Sometimes, when life moves much too quickly, you start to feel, what I can only describe hesitantly, as age. Most of the time I feel 25, but for the last month or two I’ve felt what I imagine, must be 32. Recently my friend Jerry died, a man I loved very much, one of those people who taught me about life. Who made me turn a corner I might not had otherwise turned. Someone who truly shaped me as a person. His death was an event, that for a period, seemed to paralyze me. Then I found out my childhood friend Chad died too. If I’m being honest I hadn’t seen Chad in many years, and also…he was an asshole. I don’t mean just your run of the mill asshole, the Chad I remember was kind of asshole who laughed when he dropped a frog in the garbage disposal, or thought it was funny to torment a woman he dated to the point of giving her PTSD. Chad was an asshole for reasons I will never know. I wouldn’t begin to judge him based on what I remember, because what I remember, is just a kid who lived down the street to me, who I only hung out with when I was with other people. Maybe he was a tormentor who was tormented, scared by some unseen thing I could not comprehend. Today he might have been a great guy, might have changed totally and completely. Who knows. Jerry and Chad were polar opposites in my life but I needed them both equally at different moments. Looking at them together I see some strange compass. Something designed to point me in a direction. To keep me from getting lost.
It’s very hard to get lost these days. Our phones make it very difficult. I’ve been living in the New York area for almost 8 years and I still have trouble coming out of the subway and getting my bearings. Almost 95 percent of the time I get turned around and I’m not sure which direction I’m facing. About 75 percent of the time I still walk the wrong way, even with my phone, and 30 percent of the time I get to where I am going on the first try. That being said, no matter what, these days, I can get myself going in the right direction, with the help of Google Maps. I don’t use the Apple map app on my iPhone. I’m fairly certain if I did, it would hinder whatever my quest was, leading me to a body of water or a glacier. As far as I can remember, the last time I was truly lost, was in Paris in December of 2001.
My life was in a strange place then too, and at the time, I was married to a woman who for various reasons would not travel with me. She had a fear of moving outside of her comfort zone and would have massive panic attacks every time we tried for even the simplest trip. She also had an eating disorder, was OCD, and had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. I remember going out of town for a wedding with her once, not far away, maybe a four hour drive, and we stopped to eat at a restaurant, something she did not do. After lunch I watched her in the car, crying and shaking, as she tried to calculate her caloric intake. Staring at leftovers, dissecting the food so she would know exactly what she had eaten, then pulling out her calorie counting book, she would look up each ingredient, determine the number and write it in a detailed journal she kept. The panic would not subside until she had totally and completely convinced herself that her final number was correct, that she was going to be ok, for a moment, minute, hour, day, or week. Her’s was a life of patterns and falling outside of that meant chaos. Our relationship was based on books, movies, games, things that required us to stay in one place, and how quickly I could calm her down after she began to slip down that hill, which admittedly was not much.
So when my parents rented an apartment in Paris and asked us if we wanted to meet them, and another family there, I jumped at the chance. I always thought maybe if she took a step into the world, just ripped off the band-aid and went, she would suddenly realize how much laid outside of her neurosis and throw her fears away. The timing seemed perfect, this was right after 9/11 and the airlines were still trying t convince people to travel again, so rates were good. It was also 13 years ago, so rates were good. At first, she met the invitation with excitement! I was surprised and thrilled, thinking, maybe this was it, this was where she would change. Maybe now things would be different. Now she would see. Then, as we began to look at tickets, the reality sunk in, and she began to back away from the idea. Excuses were made and eventually she had totally backed out, rejecting the idea completely. Normally, in that situation, I would have backed out too. I had done it many times at this point, believing that if she was staying, I was staying, that there was little point to a relationship if you experienced everything separately. The thing is, I knew she always wanted to go, to experience, to join in, but she could never bring herself to move forward, so I didn’t either. I did what I believed to be the supportive thing and joined her in her misery. There were many staycations in the years we were together as I got wrapped up in her patterns and made them my own. Until something snapped. Synapses fired left instead of right. Reality reared it’s head and I understood that if I didn’t go now, I would never go. So I told her. I said I was going alone. I think that surprised her, hurt her, that maybe she expected me to stay.
