Nonfiction: La Modification by Scott Dominic Carpenter

robert doisneau

Photo: Robert Doisneau

Paris changes, poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, faster than the human heart, and as far as my neighborhood is concerned, he was right. We’d hardly settled into our new digs before people starting tearing things up. Usually it started in the morning. A truck would wheel around the corner, and three men in coveralls would hop from the back. Before I had time to warm my coffee, they were chipping at asphalt. A team like this could dig an eight-foot trench in two days, after which they’d replace a nut or two on a water main and fill the hole back up. Sometimes they’d tinker with phone lines or unearth electrical cables, but often their labors led to nothing at all: I’d see crews slice through the skin of the street and rummage lengthily in the guts before sealing it all up again, a look of vague disappointment on their faces, like doctors who’d failed to locate a major organ. No sooner did they finish tamping gravel into the freshly poured surface, the smell of hot tar still in the air, than the gas people would arrive and rip it all open again, eager to satisfy the neighborhood’s craving for spools of yellow tubing.

There were other projects, too. Scaffolding went up and down, rubble accumulated outside doorways, men crawled about rooftops. Up the street a building had started to split in two, prompting a crew to strap a kind of girdle on the thing.

Then fate took a more ominous turn. In front of our building there lies a wedge-shaped square containing four chestnut trees, and one morning a flatbed truck eased its way over the curb onto the raised center. Men in blue coveralls unloaded rectangles of corrugated metal to form a work enclosure the size of my living room, and as tightly wrapped as a Christo installation. From the truck came tools—shovels, jackhammers, wheelbarrows—all of which disappeared with the men behind the barrier.

Noises ensued.

In the few months since we’d arrived, no one had excavated our little square, and now it felt like an intrusion. What on earth were they up to?

I, too, had been digging, albeit in a less literal way. The goal was to learn about the neighborhood—its habits and mechanisms. During the workweek you could set your clock by small events. It all started around 7:30, when the homeless guy down the street crawled out of his sleeping bag. He’d wander over to a wall and stand as if conversing with the bricks while water pooled by his feet. It was important that he keep to his schedule, because soon schoolkids would come pattering by, briefcase-like bags strapped to their shoulders. Next it was the bigger ones, ten or twelve years old, traveling in pairs or threesomes, sometimes with cigarettes dangling from their prepubescent lips. Down at the corner the crossing guard in her chartreuse vest performed semaphore with puppet-sized stop signs. In the street, the ballet of cars got underway, and parking spots opened up. The mailwoman rolled by with her cart, and lights flickered on at the handbag shop.

However, the new project on our square wasn’t part of the schedule, and the metal enclosure gave it an air of mystery. I heaved myself out of my chair. This warranted closer inspection.

In the hallway I encountered our cadaverous neighbor, Monsieur LeGuen, as he rolled groceries toward his door, and when I greeted him, he gave me the same stunned look as always, as though no one had addressed him personally for a decade or two. It’s true that people in the building were not especially chatty, and often I squeezed past neighbors in the narrow stairwell without eliciting so much as a bonjour. It made you feel transparent, like one of those characters from the Twilight Zone—the ones who kept getting themselves trapped in others dimensions. In the States, at least in the Midwest, you smile at folks when they cross your path, and you experience more greetings than are strictly necessary. In shops people are always inviting you to have a good day, and in restaurants waiters introduce themselves by name, emphasizing how eager they are to serve you. After all, the customer is king.

France, of course, has a conflicted relationship with kings, and you sometimes get the feeling that shopkeepers might just as soon behead you.

To plumb the mystery of the new worksite outside, I knocked at the door of the locals I knew best: our concierge and his wife, Monsieur and Madame Carvalho. Because they’d lived in the building for thirty years, the Carvalhos always had the low-down—especially on such matters as who emptied their trash after hours, who tracked mud up the stairs, and who jammed the buttons on the elevator—although certain details were often lost to me in the folds of their Portuguese accents, especially when Madame Carvalho grew excited.

Blessedly, it was the husband who answered the door.

“What are they doing out on the square?” I asked.

Sais pas,” Monsieur Carvalho replied in his creaky voice. It was the first time I’d heard him stumped by a question of this sort. Together we stepped out to the curb to watch and speculate. The enclosure of corrugated metal was a good eight feet tall, so there wasn’t much to see. But the groan of machinery confirmed that change was underway.

Usually the vehicles associated with street projects bore the logos of the gas or phone company, but this time the signage pointed to a different culprit: the city itself—which is to say the mayor of our arrondissement, who is to the mayor of Paris as a cardinal is to the pope. The involvement of local government suggested something big had befallen us—more than a mere repair. Perhaps we were about to receive a coveted plot of grass. Or even, it occurred to me, a Wallace Fountain—one of those cast iron affairs found on many squares, where little Roman figurines stand on a pedestal, holding a dome over burbling water. My imagination tingled. It might even be—but surely this was too much to hope for—a newsstand, which, aside from enhancing the picturesqueness on view from my living room window, would save me an extra thirty paces whenever I felt the urge to know what had happened in the world.

