Understand that by Monday, November 16th, utter dismay has turned the Friday the 13th Paris Massacre into “The Events”.
Monday is our first day back on the grindstone after the Events, is the day everybody found out how not-close friends or immediate family had fared on Friday 13th: at bus & metro stops, at stores, bakeries, cafés, on the street, at work.
I thought, this will all be, genre, type, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” Inconsequential.
But no, as it turns out, it’s not.
The dismay means that even the egomaniac bloofering that usually fills the airwaves in the days after something bad happens remains shriveled down into pretty fair reporting.
In case you’re wondering, bloofer is from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Bloofer lady” is how one of the naïve children describes a particularly seductive vampire. Jeez-louise, but that part scared me. It scares me still. I’m not sure why - and I don’t have to be, thank you - but vampirism seems entirely appropriate where religious fanaticism is concerned.
The buses, trams and metros have been full from Sunday. They will continue to be full, sauf exception, beyond the national days of mourning. Routines are always ready to hand, even under a state of emergency.
This Monday, as every Monday, the bus up the rue des Pyrénées to Saint Lazare is full of Everypersons. This Monday, though they give off just a hint of more than usual discrete readiness to help out, should needs must, of course.
Full of women like this scrupulously-groomed, courteous and friendly 20-something personal assistant or caregiver or whatever she is. She smiles and primly makes room, anticipating that I’ll sit next to her, though she’s wrong.
The puffy red-head 40-something floozy splayed out over the other empty seat is never in any mind to help anybody, ever. I have often wondered how her now permanent moral exhaustion came about? But this morning, as every morning, I discover that I don’t care enough to linger over the question.
Full of men like the postal worker with the silly-looking top-knot. He nods and smiles at me as if his sack is filled with winning lottery tickets for me. I have no idea why. Perhaps I have a black smear across my face? Perhaps he is one of the lesser imbeciles, full of good will because he fears the wrath of Father Christmas’s brother, Father Scourge? O! But he does seem a nice sort of fellow, so I incline my head in a way that indicates OK, but no conversation, please.
Full of fathers like the skinny, tall, tense Arab-looking guy whose eyes tell me he thinks I am probably wearing the suicide vest I think he might be wearing. His daughter is babbling peacefully in her push chair, shaking her foul-looking cloth doudou in air and cooing to melt the hardest hearts. Totally unaware she has a crazy daddy.
Of course, it is just possible he isn’t so crazy at home, that his lady swears by his husbandly & paternal virtues. Maybe he buys ice cream for the kid when there’s nowhere to buy himself ecstasy. I don’t know.
Full of inscrutable beings like the boubou-clad guy with a skull cap and kinky, greying, pious-Muslim beard. He clacks his worry beads with the resigned air of a hungry man who hears the tell-tale clatter and cries of slave-raiders in the near distance. A permanent cringe tells me he has decided that, this time, after years of cowardly hesitation, Fate shall be the judge. I see him often. His function is to remind me that my darker moments are just moments.
I scan all the faces, “heads,” the French say, for signs that, against appeareance, this is a special Monday. I conclude that this is the ideal day to fall down with a heart attack or psychotic fit. Today, instead of recoiling and trying to find excuses to get away, I think I see that these people today will force themselves to do something positive in the circumstances.
There is good nature and, as Diderot might have said, natural philosophy, here.
Settling myself in the well that fronts the exit door, I am now feeling jokey, more my usual crazy Midwest Uncle self, ready to amuse myself, for example, by somehow startling the tense guy who thinks I’m wearing the suicide vest that I believe belongs to him.
I try to imagine the personal assistant’s discretely helping me. She asks politely before puffing air between my blueing lips. After a heroic leap to plant herself over my manly, defibrillating chest, she stops to smooth her starched knee-length uni-color pleated skirt. To keep me from self-harming.
Snickering, I arrive at place Gambetta, just behind the City Hall. I cannot get up even a minor cardiovascular event or neurotic delirium in the short time allotted.
I give a fleeting smile and nod, seemingly to the whole bus, but really only to the personal assistant. She smiles back with her eyes, as if realizing suddenly she’s in a play, anyway. It sobers me to think that she might very well be a Jehovah’s Witness.
I am suddenly thinking that if I had to give a TED lecture on how to hold oneself with amiable dignity in the wake of a terrorist massacre, I’d just show a 14-minute video of these, my fellow usagers, as we call public-transport riders, grunting from time to time to keep up interest.
I hop off and negotiate through the crowd to the crosswalk, where I wait for traffic to lighten.
The people on the full buses make me remember that life after all is that Peasant dance that the elder Bruegel painted, a pas à deux combination of incontrovertibly material and overwhelmingly symbolic elements, a debauched priest blessing a deadly game of handerchief-dagger between best friends...
Though Garrick flubbed an adlib subsequently picked up by Johnson, W. Shakespeare did write, did he not? That
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth, Act V, Scene 2
I abruptly dash across avenue Gambetta and go up the rue du Cambodge and notice that the instrument maker’s workshop is closed. There’s a handwritten note, explaining that Romain, the luthier and owner of the place, has been murdered. At dinner down the hill, I suppose.
Such is my shock that I have to hold myself against a wall so I don’t fall.
This catastrophe, against all hope, is really, really, really real. And for the first time feeling really at a loss, I continue my way and, at the top of the rue des Pyrénées, I see my pal Gérald trudging up Ménilmontant hill. Smoking.
On Monday, still, also, children, spouses, parents, cousins, friends, lovers were learning that their own had been shot down, killed, wounded, crippled for life.When he reaches me, I tell him of my distress, something I am usually not so unwary as to do. Between gasps, he puffs, “Well, 130 people, each knowing or known by 100 people? Sadness and grief spreading like a chilly fog.” As if wishing to do it himself, the Cartesian angel of calculation casts wide this fell net.
Once at the office, I learn that Florent grabbed his little son and fled in a panic when a man exploded in front of them. But he doesn’t say a word about it. Gérald got an email all about it, written from the excruciating wee hours of Sunday. An old PTA friend of Miriam lost her daughter. Parents of young adult children, we retch to think of it.
In the late afternoon, Thomas comes by. All well, Tom? His sister has been murdered over her dessert, he says, trying too hard to be matter-of-fact. He bursts into sobs. Our hugs are so damn awkward… Aïsha’s rollerblading copine has been shot dead… She joins Thomas in sobbing.
Late in the evening, I notice a pile of flowers in front of my favorite café. It’s for Caroline, a girl who used to sit and take her coffee there while tapping her Mac, murdered at the Bataclan.
By day’s end Monday, I have learnt that a terrible chagrin has cut a rough swath through the strongest human ties. But I have also learnt something that seems to me worse. In the course of time one does lose one’s parents, children, loves, friends. Even so cruelly.
But these murders have deliberately splashed filth over the bright detail of our lives among us known strangers: over the pleasant nod, the brief wink, the evanescent smile, the amused or indignant shared glance.
A handwritten note on Romain’s instrument workshop reads:
I go past your workshop every morning.
I have often wanted to come in and see your art, discover the person you were.
A terrible regret not to have done so.
I miss you.