Le Plongeur by Fayral

Why even bother setting the alarm? The night's "sleep," a three-way tussle between body time, digital-clock-on-the-TV-time, and the ten-hour time difference, consists of spasmodic stomach gurgling, dashes to the bathroom, furtive glances at that clock, and slugs on the plastic water bottle which is just thick enough to hold water, but too thin to be sturdily held by the human hand. The resulting crinkling and snapping sounds rival Madison Avenue's maddest hour of "snap, crackle and pop," and don't contribute much to my idea of repose.

Awakening from the 7th or 8th serious doze-off of the night, I haul myself out of this bed somewhere on the north side of Paris and posit my carcass under the healing waters of a shower stall that could only have been designed in Japan, or by some French person who went there and brought back that Japanese notion of "Sorry, space is money." Banging my elbows into the plastic walls with every mild turn or twist, whacking my head on the sink as I bend over to retrieve the minuscule cake of soap which has fallen to the floor, I rescue myself from feeling small and trapped by turning my thoughts to the possibilities of amusement and profit, and the adventure that lies ahead: today's an eBay day!

It's payoff time!! Over the past several months I've been hitting French eBay pretty hard, searching out baubles which my time-honored French suppliers just don't seem to be finding anymore. The end of yet another era, or just a ripple? "On ne trouve rien" is all I've been hearing for months on end. In hope borne of desperation I turned my eye to the glowing screen, fantasizing about all the amazing things that might come of this new turn in the road.

And so it was that, several months earlier, I purchased eBay item number 2079387493, a bronze plongeur (yes, this is just what it sounds like, He Who Plunges -- and where else but in the water?). One Helene Courvoisier acknowledged my purchase, demanded my payment, and impressed me with both her name and her location: Paris. Paris, France!

Well, hell, I'm going to Paris; why don't I just pick the damned thing up myself?

And save thirty bucks on the shipping.

But the fantasy plays well beyond the thirty bucks. Who is this Helene Courvoisier, anyway? What kind of place does she live in -- some grand Parisian apartment with four-meter-tall ceilings and a butler, or some fifth-floor walk-up hovel in one of the Peripherique concrete ghettos? Is she some foxy French babe just dying to meet Monsieur Sympatico himself, Jacques de San Francisco? Or, perhaps she's some avaricious, hard-bitten dealer from one of the (ha-ha) flea markets like Clignoncourt...

The (ha-ha) means, Gentle Reader, oh person lost in another time, another memory, a desire, there are no flea markets in Paris. The "flea market" at Clignoncourt, for example, hosts one glass-entombed museum-quality collection after another, their slicker-than-fois gras owners exuding knowledge, assurances, and carefully metered greetings, all depending on how one comports oneself. Slink through the door as a nothing, that's what you'll get back. Enter owning yourself and possibly most of what's in the store, and you're a star: Lights! Camera! Action! Galle, Buthaud, Muller, Lalique, Majorelle, Daum, Linossier: it's all there, gleaming and intoxicating, and priced as though to deny the very possibility of shame on this earth. "I can do better..." an unheard phrase. Fleas? You'll have to bring your own.

Oh, may God have mercy on me and not let Madame Courvoisier be one of these golden-haired, leather-skinned dragon-ladies puffing on an endless series of Gitanes.

Oh, she's fallen on hard times. The Americans aren't showing up like they used to, but her son-in-law is one of those computer-saavy youths and helps her put the things she has had lying around her back room, her apartment, lovely things that somehow never made it to the store, things that just became invisible after thirty years, onto the internet. And the money's not good, mind you, but it's money just the same, and Mon Dieu things aren't like they used to be, especially after the euro. How can those bidders consistently be so cheap? Then there's the wrapping, and the trip to La Poste, and the idiotic, e-mailed questions posed on the behalf of some translation site which has no concept of conversational French. The questions are always about condition, condition, condition. "Parfait etat" is her consistent reply. What do they expect after 80 or 100 years? Parfait etat? It's a state of mind, how you think about it. A scratch or a chip doesn't bother her, doesn't take away from the soul of the piece. Soul!? What do those materialistic Americans know about soul?