Some such cultural improvement would be welcome. After all, our neighborhood isn’t exactly the tourist hub of Paris. In a pinch, you could make postcards of it, but you’d have to be pretty good with Photoshop. Lots of sections of the capital were designed with great vistas in mind, but our neighborhood wasn’t one of them. Back in the nineteenth century, when the Second Empire decided to fix the medieval jumble that passed for Paris, they razed whole blocks of buildings to make great boulevards, often plopping things like opera houses at the end to give you something to look at. But in the southwest section of town, we came through that period of improvement pretty much unscathed. I didn’t expect any miracles now, but it seemed the city had finally gotten around to us, preparing some minor embellishment, one that I could admire from upstairs.

Otherwise most of the neighborhood sights were eyesores, a kind of caricature of the Paris that people imagine. Downtown they had Notre Dame Cathedral, whereas we had Sainte-Anne church, a mostly cement behemoth whose collapsing ribs gave a very real sense inside that the heavens were falling. Instead of the Louvre, our neighborhood sported an impressive collection of graffiti. The luxury hotels of the center were replaced here by low-income housing. And in lieu of the Champs-Elysées… well, there we didn’t really have anything.

The same was true of the residents. If you’re walking in the trendy parts—say, the Boulevard Saint-Germain—you quickly get the impression that Parisian women have second careers as magazine models, and that most men spend their days grooming. Our neighborhood, by contrast, contains an alarming clutter of real people. In our building, for instance, I frequently encountered Monsieur Monot, a massive creature the shape and color of the Incredible Hulk—if you imagine the superhero having weathered middle age on a diet of Budweiser and Fritos. So large that he couldn’t fit in the elevator, Monsieur Monot wheezed up several flights of stairs each day, groceries in hand, rivulets of sweat drenching his tent-like shirt. He wasn’t the only non-traditional figure. Most days, around mid-morning, a man with Einstein hair wandered down the sidewalk across the street, quarreling with himself while batting at the air. Next came the physical anomalies. A couple of dwarfs passed by on market days, and you’d encounter a surprising number of wheelchairs. In our neighborhood so many people walked with canes or crutches that I wondered if we’d moved in next to an institute for the feeble-limbed.

Sometimes I was offered other slices of life. One day I saw a mother arguing with her young son, who was hopping with impatience. Then she faced him to the wall of a building and pulled down his shorts. Soon a stream of water ran between his shoes. Seeing this was rather like learning a new word: suddenly instances of it were everywhere. Little boys were constantly in the process of relieving themselves. More than once I saw a father hold a little girl over the gutter so that she could do her version of the same thing. So this, I thought—remembering the morning ritual of the homeless man up the street—is how it begins. Your mother makes you pee against a wall, and your future is sealed.

Evidently, your future neighborhood, too. Our street had an abundance of vagrants, known locally as clochards. One morning I went out to find an unshaven specimen sitting on a piece of cardboard outside the door of our bakery, his deeply lined face framed by curly hair. He wore a winter coat, but in honor of the July heat, he’d left it unzipped over his T-shirt. A plastic bowl sat before his outstretched legs, seeded with a few coins. Next to it stood a small sign reading: j’ai fin—a gravely poetic wording that suggested he had reached the limit of what a man could bear: I have end. Then I recognized it as the misspelling of a more common but equally poignant phrase: j’ai faim, “I am hungry.”

“Bonjour,” he said pleasantly.

“Bonjour,” I replied. It seemed the thing to say. After all, he was chummier than my building-mates.

He chinned toward the square, where construction continued behind the curtain of corrugated metal. “What are they building?”

“I don’t know.”

He nodded. Another of life’s mysteries.

The conversation had stalled, so I stepped over his foot to get to the door. There were croissants to be purchased.

Inside, I greeted our bakery ladies and placed my order. I’d half-expected them to mention the man outside, the one trying to skim small change from their customers. After all, these ladies and I often shared small confidences—about the weather, for instance, or creampuffs. But neither of them brought up this new topic. Was it possible they hadn’t noticed? While the blond one slipped my pastries into a paper sack, I pondered my duty. Surely they would want to know about any interference with their business. Besides, a good deed of this sort would strengthen our bond.

I leaned in over the counter. “By the way,” I murmured, “there is a man seated outside your door.” I leaned further. “He is asking for money.”

I’m not sure what reaction I expected from this announcement. Not thanks, exactly, but perhaps some expression of shared exasperation. Good grief, they might say. Not again. After all, it could hardly be good for business to have this shabby creature mooching at your door. People would go and buy their croissants at the bakery down the street.

