I'd spent four hours on Friday morning
moving my stuff out my Homebox warehouse space onto the parking
lot outside and was awaiting the arrival of la caisse.
Two meters cubic, just large enough to stand up inside.
That's the way I like 'em, saves wear and tear on the back.
La caisse is ready to roll at 12:30. I've crammed the last chandelier into position and nailed the door shut. Thirty nails, damn the thought on opening it on the other end. Hello crowbar.
I call FATTON, my freight forwarder, to announce the happy news that if, on the offhand chance, the trucker wants to come early, noooo problem-o. Not much of a chance of that, answers Karl, my contact there; you know how precious that two-hour lunch break is to the truckers! Just a thought, I reply, thinking of the pot-bellied 40-year-olds plowing their carcasses through the salad bars and plats du jour
of their favorite roadside troughs.
Silly of me to flaunt convention.
And so I retire to the rental car, switch on the Yves Montand album I've found in a thrift shop, and pass out to "Une demoiselle sur un balancoire."
At two sharp the trucker rolls up the hill and into the parking lot. But, can this be the new wave of truckers? A 28-year-old, totally fit, boundlessly energetic, close-cropped boy-man hops out of the vehicle and nearly breaks my hand squeezing it. His patois, a machine-gun rapid style of French I've certainly never encountered in my rarified circles, positively boles me over. I'm forced into that position I positively detest, the "pardon, mais je n'ai pas compris" mode. In other words, slow down, bitch.
I might as well have asked George Bush to put aside his sword.
Boy-man trucker's bouncing around the parking lot, sizing up la caisse and eyeballing his van. It takes no more than 45 seconds for him to come to the grand conclusion that this is NOT a marriage made in heaven or anywhere else. He hops on his portable.
Hello, head office: Impossible.
And isn't this just what I need? It's Friday afternoon, which in France means one quick step before CLOSING TIME UNTIL ETERNITY. You do recall the 35-hour workweek syndrome, don't you? The well, the lazy suckers, if you don't mind my French, they just don't break their sweet asses for anybody, do they? It's Friday afternoon, and on top of that pile that it's July, and everybody has exactly one thing on his mind, and that is les vacances, and that means six, yes six weeks of paid vacation sitting along the river in the Ardeche or the Dordogne, uncorking des bouteilles de vin and changing the kid's diapers and otherwise doing exactly nothing, as man was clearly ordained to do.
I hop on the phone and call Karl. Karl, don't you understand? This box is 2 meters cube. CUBIC. It weighs 800 kilos, as I've stated in countless emails. There are no loading docks here.
A fenwick is obligatoire.
A fenwick? How, er, British!
Ever scream "give me a Kleenex!" as you're blowing your brains across the room? Kleenex is to wiping snot from your nose as fenwick is to lifting pallets. You with me? It's a goddamned forklift, sucker, and they don't grow on trees.
Except. There's one across the street, I saw it myself.
Across the street we go, again.
Monsieur, il y a un petit probleme. With that my sad story begins but I might as well be preaching to the tainted masses, because this guy is having none of it. We are talking stone face. We are talking "read these lips, they do not move."
We head back across the street and it isn't much more than 10 minutes before Bouncy Boy and his not-quite-large-enough van are history. It was fun (I think) while it lasted. It was a quickie.
Karl assures me that another transporter will be here by 4:30. Hey, better than imagined. The waiter has his thumb in the soup, yes; but that thumb has been in only the cleanest places.
Back to snoozing in the car. A little Beethoven helps dissolve the hours, the Moonlight Sonata's dulcet tones sooth my troubled brow.
But, that first pique-nique was scant and my stomach howls for more. I take the extraordinary risk of leaving the battlefield and heading for the supermarche, where I will buy another round of chevre, a Brazilian royal gala apple, a few slices of jambon superieur and une tarte frambois for dessert. After all, I'm worth it. And this fight isn't over; no army I ever knew won on an empty stomach.
Now it deserves to be said that I have a flight out of St. Exupery on Monday at eight AM. That's Monday. Get it? The day after the weekend. That means, this happens now or it doesn't happen, and if it doesn't happen I am S-C-R-E-W-E-D. Like, I've already told Karl and his cohorts: this has to happen today, Friday le 6 juillet. Because come le 9 juillet, Jack is history -- gone, bye-bye, back to the USA.
