Breakfast In Paris by Sunny Lockwood
Checking out of room 43 at The Louisiana Hotel, a tiny establishment squeezed in between a pharmacy and a half-block of farmers’ fruit stalls on the Rue De Seine, I feel happy. Paris has been good – the cloud-filtered sunlight softening narrow streets of stone houses, the fragrance of tree-ripened peaches and nectarines in the morning, the sound of flute and violin in the afternoon, the clink of wineglasses at night.
Six days immersed in the swell of the city – swimming in the sights and sounds and aromas, soaking in the genius of van Gogh, Rodin and Caillebotte, Balzac and Hugo -- and now as I check out and head toward the bus station, backpack resting easily on my shoulders, a bag of bread and marmalade and a bottle of orange juice dangling from one hand, I decide to give something back.
As a little merci gesture I will give my bag of food to some hungry Parisian. I’ve seen them, the hollow-eyed rag people, sleeping in doorways, rummaging through garbage cans. I’ll find one in this pink-gold morning light and give him (or her) a good breakfast. The idea pleases me.
I turn right on Rue de Buci. A tall man wearing dirty blue trousers, his huge-toed feet like the naked hands of some giant chimpanzee, is standing against a postered marble pillar. He stands so still he could be a mannequin, eyes staring at the sidewalk, hand extended palm up, waiting like a great human sparrow for a crumb.
I pause, but only momentarily. He’s not right. Too young. Too healthy looking. Too passive. Too dependent.
I walk on past cafes with tiny round tables and cane chairs, past the flower merchants arranging their sweet-smelling wares – roses and mums and sunflowers – explosions of pinks and purples and greens, while gray pigeons flutter around the edges of everything like living lace.
I cross the Rue De L’Ancienne Comedee (still wet from its morning washing) and continue past shoe stores and dress shops.
I walk all the way to St. Michele and turn left to the Seine. At the river I turn left again – Notre Dame with its straining gargoyles behind me – and walk past the book and art stalls, past the racks of souvenir post cards. Surely along the river I will find my breakfast guest.
And then I see him – far ahead under the dappled shade of the elms. I see him soles first because he is lying face down on the sidewalk, pants crumpled, clothes so near the color of dirty cement that he is almost invisible, blending with the shimmering light and shadow of the walkway.
As I head toward him, he stirs, rolls onto his side (one hand opening and closing as if grasping a friend’s arm), tries to rise, then rests a moment from his efforts. Rolling over onto his back, he tries again to sit up, grasping at the air, straining, listing slightly to the left. With the great care that comes from walking in a world that rocks and sometimes disappears right out from under you, he places an open palm on the sidewalk next to him, an added prop in his struggle to rise.
His hair is sparse, his face patched with purple. His eyes try to focus. Then I notice a crowd of elderly women heading my way – a tour group of maybe twenty coming down the sidewalk toward the man and me, scrubbed and groomed with tiny pearl necklaces and wavy white hair shining bright as tiaras in the early sun.
They come up behind him, talking excitedly together, not even noticing the man within the litter. Hearing their footsteps, he cringes like a child who’s been kicked often enough to recognize the sound of coming pain. Still seated on the sidewalk, he shrinks back out of the way of the stampede.
They brush past in a gilded wave of swaying skirts and perfume.
Receiving no blows, he ventures an over-the-shoulder glance. At first his mouth hangs limp, his eyes still struggling to focus. Then he turns fully toward the crowd, his face just above the hemline sea. As it continues, skirt after skirt after gently swaying skirt, his cheeks flush, then glow.
His head bobs as wave after wave of ladies pass.
His eyes radiant, he brings his hands together in applause.
“Ahhhh,” I can almost hear him say, “Paris in the morning!”
Merci beaucoup shines all over his face as he claps and claps.
When the last of them pass, I approach and gently set my bread and marmalade beside him. He glances up from his sun drenched sidewalk throne. I twist off the cap and slip the still cool bottle of juice into his unrepentant hands; his fingers close around it like an infant’s.
“For you,” I say, but needn’t.
His gray stubble-beard, his dust-covered teeth, smiling broadly tell me he’s learned to accept whatever the gods may offer. And today they’ve offered much.
He sits in the sunlight clasping the juice bottle to his chest with both hands, grinning and talking to himself.
Grateful for the early morning bounty I was allowed to share, I turn toward the metro.