was charged for four tickets instead of two. The usher caught the mistake and told him to come back to the box office to fix the problem. It takes sometimes to arrange and the man, calmer now that his problem is being taken care of, keeps apologizing for the delay to the line behind him (we are now several people to wait). No problem. He gets his money back and leaves complaining that he is now late for the movie.

I ask for a ticket for what turned out to be an incredibly well done documentary called "Hearts and minds". A magnificent propaganda tool, perfectly set up and edited for maximum effect.
Sometimes too much: Two old Vietnamese women who have lost their sister to a bomb. One is crying and the other one avoids to stare at the camera. Her face is absolutely immobile for the longest time and the camera is still rolling. Her eyes are gazing somewhere on her left, she does not blink. She is a statue, trying to forget that a camera is fixing her, pitiless, while her sister is crying behind her. Her resolve is clear but ultimately futile. After an agonizing long time, she wipes her hand across her face and acknowledges her pain. The shot finishes: the camera won.
In the dark, during the projection the face of general Westmoreland is greeted by a loud "Asshole!" from the person seated right in front of me. I hear the couple to my right talking about the current situation and drawing comparisons. "It's a perfect time to see such a movie" says one. The woman nods in approval. We can always use more propaganda.

Drag queen race

Yesterday I went to the "Drags on heels" race with a friend. It was not really planned. We just happened to be there and we jokeyed ourselves to the front and watched.
It was amazing. Crowds so thick around the "race track" (about 3 blocks in the city) that we could not walk on the sidewalks. The race is run quickly (about twenty second from start to finish) and then the fun begins. We mingles with the racers: One guy dressed in the famous little black dress and who was absolutely gorgeous. Another one who ran in impossible high heels and a white dress. He is not made up and his face expresses a sadness that cannot be explained by losing the race (no one really cares) or by some foot discomfort. He looks isolated in the crowd. By himself despite the number of people around him. I move away from him as if he was affected by a contagious disease. Then they are the others, the laughing ones dressed as Krispy Kreme or Dairy Queen stores, the leather bikers and the devil, The "Cows for Kerry" and the "Chickens and Eggs", the flight attendants and the Hawaiian dancer. I ask each one of them for the permission to take pictures with them, forcing my French accent. They are gorgeous and I tell them so. A tall guy with a blond wig and enormous breasts tells me behind an heavy layer of make-up "It's just smoke and mirrors, honey, just smoke and mirrors".

Monday, October 25, 2004

Voyage in Italy

Tonight I went to see Celsius 41.11, the documentary I wanted to see yesterday. It is about 7 PM. Prime time for movie theater and the gigantic room has a grand total of 4 people in it. Including myself. The difference from the crowds of Fahrenheit 911 is striking. I'm actually happy to find so few people. I am always hoping to have the theater entirely to myself. So far, I have succeeded in that feat only once: It was in Paris for a 11:50 AM showing of an old American movie starring Ingrid Bergman. It turned out to be a terribly bad movie, the probable explanation of the small number of people in the audience. But it didn't matter: being in a movie theater by oneself provides a distinct and quite perverse pleasure. The feel of owning the place, a false sense of familiarity with the theater and the secret feeling of belonging to the restricted club of true dedicated movie goers. Once I was by myself at the 9:30 PM show at the Bethesda Row Theater, a movie theater geared toward more independent movies. It was less than one minute before the start and a man walked in. He looked at me and just said "I'm sorry". I knew he knew. And I remember laughing and telling him it was quite alright.
If I had known that there would be only 3 other people at the 7 PM showing, I would have tried the latter show. Another "Voyage in Italy".

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Celsius 41.11

I wanted to see Celsius 41.11 today. I saw Fahrenheit 911 and I figured I needed to be fair in my documentary viewing pattern before the elections. Also adding to my desire to see it was the fact that the Washington City Paper didn't list the movie at all. One had to scan the movie theater's listings to find a mention of the documentary. Considering the fact that even the IMAX movies playing at the Air and Space museum are listed in the paper, I knew this had to be an editorial decision and I hate when people think they just "know better" and decide for the rest of us. If they don't list it, I want to see it.

