Tuesday, November 30, 2004

CD waltz

The bus was late and everybody seems a bit grumpy or maybe it's just because this is the first day after a long weekend.
A sharp turn and we all hear the noise of something sliding and crashing against the doors. The bus driver looks but she is trapped and there is nothing she can do. A guy in front of me, raises and go toward her. He crosses the yellow line and step down in front of the closed door to grab what has smashed there. It is a CD and I am craning to see the title but to no avail. The driver thanks the guy who just smile. The CD makes it back into her bag. All is set back on time for the next stop.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Happy birthday to you too!

We're visiting the Jefferson Memorial. The place is filled with foreigners for whom today does not conjure images of rosted turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. There are also some Americans who came to honor the great men of this country. We pause as we read the words that adorn the walls. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". My parents discuss the omnipresent reference to God and the "creator". We head out still talking. The basement door is heavy and blocks the chilling wind. I see a kid, wearing a yellow jacket, pushing the door to open it. He is trying all his strength over a sign that says "Pull". I see him thrusting all his body weight on the door, trying all his might and while walking toward him I say "Pull! Pull!"to no avail as the kid is still pushing. As I am getting closer and closer to the door, my impatience is growing to see so much pure strength applied so blindly. Surely, one could realize that it is not working and pause for a while to consider what could be the problem. The kid seems about 10 and oblivious to all. He is pushing his small body against the door, a determined look on his face. I shout "Pull!" when I hear my mother behind me saying. "Don't shout. Maybe he does not understand English." As I open the door for the kid, much calmer now, she explains that it happened to her once. "Maybe he speaks Spanish", she says. "OK. So how do you say "Pull" and "Push" in Spanish? I ask. "Empuje" and "Abre" is the answer. As I am repeating the words to remember them, the kid's mother turns around and smiles. The family is right in front of us. A teenager in baggy jeans still making fun of his younger brother, the father and the kid, smiling shyly. My mother smiles back and immediately starts speaking in Spanish. The father asks immediately where are we from. France. He switches to French. They're from Venezuela but are living in Montreal. Visiting Washington. My mother explains how easy it is to be confused with doors and she compliments the kid to be so well behaved. Polite exchange between foreigners. As we part and exchange good wishes of good vacations, I say "Happy Thanksgiving!" I am not sure if it is by joke or confusion but the father answers "Happy birthday to you too!"

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Guest bloger -- In French --

This entry was written by my mother. She has a sharp eyes for stories and an infinite talent to tell them. Here it is. In French.

L'autobus. On monte. La chaleur nous a suffoqué. Un air chaud brulant. Je regarde la conductrice: elle était en petite chemise. Elle avait de grosse levres, le tour marron, l'interieur rose. Elle parlait et je ne comprenais rien sauf "Don't worry" quand j'ai demandé les directions. Il y avait un bébé tout rouge assis pas loin. J'ai enlevé mon écharpe et mon gros manteau. J'avais du mal à respirer et je voyais tout les gens. Personne ne disait rien.
Il y avait un gars qui chantait du rap au fond de l'autobus. De tant en tant, il poussait une hurlande. La conductrice se retournait et le regardais. Sans rien dire. Je me disais sans cesse "Il va descendre, il va descendre" mais non. Il est descendu au terminus. C'était peut-être le copain de la conductrice.

En montant, j'avais remarqué les cheveux de la conductrice de l'autobus. Raidis, rouges. D'un rouge vif avec le dessus noir. Elle était frèle et le grand volant la rendait encore plus petite. Elle tenait le volant d'une main et de l'autre elle se grattait la tête. Quand elle levait la main pour se gratter, la lumiere, à travers ses ongles vernis d'un vert criard, soulignait ses faux ongles en transparence. De temps en temps, elle changait de main pour se gratter l'autre côté. Elle s'est grattée tout le trajet. Heureusement que la route était droite. Car le plus beau c'est qu'elle ne savait pas bien conduire et que ce fut embardées après embardées..
Finalement on arrive. Elle a été gentille de nous dire sans jamais cessé de macher son chewing-gum. : "You stop. That is the terminus. You take a bus". Ses ongles verts qui tournoyaient avec ses paroles.

Un cauchemard de voyage. Ne prenez jamais le S2 à trois heures de l'après-midi...

