It is still dark. I pull my coat closer in the cold biting air and hurry through the light drizzle toward the entrance of the Paris Metro. In a funneling line, I am nudged forward with other commuters onto an escalator that plunges deep underground. We pass through the clank of the turnstile and split off left and right into a maze of tunnels. There is a feel of order this early. No real choices. No real confusion. Everyone moves along as if pre-sorted, down the tunnels and quietly steps around the bodies of Paris’ homeless sleeping on the benches and along the margins of the platforms.
The shock wave of air that precedes the train fails to disturb the drowsiness and we enter to settle onto seats or grab the poles. Standing close enough to smell damp clothing and coffee breath, we brace as the warning horn sounds and the doors slam shut. The train accelerates into a hypnotic sway that tugs many back toward sleep. They stir when some internal nudge alerts a station change. Jourdain, Pyrenees, Belleville.
I ride through rush hour and watch commuters press forward on the platforms. The doors open and subdued workers squash past each other to pack the cars or exit cars to weave down the crowded platforms. Opera, Bourse, Sentier. The crush spills on and off. Students hug books, men clutch newspapers, and women adjust scarves in the pallor of the window reflection.
I scan the faces. Indians, Algerians, Czechs, Poles, Moroccans. And listen to them speak in tongues. A tall black woman in an orange and gold djellabah lifts a stroller aboard, a tiny girl clinging to the long folds of cloth. The baby in the stroller is screaming. All eyes turn toward the mother and watch as she struggles to brace into position before the train lurches forward. As she calms her baby the commuters return to their own rhythms.
Midmorning, the pace slows and commuters change to shoppers with bags and travelers with suitcases. La Motte Piquet-Grenelle, Ecole Milataire, La Tour Maubourg. In the pedestrian tunnels buskers warm up their instruments and vendors display a few items of cheap jewelry on scraps of colored cloth. Emigrants pouring into the city trying to scrape a living singing a cappella in a tunnel. A saxophone wails. Tourists hesitate before maps. The language is sprinkled with English. American kids on spring break and British couples consult guidebooks. Louvre-Rivoli, Palais Royal, Tuileries.
I switch at Tuileries and watch as an oily-complexioned man jumps on just as the door slams shut. His dark eyes dart around as he snaps open an accordion. Red suspenders hold up shiny, worn pants. Everyone’s eyes fix ahead as he makes his way slowly down the aisle playing “Amore”. Before the next stop, he sweeps through the crowd, his coin purse open asking for money. Then he slips out the door hurrying toward the next car.
I exit with him to change platforms and pass a woman wrapped in a frayed brown coat, head bowed and covered with a long stained scarf. She is holding a silent infant and tucks back into a corner with her empty hand held out. Two elderly nuns walk ahead, arm in arm. One murmurs to the woman and presses a coin into her hand. Further down a small group off kids pauses to watch a mime impersonating the Statue of Liberty. His hat cradles a few hopeful Euros.
Concorde to Invalides. I feel a chill as we pass under the Seine. The train bends through the semi dark and the wheels shriek, metal on metal. Dim light bulbs hang from bare wires. Out the smeared window, I can just make out dripping water and silver graffiti spray painted on the walls as we slow. Another train passes in the dark, each set of windows a fishtank slice of humanity.
Afternoon feels lighter as mother’s and young children are off on adventures and children get out of school. Denfert-Rochereau, Port Royal, Luxembourg. Women enter and leave with packages and carts. An older woman fresh from the beauty salon slides into the seat next to me and eyes my rumpled hair. School children laugh and prank.
I ride on into the evening. The beat quickens as the stations become crowded again. Cliques of kids enter. They check out the car, flash their studs and piercings, pirouette on the hand poles and flounce into seats. Some are sullen and others are animated. Their tattoos ripple. Body jewelry, body hair and body odor. Energy electrifies the air. A trio of spikey-haired boys sweep onto the train at Gare du Nord. They are dressed in black, tight-fitting pants and scroungy jackets. They carry brass hoops of small Eiffel Tower replicas and chains of neon-colored light sticks. Laughing they offer their wares to anyone paying them attention. They will spend the night in the Champ du Mars pestering the sightseerers.
Japanese tourists troupe on adding their clipped-pitch cadence to the mix. They jostle past tired laborers who stare into dead air. Workers who do the menial tasks almost invisible, their expressions blank. The yellow light of this car turns skin sallow and the warm air is filled with sweat and cheap perfume. As they disappear into the evening on worn-out shoes, cold air swirls in with the exchange.
Evening couples begin to enter on their way to dinner. Another wave of tourists bent on the nightlife at the Moulin Rouge flutter on and off. Champs-Elysees-Clemenceau.
It is nearing midnight and the stations are nearly empty. Figures hunch in the back seats, hats down. Couples and small groups of tourists hurry along the quays where the homeless are reappearing with sleeping bags. There are a few other riders floating on and off in a numb halo of wine. I slip off with these. Back into the night and the rain.
(With many thanks to KR)