So I show up at the theater probably 15 mn before the show. It's the first show of the day and the theater seems empty when I arrive. There is no one at the box office and to my surprise, the doors are locked. There are signs advertising the on-going Arab Film festival but not a single soul and no sign anywhere. This is very unusual and I pounce on the door to alert anybody inside that it is time to open the theater doors. Still nobody.
Curiouser and curiouser.
I am about to leave when someone else shows up. He wants to see the latest film with Charlize Theron but can't remember the name of it. He asks me and I don't remember. I still want to help him so I go through the list of the movies playing at the theater and all I can tell him is "It's not "Hero", it's not "WMD", it's not "Taxi", I'm not sure about "Friday Night Lights". He does not seem happy and then I stopped and just tell him. "You know, I don't think it matters, as the theater appears to be empty." He is as surprised as I was. The first show is suppose to start in less than 5 mn and there is no one in sight.
Finally I see a young man coming out from the nearby shop. "What's going on?" I ask. "There is a water problem and they had to shut down the theater", he replies, "everything has been shutdown." "Do you know for how long?" "No. I just came to deliver something". I leave to go to the nearby post office, a rare post office opened on Sunday and came back about 10 minutes later. The theater has its door opened now but someone is here to turn people away. I joke "Why do you need to have running water to open a cinema?? I promise not to use the bathrooms. " The young guy who introduced himself as the manager smiles. "This is a city requirement. We will be opened tomorrow." I'm not completely done. "Tomorrow is a work day. Would you be playing Celsius 41.11 next weekend?" I don't know why I asked this. I can always come at the last show at night. Even on a week day. He smiles. "Yes, it will probably be playing." "Do I need to take tickets in advance?" I ask remembering the lines for F 9/11 and the multiple "sold out" shows. His smile broadened "No. Not at all. Nobody comes to see this one". I smile back.

Saturday, October 23, 2004


On my way back from the "Cirque du Soleil" show. An amazing performance of incredible physical prowess. The kid in front of me was jumping up and down on her seat. She must have been about 5 or 6 years old, wide awake despite the late hour and in awe of the show. I see her head following the acrobats going up high under the "chapiteau". One of the performer "rolls down" a rope in which he has entangled himself. A sort of giant and vertical gift unwrapping. It's extremely impressive and terrifying. The little girl buries her head into her mom's lap until she is certain that all went well.
This spectacular act is followed by three young kids playing with ropes. It's stunning visually but does not seem so complicated. The applause is completely muted. I can't help but feeling sorry for them, cheated of recognition despite what surely amounts to hours and hours of practice.

Images and sound

On my way to the market, the man dressed in black with a large Mexican hat who was singing a love song, and the several people gathered around him that clearly knew the song by heart. They were a couple of verses ahead and kept shouting the words before he could sing them. The feeling of being in an echo chamber gone mad. The cheer delight of the audience.

At the market a bit further down the road, the line in front the bread stand and the hello I get from Robert, the guy in charge. They're sold out of most of their stuff when I show up, and I start talking to a woman who's standing with him. She speaks a little French and is clearly keen on using it. I enjoy every occasion I have to speak my mother tongue so we chat for a while. About the market (for some reason she wants me to taste the milk sold at an another stand in the market), about the neighborhood.
I leave the place feeling a tiny bit more at home.

On my way back, carrying the newspapers, some bread and a large bag of vegetable, the couple pushing the two strollers coming toward me. Two toddlers are a "twin-stroller" pushed by a man, the woman is slightly behind with a baby sleeping in another stroller.
The two girls in front are singing "Faster, Faster" in rhythm while their dad (?) is almost running, pushing them up the street. He looks exhausted but happy and proud. He smiles and says "Good morning" when we pass each other.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Death of an anarchist

That was the title of a play I went to see yesterday. A Dario Fo's play adapted for the present times. A pointed satire of the present administration. When we enter in the room, an old church converted into a theater, we have to pass a "metal detector" and from time to time, the guy in uniform in front of it, whistles and put the person on the side to check if their bag, beverage, or shoes are ok. He is a young tall man with a lean and long face accentuated by the hat he is wearing. The stage is surrounded by chairs but people are sitting only to the "normal" place for the public. In front of the stage, on our left when we enter. He is directing people to sit on the other sides and order a couple to sit on the left side of the stage. None of the seats on the right are taken. I went with everybody to the "normal" set of seats in the theater, but I now feel trapped surrounded by two older women in this overcrowed section. I take my stuff and to keep in the spirit of the play, I ask permission to sit on the unoccupied side of the stage. The response is not what I expected: "You're French, aren't you?". Well, yes indeed, I'm French. Am I not allowed to sit then? The guy smiles and says "Don't tell the fat blond guy that you are French". The "fat blond guy" turns out to be the artistic director whom I've seen in my neighborhood cafe many times. I promise that I won't be telling him I'm French although, as I point out, this is hard to miss...
The actor starts telling me that he is also part French (his dad) and that I am also not allowed to say that to anyone. The funny part is that I don't know if this is real or theater. I'm not sure if the guy's dad really is French or if it is the character of the play whose dad is French. Our discussion continues for a bit, interrupted from time to time while he goes inspecting some new comers' bags. It is completely surreal as I am constantly hesitating between thinking this is part of the "Intro to the play" and being convinced that we're just having a normal conversation. Eerie feeling.

