Thursday, April 28, 2005

Broken meter

I was looking for a parking spot on K street at around 10 AM. Pure madness. I'm not late yet so I decide to circle the block. Pure luck, there is a spot which seems legit. I signal that I'm taking it when a worker nearby motions me to open my window. "The meter is broken" he says pointing toward the parking meter in front of my spot. I smile. "Even better. I won't have to pay". The face he makes when hearing my answer. I can see his dismay to my un-civil glee and his disappointment not to have thought of it himself.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

German house in France

The man was not even seated that he started talking about the house he was having built next to Cannes. I'm on my way from Frankfurt to Nice and I was hoping to catch up with sleep a bit. No such luck as the flow of words is quite rapid in a mixed of German and English.
"I'm a publisher but I'm building a house in a golf course next to Cannes. I am travelling with my workers." He points to different people. "My architect. My electrician. My plumber. My tile specialist" The list contains at least 6 or 7 names. I act impressed. This is what he is after and there is no harm done in indulging him a bit. He is clearly pleased and then I say. "So many people from Frankfurt! You're maybe building in France but you're building a German house!"
I can see that he does not take it as a compliment. It was not meant like one. I just wanted to sleep...

First class doctor -- Economy class paramedic

I was on the plane from Dulles to Nice via Frankfurt. I don't like flying and can't get too much inside an airplane before I start feeling very uncomfortable so, as usual, I have asked to be seated toward the front of the plane. It is completely irrational as it would not make much of a difference in case of an accident but it makes flying bearable. I'm lucky tonight: the two seats on my left are empty. A man is seated on the last seat of the middle row. I'll be able to sleep stretched on the next seat.
The flight attendant comes to ask us to move several seats back to accommodate a family of four seated completely separated from each other. I apologize and tell her that I can't do that for fear to be totally sick within minutes of taking off.
She can't force me to move and goes away quite upset. I smile to the man at the end of the row who has not said a word. He seems very quiet and smiles back. About 5 minutes later, the flight attendant comes back with a woman and a kid. The kid sits next to me, the woman next to the guy.

We were in the air for less than an hour when the man fainted and collapsed. Flight attendants are rushing to his seat, grabbing him by the shoulders and hauling him in the small space between the toilets located a few seats behind us. We hear an announcement "Is there a doctor in economy class? We need a doctor in economy class right away." A couple more announcements. They need a device to measure blood pressure and heart beat and one to gauge the sugar level in the blood. It sounds serious.
A couple of seats in front of me is the start of the business section. A guy opens the curtain and waves at the flight attendant. "I am a doctor. Can I help?"
The replies is priceless "No thanks. We are looking for a doctor in economy class".
There is already someone working at the sick man's side and I hear him telling the doctor still standing behind the curtain. "I'm a paramedic. There is a doctor with me and she is doing great. We should be alright without extra help."
The doctor nods and disappears, maybe to catch up with the movie still playing. The sick passenger comes back to his seat about 20 minutes later. He smiles to everybody around with a smile that says "sorry to have disturbed your peaceful flight". His face apologizing to his fellow travellers. He cannot know that the flight attendant made sure that his plight would remain invisible to the passengers behind the class curtains.

Friday, April 22, 2005

No woman, no song

Spelman college is a quiet oasis in the middle of lots of houses and boarded stores. It's early morning and I've come to the cafeteria to grab some breakfast before heading back to the airport: I'm on my way to France.
The cafeteria is still deserted and custodians are cleaning the floor of the corridor with the pictures of famous alumnae. Marvin Gaye is singing in the background and I see the three large women dancing and singing together "Sexual Heaaaling". They are all laughing and moving their heads in rhythm.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The meaning of watch

I'm on my way to Atlanta to give a talk. The flight is overbooked and the United representatives are asking for volunteers to leave with a later flight. I can't do it because my schedule for the day is pretty much fixed. A young couple with a small baby in a stroller are debating if they should volunteer. I can hear that they both have strong Indian accents. The husband goes to ask for some information and the woman explains to me that they are going to Atlanta in vacation so it does not matter but still they don't want to wait too long because of the baby.
A woman with a small boy in tow is walking past us. The boy is about 5 years old. He is carrying a large backpack almost his size.
The woman turns to him and orders him "Please watch the baby". The voice is sharp and strong. The little boy obeys her in a way she probably didn't anticipated. He literally watches the baby and starts walking slowly to keep his eyes on the baby all the time. His mother turns and he follows with his small body twisted to keep looking at the baby. His mother yanks him and pushes him forward.
He probably never knew what he had done wrong.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Overheard in Dupont Circle

A woman on a cell phone "How old is he? 50 is not that old". She is a bit overweight, wearing tight blue jeans. She looks about 30.