I got up and said goodbye at 3am for a 7 am flight. I remember the look on her face as I left. That look someone has when they’re trying to be excited for you, but really, they’re resentful and a little hurt. I turned and walked downstairs to catch the bus to the airport. I was flying from Seattle, to Cincinnati, to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. It was 6 hours to Ohio, then 9 to Paris, with 3 time zone changes.
When I landed in Paris I didn’t know what time it was.
I had done a lot or research before I went. I read books, watched videos, and made a list of all the things I wanted to do or see. Which makes everything that happened once I was there all the more ironic.
One of the most important items on my person was a note in my wallet with the address of our apartment written on it. I had tucked it neatly inside knowing that would be the safest place for something so precious, and, in my backpack I had placed a laminated map of the city next to my very first cell phone. Why I even had the phone I was not sure. It was one of those flip phones that came free with your account and were prohibitively expensive to use overseas, because it was before international plans had become popular, and in many cases impossible to use all together, because lots of American companies were not even equipped for service in Europe yet. There were no smart features to speak of at all. It was only a phone. It called people. Next to the map and the phone were 6 Cliff bars. I knew that with all the traveling, lack of sleep, and transit time into the city I might be ill equipped to try interacting too much with anyone that was actually from France on a empty stomach. So I made sure to have some quick protein. In my very limited 2001 view I was ready for anything.
The plan was this. I would land, and wait to meet my father and step mother near the airport exit by my airline. If for some reason we missed each other, I would find the train, take it into the city, and use my map to find our apartment. A last resort, I would find a cab and pay what I had to. So I got off my Delta flight and hiked through the airport until I found the main entrance. I parked myself at at vantage point so I could see every person who came through the arrival doors. I waited for a while and eventually checked the arrival board for their flight. It wasn’t there. Not only was there flight not listed but I couldn’t even find their airline listed. I thought that it must have been taken down after they landed, that maybe after a certain period they wiped the board of the old flights replacing them with new ones and I just missed it. It seemed perfectly logical to me. I waited another hour. At this point it had been roughly two hours since I landed and I had yet to see anyone vaguely familiar. I sat dazed from lack of sleep, jetlag, and I was starting to get hungry. Sitting on my backpack watching people walk by I became aware of a quiet little sensation forming in my stomach. Fear. I was starting to understand that something had gone wrong and since my entire cultural lexicon about Europe is based on 1980’s spy movies I was pretty sure my parents had been taken. Mistakenly kidnapped. A chase all over Europe would ensue as I was forced to track them down, and prove something to myself and them. It would be a lot like the Anthony Edward’s classic, Gotcha and the Gene Hackman, Matt Dillon blockbuster, Target.
Then, snapping out of this period of lucid thinking, I saw someone I knew. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. It was one of those strange moments when you think you see a friend, a person you spent time with, and have some relationship with, but you also know that some how that’s wrong, and you don’t know them at all. Then it hit me all at once, I had met this man before. In Seattle a number of years prior, working in a bookstore he came in to sign copies of his books. It was David Sedaris. Not only was I a big fan but we had actually grown up in the same general area of North Carolina. I sat there like an international stalker, watching, not knowing what to do. Was it really him? If it wasn’t him was a dead ringer. He was fidgety, like someone who really wanted to smoke, which lead me to believe it must be him. I remember when he came to my bookstore the one thing he requested was an ashtray. Maybe I could ask him for a ride into the city. Maybe it was that simple. I would just walk right up, introduce myself, explain that I was a fellow America and hitch a ride. Then a woman came through the arrival area and hugged him. It must be one of his sisters, or I guess it could be a friend. It wasn’t Amy Sedaris, she was the only member of his family I had ever seen, and only because she was an actor. I watched them walk away and the moment passed. Should I run after him? Hi, it’s me, no you remember me, the scruffy guy sitting on his backpack in the corner over there who was staring at you. I shook my head to no one but myself, and decided it was time to go. So I made my way to the train.
