jeudi, septembre 28, 2006

Little Moments of Passion

Well, it's actually Friday right now and I'm about to head out to another minimal techno event (more on that in Friday's post), so this is going to be brief.

After work on Thursday, I decided to take the bus home instead of the metro, again enjoying the sights and smells of a prolonged bus ride. Truth be told, it's no worse than the subway on a hot day, and at least you can see the streets passing you by. At some point, a rather young-looking man came by with a name tag and asked me if I could take part in a survey. Back in N. America, my reaction would be a polite version of "hell no," since these "surveys" usually lead to an attempt to sell you something. Nonetheless, I felt game, I had a good excuse not to buy anything he might offer (I'm only visiting), and I wasn't sure how to politely rebuff his overtures. In the end, it really was just a survey for Paris' public transit company, asking me how often I used transit, and what routes I took. For the rest of the ride, I noticed who he attempted to approach and what success he had. For the most part, he approached more females than males, younger rather than older (with the exception of older asian women, oddly enough), and white or light-skinned more than darker-skinned. Notably, he made one attempt to approach a younger african man, who at first ignored him, then gave him a refusal that was somehow both dismissive and hostile. Survey in hand, he nodded and continued on. I still don't know what I want to make of this moment, but right then I thought about self-fulfilling prophesies and circular causalities.

When I got to Porte des Lilas, I took a diversion from my route home to hit the Franprix, which is one of the ghetto-est grocery chains I've found in Paris so far. Exposed lighting fixtures, pallettes of product half-unwrapped on the sales floor, warehouse-style shelving. I took my time gathering items, noting that the low-budget setting was reflected in the prices, and made my way to the cash. The place was, as one might say in French, le bordel (lit. "brothel", but also "fucking mess"). There were three cashiers with sprawling lines, to which they all tended with an admirable lack of urgency.

As I waited in line, I noticed two construction workers come in, one clearly drunk, and one not at all clearly sober. The drunk(er) one stopped at the security guard near the entrance to notify him that he had a can of beer in his jacket that was purchased elsewhere. The security guard asked him to check it at the door, but he was having nothing of it. It appeared like things might escalate further, but I was distracted by the man two spots ahead of me in line. He was an older, stout, short man, with a high-pitched voice, and lovely if well-worn suit, and a jet-black toupée. He had just pointed out to a woman in front of him that she had dropped some métro tickets and now he was flirting clumsily with her while she seemed to be weighing her options: do I eat tonight, or do I escape harassment?

When I looked back to the entrance, both men had cleared the entrance and the security guard was still standing there, unscathed, so I can only assume the conflict had been somehow resolved. In a moment, both men appeared behind me, right next to (natch) the liquor case. The case was locked under glass, which greatly distressed the less drunk of the two. In an accent that I can only guess as slavic he shouted mademoiselle! at the cashiers, while snapping his fingers. When nobody responded, he charged past the lineups and told one of them to open the case for him, now. The cashier pointed at her line, and told him to wait by the liquor case until the security guard came to open it for him. He returned, muttering complaints just lound enough for everyone to hear. When the security guard arrived (less than 30 seconds later), both men began to berate him for taking so long and neglecting them as customers. The security guard, unflappable, shrugged the admonishments off and proceeded to open the liquor cabinet. Unsatisfied, one of them continued to complain loudly, insisting that the guard's behavior amounted to a form of racism. This was a bizarre moment: the guard was African, the three cashiers were Indian, African, and Maghrebin. Of course, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that folks from Eastern Europe face discrimination in Paris, but it was odd to see that all the agents of the alleged racism were just as much minorities.

I couldn't follow the rest of that drama, because the little old man in front of me had begun to raise his voice. He had just paid his bill and it was too much. The grapes were too expensive. How much were they? 3€/kilo?! They were marked at 2€/kilo!! The cashier shrugged and the man began to sputter and complain loudly that she (or perhaps the whole company—it wasn't clear) was taking advantage of him. He insisted that she take the grapes off the bill and refund him the difference. As she went about doing it, with a profound disinterest, he continued his string of complaints, ending with "I'm not an American, you know." It reminded me of a certain Peruvian aunt of mine, who's secret weapon in haggling was to say, "What do you take me for, a gringa?!" ("gringo/a" = American, but also white, but also sucker, but also obnoxious tourist, but also...) The cashier shared a beleaguered grin with her co-worker across the aisle, as if she were dealing with a troublesome child. Once the refund was taken care of, the man disappeared...only to reappear a minute later. Triumphantly, he slapped down the price label that he had ripped from the fruit display case. "See?!" Unmoved, the cashier shrugged slowly and told him he'd need to speak with the manager (who, it seemed was the security guard). The guard, who had obviously resolved the confrontation with the two drunken men, listened to the man's complaints for a few minutes, and then passed him over to another cashier, who apparently was going to sell him the grapes for the rate he had expected.

I left the store smiling in bemusement, as I recognized something nostalgic in that scene that I associate with the entirety of the "Latin atlantic" (apologies to Paul Gilroy): the quick flashes of temper, the melodrama of complaints and negotiation, the politics of the public market. But I also left feeling a bit guilty about it all; why should I find this scene of petty conflict amusing? The employees of the store faced an unending stream of hostility, the old man seemed sincerely distressed with his over-expensive grapes, the woman standing in front of him had certainly endured some form of harassment just to buy groceries, and I doubt that those two drunken men were in for a smooth night. I'm still not sure about it, but I suppose that part of it was that I used to work in retail, including some rather unpleasant clientele, and my smile was a smile of recognition. In some sense, I could see a lot of the drama unfolding around me and think "I've been there," or "I've felt that way before." In a strange sense I felt like a "voyeur on the scene," like the fact that I had an experiential point of commonality with some of these people allowed me to be both in the middle of it all in the present, and also distanced in time through memory's projections. With all of this still inchoate in my mind, I passed by my boulangerie, bought a baguette, and wandered home.

1 commentaire:

Luis-Manuel Garcia a dit…

ha. Did I say brief?