A woman to her friend "We need cheap beer. Miller-light cheap"

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Sport fans

On my way to the screening of the "video blog" from Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger, a great visual diary from someone who avoids the "no to war" hysteria as well as the "Iraqi will be soon playing baseball and driving the kids to soccer" naive expectations of many. A documentary to see, no matter what you thought about the war.
I'm waiting for the subway near a group of 4 guys and a teenage girl. The men range in age from more than 60 years old to about 30. All are wearing a red cap marked with the sign of the Nationals, the newest addition to this town's sport scene. I don't follow baseball closely but even I felt the enthusiasm of people when speaking about having a baseball team back in town. It is the conversation most likely to trigger a nostalgic reaction from older people and hope from the young.
The subway comes and as I get in I see a little girl about 7 or 8 wearing the same red cap. As she notices the group stepping in the car, she gasps and jumps from her seat as if she had just seen her best friend in an unplanned meeting. She sits back quickly and looks at the group for a sign of recognition. The older man of the group smiles with a small nod. She immediately turns to her mother, the other witness of her entrance in the adult world of sport fan. She is in.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Saving face and money

I could pretend that it was for the principle that I spent 30 minutes arguing with a parking attendant, a parking manager, a security guard, a security manager and the center manager.
The truth is that it was to test the power of a well argued case, for the pleasure to win the argument at the end. And for the money.

There is an international film festival going on in town.
I have gone to the showing of "Selling Democracy", a series of several short movies made then to advertise the "Marshall Plan" in Europe. A perfect way to be reminded that Europe reconstruction that is now hailed as an example for Iraq was not as smooth as people remember it, a perfect way to realize what Europe owes to America even if it is hardly acknowledged now.
The movies are propaganda short stories which, like all propaganda movies, end up involuntary showing some greater truth. Seen even 60 years later, they underline the incredible poverty that existed in Europe at that time (no running water in most villages in the South of Italy), the irreversible way in which Europe has changed since then, or the incredible amount of money that the US poured there.
The film is scheduled to last for a bit less than 2 hours. The parking under the center, in this impossible-to-park part of town, is free for the first 3 hours with a movie validation. I arrive about 30 minutes early to get the ticket and grab some food. I figured that I had plenty of time to keep it under 3 hours, except that the festival organizers decided to add 3 or 4 talks from major players of the time (ambassadors, people in charge, who knows??). Each gives a long speech.
Not surprisingly, I show up at the parking exit about 5 minutes overtime on the 3 hours. I expected a grace period but the woman at the booth is quite inflexible. She wants me to shell $7 for the extra time...

A talk to the manager leads me nowhere and he is getting impatient with my car blocking one of the exits. I am arguing that the festival was late, he is saying that this is not his problem. Classic stopping block. It escalated when I decide to get another parking stub from the entrance booth, figuring that I could just get that one validated by the festival people. He rushes and tries to block me. I have no interest in being wrestled by a tall guy in suit. The security guard is called, and then the security manager. I explain my case, insisting that I agree with the rules but that the rules where made for the general movie theater and the regular shows, not for the movie festival which was late.
Maybe because of the presence of the security guard, but the tone changes. The manager of the parking garage agrees that if I can get a letter (or a confirmation) from the festival organizers acknowledging that they were late, he will waive the parking fee. The deal is closed. I move my car and the security manager goes back up to the lobby with me. We find the theater manager who smiles when he hears of the story. Apparently it's a regular scheme that the parking place has. Even one minute extra and the patrons are paying the full hour. It's the first time though that the garage manager has agreed to even discuss the rules.
As we are going down, a movie patron comes with two ice creams in his hand. His movie starts very soon, he says, and he has been forbidden to take the two cups inside. "That's correct, No outside food. That's the rule", says the theater manager. The guy is furious. "Why do you sell ice cream downstairs then?" The answer comes quickly, calm. "We don't. This is a different company".
The argument goes back and forth. I try to joke with the guy ("well, you could eat it fast!") but he looks at me as if he wanted to throw the ice-cream in my face. I shut up and see him walking toward a nearby garbage can and throwing with rage the two large cups there, before hurrying inside to catch his movie.
The theater manager, clearly relieved to have this problem solved so quickly, turned to me and we all proceed to the parking garage to meet the manager.
The conclusion is very swift. The two men obviously know each other and a quick hand shake is enough to clear things up completely. We are now joking around about the festival's schedule. The theater and security managers leave while I thank them profusely.
The parking manager is looking at me now and he just asks "Where are you from?". "From France, what about yourself?" "Ethiopia". His voice is almost admirative as he adds "You're very strong".
"You are very strong too", I reply smiling at what I took as a compliment.
He smiles back. When I show up at the exit a few second later, he is there standing in front of the booth. The woman inside takes my ticket and lifts the barrier.
"You can come back anytime, you'll be welcome". We're all smiling.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Bag of clothes and bread