When I arrived at the platform there was a barrier and a small line of people staring at a perky little blonde who was speaking to everyone in quick French. I tried to discern what was happening by listening as hard as I could. I craned forward, squinted my eyes, and tilted my head, so that by the end of whatever she was saying, I looked a lot like an old man who was trying to hold in a fart, I still had no idea what was happening. Then a group of men, all dressed as the Stay Puft Marshmallow man walked past me, and into the area behind the barrier. The line of people in front of me started to disintegrate. I made my way to the blonde and asked her if she spoke English. She smiled a curt smile as I pressed her about what was happening. She told me a suspicious package had been found on the platform and they were closing this one and directing people to a platform in one of the other terminals. “Wait”, I said. “One of the other terminals? Like another building?” That’s when I discovered that Charles De Gualle airport was comprised of three large buildings separated by a mile or so of each other. After all of the time I spent researching Paris and it’s cultural riches, I’d never even considered one of it’s two main airports might be more than one building.
That’s when I felt a presence standing behind me and turned. A man, roughly my age, dressed in an over sized puffy winter coat, was standing a little too close. He wore a large puppy dog smile wrapped around his face and was nodding, like I had just said something very important, and he agreed with me completely. I stepped back with a little jump and said a nervous hello. He said hello back and kept nodding. Wondering if this was a physical version of turrets, I slowly, cautiously asked if he spoke English. He said yes. Then I asked if he spoke french. He nodded faster and said he spoke a little, but that he was Polish, so he wasn’t fluent but could get by. “Could you help me find out where the other platform is so I can catch a train?” He said it was no problem, that he was going there too, that we would go together, that he knew exactly what to do. My shoulders literally dropped an inch as I felt stress melt away. I was so tired at this point that the thought of trying to navigate my way anyplace else was exhausting and the idea of someone showing me the way felt like a gift!
He turned and talked to the perky blonde for an minute, nodded a couple of times, smiled and said merci. Looking at me he pointed back the way I had come and ushered me on. He explained that we had to go to departures where we would catch a shuttle that would take us to one of the other terminals where there was another train platform, and a train that would take us to the city. At this point I had been on the ground for about three hours.
The man told me his name was Krzysztof and I found him to be amiable, friendly, and helpful. Though he smelled like old candy, which was disconcerting, and made me think of a grandparents candy stash that had been there far too long, but they served anyway. The kind of candy that was supposed to be soft, but crumbled in your mouth when you bit down. As we walked he told me, in broken English, still nodding, he was there to stay with friends. That he was hoping to find a job and live in Paris for a while. Something he had done it once before, but then ran out of money and had to go home to Poland. His story reminded me of Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s film, White, in which a Polish hairdresser living in Paris with his beautiful wife is jilted, because he can no longer please her sexually. He is subjected to a series of humiliating experiences, lands back in Poland, but eventually, ends up a very rich man. To take revenge on the woman, he fakes his death and has her frames for it. Of course there is more too it than that, there are two movies, Blue and Red that go along with it. Looking at all three movies you can see Kieslowski was a deeply spiritual man, not a believer in a Christian God necessarily but a believer in something much larger than all of us. After he finished his last movie someone asked him what he would do with his time, he said, “I want to sit alone in a room and smoke.”, and that is exactly what he did until his death. It sounds so depressing, but I’ve come to believe that for him this was a happy thing. It was what he wanted in the end what he did. He fulfilled his own last wish. I had quite an obsession with those movies at the time and couldn’t help but enjoy the irony. The colors representing the french flag and here I was walking in France, with a man who felt like a character straight out of the movie. Except for the nodding. That was different. Walking with him it made me suddenly feel like I was part of something. Like I was aware that I had been walking in some story for a long while and was just now realizing the possibility. I was so caught up with my thoughts that when the doors on the shuttle closed, I didn’t even remember getting on the bus.