“Well,” said the brunette with a shrug. “I suppose he has to sit somewhere, doesn’t he?”

Suddenly I felt very small.

The French tolerance for the scruffy and the unhinged of the world hadn’t entirely eluded me. Paris is unforgiving for small social infractions, but once you cross a certain threshold, almost any eccentricity can be pardoned—sort of the way that, in the US, petty thieves get thrown in prison, while the more ambitious ones are awarded investment banks. Down the street a group of fragrant men congregated every day on a bench to drink beer until afternoon nap time. An especially optimistic member of this crew—a fellow with pasta-encrusted whiskers and only one leg—set himself up next to an ATM, where he waited for handouts from people making withdrawals. You had to admire the chutzpah of it. I never saw anyone offer him one of their crisp twenties or fifties, but you didn’t need many. It was like the lottery: you don’t win often, but you win big.

The construction project on the square provided entertainment for these clochards, and three or four of them watched daily from a bench while workmen pushed wheelbarrows and carried tubes. The mere spectacle of all this activity seemed to heighten their thirst, and often I’d find one or two of these men in line before me at the supermarket, counting out panhandled centimes for their next can or two of happiness.

So much beer was going in, that I started wondering where it was all coming out. An alleyway next to the church saw a lot of action, and sometimes there’d be strange puddles on the sidewalk, even on bone-dry days. Somehow it was less cute than when the toddlers did it.

Still, it wasn’t entirely their fault: peeing in this city is a problem. People love all the small shops in Paris until they realize how hard that makes it to slip in to use the facilities. A friend of mine travels with a list of the larger hotels—ones where your trespassing into their lobby won’t arouse suspicion. You can always stop at a café, of course, but then you need to order some kind of beverage, which gives you another push in the vicious circle of urination.

In our neighborhood the derelicts deal with such problems matter-of-factly, and I admire their authenticity. Our vagrants are the genuine article—so much better than what you find in the center of town, where, frankly, you never quite know what you’re getting in the clochard department. There you happen upon hordes of women begging in the tourist areas, often with infants (or at least bundles that resemble infants) on their laps. Men in that part of town tend to beg with dogs. Either way, the animals and children are meant to tenderize the hearts of passersby—and sometimes to distract them while a colleague attempts to lift a wallet or two. On the more heavily traveled sections of the Métro you are often treated (once the doors have closed) to a declaration of poverty by a man or woman who needs your assistance. The problem is, you never know for sure, and rumors circulate about skillful beggars who make twice the minimum wage or who secretly keep a room at the George V.

Where I live, though, the down-and-out just come with the neighborhood. They commandeer the benches along the street and invite you to part with spare change. One fellow holds the door of the church for anyone willing to test their faith against the falling chunks of ceiling. Whenever his palm has filled with coins, he staggers off to the supermarket for another can of redemption.

But I digress.

Back on our square, behind the corrugated metal, work progressed in fits and starts. It was late July now, hot, and the city moved more slowly. Days passed when no workers showed up at all. Then there’d be a spurt of activity, and a crew of municipal Oompa-Loompas would trudge back and forth. One day I came home to find Monsieur Carvalho waiting for me. He was excited. A truck had come by, he said, and it had delivered a gigantic crate to the construction site. I peeked through the cracks in the fencing, and it was true: a kiosk-like shape sat in the middle of the space, eight feet tall, and wrapped in a tarpaulin.

The idea of the newsstand was rekindled. But this new structure seemed almost too large. Might it be some kind of concession? What about a theater for marionettes? Surely it wouldn’t be anything so grand as a monument. Probably. One thing was sure: our little square would never be the same. The neighborhood was being offered a hub, an attraction, a gift.

The point had not been lost on the clochards. A large audience of them showed up each day to watch. My curly-haired friend—the one posted outside the bakery—seemed intrigued too, in a meditative way.

I’d gotten used to this fellow. I’d begun thinking of him as “my” clochard, as if he’d been put up for adoption. The turning point came when I realized he could help me with a problem I had—namely, pennies. The damn things were accumulating rapidly in the change bowl on my dresser upstairs—possibly even breeding. So one day I bent down and deposited a few of them into his bowl, rather pleased to have discovered an act of charity that rid me of something I didn’t want in the first place. It was altruism without the price. My plan was to clear out my stock of centimes little by little, purchasing a daily rush of self-satisfaction on the cheap.

“Hey,” the guy said, looking at my alms. “What do you think you’re doing? This isn’t a dumping ground.”

And thus I was shamed into offering larger coins, and more frequently.