A large bag of clothes so out of place in the subway. Stashed in front of one of the door at the end of the car. There is no one sitting nearby.

Also. In the large empty plot right in front of the subway. The one advertising "Luxury condominiums" for Spring 2006. There is a large bag filled of bagels next to the fence. I see someone entering the lot, quickly grabbing some bread and walking back toward me. He looked down the all time.

Random noise

A pub in upper Georgetown next to a gentlemen club. I had never noticed it before but it's hard to miss it tonight: the music is so loud that we can hear it from the parking spot we found a block away. My friend is here to check the singer of the band (called something like "The Black Jedi"). I came out of curiosity for the music and the place. We show up there at 11 PM. The night is young.
When we arrive there is a small group on stage. Teenagers playing very loudly but almost paralyzed by the endless world of the possibilities that the music allowed them, they play over and over again the same cord. The volume is deafening. The place is almost empty. This is not the band we came to see so we step out for a minute. There are a couple of guys outside, chilling out. We ask them about the black Jedi and they tell us that they cancelled because the drummer injured his foot walking his dog. Lame excuse. We start talking with them. They just played and one of them get inside and come back with a CD that he hands out to my friend. "Here", he says, "Check us up. We play around here and in Virginia. Come to see us sometimes". The name of the group is something like "awak". Not quite sure of the origin of the name. We talk music. Rock from the 80's (God! Save us!), Pop, Punk Rock. Just chatting in the street at midnight with two perfect strangers.
We left a bit later promising to come to their gig on Friday the 13th of May in Alexandria. I still don't know how they sound like.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

One way conversation

I'm in the fitting room of a large clothing store, when I hear a woman talking loudly on her cell phone nearby. She clearly thinks that she is alone or maybe she just does not care. The conversation or more exactly the part of the conversation that I hear goes something like:
"Well, I should tell you that I am not into the dating scene anymore"
"But he is coming tonight, isn't he?"
"So he will be there"
"But isn't he getting married soon?"
"I can't believe that he would do such thing!"
"No I don't blame you but I can't understand him"
"No. Of course I'm not upset with you. I'll come tonight"
The woman goes away still chatting on the phone.

"of course I'm not upset with you". But of course.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Wizards of DC

I went to my first basketball game tonight, with a friend, a fan of the 76ers who were playing against the Wizards.
I love the ambiance of a stadium. The crowd, the chants, the noise. I've been to soccer games in France where the crowd is a bit rowdy but there is none (at least there was none) of the circus that awaits us. There are dancers, women followed by break-dancers. There are kids shooting basketball and adults playing a giant TicTacTo. And there are the "candid camera" moments. The camera panning the audience in search for couples who, when shown on the giant screen, have to kiss.
One such picture is of a middle-aged couple. The man has white hair and looks straight ahead. The woman immediately dives and hides her face in her jacket. It is clear that they do not want to be seen together. The guy behind us is yelling with delight "She is not his! This is not his woman!".
It reminds me the story that happened when I was in high-school. Two kids in my class had gone to the nearby Roland Garros to see the tennis open. Unfortunately we (and apparently the teacher) saw them on TV, in a wide shot of the public, looking very healthy and enjoying themselves when they were supposed to be home very, very sick.
Somehow they were cured and back in class the next day.

On the way out of the stadium, the kid who is wearing a blue sleeveless sixers jersey. It is giving him a tough gangsta look so at odd with his little arms. He must be about 4.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Ideal relationship

I sat right in front of them in the bus. A couple clearly. He caresses her head, really slowly, savoring the obvious pleasure that her hair (short and curly) gives him (his head is shaven). She is standing straight beside him and he forces her head toward his shoulder to enjoy the touch of her hair on his face. I can see him rubbing his cheeks against her hair. She is holding a textbook.