My real hope: that Madame will serve as the gateway to More! More! More! I mean, how often is it that one even gets to meet a French person, let alone walk through the door of their home, their inner sanctum? So, here is this slim, tiny little chance that this meeting somewhere in Paris, all borne of tapping on computer keys seven thousand miles away -- might, just might, lead to something bigger, something beyond virtual, something actual. A cellar full of 1920's chandeliers would be a good place to start. Yes, that would do. Let the visualization begin!

My sidekick Michael and I strap ourselves into the car, in this case an embarrassing Mercedes which Hertz doled out in the absence of the more discreet Renault Laguna actually desired and ordered. Brand, panky-pank new, just begging for a little "mishap" to its flawless silver skin...beckoning thieves to its luxurious self...I'll just call it the "tension vehicle," TV for short. And why not? The last thing out of the Hertz minion's mouth as he handed over the electronic "key" (that concept you've witlessly cherished all these years, Gentle Reader, of a metal thing, a "key" that you slick in a slot and turn, is now prehistoric): "Eef zomeone bumpz eento you, DO NOT STOP, NE PAS ARRETER. Lock zee doors and get away as zoon as possible, as we have zee car-jackings now here, jes like you."

Oh, Mary, merciful Mother of Jesus, can this really be happening?

A quick look on "mappy.com" has resulted in a one-page printout the night before, an encouragingly precise description of how to get to Madame Courvoisier's from zee hotel. 87 meters, turn to the right on Rue de la Whatever, then "carry on" 42 meters and turn to the "near-right," across the cobblestone street and to the round-about, where 37 meters later you go off at the 10:47 o'clock position, on Blvd de la Resistance, and so on, right to Madame Courvoisier's front door. Uh-huh. O-kay.

In less than two hundred meters and three turns we're hopelessly lost, strapped and trapped in the silver TV, winding our way through an endless succession of one-way, going-to-nowhere streets that were designed for animals, maybe even by animals. But somehow the Champs-Elysee appears, and we're back on track a mere 20 minutes later (mappy.com allocates 7 minutes for the entire trip ). It's clear that we've gone miles, I mean kilometers, out of our way -- but so what? I mean, we're in Paris!!! Binoculars, that's what I forgot to bring, so I could scan the corner buildings, high up on the premier etage, for the tiny blue and white enamel street signs you now see even in our own, yes, FLEA markets. The question is... well, I mean, one of the questions is, which building hosts the precious sign? And, did you know that if you're on the Blvd. Jean Jaures for three blocks, that it will change its name to the Blvd. Emile Zola, and then in three more blocks become the Blvd. Charles de Gaulle? So many poets, politicians, and historical figures, so few streets!

...looking for the Rue du Rocador...there it is, off to the left! Screeeeech!

The Mercedes rolls up to the discreet blue and white enamel plaque which announces number 32 rue du Rocador. I'm feeling exulted, closing in on my quarry. I ask Michael to wait in the car so we can save time by double-parking, a legal parking place in the center of Paris being unthinkable anyway. I scan the 16 or so names posted on the exterior of the building, right next to the 12- or 13- foot high, 7 foot wide carved and varnished wood double doors. No Courvoisier! Gasp! Worse yet, no bell-buttons by the sides of the names! No intercom! Panic!!

A deep breath helps me reel myself back to earth. How curious... I had spoken with Madame only the evening before... she hadn't given me any special instructions as we had agreed on our meeting time... hmmmm.... and about these massive doors I'm facing. You don't think they just "open up," do you? Well, they don't -- not for man, beast, nor battering ram. I'm not that seasoned a veteran of La Belle France, but I have found myself over the years outside several such pairs of elephantine doors, and the experience is... ah, humbling. What one wants is on the inside, and one is clearly on the outside. There is no discernible entry point, and no instruction. The wall around the doors is impenetrable, and butts right up to the buildings on either side. There is no little door which says "sneak in here." One needs to be buzzed or let in, period. So, I'm standing there with my mood going south and suddenly I notice one tiny, lonely nickel-plated button above the list of names. There's nothing to lose here, so I press it. And the weirdest, most unexpected thing happens -- buzz...click! -- the damned door unlocks!

I turn the grapefruit-sized bronze doorknob and, using considerable strength, swing the several hundred pound oak door open. The vastness and emptiness of the stone courtyard further accentuates my sense of my insignificance and tininess. On the far right corner, a good 20 meters or more away is another doorway -- a standard, human-sized doorway, and I spy another schedule of names beside that door. Courvoisier, 7th etage. No doorbell. The door pulls open, I walk in. A classic European lift with accordion door presents its opulent, polished brass and welcome self. I climb in and press 7; and slowly and silently, a New World man in an Old World elevator, I ascend.