At intermission, one of the older women who was sitting on my left when I moved to the side section, comes to sit next to me. I joke with her about joining the side show (the lead actor came several times during the first part of the play and sat next to me asking me rhetorical questions to which I mumble monosyllabic answers). She just says "We got lights shining on us and beside, I like you". I laugh a bit surprised: "I've done nothing for you to like me!" It does not seem to matter. She sits down and whispers "The room is so cold. I'm glad you're wearing an heavy sweater". She pushes her shoulder against mine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The taste of dead animals

I worked late and decided to go for dinner at about 9:30 PM. It's raining and the streets are deserted. I don't fell unsafe but downtown Baltimore does not strike me as the best of neighborhood to just "hang out": I walk fast looking for a place open to have a quick dinner.
The Thai place seems ok except that it is completely deserted. I am the only one in the restaurant. I enter and joke that I don't have a reservation and hope that this is not a problem. The waiter smiles shyly and I realize that his English is not very good. I order tea, soup and Pad Thai and enjoy the atmosphere of an empty restaurant. While I am sipping the hot tea and waiting for the soup, a couple enters. They are wearing identical blue large pants from the nearby hospital. They are both young but look exhausted. The guy orders very quickly for both of them and gets up to wash his hands. When he comes back the woman says "I feel sorry for Jeffrey". The guy nods and they both stay silent starring at each other for what seems like an eternity. The waiter is bringing me my soup.
One spoonful was enough. The taste of a dead animal in the broth. I should have smelled it. I call the waiter. "There is chicken in this soup". He bows smiling "Yes. Very good. Chicken." I'm a vegetarian and I asked you before ordering if the broth was vegetarian." He bows again. "I'm very sorry". All is spoken smiling. My appetite is gone. I don't want to touch the Pad-Thai. I ask for the check but I am not in the least upset and I am surprised at that lack of reaction on my part. The waiter takes the soup away and then comes back with it saying that it is ok, there is no chicken in it. I smile. Meat eaters don't always realize how overpowering the taste of flesh is. Sure, I could be tricked into eating meat but one will have to disguise it much more carefully than in a broth. "That's ok. I just don't want it. I'll pay for it if this is a problem. Just bring me the check." He comes back with the Pad Thai. This is becoming funny. "No, I don't want to Pad Thai. I'm just not hungry anymore." This is rule number one of restaurant complaining. If you are going to make a fuss in a restaurant, don't eat anything else after you made your complaint. It's just common sense. I learned this in Paris but it's probably true all over the world. The manager comes to see what's happening. I reassure him that all is well, I just don't want to eat the Pad Thai and want to pay and leave. He comes back with the check. They've taken out both the soup and the Pad Thai. I leave a large tip to cover the cost of the soup.
The couple is still silent. They're eating. Maybe they talked when I was making a fuss about the soup...

Red Sox fan

We had a calm dinner and decided to see the end of the game at the hotel's bar. The place is filled with people from the "Fishery conservation" conference. Bona fide Red Sox fans who can rattle the stats on any player or comment on each and every single call from the umpires. I'm rooting for the Red Sox, testimony of several years spent in the Boston area and an affinity for the underdogs, but I am no baseball connoisseur. I would not be able to tell a ball from a strike if the little lights didn't come on the TV to let me know which one was which.
Surrounded by people who can (and do!) dissect the play, I try to blend in: I laugh at their jokes even if their meaning is not always clear, and I try to anticipate the mood of the play. Fist pumping if this is really good, arms to the sky when we are all disappointed, touching wood when the game develops and we are now afraid to lose.
It goes smoothly until one point when I fail to appreciate the play. I pump my fist claiming "Yeah!!!!" right after a short play. A polite silence greets my shout. I am exposed in all my ignorance of the rules or the game. I feel the weight of their despise in their look.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Going out with an astronaut

I am in Baltimore for a meeting so blogging is a bit erratic.

