84. Four Days in Paris
My stay in Paris was for four days (three nights) and during the early parts of each day I roamed the city alone. In the late afternoons, I met with three American friends to pass hours chatting at sidewalk cafés. We are all writers with a lot to say. One had come to visit Paris from Michigan, the other from San Francisco, and the third now resides in Paris. I think of Paris as the City of Conversation.
I did not go to Paris to visit the museums. They are too many and too large. I made just one exception. For forty years I had been planning a hajj to view two oval rooms lined with Monet’s water lilies at the Musée de l'Orangerie.
I was walking along the Seine making my way to the Musée de l'Orangerie on a hot afternoon. My short stay in Paris was blessed with summer-like sunshine. I took off my Failsworth Harris Tweed ‘Carloway’ Baker Boy cap in black, folded it and stuffed it into the big outside pocket of my fisherman’s vest, which is what I'm using instead of a messenger bag,.
In front of me was an old woman, obese, with one whom I assumed was her grandson, possibly six years old. She carried a big bag and was dressed in numerous fabrics of contrasting patterns. I was stepping around her when she suddenly stopped and picked something off the ground. It was a cheap looking gold ring with a glass stone. She seemed thrilled with her discovery and wanted to share her excitement with me, showing me the ring. I told her she was very lucky. She insisted that I examine the ring more closely.
Inside the ring were hallmarks, usually a good indicator of quality, but these were unfamiliar hallmarks and none indicated the gold content of the ring. I gave it back to her, but she insisted I should keep it, that it would bring me luck. Why was she foisting her good fortune on me? This had to be a scam, I was sure, and somewhere down the line she was planning to hit me up for money. In any case, she refused to take the ring back. Judging by her clothing, she appeared more in need of good fortune than me. Finally, she would hear no more argument, enclosed my hand around the ring and started to walk off.
I moved to the stone balustrade overlooking the river and put the ring on top of it, the idea being whoever lost it might come back looking for it. I would make it easier to find. As I turned away, the fat old woman was back, accosting me. What I did offended her. She took the ring and was about to stomp off, but first turned to face me again and with a pitiful smile asked for a little money so she could buy her poor boy a Coca-Cola. Really? I said no. I told her to trade the ring in for her boy’s precious Coke. She grunted and again stomped off.
She had not gone far and I began checking my pockets to make sure nothing was amiss. Everything was where it should have been except my cap. I just couldn’t accept the idea that she would steal my cap. What would she want with my cap? It was inconceivable to me that it could have a value to her. Thinking I must have dropped it, I went retracing my steps. It was Ms Keogh’s favorite cap and she always had me wear it. Months dead, yet I still obliged my cherished companion by wearing it. I never found it and have come to assume the fat old lady or the kid did steal it, if only out of spite for my not falling for her scam.
On my last day in Paris, I was walking the exact same route along the Seine, this time to see how close I could get to the Eiffel Tower. There was another fat old woman in front of me. It was not the same one, but similar in fashion sans kid. And as I was about to walk around her, wouldn’t you know, she stooped and with excitement picked off the ground a gold ring. A similar encounter ensued, although my refusal to take the ring, telling her it was cursed, only made her furious with me. We went our separate ways.
I plan to replace the cap but, possibly because of Peaky Blinders, a show I’ve never seen, it has been become popular and everywhere it is sold out in my size, 61cm.
In the brief time I was in Paris, I was also confronted with another scam, twice. This one had a young woman approach me to sign a petition for helping deaf refugees. I argued that my signature would not be legitimate because I was not a citizen and that it would cast suspicion on all the other names possibly rendering the petition illegitimate. I took it to be the real thing and I could not understand why she still “demanded” that I sign it. Of course, this made me all the more unwilling. A Parisian came up to me and in excellent English she warned me that it was a scam. Later, I would learn it is more than a scam, it is robbery. The petitioner hopes to distract you while another picks your pocket. The two times they tried, neither time did they succeed.
I had just said good-bye to J, K, and S as we finished a night drinking Champagne at Le Duc des Lombards, a jazz club. It was somewhere between two and three o'clock in the morning as I started my mile walk back across the Seine to my hotel on the Rive Gauche. I couldn't have gotten more than a minute away when a young man came up from behind and brushed my right shoulder hard. He seemed pleasant enough and not drunk. I assumed he was gay and trying to pick me up. I told him I didn't speak French as he continued to lean heavily into my shoulder. Another young man I didn't see reached into the left pocket of my fisherman’s vest and removed what he found there. It was my pocket Leuchtturm carnet and inside it held my notes about Paris and some terrible sketches, and inside the front cover my favorite photograph of Ms Keogh.
I sense immediately what had happened, spun on my heels, and in two steps I caught up with the pickpocket. I grabbed him under the arm and spun him around. I took my carnet from his hand and pulled him from his feet, dragged him a few feet, and slammed him against a parked car. I yelled at him in English, which probably meant nothing to him, telling him the book had no money and was precious because it held memories of my dead wife. I yelled how he shouldn't take from me what is most precious. I thought about hitting him, but merely tossed him around shouting to him to rob rich people and not my precious memories. Then I let him go and began my walk back to the hotel, but he came up behind me cursing and saying something, like maybe the book was his, so I turned and slapped him hard across the face with the back of my hand.
He couldn't let the insult stand. As I walked away, he found a can of beer from somewhere and swung it splashing me with its contents. I turned and thought maybe I should beat him after all. He saw the intent in my eyes, ran to the street trash bag contained in a cage of sorts and pulled out a large empty bottle to threaten me. I shouted some more, saying I wasn't going to fight him if he was a coward and going to use a bottle. I turned my back to him and walked on.
Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I squeezed the carnet to my chest and head, kissed it and walked on holding it tightly. In other pockets he didn't try, I had my phone, sunglasses, pens, and passport. Two young women came up behind me and asked if I was alright. To reassure them, I had to repeat myself. The short one was crying. They understood enough English to know I said something to the pickpocket in the heat of the moment about my dead wife. I showed them the carnet and opened it to Ms Keogh's photograph, telling them she died in June. The short one began to bawl and the tall one explained on the short one's behalf how wonderful it was that I stopped the pickpocket, tossed him about, and gave him an insulting slap. The short one could no longer speak with her uncontrolled emotions. They thought I was fantastic. I thought about the restraint I showed not punching the creep in the face and for that I was rewarded with the stink of beer.
At my hotel, I rinsed my smelly vest in the shower and hung it to dry.
Later, K told me she had her purse stolen while in Paris, she thinks by a Romani child. It didn’t seem to bother her as it held nothing irreplaceable like my carnet. But then I thought about it. The carnet was replaceable. I could have printed up a fresh copy of Ms Keogh. If I thought it through, I would have realized how insignificant it really was. But that wasn't how I felt in the moment. In the moment, I felt I was protecting the memory of Ms Keogh and the residue of our relationship. It seemed fragile. My return ticket was also in that book. I completely forgot about it until much later.
It only remains to be explained that I love Paris. Astonishing that in four days there would be five separate attempts to rob me with only one successful. Still, it is a beautiful city with thoughtful people. I have not been discouraged from returning.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.