Anarchy on the Metro

“Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity.”
— Horacio Oliveira, from Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch

Who are these people? Young. Old. White. Black. Ugly. Pretty. Prettier. And drunk too. Some of them are very drunk. Good for them…

Your editor was aboard the Metro, riding from Basilique de Saint-Denis back to the 5th, after dinner with some new friends. Paella and Beaujolais, in unequal portions. A warm night. The old carriage rattled along, screeching around corners and grinding to a halt at near-deserted platforms. We began to drift off, lulled into reverie by the swaying of the train and the white noise around us.

Who are these people? What are their dreams, their stories? Are they celebrating…or commiserating? What do they want? Will they ever get it?

A man to the left, seated a few rows in front of us, was reading from a tattered novel. Everybody reads on the metro in Paris, either from their smartphones or, as this gentleman was, old school-style. Paper. Ink. Other people’s dog-ears. An unknown name scrawled on the blank page, just before the acknowledgments. More unknown names, people we’ll never meet but who the author wished to thank. We recognized the title, La Peste. Camus. Probably every Frenchman has read it at least once.

Must read that book again. Add it to the list. And the Laissez-Faire Books. And Les Belles Lettres. And…

Every few stations the man looked up.

When was the last time a dead existentialist caused him to miss his stop?

Body by body, the carriage filled up. Soon the man disappeared, hidden behind the olive corduroy pants of another man and, occasionally, when the train veered right, by Mr. Corduroy’s wife’s dress. A maxi dress, they’re called. Perfect for concealing un étranger, on any train. Arms went up to the bars as more people pushed inside. The distance between the stations and passengers was growing smaller by the stop. Several more languages boarded. Russians to our left. A non-sexual couple, mid-twenties, conversed in snipped syllables over our shoulder. Our train. Babelfish in tunnels.

Must work harder on Spanish upon returning to Buenos Aires.

Place de Clichy. On hobbled a woman bent by years, pushing a stroller full of plastic bags and socks and tissues and newspapers (not today’s) and a shoe. A young fellow, who sat down before seeing her, offered his seat. The old woman offered a newspaper. Not from the top of the pile, mind you, one hand selected from the bottom. The young man smiled and spent the rest of his journey entranced by events from around the world, as relayed by a journalist meeting a February-the-somethingth deadline.

Who are these people? It’s chaos in here. Voluntary exchanges. Absurdist literature and editorial time travel. Anarchy…and on a public train.

Kisses. Two kissing couples boarded at the same station. One couple pecking, sheepishly, hands touching gently. The other couple were old school-style. Tongue. French. Movies shot under soft lamplight on a bridge over The Seine. The time-bent woman smiled at the old-schoolers, remembering the movies, silent and in black and white. Chautard, Desprès and her favorite, the piquant Bordon. More people board at Saints Augustin and Philippe du Roule and at Miromesnil in between.

Where is that cafe in which Sartre wrote? And smoked. And wrote. Did he kiss de Beauvoir on the metro? Old school-style?

Mr. and Mrs. Corduroy alighted at Champs Elysees Clemenceau. L’Étranger hadn’t (yet?) missed his stop. He and his dead existentialist sat there, positively engrossed in one and other. Then, on hopped a man with burns on his face and an accordion on his belly.

Sings Piaf: Son homme est un artiste / C’est un drôle de petit gars / Un accordéoniste / Qui sait jouer la java…

The passengers, tight-pressed in hurtling pod, listened and swayed to the tunes filling the space between their tired bodies. A soundtrack for their stories, their embraces, their anachronistic opinion pages. For a sweet tune, the musician’s face appeared full, healthy. Two or three gave money, but he thanked everyone just the same.

“Merci. Merci beaucoup. Merci.”

Then silence fell. Two men with guns boarded on at Invalides. Their feet clad in jackboots. Strong jaws. Weapons belts. Instruments of torture and pain. No smiles. Just badges. Our fellow passengers looked nervous, finding excuses to look away written on their shoes and focal points on the floor. The screeching of the train grew louder, violent. A gnashing of metal on metal. The Russians were quiet. L’Étranger closed Camus and stared out the window. The music was gone from the space between us. Instead, the air through which a bullet might fly hung heavy. Violence, implied and real. And fear.

We aren’t due to change (to the 10) until Duroc. Three stops. What if…?

But Saint Francis Xavier performed a miracle. Between stops Varenne and Duroc, his station platform shouldered our burden, delivering the policemen into the night…


Joel Bowman,
for The Daily Reckoning