The landing offers three doors, and I crank the bell handle on the one on the right, marked Courvoisier. A sixty-five to seventy year old woman opens the door, and shakes my hand matter-of-factly but with full presence. This is Helene Courvoisier: somber henna job on a full head of hair; dark, below-the-knee, expertly tailored skirt; silk blouse; a woman of impeccible bearing and manner. And, a woman in a hurry to get me out of her apartment so that she can be on her way, a point which she makes clear immediately, though diplomatically. Well, I have my own agenda, because I'm close to wetting my pants.

"S'il vous plait, ou se trouvent des toilettes?" Who else but an American would have the cheek, mind you, to ask such a low, personal question within moments of meeting Helene Courvoisier? Moi, Gentle Reader, zat ees hoo.

As I'm relieving myself I think that this is about as intimate as it will ever get between me and Madame Courvoisier. I wash my hands, something I don't ordinarily do, and reenter the vestibule, where Madame Courvoisier holds le plongeur out for me not just to inspect, but to take.

"Tres bien, c'est regle," she states, telling me that I've already paid for it and by insinuation that our meeting is over.

"Merci Madame, et bonne journee," I offer as I pick up the table in one hand, le plongeur in the other, and start wrestling them through the door.


Oh, maybe I didn't mention it, but I also bought a smart little Art Deco table, with a veneered walnut top, from Helene Courvoisier. Or Antoine, whoever Antoine is. It seems they operate under the same name on eBay, as once I bought the table I noticed that I was sending the check to the same address. That's when it hit me like a lightning bolt: these people are DEALERS, and I should get to know them!

Well, there is no sign of Antoine and not a hint of the possibility of a future relationship, and the table is too damned big to go through the elevator door, even with Madame Courvoisier's persistent efforts to make it do so, unnerving me as she bangs it again and again against the metal opening, trying to do what I can't imagine. (Hey, you can beat up your own antiques, Madame, but this thing is mine now, and I'd like to get it to California in one piece!) She surrenders it and I trot off down the spiral marble staircase, my feet finding the grooves others have worn in the stone over hundreds of years. A sadness overtakes me. I know that I will never ascend or descend these stairs again; I will never be in this building again; there is no treasure here for me.

Michael is glad to see me, but even gladder to lay his eyes on le plongeur, that
1920's bronze homage to the masculine.

A blue auto route sign presents its beloved self almost immediately and in a few deft non-mappy.com-orchestrated turns we are back on the highway and off to the races, albeit amongst an endless throng of belching, wheezing, clanking and rasping poid lourdes (heavyweights), as the French so adroitly call their 18-wheelers. It turns out that our next potential entree to that cellar full of dusty old chandeliers lives a hundred and seventy kliks to the north. That's an hour, even at 180 kph, which is about where the TV starts purring, zipping by those poid lourdes like they were nailed to the macadam. Huh? I thought this woman with the fixture I'd bought lived "right around Paris!?" Now how did I get that impression? Something I read in an e-mail?

What is life but one miraculous opening after another? Into the soft spring morning we speed, and it isn't long before Paris is but an accursed memory (have I mentioned that Paris isn't la creme dans mon cafe?). The great plains of yet another of France's agricultural regions spread themselves before us, gargantuan squares of tans and browns counter-pointed with fields of low, bright green new growth. Out comes the Atlas Routier, and page seventeen shows us that we are destined to pass on the A-16 through Beauvais and Amiens -- two towns, which Michael chirps, have gothic cathedrals that he'd just love to see. We agree that is a swell idea, but one which has to wait until vile commerce has had its way with us.

Warloy-Baillon is our destination, not far from Albert, not far from Amiens. Since Warloy-Baillon hasn't been mentioned in any e-mails and has just surfaced in a conversation on the phone between myself and Annie, the seller of the chandelier I've bought on eBay, I have a hard time picturing how it is spelled, and I'm too proud to ask. Or, do I just enjoy the game? In French, it sounds not unlike a low growl squeezed through a mouthful of marbles.

