Sunday, March 30, 2003

It was winter in Paris - early january. The day was clear and cold. Days earlier, I had just celebrated New Years with L. on the rooftop of the Centre Pompidou. Now, we were on an urban train on an overland route. We were near the river, riding through a desolate, semi-industrial area - clumps of scrubby bushes, parking lots and distant buildings providing the only source of scenery. The train had slowed down, presumably because of traffic ahead.

The action unfolds in a moment even though, in retrospect, in memory, the scene has the quality of a studied documentary: L. shouts. Oh my God! It's a man!. She is excited but nobody moves. The passengers, paging through Le Monde or engaged in hushed conversations do not move. It is a dark comic moment. I gently remind her that she should exclaim in French which she speaks well. Un homme! C'est une homme la! Then the passengers start moving. One man seems to be already talking to the conductor on the speaker at the end of the car. The train comes to a halt. We all look at each other and wait. As the train car door slides open, we see the young conductor standing next to a sprawled man.

The man on the ground could have been any man. He looked like a young professional. His shirt had flown up a bit though and my attention was drawn to his exposed belly, the waistband of his checkered boxers, these minor indignities. He was on his back, head slightly turned as if he had just received a tough blow in a barfight. He also had a line of blood which ran down from his mouth.

The moment seemed unreal not because it had drama but because it lacked it. It all seemed so banal, so stupid, a band of dusty commuters, a conductor acting through a script, the equally young doctor in blue jeans who was summoned and leaned down over the corpse. I look around at the other passengers and notice one of them, a woman, has stayed in her seat and is quietly looking down at the floor in front of her.

Then, as if a hospital curtain had been quickly invoked, the car door closes. The conductor is gone and the train starts to move again. We all realize that the man near the tracks is still there, unattended. Where is the police, we are thinking? Were they called? What if the man had been murdered and the murderer was still nearby? Nobody was there to answer our questions.

The train enters a tunnel and then pulls gently into the next stop. The car door opens up to reveal a few hapless commuters, who had been impatiently waiting for our train. The woman I had noticed earlier clutches her purse tightly as she walks out the door. I can hear the receding clicks of her heels as she disappears into the tunnels of the station.

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