"Ya don't know how lucky we are, boys, back in the US, back in the US, back in the USSR." That old Beatles song has no relevance here except that I can't get it out of my head.
OH MY GOD LET THIS HAPPEN, TAKE MY BOX AWAY!!!
I can't even think about its not happening. La caisse is too large and heavy to haul inside the warehouse, and besides, I've had my way with these people and they with me. I've turned in my key and paid my rent and I no longer exist. Jack, l'americain, it was sweet but you are history.
Four thirty comes and predictably goes, but Karl calls anyway and tells me of the immense "emboutillages" on the highways. Well of course, it's Friday afternoon in July in France and the highways are awash in trailers and trucks and cars and motorcycles and ambulances and police cars. Whaa-wah, whaa-wah, whaa-wah.
A massive rig pulls up the driveway and onto the macadam: TR EXPRESS. Hey, there he is and it's only five fifteen, an hour and a half before closing time! Out hops a 40-year-old real man swathed in a too-tight red tee shirt which juts out over his wine-belly. So what! He's here and he's mine. I begin the dance by waltzing up to him, glad-handing him and proclaiming with a grand smile that he has arrived to "sauver la journee." He gives me the "you queer?" look, thankfully not pressing for an answer but instead getting right down to eyeballing the job. Like his predecessor Monsieur Bouncy Boy, Monsieur Cabernet Belly nimbly glides around the lot, now at la caisse, now back at his rig. But the vibes are not good. He jumps on his cell phone to call headquarters. That second pique-nique is roiling in my stomach, the jambon doing battle with the chevre.
I look inside his truck and instead of a le fenwick that I think I've ordered up, I see only another transpallet, just like the one that Monsieur Bouncy Boy had brought earlier. Oh, shit.
"Vous n'avez pas de fenwick?"
He rolls his transpallet out, and I the one from Homebox. We stick them under opposite sides of la caisse and just like that it's moving, scudding along the macadam. He lowers the tailgate on his rig and we well, "steer" is far too graceful a word for what's happening, the box lolling about like a Saturday night drunk. The two transpallets can't travel sideways, they have to be front and back, on opposing sides of the box. So, one transpallet has to go onto the tailgate, and there's no way to slide it out from under the box and still have the box moving forward into the truck bed. You with me? Shorthand translation: the goddamned box isn't about to go on the tailgate. And, in the unlikely event that it might end up there, the very second that the tailgate starts moving up, the thing is going to pitch off the back and come crashing down in a pile of soft fumigated wood, bent six-inch nails, oil, pastel, shattered glass and twisted wrought iron. Nasty.
The driver's back on his portable. Lots of head swinging, the body rocking back and forth, hands, arms, even legs gesticulating as only the French gesticulate. OK, add to that "Italians."
Shock. Total mind-numbing, disassociating, too long a day, too many stresses too much time in France too much sun too much rain too much French too much Homebox too many hotels too much driving too much n'importe quoi: shock.
Redbelly splits and the box is left sitting against the Homebox wall, just under the outdoor roof. Toute seule. All alone, my box, la caisse; just sitting there, somewhere in a parking lot in Champagne au Mont d'Or, France. How uncool.
And it's Friday. That means tomorrow is Saturday and if you think there's a single transporter in all of France who's working you are positively MAD.
I am coming apart at the seams.
How many times have I heard the mantra, the on-going French theme: Thieves everywhere, Monsieur, watch out!? Three hundred, or has it been three thousand? Ya just can't go anywhere without that phrase being slobbered all over ya. Paranoia? Reality? Something in between? Who knows? I will say, I've seen many more piles of broken auto window-glass on American sidewalks than I have on French ones. I think. But who am I other than Mr. Anecdotal Evidence? Hey, they live here, wouldn't they know?
