by Dana P. Shaw
Paris:- Saturday, 26. October 1996:- When one is fifteen years old, living in a two room pension with his mother, father and little sister and the only source of income is father's sabbatical stipend, the weekly allowance doesn't go far. My 500 vieux francs - $1.42 in those days - were all I could comfortably expect.
Living on the rue d'Assas and going to school on the Boulevard d'Auteuil beyond the Porte d'Auteuil required some form of transportation, the cheaper the better. The métro and I quickly became fast friends.
At first the 200 franc carnet of ten 2nd class tickets was the bargain, but within three months I had discovered that there was an item called the 'carte.' For a mere 150 francs, one could purchase this card weekly and receive twelve trips on the metro, as opposed to the ten in a carnet. The only restrictions were that the twelve rides were six daily round trips, and they had to start at the station where the carte was purchased.
If one day wasn't used, it could serve as ticket for Sunday. Armed with this freedom of transportation I started a love affair with the city - a love affair that continues to this day.
Deep beneath the earth, this fifteen year old discovered some of the treasures that come with growing up and living in a big city for the first time ever.
The métro held many exciting mysteries. One had to manually open the doors. Of the five cars, one was reserved for first class passengers only. Often as I backed into an already crowded car, sucked in my stomach and pushed hard against the door frame so the door could close, I wished I could afford the luxury of that first class space.
In less crowded hours I noticed more of the workings of the system. Little signs in the windows of the cars noting that the seats to which the arrows were pointed were reserved for disabled war veterans - something I had never seen in the United States - but a privilege, I thought that had been well earned and should be emulated in America.
Eventually, my curiosity challenged me to try to ride in the front of the first car. There in a ten foot square of space with no seats except four pulldown 'banquettes' one could see how the operation really worked. I could peer through the small window in the door, which was the driver's entrance into his small compartment. I could look out through the windshield of the train down the tunnel to the lights of the station ahead.
Adolescent male minds seem to have an affinity for this - seeing how the trains worked. In addition, I could watch the conductor manipulate his set of two buttons. One, when pushed, turned on the pneumatic door closing system. The other, which he worked with his finger while operating the former with his thumb, would sound a bell for the driver when all the doors had been closed. Of course, the careful observer noted that once the train had left the station, the conductor released both buttons, turning off the air pressure. Subsequent experiments in cars farther back in the train proved the hypothesis that once the button had been released the doors could be opened, even as the train hurtled between stations.
Sadly the conductor has disappeared from the métro train; and as an adult, one would never try to open the doors between stations.
Advancing age causes one to reminisce about the good old days. I'm not sure they were all that good, but the métro clearly has changed from the friend I once knew. Not only are the conductors gone but so to are the ticket punchers, usually ladies in those days, who would carefully examine your ticket and punch it before allowing you onto the platform.
Their position at the platform's end served another purpose, which was to close the little gate every time a train entered the station to stop anybody trying to dash down the corridor and get on the train that had already arrived.
Along the corridors that comprised the 'Correspondances' there were six foot high doors aptly named 'Portillons Automatiques' which would also close as trains arrived. They, too, have disappeared. I wonder why. The concept seemed a good one. Perhaps too many folks got squeezed between the door's outer rubber barrier and the upright.
Virtually every station had the same decor, blue and white tile. Periodically I would ride a train that would take me through the Franklin D. Roosevelt station. It was flashy with stainless steel and large picture windows that had displays of all sorts of the wonderful goods that one might buy at Galeries Lafayette or La Samaritaine. In addition they were experimenting with rubber tires on the cars of one line. *Which line? The Line 1 at FDR has rubber tires* But, the majority of the system was the same, friendly blue and white.
I had many experiences on the métro, from the expected panhandlers to pick-pockets. I also learned a bit about the French way of life. In those days it seemed to hinge around rather dark, drab clothing. It caused a problem for a teenager, who, like his peers, would do anything to avoid being embarrassed.
Winter brought with it the onset of the basketball season. Although rather short, I fancied myself a good player and promptly tried out for and made the team, representing the American Community School.
Making the team brought many rewards, not the least of which was a reversible team jacket. Maroon nylon on one side with white three-inch high letters 'ACS' on the back, the jacket was worn with this side out as a warmup prior to the start of games.
The other side was a blue flannel with a two inch maroon strip running from the top of the shoulder down each sleeve with white piping on the edge and the same three-inch 'ACS' on the back.
My teammates and I were so proud of our jackets. We wore them everywhere. The girls at school argued over who would get a chance to wear mine during recess. Having one was quite an honor.
However, the métro trip to and from school produced a dilemma. Even when I wore the more conservative blue side out, people would point at me, sometimes giggle and talk behind their hands - very embarrassing to a fifteen year old. I usually had my hands full of school materials so I couldn't easily take the jacket off and carry it. Besides it was cold enough in winter to need its warmth.
There was no answer. The need for the recognition at school weighed much more heavily than the ridicule I was feeling on the métro, so the jacket stayed and I went through the first experience of growing up and trying not to be embarrassed by wearing something that was important to me.
The métro and I had many experiences together. I saw water pouring in during the spring when the flooding was bad along the Seine. The river was almost up to the top of the arches of the bridges and the métro trip from the left bank Chambre des Deputés to Concorde on the right bank was exciting to say the least. So exciting that I avoided looking through the window at the front of the car at the water cascading into the tunnel.
Sitting in the Pasteur station as midnight tolled the arrival of 1955 with my tired family and a drunk snoring softly on a neighboring bench is an image that has stayed with me through the years. Somehow New Year's Eve had always been different in upstate New York.
Paris is a city I adore. From the neighborhood cafe to the grandeur of the Louvre. From the exquisite beauty of the stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle to the smell of onion soup at Les Halles - it is all a part of me.
As a teen-age boy, it was the métro that offered me the freedom to explore and get to know the city on my terms. It can be a great big wonderful world when you are fifteen years old. Even the Marine guard on duty at the American Embassy will smile at you.Dana P. Shaw©1996
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