Monday night was the grand opening of yet another movie theater in town. When I first arrived in Washington, I could not help but lament the sorry state of movie theaters. They were hardly any. Now DC is probably the town with the most movie screens per inhabitant in the US.
The opening of the 14 screens giant theater in the heart of Chinatown was celebrated by special $1 tickets. I'm not sure what I expected but the place is completely mobbed when I showed up so I decided to go home instead. I'm in the bus when three young women enter. There is a clear leader to the group, a woman with short blond hair wearing a beige parka, who asks the driver about the bus' route. She sits in front of me with her brunette friend. The third woman, another blond with long hair in a pony tail takes the seat across the aisle from them. They're talking loudly about an upcoming party. The woman with the beige parka is commenting on her housemate, that they get along, but still don't want to do everything together. She is speaking with an accent that I cannot recognize. Judging from the words she drops from time to time, she is clearly fluent in French (or at least she pronounces it without any hint of an accent) but she is clearly not French. The conversation quickly drifts to the schedule to the other woman, sitting across. She is a tourist, in town for a few days. She speaks with the same foreign accent than her friend and she describes in details her visit to the Air and Space museum and her excitement seeing rockets, satellite and spacecrafts. Her friend interrupts "Did I tell you I met an astronaut?" The question is asked with a tone that does not require an answer. This is clearly understood by both women who stay silent expecting the rest of the story. "I was at this party and I met this astronaut. He is cute and he is single." The two friends are smiling. "I got his phone number and will call him up to invite him to speak to our office". Smooth move. The three exchange conspiratorial looks.
This is when a tall black guy wearing braids and a large red hat comes on board. He sits next to the blond tourist and she looks at her friends rolling her eyes. But she does not interest him. He is looking over the shoulder of the woman on his left who is reading what looks like photocopies of transcripts. He is so captivated by them that, when the woman turns the page, he holds it so that he could keep on reading. She can't ignore him and raises her head. "What are you reading?" he asks very naturally. "Job applications. I work at a law firm and these are jobs applications." She answers as naturally and not at all surprised by his question. Law firm and jobs applications are much less attracting that what he may have thought these were. He stops reading but she is done anyway or maybe she just realized that reading jobs applications in public was not a correct thing to do. Exposing the lives of the people to everybody's eyes.
She has folded her files and put them back in her brown leather bag. He is looking straight ahead. The three women have also followed the scene and exchange glances. They get out soon after.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

"Cachez ce sein que je ne saurais voir"

I am just coming back from the theater. "Elephant Man" was playing at a small theater on a residential street at the other side of the city. An extraordinary acting performance from the lead actor playing the title role. In one of the scenes, John, the "Elephant Man", tells his woman friend that he has never seen a naked woman. After a witty dialogue exchange, it becomes clear that she is going to give him that opportunity herself. She asks him to turn around for a moment and she opens up her corset to let him look to his heart content.
On stage, the actress has her back to us, she is slightly turned to the left to face her partner. We are sitting on the right side of the theater so her bust is all but invisible to us. I can only see the top of her left breast and her pointed nipple. A couple is sitting on the front row facing her. The man is in his 50's, his companion a little younger. She is looking at the actress, as she is offering her nakedness. Her head is slightly turned to the right. The man's head is completely straight as if he was only looking at the actor in front of him, ignoring the actress who is speaking. I cannot see his eyes.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Fool me once, fool me twice...

(My apologies for the relative silence but I was sick for the passed few days).