Time to back up just enough of a tad to let you know that my financial future resides in la caisse. Two months of trolling through France, two months of staggering expenses, endless foie gras entrees (I digress, but sometime I must tell you about the fois gras crème brule which jump-started one meal), two months of sleazy hotels, no one to talk to other than as Monsieur-buyer, Monsieur-needs-to-feed-his-face, Monsieur-needs-a-hotel-room. How disconnected and alienated can you get anyway? No, it hasn't been a pique-nique, but it is almost over. I can taste that 8AM British Airways flight out of St. Exupery, the Lyon airport named for the fly-boy creator of Le Petit Prince. Ah, just give me one whiff of good ol' JP-4, I'll join you up in the clouds, Monsieur Exupery!
The young swathed-in-black siren at the Homebox helm has already been more than helpful during this woeful day. It was she, for instance, who wobbled out of the office in her stilettos to grab the other transpallet and help the second driver push la caisse around (while I stood helplessly by, calcified, paralyzed by my raging emotions). Now she and I are pouring through the yellow pages and madly googling, trying to find out if someone in the vicinity might have un fenwick for rent, knowing that the chances of getting one on Friday afternoon are close to zero.
Sacrosanct the afternoon will remain, nothing is available. One company has an opening for a rental coming up the following Wednesday afternoon; and the price, including the aller-retour cartage, the driver, the vehicle itself: 485 euros, more than six hundred dollars. Six hundred dollars, to lift the box onto a truck!!!
The tea leaves have settled in the bottom of the cup, and they are not giving a happy reading.
I retreat to the hotel, exhausted and still in shock. La caisse is destined to sit outside in the Homebox parking lot all weekend. NO SECURITY, not even the occasional watchman. Moi, hunkered down in the hotel room, marking time as massive thunderheads roll and roil across the Beaujolais dumping historic levels of water onto vines whose grapes will soon be made into wine that few will buy. A meal at the local Flunch cafeteria (sound appetizing?) restores me somewhat, but I know I'm in for a rough weekend. The prime question, how to take care of myself? Not far behind, how to pave the way for a successful pickup on Monday?
As if I need additional signs from the universe department. Friday night I'm getting ready for bed; I start gathering up things that in my emotional torpor I've scattered about during the early evening. Like my camera. For some "inexplicable" reason I've lodged it on top of a radiator; it usually resides in my pocket. In a grand gesture summarizing my frustration with the day's activities and my mental state, I extend my left hand to sweep it off its perch and into my right hand; instead I sweep it straight onto the tile floor, which it hits like a meteor landing in an Arizona desert. I pull it out of its thin cloth case and turn it on. The lens doesn't move; grinding noises and pitiful electronic moans from the camera's deep interior are its lonely response. My precious camera, dead! Why did I do that? What a foul way to end an already grotesque day! I whack it on the back, the opposite side from where it hit the ceramic floor. I try to open it again. More grinding. Third try, it opens! No more grinding. But, it won't focus, all's a blur. I smack it again, still no focus. OK, Jack, let it rest. Ten minutes later I try it again, still no focus. Twenty minutes later I smack it again -- not a hard smack but a loving smack which says "be good, you're all I have." It focuses and works, and I give that three seconds of thought as I fall into a deep sleep.
Throughout the night, wave after wave of paranoia and fear wash over me. I dream of bands of gypsies with crowbars hacking into la caisse. After creeping up the driveway in their all-black Reboks, they'll spring open the side that's facing the front of the building so they'll be obscured by the box itself as they carry out their heinous work just outside the range of the video camera. They'll greedily rub their hands together as they dive into my carefully stowed boxes of Muller lamps, Degue sconces, Daum shades, Lalique vases. Bubblewrap will melt in their hot little hands as they excitedly uncover the art collection. The head thief will know exactly what he'll do with the sumptuous oil-on-canvas Bisset nude dated 1926. It will hang over his bed, a trophy for all time, a sexy reminder of another heady night of plunder. His underlings, meanwhile, will squabble over the pencil-drawn Modernist "cowboy" by Tonia Cariffa, student of Fernand Leger; they'll have a tooth-and-nail battle over the delicately rendered pastel nude by F. Majorel. The reeking, snaggle-toothed band will strum their mandolins and dance merrily off into the night, their caravan of horse-drawn wagons sagging and groaning under the weight of fresh booty, their horses leaving signature mounds of manure for the gendarmes to sift through for DNA samples.