We talked on for sometimes as the shuttle took us around the airport. At this point it had been a few hours since I landed and I was starting to get tired. I reached into my bag, pulled out a Cliffbar, and wolfed it down. I felt the burst of energy that come with all those calories meant for a guy named Steve who climbs rocks, and with that energy, came an awareness. How man times had we gone around the airport? 4 or 5? I remembered the door opening and closing several times but we had never moved to get off. Krzysztof had said he knew where he was going and I had taken that to mean at some point we would get off this bus and start a new leg of the journey. That trains would eventually be a factor. I mentioned that we had been on the shuttle bus for some time and he just nodded. Then the bus came to a halt, again, the doors opened, and he smiled. “Here we are.”
We stepped off the bus in front of another terminal and I looked for signs directing me to the train, but I saw none. Moving inside I continued my search only to find that inside was as deprived of mass transit as was out. I looked up at one of the arrival boards and realized that this was the terminal my parents had arrived into. That they had probably been here only an hour ago. I stopped at a newsstand, bought a calling card, and found a pay phone to call the apartment where we were staying to at least let them know that I was ok, and to get good directions for once I was in the city. I knew I had carefully placed the address and phone number in my wallet back in my apartment in Seattle, so I was all set. All set being a very relative expression, because when I opened my wallet the little piece of paper I had written it down on was gone. Panic set in. I shuffled through all the Francs I had gotten before I left, and remembered, how excited I had been because I was there the week before Europe was transitioning to the Euro and everything was a little less expensive. Now none of that was important. All I could think was that now I had to manage for 10 days in Paris living on the street. I would have to live like all the kids I remembered from French movies; stealing, begging, scheming and stealing just to get by. I would like like a character from a François Truffaut movie. My parents had been reduced to blurry figures that resembled absent role models, and abusive angry drunks who only wanted me out of their hair so they could dance to 60’s gogo music and drink cheap wine. I calmed down the moment I remembered I had a credit card.
Credit was something that was relatively new to me. Having watched many of my friends rack up more credit card debt than student loan debt, I believed credit to be the devil, so I had only recently gotten my first card. It was an American Express and I loved it. I realized if things got desperate I could simply find a hotel and use my shiny new Delta Sky Miles card to secure lodgings. Suddenly, credit was an Angel. I put the phone down, looked up and there was his head, nodding again. Krzysztof was standing in front of me. “We are in the wrong termial.” he said like a slightly tranquilized, happy, bobbled headed child. ” Come with me.” and he started to leaved the building. He was right, we were in the wrong building, so I followed, but, at that point, if there were some reason to go on without him I would have found an excuse. I have always considered myself a kind person but in some cases you just have to put the horse down, it’s better for everyone.
Once we were back on the shuttle I promised myself I would not be nice about this. I would make sure we, or at least I, got off at the correct stop. Once we stopped and the doors opened at our original terminal and Krzysztof started to leave. I told him it was not the right stop and he argued with me. “No, this is stop.” he said, like someone who had done this everyday. He was so confidant. I didn’t understand how he could be so sure this was it after we had driven around the airport god knows how many times, and started at this very spot. I was starting to feel like I was in a play with one of Samuel Beckett’s characters, moving in circles to some unseen and unknown hell. I finally just sat back down and let him discover for himself that if he continued he would never find the train into the city. When he finally looked around and he realized, “Oh, this is where we started.” He nodded quicker and climbed back on board the bus.
At this point it had been at least five hours and I was not officially lost. I know, it sounds like list, and even looks a lit like lost, but at this point I still knew where I was. At this point everything was fine. However, the moment I stepped on that train, I would no longer know anything. My sense of direction would be gone. I was in a strange place being led by a fellow foreigner,who despite his claims, seemed to know less about this country than me. I racked my brian trying to remember anything about the address. Rue…Rue…Rue…di….di…du…du… no di… It was di. Rue di…buci. That was it. Rue de Buci. That was the name of the street where my apartment was. I fished around in my backpack and pulled out my laminated map of Paris, a map I had never bothered to look at with any real detail. All of my experience with the reality of this city was based on movies and television and all of them had some how planted in my head that this was a sort of bucolic city. A city, but a smallish, and manageable one. Like New York it would be mostly a grid and I would simply need to follow the streets in short order to find my destination. Much of the time I made up words I called “facts”.
