My Thursday-Morning Drunkard
For the three months I lived in Paris, I sat down to a chocolate croissant and a latte every morning at a sunny bistro down the block from my apartment. I looked out at sidewalks busy with people in neat clothes, men and women, old folks, kids, the occasional disdainful cop. The narrow cobbled street kept traffic slow, the rain every other day freshened the air, and every gray wall bore some detail — a carving, a small bronze plaque, the wrought-iron railing outside a window. I felt a particular delight when I learned that the French word for those window railings was “barre d’appui,” basically an elbow rest for when you leaned out to look at the world or chat with a passing neighbor.
The first time you see Paris is like the first time you fall in love: the relationship probably won’t last, you may never see each other again, but you’ll never forget it. It will define all your other relationships until you’re old and cold, and then it will keep you warm. I was in Paris on assignment, using my clumsy French to help in negotiations for the faceless American office where I worked, and they had by unintended grace planted me in a prim and cozy room in Montmartre, across from the old cemetery. My neighbors were polite but quiet people who seemed never to speak above a whisper, but I lived for the walk to work with a stop for breakfast on the way, and the evening stroll home, which I always began by heading in the wrong direction. Paris was a city made for walking, more than any other. There are no blank spots in the part of the universe that surrounds you when you walk in Paris. You may be lost, but your soul is at home.
My second-floor room was really just a bedroom with a tiny kitchen attached, and an even tinier bathroom. The kitchen and bathroom windows looked out on the building’s dusty courtyard, while the one in the bedroom had a view of the cemetery’s stone wall, which came up high enough that I could see only the tops of the trees over it. There were no commercial buildings on our side of the street, so hardly any cars passed by. It was exactly the sort of quiet I needed after a day of negotiation in a difficult language. The season was warm; I kept the windows open even on rainy days, and slept well most nights.
Most nights except during the wee hours of Thursday morning, when our drunk would ramble by. The first time, I’d been asleep, and woke to hear a strange warbling music fill the room, an experience enhanced by the nearby presence of several thousand graves. Then I recognized the melody, which was not one a ghost would likely choose, and realized that someone was singing drunkenly as they rambled down our street. I got up and leaned out the window: just an ordinary guy in ordinary clothes, staggering from one curb to the other as he sang, with his hands in his pockets. His shadow whirled about him as he passed by our streetlamp, and he noticed and put his arms out to dance with it for a moment, then rambled on. I went back to sleep. He seemed banal and harmless, except to my dreams, which he interrupted every Thursday around three a.m. I figured his paycheck came on Wednesdays. He didn’t look like a bum. At least not yet.
He was a regular, though; every Thursday, right on time, he’d ramble down our street singing, or talking to the moon, or having extended and occasionally rational arguments against himself. By now, watching his antics had become a Thursday-morning ritual of my own. His lonely figure in the deserted three o’clock street, dancing with his own shadow as he passed the street lamps, made me feel oddly less alone myself in the beautiful but rather formal city. One night he came across a pair of dusty planks a workman had left by the cemetery wall. The drunkard stopped, stared at the planks, then carefully picked one up and leaned it on the wall. He then began what sounded like a barroom argument with the piece of wood. The argument escalated loopily, the way they do, and the drunkard began muttering threats. Then he shook himself, stepped out of character, picked up the second plank, and leaned it against the wall. Stepping back into character, he hunched his shoulders and said, with scorn in his voice, “So…now it’s two against one, eh?” He suddenly crouched down, gave a karate yell that he’d obviously picked up from the movies, and kicked at the second plank, knocking it over.
That ended the fight. He leaned over the fallen plank and said, “Poor little fellow,” then ambled off. I managed to keep myself from laughing audibly. In a way, it may have been his finest hour.
He never repeated the Battle of the Planks, which disappeared that afternoon. His walk became more loosely organized as time went by, his singing wandered farther off-key, but he remained ever reliable, for a while.
One Thursday I didn’t see him till dawn. I heard chirping voices down the street as I awoke, and looked out the window to see three plump little French matrons leaning over my drunkard, who was sprawled half-leaning on the cemetery wall. Then a fireman came walking around the corner from the tiny fire station on the main street. He wore his yellow fire hat and ambled cockily with his hands in his pockets. The old ladies gesticulated while whispering fiercely, and the fireman leaned over the drunk, poked at him a couple of times, and elicited some sort of moaned response. The fireman waved his hand dismissively and said, “Leave him alone.” They all dispersed, leaving my drunk to sleep it off.
He was gone an hour later, and I never saw him again.