Fool me once:
Last Friday morning, as I was leaving for the airport, I noticed a nasty smell that was coming from the back of the house. The unpleasant smell of sewers. A large pool of stagnant and putrid water right in front of the basement door proved to be the source of the odor. I was not quite sure what was the reason for the stagnant water there. A clog somewhere but where? It was late, I was afraid to miss my flight and so I decided to ignore the problem all together and enjoy myself in Chicago, far away from the foul odor. What could I do anyway?
As fate would have it, as I was turning the corner of my street, I spotted a vehicle with a large sign announcing "Mr FLOODS--Plumbing/Heating/Cooling". Three men were working in the yard of a house nearby. I stopped and went over to talk to them about what I had in the garden. "Could you snake it?" I ask. The oldest guy answers me. "Well, I don't know what the problem is. Can I have a look?". We're in front of my place in no time and I show him the still water in the back yard. "Sure I can snake it", he says. "It'll be $50". "$40" I bargain down because that's all the money I have with me. The deal is sealed. $40 and he will snake the pipe to clear it. He tells me that he will do it this afternoon and this is when I make my fatal mistake. "No rush" I say, "I'll be gone for the weekend, you can do it whenever you want". He nods and pockets the money. I close the house and leave.
When I came back on Monday I was too sick to even remember I had a problem. But the house smelled again on Tuesday. A true plumber came on Wednesday and I greeted him with relief. The $400 I paid seemed like a bargain but I stayed with him the whole time, watching him work....

Fool me twice:
I jumped into a taxi upon my arrival in Chicago. I had arranged for a short work meeting before going to see my friend S. "Joindre l'utile à l'agreable" as we say in French...
I asked the young dispatcher before entering the vehicle how much should I expect to pay. "between $20 and $30" he says. I have about $55 in my pocket (gotten from a cash machine after my morning deal with Mr FLOODS). I climb into the taxi and off we go. The driver is from Haiti and speaks French. We're speaking in my native tongue about America, the Hurricane season in Haiti, the difficulties of public education and public schools, his kids (3 adults children in Haiti and one 10-year old in the US). We're chatting and I'm enjoying the conversation. I enjoy being able to speak French. I enjoy listening to his comments and descriptions of the differences in culture. The respect of old people, that his aging eyes find disappearing in this country. He comes back to it over and over again, even when the topic of conversation has drifted to health care and social security. I am listening and arguing, paying no attention to either the time or the meter. It is only when he stops the car in front of a grey building and turns to me announcing "$50" that I realize that I should have been more careful. I balk telling him that I was told that the ride would be only around $30. He is quite unmoved and start telling me that the difference is the amount I have to pay for his trip back to the airport because he is forbidden to take passengers here. He is convincing though and blames the non-unionized, young workers at the airport for providing bad information. He even gives me a phone number to call to complain about them. He also agrees to let me pay only $45 so that I won't be left without money. I thank him when I leave his cab. The second deal of the day!
It must be my lucky day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

I'm not an alcoholic

Chicago earned its name of the "Windy City": I caught cold while I was there and yesterday I was every airplane traveler's worst nightmare: a feverish, sick and highly contagious passenger. I was also very tired, probably a combination of the cold and the lack of sleep from the weekend.
The net result was that I was a complete wreck as I boarded the plane. I kept my sun glasses on and covered myself with the plane blanket, letting my head rest on the window. One guy gets in the aisle seat. He is carrying a pizza box that he puts on the empty seat between us. The smell from the box is overpowering even to my congested nose. It is not even 11:00 AM. Passengers are still coming in but he proceeds in eating the pizza all the while trying to make conversation with me. Usually I am game for that kind of short encounter: I love the small window into the lives of perfect strangers. Today though I am sick and my answers are terse and not very coherent. It does not seem to bother the man who keeps on talking and eating. He is now giving advises and asking questions. I am silent hearing his quasi-monologue: "Well! You have to pay at one point after having all the fun last night!", "Sun glasses! Nothing better to keep bright lights away!", "I figure it's lunch time somewhere in the world (looking at his pizza), for some it's not even breakfast time it seems...". All the sentences are punctuating by a large smile, almost a laugh, as if he was happy and proud of his humor. He then proceeds to give me recipes for hangovers. Perhaps because of the fever that made my body aches, my thoughts were not organized as they should have been. Until that point I had not realized that he was thinking "alcohol damage" when looking at my obvious misery. I don't even have the energy to set him straight. That would require talks, dialogue. More than I can muster. I am saved by the arrival of another man who takes the middle seat. I am not the only person to talk to. The two start to talk about army and national guards. I fell asleep in this sleep only known to the sicks and the drunks...

