Saturday, November 6, 2010

La Terreur Du Déjà Vu

In Screen Saver I recount a thing that once happened to me in the Champion that used to be on Rue de Seine.  Although it was a simple to describe event from a doggy and horsey viewpoint (“doggy and horsey” is a term that Mysti and I co-opted long ago from a Peanuts strip: Charlie Brown and Lucy are lying on the ground looking up at the sky and Lucy is describing the things she is seeing in the clouds; she sees epic battles from classic mythology, heroes of American history and a panoply of people and things that only could be evoked by high intelligence stoked with a deep and classical education; she stops; there is a frame in which they just lie there, neither saying anything; and then Charlie Brown says “gee, I was going to say that I saw a doggy and a horsey”) since it didn’t take very long and it entailed nothing more spectacular than a woman’s mobile canvas-clad grocery go-to-market cart tipping over; it nonetheless had a profound and lasting effect on my life.

Stemming from that experience, in that super market, in Paris, I have a different interpretation of certain configurations of “things” that I may encounter in my daily life.

That cart, that day was the property of the woman immediately ahead of me in the checkout line.  There is a complete carefully woven web of circumstances, activities and attitudes that I recount in my account of the event in the book.  But I leave that detail to readers of the book.

The short version is that the cart was a commonly seen device on the streets and in the markets of Paris.  It was a metal frame with a canvas shell wrapping it, the frame being on wheels.  The canvas shell presented a surprisingly cavernous opportunity for the owners of such devices to stow all variety of groceries, and on the day in question the woman in question in the line in question directly ahead of me had outdone herself with the stuffing of her cart. 

Another characteristic of such devices, and one which was essential to the events of that day in Champion, my subsequent “different interpretation of certain configurations of ‘things’ that I may encounter in my daily life”, and the terror legitimately connected to the events of today which I may sometime soon get around to telling about, is that those devices, when chock-a-block full, can stand with their long axis perpendicular to the horizontal surface of the floor or the ground or whatever horizontal surface it is that they find themselves to be occupying at any point in their use as carriers of potentially vast quantities of groceries.

And that is convenient for their owners.  It allows those owners to cart their cart to some location or other – such as just ahead of me in a grocery checkout line in the Champion on Rue de Seine in Paris – and, having set it into that vertical, perpendicular-to-the-floor attitude of which it is capable, said owners can leave the device unattended while they reach for their wallets, or remove items from it to be put on the check out conveyor, or whatever other two handed activities would be precluded if it were not for that independently vertical standing capability.

But that capability can be disastrous for unwary others in the vicinity.

On that day I was one such unwary other.  I caused that vertical standing pillar of what turned out to be mostly large glass jars of gravy to change attitude by 90 degrees, thus bringing a massive quantity of fragilely packaged brown goo into catastrophic contact with the floor.

Since that day I never stand in line behind or ahead of one of those things when I am in Paris.

Moreover, any time I see, what turns out to be a kindred configuration of “things”  (it is surprising how large a clan of configurations of things that particular configuration belongs to) I get really wary.

What kind of things? you may probably be asking no one in particular.

Oh, how about a five foot high hand truck loaded up to the curvature of its handle with cases – say maybe six or seven – of eggs?

A completely separate and satisfying – at least to me – post could be written about the paucity of anything resembling a sidewalk on any but the largest boulevards of Paris.  That is one of the myriad things that contribute to the charm of the place.  But it does keep one constantly analyzing the activities, configurations and sizes of the people in front of one, or behind one, on those places on either side of the narrow streets that are generally, although not always, free from autos or motorcycles, so that major crashes of human kind with one another are avoided. 

Suffice that just-said to be a prologue to the climax of this tale.

I was coming back from the market with my Paris market basket – remember the one which when we last encountered it was left, unusably coated with olive oil, in the story of the great olive oil disaster? – fully laden with cheese, bread and croissant, and I was on the last leg of the journey, having started down Rue Guénégaud.  I was walking, dodging, going into the street – all those things one does on all those charming small Paris streets – when I came to a medium sized delivery van parked partially on what little sidewalk there was.  Between the truck’s sides and the wall of the building on it right side there was ample room for one person to go if than one person put his market bag in front of himself in order that the bag might not nearly double the width of that person.

There having been a cluster of more than one person coming in the opposite direction, I stopped substantially back of the delivery truck – I was unable to see what if anything might be associated with its delivery function; it was just forward of the Fran Prix super marché so I assumed that it must be delivering something to Fran Prix – and let that cluster make their way as best they could through the space between the truck and the wall.