I got us off the bus at the correct terminal and we found our way to the train platform, where, right on time, a train showed up bound for the city. we got on board and I sat with the map folded up in my lap. I knew I was supposed to get off at the St. Germaine stop, so when the doors opened at another and Krzysztof told me this was my stop I had to laugh. I told him it was not my stop, and again, he argued with me. “No, this is where you go.” I then had to explain to him that I had never told him where I was going, so how could he know this was my stop. A big smile spread across his face and for the first time, he stopped nodding. He winked at me. It was as if he had done everything up until this moment on purpose and was dropping a Yoda moment on me. He sat down next to me and said one word, “Good.”. the doors shut and we moved on.
When they opened at my stop I quickly stood up and moved to the door, Krzysztof standing close behind me, nodding again, stuck his hand out. We shook, and I said thank you. If nothing else, all he had tried to do was help me, and though he was terrible at it, I was none the worse for ware, and had had a nice little adventure so far. As I stepped off the train Krzysztof said, “I can come with you, help you find-” I turned and yelled, “No.” a little too loud as the doors shut. Then I smiled and waved goodbye as the train pulled away. I could see a big smile on his face as his nodding faded away.
5 hours after I got off the plane I was starting to feel the effects of the day and as I was walked up the stairs I remembered I did not know where I was staying, that now I was really lost. Lost level 2. When I arrived at the top of the stairs I realized I had gone way past level 2. I said audibly, “Holy shit.” when I saw the city for the first time. Paris was big. This was the moment when all my expectations were suddenly turned upside-down. Normally I would have been thrilled at this sort of discovery. I love it when there is more to explore and I can be someplace totally new and invigorating. This was not normal, not the city, but my reaction to it. I was starting to shake a little from the lack of sleep and everything was taking on a hazy sheen. I wobbled, and caught myself before I fell. Pulling out my laminated map I started searching for the street. I scanned the index for Rue di Buci until… Ha. Right there. I found it and then looked around to figure out what street I was on. I scanned every corner and looked at every crosswalk for a street sign…but could find none. Was it possible these people were just so familiar with their surroundings they didn’t need actually need signs? Was France that progressive of a country? I was having revelations all over and at this point most of them were like tripping on acid.
I searched for a landmark of some kind and eventually found a park that I matched what I saw on my map. Now I had a direction, a way to go, and the possibility that I would eventually be able to sleep, but still, I had no idea where the street signs were. One of the things I tend to do when I don’t know, is just move forward. I figure at least that way something happens, at least that way I’m not standing still, some times standings till is the worst. So I went in the general direction I knew my street to be, and after a half an hour, I knew I had to stop and ask someone. I stood in front of a beautiful building with an African doorman, and after self consciously mumbling the few words I knew in French; “Do you speak English?”, I pointed to the spot on the map where I thought my apartment was. He smiled a great big friendly smile and kept telling me, ici, and pointing at the spot I was pointing at? He would say “Ici”, and then I would say “Ici?” We must have done this five times. I was sure he thought I had some kind of developmental disability because I had no idea what ici meant, but I kept questioning him like I did. Then suddenly I understood. Ici meant here. He was pointing here, where we were standing. This was not the apartment. Looking at the map I realized I was standing on the steps of the Sorbonne. My face flushed as my embarrassment caught up with me, but as quickly as I understood, so did he. He fished in French until he was able to get out of me the name of the street I was looking for. “Ah.” He said. Pointing to the map, again, he said ici. Oh my god. Rue Di Buci It’s close. The street is very close. I was almost there. I looked up, smiled at the man, and said…gracias. Yes. I was so tired I spoke to him in Spanish. I heard the words come out of my mouth, saw the look of confusion on his face, waved, and said gracias, again. I couldn’t stop at this point. Spanish was just pouring out of my mouth. I knew a lot more Spanish than French and now it was all I could do to even speak English. I was suddenly conjugating verbs in Spanish that I didn’t even know I could remember and making full sentences as I told the man what an amazing help he had been. I could tell he had gotten the point when I started moving on and he was smiling and laughing at me, possibly with me, as I was smiling and laughing too. As I walked on I saw the man pointing at something and I turned to look. There on the side of a building was a sign that said Rue di Buci. Oh my god, I thought. The street signs. They are on the buildings. They are all on the sides of the buildings.