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Chicago Marathon

The first came around 8:00 AM. A broad shoulder guy in a wheelchair propelling himself with bicycle-like pedals that he was maneuvering with his hands, relentlessly. The crowd is thin at this early time and I am half asleep. Watching the spectacle from the window of the guestroom in my friend S's apartment.
I have never seen a marathon, let alone ran into one.
I hear the cheers before I see them: Seven magnificent runners effortlessly coming down the street. They are running one behind the other, one white guy surrounded by 6 black guys. Bouncing smoothly on the pavement in a up-and-down barely perceptible, as if they were constantly above ground. As if floating was their natural state.
There are pictures taken but the crowd is only polite in its response to the champs. Not enthusiastic. The shouts came later. About half and hour later. When the runners are mere humans, already suffering from their extended effort, when the colors of their shirt are so diverse that they look from above as a waving pointillist painting.
The couple in the apartment in front is cheering people from their opened window. I can see the guy raising up from his bed, barely covered. He disappears from my view and comes back a bit later with a plate of what looks like cut fruits. The two eat slowly, each picking in turn something from the plate and then they cheer loudly. They must have recognized someone they know. They wave, the guy waves back. He is gone.
A small girl all dressed in pink is standing on the sidewalk with her parents. She is painting a large sign that says "Go Phil! Go!". Phil shows up eventually. He is a young guy with a large smile and I hear "Thank you guys for coming!". He stands up next to the sign, they snap pictures. He is about to resume running when he bends in front of the little girl and gives her what looks like a small package. He tells her very seriously "I've been carrying it all the way for you!". The little girl is hiding into her dad's legs now. She will probably remember this marathon...
I hear someone shout "I love you baby!". It's not clear if this was directed to anyone in particular. One guy gets a bear hug from a woman standing on the sidewalk. He resumes soon afterwards and she gets back on the sidewalk.
When I get back to the window about an hour later, the soothing of the motion is gone: the circus is in town. One guy wearing a Superman outfit, one with a giant wig, another with a large American flag. A juggler. The crowd now is shouting encouragements to the participants. They are not really runners anymore. People in all shape and size. Inch by inch getting closer from the finish line. Trying hard. Suffering. My peers.


A Jazz pub downtown. A place that smells of music. Art on the wall. A "Hall of fame" and posters from past festivals. All is in arranged with what seems to be complete randomness. The place is packed tonight as the saxophonist is no other than Von Freeman. We are waiting by the door, our drinks in hand, for a table.
I watch as people come their reaction to the cover charge. Some people don't blink and shell the money. Others turn around without a word. A woman comes back to ask if the fee applies toward the first drinks. She leaves when told that no. The fee is just an entrance fee. The way to buy your way to jazz bliss.
Because the music is indeed good. Von is Von. But the drummer is the one that gets my attention. The beat is flourished but not overwhelming. He is always there but discreetly, not calling the attention to himself as so many drummers do. The backbone of the small group.
I look around at the people enjoying themselves, feet tapping, swooning. A table is occupied by a group of tourists who snaps pictures of each others and of the band constantly. The bright light of the flash adds to the rhythm of the music. A young man, looking much younger than the twenty-one years required to enter, is eating what looks like an order of French-style onion soup. He is seating right in front of the stage and I see the players through the vision of his wrestling with the melted cheese that extends in tiny strings from his spoon to the bowl. His head goes down and down until the spoon disappears entirely. All I can see now is the top of Von's saxophone and the kid's head in his bowl.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Misplaced pity

I am in Chicago visiting a friend.
The plane out of Dulles was packed but I got to my seat early enough to see the whole scene.
They came in late carrying two large bags, and a backpack. The woman has also a hand bag and her friend, a young guy who seems fresh out of high-school, is holding a large jacket folded.
He has the look of someone who still finds his room with the posters he put up when he was 16 whenever he goes back home. I notice a large mark of lipstick on his cheek. Maybe the goodbye kiss of his mother this morning. The woman seems to know what she wants. She asks for help with the bags, gets a man sitting behind me to help her, reorganizes the bin compartment above my head to fit the folded jacket and the backpack and sits down in the middle row. After some negotiations with her neighbor who agrees to switch places, she has cleared the way for her boyfriend to sit next to her. He is treating her like a fragile Chinese vase. Afraid to break anything with too rude a movement. They are across the aisle from me and I hear them laugh at the movie being shown. I close my eyes to try to get some sleep. When, frustrated to be still awake, I raise my head, I can see him caressing her arms. She has not moved. They are both reading the same book, open between their laps. Reading one book between two people is sufficiently unusual that I keep looking shamelessly. She is dutifully turning the pages and I soon realize that the pages are almost blank. This is not a book. It looks more like an agenda. She closes the book slowly enough for me to be able to see its title. "New Bride's Book of Lists" is certainly a fascinating read and it goes a long way in explaining their attitude during the flight. With no additional information than the small scene I just witnessed, I caught myself pitying the guy. And I will never know if I was right or wrong.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Welfare state of mind