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Breaking free

I saw him laugh and more than anything else it is his face laughing that I know I will remember the most. I had rushed to get in the subway as the doors were closing. In Paris, the doors open automatically when one does this. A foot in the door, so to speak, to catch the metro. So as the familiar chime was ringing, I threw my right arm in the door. The door closed and I could see the book I was reading on the other side of the door, my hand still holding it. At that moment I realized that the doors would not open like in Paris and that I was trapped. I swore loudly in English as it always seems more benign than in French, suddenly very scared to be dragged along with the departing subway. I wrestled my arm out, forcing the book out by bending it and damaging its cover a bit. I broke free of the metro not a moment too soon, almost happy to have escaped without a major injury and that's when I heard it. A loud laugh coming from a balding guy that I've seen around several times. He was laughing, mocking me openly. I can still picture his face filled with glee over my misfortune.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Night class

The supermarket on a week day is not crowded. It is past 9 PM and I find no sign of the activities that usually greet me when I shop here after work around 6 or 7 PM. Shoppers here and there except for a group of people taking notes and looking at price tags. Hispanics for the most part, in their twenties and thirties. None of them is pushing a cart nor carrying a basket. They're not shopping. They're writing down stuff. I'm intrigued.
Near the fruit and vegetable section I notice one guy from the group. He is alone now and still writing seriously after looking at the tags for tomatoes. I try to ask him a question but my Spanish is limited and I get nowhere except for a "no English" spoken softly with a smile. My mom is nearby and I call her quickly. "Maman, come help me please". Spanish is her mother tongue. French was her English and France her America.
She starts talking to the man and turns to me after a while: "It's a class. They're learning English and this is an exercise. They have to write down a list of produce. " I'm still puzzled but my mother is now talking with the man, she is laughing and nodding in approval. I understand part of the conversation, not enough to join, even in English. She wishes him good luck and congratulates him on his dedication to be in class so late at night.
We soon leave him with another sets of good wishes making our way through the aisles of this expensive supermarket transformed for one evening in a giant classroom.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Head start

On my way to the subway this morning, I saw the stroller coming toward me and noticed something odd without being able to identify it right away. Only as it gets closer I realize what it is: the kid sitting in the stroller is holding a newspaper as if he was reading it. He cannot be more than 2 and has his two hands gripping each sides of the paper, making it stand straight. Being driven around like a pasha, one could almost expect to see him with a cigar in his mouth.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Dancing in the subway

He literally danced his way in the metro. The doors opened and here he was, jumping in and dancing. A man with a funny black hat on his head. Looking about 50 or 60 but probably a bit younger. He passed me and went to sit a couple of rows behind. Soon enough he is back, standing in front of the exit doors, bouncing back and forth to the rhythm of a music only he knows.
He is clearly lost and asks for directions to a young lanky blond guy wearing on his lapel a small pink ribbon. Another three stops. One more than mine. We are approaching my stop when I see him getting ready. I fear that he misunderstood the instructions and so does the young fellow who helped him before. As the train enters the subway stop, I hear the instructions repeated twice, slowly for more impact. "13 and U. Yes. The next stop." The old man nods. He seems very impatient to reach his destination. He'll probably dance his way there.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Food police

I took my parents to the new Air and Space museum near Dulles airport. I wanted to show them the space shuttle, my dad wanted to see the Concorde.
Before we can enter we have to pass a bag inspection. A routine procedure in the post 9/11 world, except that the guard does not seem to be looking for weapons. He concentrates on the food that I've packed in my bag. "No food is allowed in the museum" he says. I don't want to go back to the car to put the food back and I can think of at least one excuse not to. "My dad has diabetes" I say, "He needs to be able to eat on a short notice". This is a semi truth. My dad has diabetes but he has just assured me that he was fine and that he would be OK for another hour or so. I know next to nothing about this disease. I trust he'll be ok.
The guard is not completely convinced. I'm not sure how much he knows about diabetes. "It seems like a lot of food", he says, "I'll understand a little bit but you've pack a whole meal".
I'm not sure what to say. I did packed what I thought will be good for the road: yogurt, bread, olives, fruits, chocolate, tofu patties: indeed a full lunch...
"I can't know in advance if he'll be very hungry or not", I venture, hoping that he will let me pass. I try hard to appease him "I'll close the food bag, see?" I tightened the knot in front of him. "We will come back outside to eat if need be." I force my French accent.
He seems happy of the solution and let us in with enough food to feed a small army. My dad has understood nothing of the exchange. He is only impressed by the security at the entrance.

Later in the museum I see a family who also smuggled some food. A kid about 3 year old is clinching to his mother as she is giving him some food that he pop into his mouth quickly. She says "Munch with your mouth closed so nobody will notice!". His cheeks are big and he nods seriously while moving his jaws up and down. We are all on the run from the food police...

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Imäges from IKEA

IKEA on a Saturday night. It's a mob scene and the lines are long. The man in front of me has only a couple of boxes on his cart. I see a woman coming from a line nearby. She has a warm smile as she says to the man. "My line seems to be going faster". I figure that they are together, each in a different line to see which one would be shorter. But the man does not move to join her. He stays put, waiting patiently behind at least 5 or 6 people. She is soon done with her shopping and comes back to chat, keeping an eye on her purchases. I'm not sure what the relation between the two are. They are obviously getting separate checks. His answers to her questions are monosyllabic. He is tall and slim. She is short and quite fat, wearing jeans that underline her large hips. She has a smile that illuminates all her face, he does not laugh but seems to enjoy her gaiety. Friends sharing a car for a Saturday night shopping spree? She answers the question for me as she leans on his left arm and leaves her head rest right below his elbow in a tender gesture that seems out of place in this cold blue and yellow building.