What first attracted and captured my attention, though, is not their display of affection but the fact that they both have headphones on and are clearly listening to different Ipods. His is in a front pocket. She is holding hers in her hand.
They don't speak. Each closed in their own world.
Tapping together a different beat of a different music... A perfect metaphor for the ideal relationship.

Clinton was not impeached

At the bus stop yesterday night. A mother and her kid, an energetic 4 year old with long hair and a big smile. Another woman coming who obviously knows the mother. I realize that they are in the same class at the nearby University of District of Columbia.
Of all the universities located in DC (about 10) UDC is probably the worst. I've visited it and the campus reminds me of campuses in Paris (which says a lot for those of you who know the pathetic state of French universities) : rundown, dirty, and gloomy.
They soon start to talk about their classes. The woman with the child complains about a professort of political science. Mrs Allen, who teaches on Saturday. It sounds like an horror story. Anecdotes of Mrs Allen rambling about things that have nothing to do with the class.
The outrage in the voice of the student is clear. Here is a woman who's trying to get a college degree, paying and working her way through and she is stuck with an incompetent teacher. She says several times that she is not "challenged" enough. She does not want to have it easy. She wants to learn.
"The best was when she told us that Clinton was not impeached but it was all a media fabrication". She goes on, half-smiling, half still indignant: "And this is a political science teacher???".
The other woman nods. Both seem resigned to their fate.

Bus psychologist

The guy should be a psychologist. He is a bus driver and yesterday I walked into his bus.
I asked for a transfer and stood there while looking for change to pay the fare ($1.25 in DC). I already put a dollar. I'm missing the 25 cents in change. I can see plenty of pennies in my wallet, but no dime, nickels or quarters. I explained and he says "Have a nice day!" which means he is letting me ride the bus for only a $1. I thank him but as I am walking to my seat I realize that I have not looked in my other wallet.
A trick I learned while living in NY City. Always carry two wallets in case you get mugged. One contains petty cash -- never more than $10 -- and only a bank card. I'm not sure it would work though ("Let me check... Yes, that's it. You want to take THIS wallet and not THAT one"...).

I may have coins in that wallet. Suddenly the thought of not having paid the 25 cents for the bus ticket is bugging me. I have to check. Sure enough, I more than 25 cents in change.
I am happy while walking back to the driver and telling him "Sir! I have the money!" His reaction surprises me. He is almost annoyed at me and answers back "You can't take anything from nobody, hu! You don't like people to do you favors, do you??" He is snapping the words at me as I try to explain that, well, I have the money to cover my fare. That's all there is to it. But he does not smile nor laughs with me. He is just shaking his head in front of what I fear now is a terrible insult I did but refusing his gracious "Have a nice day" fare offer.
I am probably less taken aback by his reaction than by the fact that he guessed right.
I go sit in the back of the bus.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Raymond Aron and the hot chick

I went to a talk about the "Raymond Aron and the End of Europe" ( life in DC is political or isn't).
I arrive almost late and rush to take a seat in the middle of a row, disturbing everyone seated already.
The talk is about to start when I hear my neighbor asking, in a low voice, almost as to himself. "Who is the hot chick over there?" I look up in search of the hot chick in question. A blond woman waving in his/my direction. He waves back.

The beep of the elevator on the way back. At each floor, a loud and sharp sound that hurts by the time I make it back to the lobby.

Sunday, April 03, 2005


I'm in a large home furnishing store just outside DC. Browsing and trying to get ideas. The writing on the wall above the "knobs and handles" section proclames "Because you want to show off your style in the smallest details". Considering the store, they could have just written "Because you want to show off".

There is a bed set up for display and a kid is on it. She cannot be more than 3 years old. An older sibling (about 6) is also on the bed, her head on the pillow. The father is slouched on the bed more than lying. His feet are on the ground, his head touches his older daughter's head. The younger one is in the middle of the bed. Sitting. She is wearing an adorable outfit and a little hat. I hear her father saying "OK, at the count of three, we'll call her". One, two, three. "MAMA!". The little girl only shouts, her voice echoing far beyond the "bedroom" section. He laughs and she laughs and now both are screaming "MAMA! MAMA!". Stopping and laughing. The older daughter has not say a word. She is just looking at her father and her sister screaming. I leave before the mother comes back.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Eyes to eyes

The old man in the store as I was buying today's newspapers. He never once raised his head. Never once looked at any of the people at his cash register.
He looks old, probably more than 70 years old. Working on a Saturday at the check-out register of a supermarket. I wonder what the story of his life is. Why is he here. Why he does not meet the eyes of his costumers. Why his face looks so sad and beaten. The face of a grey raining day.