A strange encounter today. I was on my way back from the local 7/11, heading home at the end of the day. As I am walking back, my eyes are drawn to a display at an "antiques and junk" shop. It is an old map, displayed as an old treasure. I check it out and I hear a voice calling "Do you have a child?" I'm quite surprised at the question, so I turned around with a puzzled air on my face. "What did you ask?" It is an old black man, with a large white beard and hair. His eyes are piercing but his smile is engaging. I smile and ask him to repeat the question. Apparently I'm to be the judge in a dispute: one of the statues on display is of a cherubim with a puffed face and sagging stomach. The question is "how old is the person being presented by this statue?" One guy is saying 5 or 6, the old man is suggesting about 1 or 2 years old. I favor an even older age. No self-respecting toddler has a sagging stomach. The expression on the face is that of an adult. We are soon just talking. I am ready to head home but I want to know how much is the map. "$85" is the answer. That's just a no starter. So I laugh and tells him "No. That's ok!". For some reason he does not like my way to refuse his offer. "Do you want to Jew me down?" he asks. "To what??" I am asking, quite stunned. "To Jew me down. Bargain down. Jews are stingy so that's why..." I didn't know this expression and I am totally shocked. It's so offensive, one does not have to be Jewish to feel the hate behind it.
I balk and immediately get the question "Are you Jewish?" The question adds to the offense. As if only that could explain my reaction, as if not every one hearing it would have balked. As if one has to be black to be offended by racism or a woman to be aware of chauvinism.
I'd like to reason the old man but I feel he won't understand. I ask questions to try to understand him, his mind set that made him so insensitive. He is telling me about one of his white friend who is the only one allowed to call him "Nigger". I don't understand his point, what's the big deal about letting a friend calling him whatever he likes? Now I am thinking of the young man I saw a couple of months ago, the one with a tattoo saying "NIGGA", maybe this old man could explain why someone would tattoo this on his skin? Maybe he has the answer I could not find that day? I tell him the story and ask if he has any explanations for it. He is clearly taken aback and says "Some young kids think that 20 of the smarter crackers are not worth the dummest of the brothers". "Crackers?" "Yes, crackers. White guys." I pause. Still not completely sure of what he is saying. Is this some sort of turning a bad word into some pride banner. Understandable but it is still being defined by the other. Not by yourself, on your own terms. This is still losing.
I don't say any of this and nod. The old man is becoming restless. "I've given you information and you have not given me anything!" he says. I smile. "That's true, I've learned a lot from you, you haven't learned anything from me". He is clearly annoyed now. "There is a word for this, you know. It's called "welfare state of mind". You're asking people to give you but you're not giving anything back." I smile. "Fair enough." A woman is calling him to hurry and close the store. She looks at me and says "He has learned something from you alright" she smirks "he has learned that you won't spent no money". I am a bit annoyed at her tone when I answer "Not completely correct. He has learned that I won't spent $85 on a cheap old map". The conversation is over. The old man invites me to come back to talk some more. "Come back in the morning!" the woman adds, "so you'll have the whole day to talk!". I leave not sure about all what was said and all what was left unsaid.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Anarchy, one rule at the time

Yesterday, on my way back from a silent movies from the 20's playing at the Gallery of Art ("Sunrise" a masterpiece by Murnau), I walked in front of a theater. People were hurrying inside, obviously it was curtain time. I liked the unplanned nature of going to see a play after a movie so I went up to the box office. They were sold out but I got a $10 standing ticket. Theater for the price of a movie ticket.