I call Annie after exiting the auto route, and tell her that we aren't far away. "Pas de probleme," she chimes, and gives further instructions, again mentioning the unfathomable Warloy-Baillon. This time I get the "Baillon" part of it and figure that with that much of it I can find whatever it is, wherever it is, on the map. We set out across great expanses of gently rolling hills, mostly brown and bare, but plowed and planted, huge checkerboard squares of tans and browns. Cherry, plum and apple trees have exploded, great puff-balls of pinkish white blossoms radiating their promise of life as a bowl of cherries. Then, in the middle of nowhere, a square plot, perhaps an acre or two in size, with perfectly arranged white crosses by the hundreds, perhaps thousands. The plot is surrounded by a low stone or concrete wall, with a single entryway, a formal concrete entryway. And a couple of miles later, another. Just sitting right there, nowhere special; silent testimonials to what has been.

A small sign with one word, "Somme"-- the river? the region? no clue -- but distant schoolboy memories of the Battle of the Somme flicker within. Looking across these vast fields, with their pristine emptiness, their treeless horizons, their carefully-laid borders and boundaries, I try to imagine them askew and topsy-turvy, awash in a ghoulish melange of mud and snow, churned and rutted from the tracks of animals, cannon, and men, men staggering under the weight of rifles and grenades and mess kits, woolen coats, sodden boots. And the fetid stench of mustard gas and rotting corpses.

Kilometer after kilometer we wind our way on tiny two-lane unmarked roads, the day now moving toward "midi," the full flush of the warm spring day upon us. Body time, it is moving toward 10 P.M. for us: bedtime. Finally I figure out that "Baillon" must belong to a village on the map marked "Warloy-Baillon," and we head toward it while I practice, over and over, saying "Warloy" in French, trying to add the word to my repertoire. A ribbon of tarmac guides us through the last couple of barren fields, and we arrive in Warloy-Baillon to find that it consists of perhaps a dozen homes and one crossroad. Plain, practical country houses, cottages really, spare in decor. I see a pale blue sedan. Could that be the "Toyota bleu" that Annie has mentioned?

I pull up next to it, giddy with the adventure, the sense of accomplishment. "Can you believe this, Michael? I tap on computer keys in San Francisco four months ago and voila, here we are, (and I laugh) wherever we are!" I gleefully, avariciously rub my hands together, rolling my eyes up into my head, licking my lips, "And behind that door....PROFIT!!!"

I cross the street and knock, and the door opens to reveal a 45-ish woman with flaming red hair piled high in some mod approximation of a French twist. Two chopstick-like hair implements shoot out of that red nest, one on either side. Is this woman a French geisha?

I offer my hand. "Bonjour, je suis Jack."

Annie ushers us into an interior that renders this Art Deco lover instantly, terminally ill. Massive, dark, heavily carved furniture supports knickknacks of all manner, things piled high on yellowing lace doilies. Grandmotherly painted porcelain plates, crystal goblets, silver sauce boats and platters; a collection of thimbles?!! Double jeopardy: girlie and garish? I'm in survival mode now, rudderless; I have serious psychic footwork to do here, somehow I have to make a go of this. But how's a self-respecting Deco Warrior who surrounds himself with statues of brawny, half-naked young men in various working or athletic poses supposed to come to terms with painted porcelain teacups and lace? My chest empties, my stomach sinks.

Perhaps sensing my conflict and confusion, Annie suggests we go see the light fixture I've bought, and we troop off to a back room. She has the shades nicely wrapped, and the fixture itself is exactly as she'd pictured it on eBay and I had imagined it, a sweet moment where "virtual" and "reality" meet in full accord. In fact I'm more than pleased, because only a day earlier, at Clignoncourt, I had noticed a nearly identical chandelier priced at four times what I paid Annie. I ask her how she happened to come across the thing and she innocently replies, "It's been in the family." Bam! goes the bubble of my this-could-lead-to-more fantasy.

"In the family?!"

"Yes. As you can see, it's too long for any of these ceilings. We didn't want to cut it down."

Grateful that this treasure has been spared the hacksaw, but still too disappointed to speak, I remain silent.

The dim light at the end of my tunnel is telling me that I need to shift, that it is time for me to show up as more than He Who Seeks More Art Deco. Sadly but characteristically, the result is primal and boorish, and I blurt out, "Mon Dieu, j'ai faim! Y-a-t-il un restaurant pres d'ici?"