Once they were past I moved a little closer to the truck and tried to see ahead to see if more people were coming opposite me.  There were not.  As I moved forward, about to enter the gap between the truck and the wall, I saw that there was indeed a delivery person just behind the truck, in the street directly behind the part of the truck that was not on the sidewalk.  I saw that he had a good sized hand truck loaded vertically with multiple cases of something.  Except for a distant twinge – such twinges always accompany any such configuration that I encounter, but, mercifully, they almost never develop into anything more sinister – I didn’t think much about it.

As a person who once aspired to make his living as a consultant to the distribution industry, any manifestation of activities associated with distribution continues to fascinate me.  Paris it turns out, is a laboratory for someone who has interests such as mine.  To make all the little markets, stores and the like, to say nothing of the myriad restaurants work, being as they are, all lurking in back allies, and in dead end passages and inside buildings, many of which date to the sixteen hundreds, the French have adopted carte blanche what food distributors in America call DSD – Direct Store Delivery.   The “Direct” in DSD is the tricky part.  It means directly from the manufacturer to the store; there is no middle stage of being held in a huge wholesale warehouse. In America DSD is confined to small specialized niches such as – sometimes – beverage, and pretty much always, snacks.  In France DSD is the way stuff gets to the retailers.

And an interesting result of this fact is that if you get out early enough, when it’s still dark, and go to a street upon which a number of markets and restaurants front – the intersection of Rue de Bucci and Rue de Seine is a great example – you will see a street turned into, for an hour or so, the floor of a food distribution warehouse, complete with all the tools, pallet jacks, etc. that would be present in a warehouse.

Anyone who has ever seen this sight, and who knows anything about anything, would be hard pressed to continue to harbor that cherished American belief that the French are lazy and not entrepreurial (George Bush, remember, said that they don’t even have a word for it – Sarah Palin at least, has never heard of the word in the first place, or probably, France, so she can hardly be found fault with).

Anyway, as I began to enter the gap between the truck and the wall, and saw the man and his hand truck loaded with cases up to the top of the truck’s backbone I made note of yet another evidence of DSD.

Then I noticed that the top case was open on the top, not as in someone had opened it, but as in it was a one layer carton that had no top to it by design.  Since it was open, I could see that the contents of that layer of the cases was cartons of les oeufs des fermiers – farm fresh eggs. 

Bear in mind, it takes much longer to tell or to read all of this than it did to live through it.

Things were moving along briskly.  I had almost entered the gap and by then everything that I have just described had been discerned by me.  I was digesting the fact that the top layer of the cartons was an open topped carton with multiple smaller cartons of eggs.  I could see them; they were in individual cartons, themselves with cutouts in their lids so that the eggs could be seen; they were a pretty brown.  I still had not actually gotten into the gap between the truck and the store, but my entry was imminent.  All of this had probably occupied a second or two – let’s say two.

As second three began its lifespan I took note of the rest of the cases – the six or seven other cases upon which the top, open lidded case was stationed.  They were rather large, closed cardboard cases, each consisting of a depth that would probably have accommodated three layers of the depth of the single layer open topped one on the very top.  And all those multi layer cases were also eggs.  It said so on their sides.  As second three entered its death throes I had entered the gap.  I was still two or three paces from the guy. 

As second four began its life, and as I got yet that much physically and temporally closer to the vertical configuration in front of me the twinge that always accompanies my encountering those type of configurations became an almost tangible feeling of dread.  Contributing to the developing tangibility of my dread – for dread it can only be accurately called – was the fact that the guy had left the configuration without his hand on the handle; he had left it in its conveniently stationary upright position and moved slightly away to do some other task.

At this point there was a confluence of cosmic proportions.  Second four screamed its anguished death call, second five was born and I, in my head at least, became suspended in some never-never land from which I could see impending catastrophe but from which I was shielding myself with every power at my disposal.  I may have physically stopped moving, or I may have slowed to progress measured in microns; in any event I was as close to the stack of eggs as I was going to allow myself to be, and that was far enough away that what happened next could not be ascribed to me in any way.  If those desirous of ascribing guilt, if there were any such, had known of my almost eerie connection with such events they might have been able to make a case.  But only I knew of the connection and I wasn’t telling anybody.

You may have noticed by now if you have read many of my posts that guilt is a big thing with me.

I don’t know whether the guy heard second five in its death wail, or whether some sixth sense tried to give him warning.  I think he had an inkling of what I already knew in that weird way in which déjà vu always lets one “know” things.  As second six came into being I had stopped in my tracks; I think the guy had reached for the handle of the hand truck; I had hope that the vu might turn out not so déjà.

But that hope was dashed.

Things for me had gone into that movie slow motion mode that always accompanies my participation in disasters.  His hand, I think, had reached out, but just behind the now horizontally accelerating vertical configuration of eggs;  second six started screaming and second seven began to make warm birthing sounds; and I, in horror watched a really large omelet come into existence.

I don’t think – and I mean this seriously – that I have ever felt more empathetically worse for a fellow human being.

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