There are about 10 people with standing-only tickets. A eclectic mix of students, old people and a couple of professional looking people. A red hair woman comes to us and explain the rules: we are to stand where we chose to on the sides of the theater hall and under no circumstances should we seat without her permission. Everybody nods their agreement to the rule: "We will not sit unless directed by her to do so."
Once all the ticket holders have entered the hall, we are finally allowed inside. Some are rushing to find a good spot. I stay almost at the top of the theater hall, with a centered and un-obstructed view of the stage. A woman comes to stand next to me. She looks embarrassed to be standing here and proceeds to explain that her friend mentioned the play today so she didn't have time to get a ticket. I smile. No excuse necessary.
The play begins. I can see people shifting their feet from time to time. Intermission comes and the woman disappears in the crowd. The break is short. I find her standing at the same place when I get back. She says "My friend told me that the seat next to him is empty." I smile thinking of the sort of friend who would let her stand while sitting comfortably with an empty seat on his side. "So why aren't you going to seat there?" I ask. " Because the woman has forbidden us to do so" she answers a little puzzled by my question.
I must be the only one to consider that arbitrary rules are made to be broken when common sense runs against them. It made sense to enforce the rule at the beginning of the play because one could not know if or when the person entitled to this seat would show up. It makes no sense at all to enforce it after the intermission because it is clear that no one will show up now. This seat is going to stay empty until the end of the play.
I smile again and encourage the woman. "The rule was meant for the first part of the play. Now you can seat next to your friend. You don't have to ask permission." She is still not convinced.
"Are you sure?" "Look", I say, "If someone does show up, just stand up and you'll be back where you were before. It's not such a big deal".
She is clearly attracted to the thought of sitting for the next hour but still hesitant to break the rule. I give her the final incentive. "If you're not going to sit next to your friend, let me know where he is sitting and I will gladly take the seat". That does it. She looks at me and says "No, no, that's ok. I'll go and sit there. Thank you very much, thank you so very much!". She leaves, thanking me again and again to have given her the strength or the incentive to break that small rule. Anarchy! one rule at the time...

After the play, it is quite late and I am waiting for the bus to come. There are a group of kids walking toward me. They're all dressed up in cheap suits and looked like they've just escaped from the set of "Bugsy Malone". They're smoking and trying their best to look tough. It's almost touching.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Uppity Negroes

I went with friends to a craft fair near where I live. They stopped by my place this morning and we all head out. The fair is located in this large parking lot in front of the metro stop. The parking will soon becomes a large building with luxury apartments: the whole neighborhood is changing. Gentrification at a rapid pace. The boarded house at the end of my street has recently been cleaned up. One day there were people inside, wearing space suits and taking out bags and bags of junk. They have been working on it for two weeks now. Maybe in a year, it will look like a house again. There is still one abandoned house on my block. The neighbor tells me he sees lots of rats there. The city does not do much. Sometime gentrification is still not fast enough...
Gentrification is also why my friends are here today. The craft fair made it to the local newspaper, in the "must do" list, so they figured it would be worth the trip. Not quite. There are a couple of nice stands (pottery mostly) but the majority gives the flavor of a bad garage sale. Old cloths, used kitchen stuff, cheap jewels... We agree that the paper recommended this craft fair because the editorial board is consumed by the fear of appearing too white. They are afraid of calling junk "junk" when it is being sold in a upcoming neighborhood. They were paralyzed by their fear of appearing condescending.
A woman sells T-shirts with "Uppity Negroes" written on the front. I didn't know what it meant, having never heard the words before. I thought about "up" and "pity". Not quite. My friends explain the slogan for me. I almost got one T-shirt.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Roaring in the dark

I'm in a small experimental theater just around the corner from where I live. The performance is quite spectacular. A play by Dario Fo performed by an Israeli director who adapted it first from Italian to Hebrew and then to English. It is a one-man show, a play about tolerance and the fear of the "other". A strong anti-war and humanitarian message thinly disguised in this "Tale of a tiger". At one point the actor asks us to translate (and understand) "Tigreese", the language of the tiger. He is roaring and we are shouting "Eat!". "Yes! You see, everybody can understand Tigreese...". Soon after we are asked to speak "Tigreese". We are ask to roar. Roar as loud as we want and find in it the power to heal. We make a list of all the things one could roar against or for. Shouts are coming from the public: "Tolerance!", "Peace!", "The middle east!", "Against stupidity". One woman cries out "For the planets!". The actor is quite surprised. "For what?" "The planets!" He smiles. "This is an interesting thought. So let's all roar for all of these and the planets". On the count of three, we all roar with pleasure, all of us hidden by the darkness of the room.

On my way back home, I don't even shrug when a big rat crosses the street right in front of me, a mere 10 meters from my place. I am still a tiger.