Right, Jack, there's a restaurant right around the corner, just west of that soybean field.

Without hesitation Annie invites us for lunch. Bless her heart! I protest as weakly as possible, all the while wondering what's the plat du jour, secretly ecstatic that I've wangled a lunch invitation. With the thought of that plate not far away I begin to shed my merchant's mantle. I am dying to know what in creation Annie is doing in this rustic farmhouse in (marble-mouth)-Baillon, so many kilometers from Paris. Something just doesn't quite click here, because this woman has all the hallmarks of a citizen of the world, a seasoned veteran of the full life: a direct gaze, style, presence, self-assurance. And so I ask, emboldened by the sweet smells of sizzling lamb chops: "Annie, what sort of work do you do?"

"I am a singer, and I back up the best-known poet and performance artist in France. Perhaps you know him, (another mouthful of marbles)? This little house is our family home which we're just visiting for a couple of days, and I live near Amiens; but I spend a lot of time traveling around France and other countries giving concerts and performances."

"Oh." Well, I'm Jack, heh-heh, and I tool around looking for Art Deco. Nice ta meet 'cha, heh-heh.

I am wolfing down my lamb chop and potatoes, and color is returning to my face; thoughts are beginning to form again.

A star. I'm at the house of some STAR, somewhere in northern France, having lunch and shooting the breeze. A performance artist. I am talking to a performance artist and I am eating her lamb chop. I wish there was another lamb chop.

That "breeze" takes its twists and turns, and suddenly in through the front door blows an ebullient 80-odd year old woman and her 90-odd year old husband, who moves with less assurance than his wife, whose face is clear, devoid of complication. She radiates high energy and well-being. Annie introduces the newcomers as her mother, Bernice, and father, Jean-Paul. They live "around the corner," and today are a bit footloose, as major remodeling work is being done on their home (remodeling?! getting ready for their next century?!). Annie's mother, the couple's mouthpiece, launches right into retelling that morning's drama, about how one of the workers had witlessly burned some of the debris from the remodel, bringing a phalanx of fire engines roaring to the crossroads of Warloy-Baillon. Judging by the cackling and guffawing, it seems that the worker, who later had been roundly castigated by the fire chief, provided some welcome relief and diversion from a project which was commanding great attention and making for some stress. But who might have guessed that any stress should reside behind the rosy, handsome, bright-eyed face of Bernice, Annie's mother? An entertainer in her own right, she held the floor she had seized, and turned her thoughts to Michael and I, the Americans.

That winter, it was 1943; so terribly cold, and shells were dropping everywhere. I am hiding from them right under this kitchen table, just as my mother had hidden under this table as German shells were exploding all around the house in 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. That was the worst time, there was no food and death was everywhere. I remember her speaking of gathering up body parts which were littered around -- a hand here, a foot there -- and burying them. At least in our war we had the good fortune of the cousin who ran a little cafe, who was able to get some food when no one else had any. You know, he had his connections that none of the rest of us did. He knew the farmers, he knew who still had a cow. This worked wonders. But the real wonders were the Americans --you Americans! -- who came and chased out the Germans. One of them -- and you know he was quite handsome -- he wanted me to go to the United States with him, to marry him and live there.

She turned her gaze softly, lovingly, to the man to whom she'd been married these many years, and smiled gently.

Oh, he was a nice man, this American soldier. Later, he sent a box of soaps from the United States, from where he lived, in Ohio. All sorts of soaps, soaps we never had heard of, soaps we had never smelled before. The smells of America? We used the soaps, of course, you know how precious they were to us; but we saved the wrappers. We still have them today, don't we, all flattened out and in a special envelope! But I could never have left my France, and least of all my future with Jean-Paul! Sixty-one years we're together, you know!!

Her face shone, her electric-blue eyes twinkling with her love of life, her love of Jean-Paul, her love of America and its soldier-saviors. Annie, at the head of the table, sat quietly, suspended, looking upon these two people who had made and raised her.

Strike two, as far as my mythical cellar full of dusty old chandeliers worth a fortune.

A pair of huge black crows flap alongside, struggling to cross a barren brown field stretching to the horizon, as Michael pilots the TV back through the Valley of the Somme, and we head south to those cathedrals he just has to see. This eBay thing sure isn't going to be the next hurrah for me. Back to the drawing boards, I suppose.