Friday, May 14, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

The angry American



“I’m not waiting in any more lines.”

His voice rises uncontrollably as he faces off with the bored Paris train attendant at Gare Nord, a major railroad hub in Paris.

“I’m not going back to the end of the line. Have you ever waited in a line? Answer me. Have you ever waited in a line? Hey, I’m going right in here. Get out of my way.”

The last comes out as a shout even though he doesn’t move. The 200 or so of us waiting in the security line watch passively. Even poor behavior can’t muster too much of our interest today.

Prep Iowa

An American, for sure. The loud voice. The accent. The beefy well-dressed look of a traveling businessman. Unmistakable.

“Quiet down, buddy, you’re going to be embarrassed about this tomorrow.” But I don’t say a word.

I think of the opening and closing scenes of “Love Actually” — where the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport is full of love and love stories. Not so much at this railroad station in Paris on a rainy late afternoon in June. “Anger Really.” Now that might be a better title. Everywhere my wife and I look, couples are arguing, people are upset and frustrated by delayed trains, even the wet dogs that have wandered into the station wish they were still with the homeless guys outside. Weary travelers sit on their suitcases, heads drooped, shoulders down, resigned to living and dying in Gare Nord. These are not happy campers.

Perhaps this was foreseeable, given our earlier ride to the station on the metro…

The metro near our Paris hotel is hopping busy on this rainy early afternoon. But we are game. With our backpacks cinched tight and raincoats in hand, my wife and I head down the many stairs, weave our way through the labyrinth of tunnels, rush past tiled walls and join the streams of people flowing beneath the earth. Finally, we make it to the subway platform, a narrow space in an arched vault. A place out of the 1950s. We made it. Whew.

Almost immediately, a rumble comes from down the long, dark tunnel. The waiting people surge toward the tracks as the approaching noise gets louder and louder. The train roars into the station and abruptly stops with a loud hiss.

“All aboard,” a conductor should yell from somewhere. But there’s only an indistinguishable tinny sound coming over a loudspeaker. In French.

There is a small problem, however, that is immediately apparent — there is no room. Sorry. Every car is jammed with standing people pressed up against the walls. The doors open with an empty promise; there is just no room. No one gets off, and there is, of course, no additional room. We obviously must wait for another train that actually has room. Bummer, folks, this train has no room.

Ah, but for my wife and everyone else on the platform, the crowded conditions, the fact that there is absolutely no room, is merely the starter’s pistol of a challenge.

My wife used to watch Sunday football with her father when she was a young girl. She knows everything there is to know about the game. So she follows the lead of every good quarterback with one yard to go. She heaves herself into the mass of people at the door, backpack high, head down, looking for the open slot. What determination. What drive. The crowd goes wild. And the door shuts, barely creasing her backpack. She makes it in the nick of time. Success. A touchdown for the good guys.

Well, almost.

I never understood football. What exactly is a halfback? And do they have to do additional schooling and maybe a special diet to grow into a fully fledged fullback? Are tight ends fiscally conservative? Do nose tackles ever tackle any other part of the body? Listen, I know a lot of other really good man stuff, no matter what my wife says, but football? Not so much.

Yup, you guessed it, I’m on the wrong side of the door. Left behind. It’s one of those slow-motion tragedies.

My wife turns too late to see my plight. We have a sad reaching out of hands toward each other, as fate inevitably pulls us apart, to live out our destinies with new families, always wondering what could have been. She stares intently, perhaps trying to memorize my face, as the train whooshes away, cold to the drama playing inside this metro station in the heart of Paris.

Now usually this is when the curtain drops, you take the rest of your popcorn, and try to find your car in the parking lot.

But for me, I have no popcorn. I really don’t know where she’s getting off. Our phones don’t work below ground. All I know is that we have to eventually show up at Gare Nord sometime before the day is over.

What to do?

This is one of those pivotal moments in your life where you have a real option. You turn one way, and you are a good citizen of Des Moines, Iowa, responsible, hard-working, raising a family, buying only from the organic section at Hy-Vee. You turn the other way, and you are doing cabaret with your shoulders bare and feet high at the Moulin Rouge. I’m leaning toward the Moulin Rouge option.

But then I sit on the bench at the empty platform. It is dead quiet. No people. No train. No nothing.

And I sit.

And I sit.

And I get on the next train.

Several stops down the line was a spot we had talked about getting off to see a little more Paris. Nothing definite. Just a thought.

I get off. There’s my wife.

There’s a particular joy in being found. A speeding of the heart. A quickening of the soul. I see you. You see me. Everything is all right with the world.

Partners find you. Children find you. Family finds you. Friends find you. Dogs and cats find you. I think even a place can find you.

I was found.

But what about the angry American at Gare Nord? We ignored him. The train attendant ignored him. Paris ignored him. No one found him.

Although maybe luck found him, because he never got to act on his blustery threat to bust through the security line at Gare Nord. The train arrived, the security guards must have figured they could not get a security check done in time for everyone to make the train, and the gates were flung open. No security check. No line. A free-for-all.

The angry American, being at the very front where he was yelling at the bored train attendant, was the first on. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at       JoeWeegBW

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