Friday, September 9, 2011

The Early Show, Paris-style

Sometimes it pays to go out early to buy a breakfast croissant.
     As the French say, le spectacle est dans la rue. There’s entertainment in the street. And this morning proved that point. A show that had everything: comedy, intrigue, suspense (pun intended), subtitles (sort of), international politics, acrobatics, and - for one player at least - a happy ending.
     In Montmartre, I live on a narrow street. It’s one block long and isn’t a through street, really. Technically it’s three lanes wide. (Three French lanes, not three American lanes.) Actually more like two and a half. There’s parking allowed on one side. That’s one lane. The other side has no parking, but people park there anyway after the police stop patrolling. Say about 7 or 8 pm. That leaves a mini-lane in the middle that is just barely one car wide.
     This morning, as I came out my door to go buy my morning pain au chocolat (a croissant with molten dark chocolate in the middle), there were two tow trucks in my street. 8 am is early for them to be at work already, but if you’re reading the news you may know that France is also feeling the financial crunch and illegal parking equals big bucks. Or rather big euros. So all those people who gave up circling last night in search of a parking place and parked on the illegal side of the street were in trouble. Some of them lucked out, timing-wise, and drove away on their own; I counted three small ones scuttering off down the very narrow dogleg that leads out of my street at the other end but which most cars are too wide to get down. (Or maybe the rule is you have to throw back the small ones if they’re under the authorized size?)
Of the remaining three illegal cars, Truck Number 1 had already picked one up and set it on its cradle and was heading down to the far end to pick up another. Truck Number 2 was having trouble getting between the illegal car it was trying to land and the legal cars on the opposite side. In fact, the driver scraped one while trying not to scrape the illegal one, a fact he denied later. But I get ahead of myself.
     Fascinated, never having actually seen the lift-‘em-up system, I watched as the truck driver got out and surveyed the damage, then got back in and manoeuvered into position in the middle lane. How it works is that there’s a crane device with large fabric straps - must be some super-tensile-strength fabric! - and they’re slipped under the offending car and then hooked onto the crane. Kind of like fastening a bra. And then the car’s lifted into the air. Which was interesting to see because the back came up, but not the front. So the car was lowered again and the straps adjusted and up it went a second time, swinging back and forth, perilously close to the cement pylons that prevent people from parking half up on the sidewalk like they used to do (a solution which left more room for traffic but less for pedestrians). Then the car was swung over onto the tow truck and nestled into the cradle.
     The show over, I headed off across the square for my morning chocolate fix.

     Five minutes later I was back from intermission and Act 2 started. Truck Number 2 was in a heated argument that involved four languages. Language 1: the African dialect the truck driver was muttering under his breath. Language 2: the French he was protesting in to the scratched legally-parked-car’s owner (who, it turns out, was German - language 3). Language 4: the heavily-accented English a French lady was using to explain to the enraged German car-owner what the accused African truck driver was saying. Are you still with me?
     German Guy’s wife came out and they squabbled back and forth in German, gesticulating and taking down the tow truck’s license number. Meanwhile, French Lady, who was dressed in a very long red coat over what looked suspiciously like a nightgown, got into Truck 2, the door gallantly held by the African driver, and they drove off together. I presumed the car on the truck was hers and she was off with him to the Pound, which I found both efficient and civilized.
     This left Truck 1, farther down the road.
     Truck 1 had an additional problem. It already had a car on its cradle, but there was yet another one that needed to be making money for the government. How to tow it too, I wondered. But greater minds than mine had already figured that one out. You tow it just like American tow trucks do. There’s a hoist on the back for that as well. Problem was that the car was facing the wrong way to be backed down the street. So four people - the truck driver and three garbage men - had lifted it in short grunts and turned it the other way around. (Here I should mention that during Act 1, a large garbage truck had backed into my street to empty the garbage cans, as it does every morning. As the space was taken up by Thing 1 and Thing 2, it had to stop near the entrance of the street and send the garbagemen scurrying to retrieve the cans from the entire street. Thus the extra hands for turning smallish cars around.)
     And here I also have to note that there is streetwork going on in my street, so there are barriers that take up a lane and a half. And in its hunger for fresh meat - er, metal - Truck 1 had ventured past the barriers and had precious little room left to manoeuver. So it now needed to back down the street, one car on top, and another hooked like a fish, trailing behind it. Only the towed car was now actually in front of Truck 1, because the truck was backing up... if you see what I mean. And precision steering of the front wheels of a towed car whose back wheels are in the air hooked on your hoist, while backing down a narrow street is near impossible. So Truck 1 made an initial attempt - perilously close to the afore-mentioned cement pylons - then pulled forward to recenter and regroup. The second attempt was better, but inconclusive. So Truck 1 moved forward yet again and recentered yet again.
Enter the happy-ending character: a fashionable young man scurrying down the sidewalk and mumbling "Merde, merde, merde!" (which I won’t translate out of decency, but you can guess what you’d be mumbling). Young Businessman shouts to Truck Driver something I’m too far away to hear. Truck Driver gets out of Truck 1 and they natter back and forth. Then I hear, "I’ll have to call the police", but Truck Driver doesn’t. I’m sure he decides that he hasn’t registered this last car yet, and They’ll never know about "the one that got away" because he still has a car on the cradle to appease Them, and it’s just going to be too damn much trouble backing this whole shebang down that narrow street. So he unhooks Young Businessman’s car and it drives off very quickly. Followed by Truck 1.
     And therein my tale would end.
     Except that French Lady in Red Coat (remember her?) suddenly walks around the corner with a bakery bag in her hand. So I’m presuming Truck Driver 2 took pity on her and just drove her down the hill to her favorite bakery, maybe as thanks for interceding with Angry German Car Owner and Wife?
     A baguette hot from the baker’s oven is always wonderful in France. But when you throw in a street show... and you don’t own a car in Paris... well... priceless!

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this story!! I even pulled my son in to look at the tow truck. Genius. And it would never work with a Hummer (Have I ever mentioned how much I HATE those things??) Can't wait to see Paris for myself...