The little girl that went to open one of the large umbrellas on sale for $3.99 and could not close it. The way she presented her thumb to her dad coming to rescue her as if to show him that she had fought valiantly the battle. The way he smiled to acknowledge her effort before grabbing the umbrella from her hands and closing it effortlessly.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Just do it!

I am coming out of the subway. I hear a group of young girls singing outside the store nearby but as I get closer I realize that they're not singing really more like laughing in chorus. I hear "He is your boyfriend. Of course you should do it". One woman shrieks. The others laugh and again the cry "He is your boyfriend. Do it!".

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Picking up the right ones

I was not there and didn't see it but my mother, visiting from France with my dad, told me the story today.
They were going down to Adams Morgan and its many shops. A homeless stopped them for money. My father is not yet used to American coins so he just put out his hands full of change in front of the guy. My mom was telling me the care with which the homeless picked the "bright ones" and let the "small orange ones". I can feel that she is quite annoyed. "He picked them carefuly and only let us with the one cent coins. The ones we wanted to get rid of!"
I laugh. "This is America, Maman. When you gave people the choice, you can't blame them for deciding for themselves". Even if you don't like the outcome.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Simply the best

In the store, a Friday afternoon, buying groceries before the weekend crowds. A man wearing a badge saying "Maurice" is packing my paper bags. I come closer and peak quickly inside one of the bags. It is arranged to the centimeter. Everything just so. I'm impressed and tell him: "This is art, not grocery bagging!". Maurice is pleased but does not seem at all surprised. "I'm the best", he boasts, "just ask around you. I'm just the best bagger there is."
That's much is clear. His work is fast and perfect. Everything seems to fit as if I had bought the bag of beans for that only reason; so that it could fill the small space between the mineral water and the bananas.
Maurice soon calls his boss and asks me to repeat my compliments. I'm happy to oblige. In fact I do it twice, once in English and one in French as it is very clear from the accent that Maurice's boss speaks French.
The boss congratulates Maurice who is delighted by the attention. His co-workers are less so. I ask Maurice if I put him in some sort of trouble. "Not at all, " he says, " they're just jealous.
He is the best bagger in the store after all.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Umbrella ghosts

The little girls on their way to school this morning. It's raining and they're holding an umbrella. The umbrella is as tall as they are and their effort is to keep it from reaching the ground. Their heads are almost entirely covered by the umbrella's canopy. It looks from afar as though an umbrella is making its way on the streets of Washington.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Dulles airport. Arrival gate for international flights. A woman is standing there with flowers in her hand. Pink flowers wrapped in a green shiny paper. She makes a sudden motion forward and I see a man coming carrying two bags. He gets to her as she extends her arm to offer him the flowers. He does not touch them and says only "I'm so tired". He bends a bit toward her, their heads get close but never really touch. He has not put the bags down and keeps moving as she hurries behind him. The flowers in her hand point to the floor.

Monday, November 01, 2004

You're gonna die!

I said that. To a woman who was biking in the middle of the street, at dusk, without any light on her or her bike, no helmet. I don't know if she realized that she was completely invisible to any car coming behind her.
I was coming back from Home Depot. This, in itself, is a small miracle. I could live there. Stay and explore for hours and hours. Each aisle is calling me for a project never finished, sometimes never started. Each idea is like a dream of what I could do, a succession of promises that I can't never keep.
I saw her at the last minute. A car was coming toward mine and I saw it changing direction without any apparent reason. That's when I realize that something or someone was there that had forced that car to swerve. The same way astronomers discover black holes: watching the effect they have on their environment, even if they remain hidden.
I flashed my high beam lights a couple of times and finally saw her. A small dark figure zigzagging from left to right on the road, in the dark. Completely invisible. Suicidal.
I should have known better though than trying to explain to her that what she was doing was so dangerous. I stopped my car in front of her, trying without success to lower the window of the front passenger side. I mixed the buttons and the rear window goes down instead. "Do you realize how dangerous is what you are doing?" I admonish her, feeling good to be doing her a favor. She looks at me as if I was wearing the orange suit of a psychiatric hospital. "Well, you are the one who is a menace. You stopped right in front of me without warning." She gets back on her bike and crossing from right to left in front of my car, she disappears in the nearby back alley. I just have the time to shout "Don't you understand? You're gonna die!!"
The sentence does not sound exactly like what I should have said. The words just came out this way. It feels more like a curse than like a warning.