I once had an experience at Champion – now Carrefour Marche - involving a canvas-clad grocery cart. That event has 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. That cart was a commonly seen device on the streets and in the markets of Paris. It was a metal frame with a fabric shell wrapping it, the frame being on wheels. The fabric 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, essential to my subsequent “different interpretation of certain configurations of ‘things’ that I may encounter in my daily life”, and essential to the terror legitimately connected to the events of today is that those devices, when chock-a-block full, can stand with their long axis perpendicular to the horizontal surface of the floor.
And that is convenient for their owners. It allows those owners to pull their cart to some location or other – such as next 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 and put them on the check out conveyor, or whatever other two handed activities would be precluded if it were not for that independently vertical standing capability of their carts.
But that capability can be disastrous for unwary others who are in the vicinity.
On that day that I am describing 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 shatterably 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.
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 are probably asking.
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 little flanges of concrete skirting either side of the narrow streets that function as sidewalks.
Suffice that just-said to be a prologue to the point of this tale.
I was coming back from the market with my woven palm frond Paris market basket fully laden with cheese, bread and croissant, and I was on the last leg of the journey. I was walking, dodging, going into the street – all the things one does on all those charming small Paris streets and their pretend sidewalks – when I came to a medium sized delivery van parked partially on what little sidewalk there was. Between the truck and the wall of the building on its right side there was ample room for one person to pass through if that one person put his market bag in front of himself in order that the bag might not nearly double the width of that person. The space was about one medium person wide.
There having been a cluster of several people coming in the opposite direction, I stopped substantially back of the delivery truck. I was unable to see what might be being delivered by the truck. It was slightly forward of the franprix super marché so I assumed that it must be delivering something to franprix. I 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 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 – 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, since 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 two, 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.
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 hand truck’s backbone, I made note of yet another example of DSD.
Then I noticed that the top case was open at its 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 were 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 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 commenced 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 types 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.
That was a position exactly like the one that had been assigned to the market cart in Champion some years before. That was the one which had descended with a crash into a floor-filling mass of brown goo.
At this point there was a confluence of the past and the present 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 seemed to be obviously about to happen next could not be blamed on me in any way.
If those desirous of ascribing guilt, if there were going to be any such, had known of my almost eerie connection with such events as that which appeared about to be going to happen, they might have been able to make a case. But only I knew of that connection and I wasn’t telling anybody.
I don’t know whether the guy heard second five in its death wail, or whether some sixth sense in that now dawning sixth second 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 fully 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 had reached out, but it was behind the now horizontally accelerating vertical configuration of eggs; second six started screaming its death throes 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 sorry for a fellow human being.
And I have never heard such an intense stream of passionate French expletives.