Weeks passed, and I’d grown to know our neighborhood better. In addition to having my very own clochard, I also now had “my” butcher shop, “my” produce vendor, “my” barber, “my” café, “my” wine merchant. In the sweltering July heat I’d tote my groceries up the stairs, and now when I passed the neighbors, they sometimes mumbled a greeting. Even Monsieur Monot, that great human gourde, would give me a nod as he huffed up the stairs. I took special care not to say anything to him that might require an answer, for fear that any gasped response might be his last.

Repetition forged relationships. The newspaper vendor knew what to ring up before I made it through the door. The bakery lady and I played a little game each day where she’d ask what I’d like, although she was already reaching for the object of my desire. The barber checked to make sure I wanted the same cut as last time.

I’d finally broken through the social crust. The neighborhood was turning into my neighborhood. You could hear it in the way people greeted me. No dictionary can capture the endless permutations to which the phrase bonjour, Monsieur is subject. Now clipped and cold, now playful and filled with song, these two words can tell whole novels, the vowels alone containing a thousand shades of irony. I was getting the whole symphony. Yes, Paris changes. The proof was that the neighborhood had absorbed me.

I celebrated this victory one day with a long stroll across my territory, all the way through Chinatown, coming out close to the ring road, where I stopped in a café for a beer. It was twilight when I headed home—one of those cloudless evenings when the breeze is hot but dry. The sky had gone purple, a few of the bolder stars already glinting. The universe stretched overhead, the heavenly bodies bound by invisible strands—like the woof and weave that envelope us all. It was one of those moments when you feel yourself part of a vast communion of souls.

I passed a young woman on the street, and out of nowhere she uttered bonsoir—not the impersonal, shopkeeper version, but something more fragrant and familiar. We’re all in this together, her tone said. We are human beings on a common adventure.  I walked now with lighter steps. Sometimes the heavens could click. Things could fit. And two people crossing paths on a sidewalk in a huge city could sense their common humanity—the fleeting pleasure of intersecting lives.

“Bonsoir,” another woman called from the darkness.

It was catching! I glanced back and we exchanged a smile. “Bonsoir!” I sang back, infusing the word with emotion. You are fresh and beautiful, my greeting communicated. She was far too young for me, of course. But in another life? Who knows what might have been? The moment was ripe with possibility, and its passing would remain with us forever.

“Bonsoir,” a third voice rang out as I danced ahead. This girl was heavier. She wore a leather skirt. Her stockings led to stiletto heels.

Then I understood and my shoulders rounded. As night fell, the prostitutes had slunk out like cats.

Something stirred below my belt, and I shrank with horror. What kind of monster was I? But no, it was less the sensation of pleasure than of pressure. The beer I’d drunk was completing its passage south. I needed to get home, or soon I’d be joining the ranks of the clochards.

***

August was a difficult, stifling month. Construction out on the square ground to a halt. Shops closed for their holidays. Friends and neighbors fled the town for the countryside or beach. Even Anne had disappeared, going back to the States for a visit. And I woke each morning in sweat-soaked sheets, the air simply humming with heat. Even the curly-haired vagrant from the bakery had disappeared. Probably he was on vacation.

Then, one day, I saw Monsieur Carvalho speaking to a policeman downstairs. The officer nodded, scribbling notes on a pad.

Monsieur Monot, the Hulk, had died from the heat. It had been quite an operation to get the body down the stairs.

Yes, Paris changed—even as I tried to learn it. The city was a moving target.

Then September arrived. The cycle started anew, similar but different. Schoolkids came up the street in the mornings, though they looked older now. The mailwoman had been replaced by a mailman. The crossing guard in the chartreuse vest had put on weight.

And the workmen returned. The project on the square was drawing to a close, the smell of new asphalt seeping through the corrugated enclosure. The flatbed truck returned, and the men in coveralls loaded up their tools. Finally the panels of metal disappeared, dismantled sheet by sheet—like the laborious unwrapping of a Christmas present.

The oblong structure stood eight feet tall in the middle of the square, as smooth as a space capsule, as inscrutable as a time machine—a windowless chamber of privacy people could visit one at a time.

It would prove to be a great attraction. Soon, from my living room window, through the leaves of the chestnut trees, I’d catch glimpses of arriving visitors. One by one they’d come to our modest installation, sighing like pilgrims at the end of their journey. The chamber was a great leveler, appealing to all: women laden with shopping bags, men in business suits, schoolchildren, teenagers, old folks with canes, lost tourists growing desperate—and yes, even our vagrants, our little menagerie of clochards, who would rise from the bench from time to time to visit it again, never tiring of this great offering of the city.

Our new public toilet was open for business.

Scott Dominic Carpenter teaches literature and creative writing at Carleton College (MN). He’s the author of Theory of Remainders: A Novel (named to Kirkus Reviews’ “Best Books of 2013”) and of This Jealous Earth: Stories. His shorter work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including South Dakota Review, The Rumpus, Silk Road, and various anthologies. His website is sdcarpenter.com.

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