Saturday dawn brings a clear sky and sunshine, a rare, fresh moment for this besotted French summer. I awake knowing what I have to do, and after un petit dejeuner of apples and chevre I set to it. I have to voice my position in a written document. Tell these people off, but all tres doucement, because I still need their help. Such a letter, in French naturellement, will require an all-day effort the outline and rough draft in English, then the translation. I'm still too freaked to deal with the reality that I have to stay longer in France. That means calling the airlines, a potentially half-day effort in itself. This also means contacting the rental car bureau and finding out what are my new expenses and return parameters. Tortured regularly by visions of thieves hacking away at la caisse, hurt to the core by Karl's blowing off my request for a fenwick, I'm just barely able to manage putting the letter together, let alone writing it in a firm but polite fashion.
Caught, in other words, between the rock and the hard place.
I wonder what can this be about on a deeper level? Is there some "life message" being relayed here? Am I being told: don't ever come back to France? But I can't find a hook to hang myself; I feel like I've done everything just right. What could I possibly have done differently? Meanwhile, I'm just hating the French. How could these fools try, twice, to pick up a box of this size without the right truck, without the right equipment? What, in the words of our esteemed American know-it-all Dr. Phil, could they possibly have been THINKING??!!
A late Saturday afternoon walk through the Beaujolais vineyards, along a winding ridge road and into Le Bois d'Oingt, on that afternoon of the week a virtual ghost town, serves to reinforce my notions of everything that's wrong with these idiots and their stupid country. Just LOOK at the way they drive, for instance. Endlessly aggressive. They won't give you an inch or a second. I think about how the other day, when I'd been sitting first in line at a red light, and was shifting into first as the light was changing. Less than a second after the light changed, as I was just letting the clutch out, the creep behind me in his red Ferrari just had to blast his horn to get me on my way! Like, I dared waste a second of his precious life, that all-important second that could mean everything! And, you make a move that they deem "inappropriate," and they're all over you like well, you know. I thought about another day when I had sailed through the tail end of a yellow light changing to red. You'd have thought I'd tried to bomb the Eiffel Tower, his indignation and rage so complete, Pierre practically crawling through the window of his car, shaking his arm in rage, cursing me as he approached the intersection. Scary!
They've rolled up the sidewalks at 5 PM on Saturday afternoon in Le Bois d'Oingt and it's going to stay that way until Monday morning. All the stores will be closed, even the boulangeries, until Monday or even Tuesday. What's a person to do, anyway, plan ahead??~!! Well, I planned plenty ahead for that idiot Karl, didn't I? How many emails did I send specifying the dimensions, weight, and location of la caisse? What does par terre mean to you, Karl, hanging from a goddamned sky hook, ready to swing into a truck?!
I lay a plan to visit la caisse on Sunday morning, bright and early, to see what the gypsies have left behind. The letter is finished, I'll email that on Sunday so they have it as the entree for their new work week on Monday morning.
My opening salvo: "After receiving counsel from my lawyer"
"You were well aware of the dimensions and the approximate weight of the box, which I had relayed in writing and verbally."
"In numerous conversations at that exact moment (when the first truck was leaving) with your representative Karl I SPECIFICALLY stated that a forklift was absolutely required for the job. However, when a second truck arrived nearly three hours later, that driver had no forklift and was incapable of lifting the box into the truck. In fact, he came with the exact same equipment as the earlier driver, one transpallet. He made an effort to get the box onto the electric tailgate but it was obvious that the danger of its falling was extreme.
"Prior to the 6th of July I mentioned both verbally and in writing that it was imperative that the box be removed from its location on the 6th of July for reasons of security. The box is sitting in a parking lot outside the warehouse with no security whatsoever and as such is liable to theft or damage. This is totally unacceptable and I hold your company 100% responsible in the event of damage or loss to my goods.
"By ignoring my specific demand for a forklift and by failing to remove the box from its location you have put my merchandise and myself and my family in peril of significant financial loss, a grave matter.
"I direct you to IMMEDIATELY resolve this problem. I direct you to engage the services of a transporter who is capable of lifting the box into an appropriate truck and taking it to your safe location."