Now that I had discovered this I got cocky, excited, and put my map away. Now, I thought, all I had to do was walk up and down this street until I saw someone I knew. This was the same kind of thinking that led me to believe Paris was a provincial little town where people would thrill at my encyclopedic knowledge of their countries cinema and swoon at my understanding of pastries; that cookies were once considered precakes, a test version of a cake that was made to see if the cake would work, that became popular and eventually made their way into consumers hands as cookies. I might be making that up but it some how found it’s way into my story vault.
I stepped on the the street I believed to be the Rue di Buci and moved forward. It was one of those very narrow Parisian streets that could only fit one car at a time and the sidewalks, one person. The fact that both were two way was a mystery to me as was the fact that I was again, lost. I looked around and was suddenly convinced I was no longer on the correct street. Where this logic came from I don’t know, since I didn’t know the address or have a clue if I was moving in the right direction. I had no real reason to believe that I wasn’t headed into Germany or Italy and was suddenly very despondent.
The day had now fully caught up with me and I had just resigned to go find a hotel and use my beautiful new credit card, when an older woman came sauntering down the sidewalk toward me. As I saw her I knew I had to try one more time to find out where I was, so I stopped her. “Pardon madame, do you know the Rue di Buci.” In quick English she answered back. “Young man, you are on the Rue di Buci. You have been for some time.” Then she smiled and walked on. I watched her as she walked on and said, “merci”. As I turned my head a small yellow square, about 2 inches across, but 2 inches long, caught my eye.
At this point I must tell you a little about my father. Dan Beerman is eternally interested in technology. He has been as far as I can remember. Even in elementary school we were the first people on the block with and Apple 2c, Atari, Intelivision, Colecovision, Pong, VCR, and he has been upgrading ever since. His interest, stems from my grandmother, who always believed he should follow these wonderful innovations, that these “computers” were the future. It’s a pity my grandmother was more dialed into the stock market, with her foresight, we might have ended up being able to give NPR a little more money every year. That being said, even though my Dad’s taste in technology ran toward the microchip, in his heart I’ve always felt it was the simpler kinds of technology that really got him. Like a Swiss Army knife, something that was all about the utility of the thing. I was a latch key kid and 9 times out of ten when I got home from school there was a post it note on the door with some information relative to the rest of my day. Whether it was some chore I was to do or what we were having for dinner, I knew one at a distance instantly.
Which is exactly why I knew I had found our apartment. I knew that little yellow square on the giant door across the street was from my father. No one else in Paris would put a post it note on the door of a 300 year old building. I could see him reaching into his fanny pack and pulling out a tiny pack of post its and popping it on the door. I walked across the street and pulled the note from the door. My fathers familiar scrawl told me they were down the street at a pub and I should come find them. So I did and there they were. Waiting for me.
Jerry and Chad were both very different kinds of people in my life. Chad taught me everything I didn’t want to me. Jerry, the opposite. One was North and the other South. I’m able to navigate my life based on those people, and many others.
It’s always strange when people die. In some ways you’re more aware of their presence in your life than you were before. You can remember things about them more clearly because, for a period, all you do is recollect them. It also makes you take stock of your own life, look at where you are and reassess things. This can be a daunting and exhausting experience, because part of you, is reassessing everything through their eyes, not your own. Thinking about what they said or did and if you have moved in the best direction based on their influence. It’s easy to loose track of where you are, to understand you’re not that person anymore, find yourself in a completely different state, and have to admit everything has changed but you never noticed it happening. I would not be the man I am today had I not connected with everyone I’ve connected with, family, friends, and virtual strangers, they all made me and they are guiding me in a direction I can’t even see. When I walk down the street these days I look at the doors, and know that one day soon, there will be a little yellow square sitting on one. That’s the one I’ll walk through.