A twisted excuse for a night's sleep takes me to Sunday morning at 6AM, and I awake bathed in adrenaline but simultaneously exhausted. I realize that if I don't hop on the phone and change my plane reservation for Monday that I'm in danger of losing my return flight altogether. I've already gone on the internet to try to effect the change, but since I've bought the ticket through a travel agent, and not directly from British Airways, I can't use their website to reschedule. How maddening! BA's French offices are all closed from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning, of course. Bitches! Is there something not entirely out of whack about this? I mean, really, this is the modern life?! 24/365 internet access, everybody with a portable, everybody with a car! But once a week they forget about it all and disappear, go underground, get totally lost? Just who do they think they are?!
I'm up and ready to head out the door, so wanting to get just one, one comforting look at my box, when I think, "Jack, if you don't get that ticket changed RIGHT NOW you are screwed." My sole option, it seems, is to call England direct and see if I can talk to an agent at British Airways. Their office opens at 7AM. At the precise moment that I dial a massive thunderhead rolls over and the morning sky collapses back into night. Lightening flashes, thunder roars, and I am treated to every time-squandering message that British Airways can think of except, "Have you changed your underwear today?"
"Do you know that you can avoid surcharges by going onto BA.com and taking care of your needs on our site?"
Uh, yeah, I tried that.
All this against a background of British Airways Happy Music.
Twenty minutes later, no more progress than "Please continue to hold for the first available agent, and thank you for calling British Airways."
You're quite welcome. Come by sometime for a punch in the schnoz.
I hang up, because it's pouring outside, I'm getting nowhere andcould la caisse be getting drenched?! I mean, it got dragged pretty far from where I'd loaded it, maybe it's under that huge overhang on the warehouse. Maybe I just better hop in the car and get over there and double-check that. And take my roll of bubble-wrap with me in case it's getting wet. I can roll a couple of pieces over the top and tape them to the sides if it isn't too wet. And I can see if there's even anything left to protect! I try not to think of it, but the image of an entirely empty parking lot crosses my mind.
Twenty-five minutes later I roll up to Homebox and there sits la caisse, not only intact but dry, by exactly 18 inches. This, dangerously close to a positive experience. I head back to the hotel. More phone. More no agent. More Happy Music. "Due to an unusually high calling volume, you might experience a minimum wait of 30 minutes before speaking to an agent." Great. Thirty minutes more at international calling rates? I hang up again. Hmmmm. Well, maybe things are a little quieter in New York, where no ticket agent is ever allowed to sleep. I call the 800 number, which I reach once I've been warned in French that 800 numbers if called outside the U.S. are not free, they are charged at normal international dialing rates. "If you wish to avoid paying those charges please hang up now."
How noble of them to warn me! I stay on the line, finally get an agent after a mere ten minutes, and get my ticket changed for the bargain rate of $220 (they keep me on the line for an additional ten minutes while they contemplate whether my "new" ticket will be issued at the same rate as my "old" one). Now my departure is Thursday. Such a deal! I call the rental car company and extend my rental car contract. Only $135 more? Hey, I might have ten cents left over when I get back to San Francisco, I guess I better start figuring out how to spend it!
It rains, thunders and lightenings the entire day, every wretched second of it. Well, that's good on one count; don't crooks, blackguards and thieves stay home like everybody else when it's raining?
I let go a little. Not toooo much, just a little. After all, what did worry ever get me but more out of body? So, the box might be empty. Am I healthy? Ten fingers, ten toes? FATTON just might tell me to go to hell on Monday morning. Are there no other freight forwarders in France? I might have to pay a little more to get the stupid box into a truck. Is my bank account empty? Jesus Christ, DAMNED NEAR!!!
I plan to show up at FATTON on Monday morning for a face-to-face pow-wow. How else to do it? This phone thing is obviously not working. I spend Sunday afternoon glued to the yellow pages, where I find a couple of other transporters. I prepare lengthy emails to them, outlining the details of where the box is, what's needed to move it, whether they can help and requesting referrals if they can't. Got to cover every base. I send the emails. I try to sleep, wake up Monday morning exhausted, strung out to the max. I start making my calls at 07:30.
"Sorry, Monsieur, the person who handles the computer isn't due in until 9:30 this morning."
"Well, perhaps can you help me anyway; here's the problem"
"Sorry, Monsieur, we don't have trucks with fenwicks. No, we can't recommend anyone else."
That sinking feeling returns. I was sure one of them would work out.
Meanwhile, I've been trying to call Homebox since 8AM, their opening time. Busy. Busy busy busy busy busy. Ten minutes later, busy. Fifteen minutes later: busy. I'm consumed by whether my box has made it through the night and the weekend.
That empty-hole-in-chest feeling claims my entire being.
At 8:50 the phone rings. It's Karl, and he's sounding none too pleased. Not exactly angry but a far cry from genial. He matter-of-factly states, without acknowledging receipt of my e-mail, that according to the terms of our contract it's my responsibility to put the box on the truck! FATTON's responsibility begins once the box is on the truck. I figure I'm probably being scammed, but I also know that it's obligatoire for FATTON to continue to smell like roses. No culpability, no responsibility. Nothing new here, we're in France.
"Really?" I respond. "MY responsibility to put it on the truck? Why, I never would have imagined that!" And I'm thinking, I thought we had scheduled an "enlevement" (raising), as opposed to "une livraison" (a delivery).
Karl: "Yes, that's how it is. You've loaded containers in the past, right? Don't you load them yourself, put your goods into them? Well, once you've loaded it and closed the doors it becomes the responsibility of the transporter."
"Er, wellah, I guess." I fail to get understand the comparison, but somehow this doesn't seem like the moment to seek a precise explanation. Karl is doing his best to be civil with me.
"Yes, that's how it is. Now just how do you expect to get your box into the truck? Are you going to rent a fenwick?"
Deepest terror flashes through me. The mere suggestion of being thrown back into the world of French yellow pages, where not only have I not realized a single stroke of good fortune, but au contraire have suffered seemingly endless setbacks, horrifies me.
I'm seven. Dad has a quarter in his hand that will buy me an ice cream cone and I'VE GOT TO GET THAT QUARTER.
"Ah ca serait tres, tres difficile pour moi," I offer, my tone pleading.
Karl: "I'll see if I can find something."
"Tres gentil de vous; je serais tres bien apprecie."
We know who has the upper hand here, and as usual in France it ain't me. Or, put another way, once you've paid you have no power. None. FATTON has my check and I have what? Oh, how endlessly humbling and humiliating. I have no idea if Karl's gambit about its being my responsibility to put the stupid box on the truck is true, but that's what he's trotted out and with full bluster. Sure, I could call him on it but where does that take me? It's like, do I want to be right, or do I want a relationship? I need this man, with his fluent French, his knowledge of the trucking world of Lyon, France, his ability to get my goddamned box off the pavement and into a truck. Besides, he's not exactly stuffing crow down my throat.
Karl tells me he'll get back to me as soon as he's made some progress, words which aren't entirely soothing. I hang up. It's nine o'clock in the morning, three days before my newly scheduled flight leaves Lyon. That's three days to make this happen. Go, Karl!
At ten, less than an hour later, my cell phone jangles. It's Karl. "We're on for 2 o'clock this afternoon," he tells me. "I have a semi with a cherry-picker on it and the additional cost to you is 200 euros. Can the parking lot handle a truck that size?"
"It sure can, I've moved full containers out of there. That works for me, I'll be there. And thank you very much!"
I hang up and don't know whether to laugh or cry. Could this wretched tale of unintended deception, miscommunication, unspeakable tension and worry be nearing its end?
Four hours later I arrive at Homebox to find la caisse already hoisted onto the flatbed, a small, dark-complexioned man with a clear and open face at the controls. A huge chain hangs around la caisse, pretty as a string of pearls. Minutes later the papers are signed, the box is cinched down and the semi is inching back down the driveway, destination FATTON warehouse. A cloudburst drenches me, the truck, la caisse; but do I care? Those paintings, they are entombed in plastic.
The next day my friend Karl calls with the icing on the cake: la caisse has cleared French customs!
La vie, elle est belle, non?