Tour de France, part deux

If you have not read the previous post, you may wish to do so now, lest you be left bewildered by your abrupt arrival in mid-narrative.

Chapter Three

After the flurry of emails leading up to my final, embarrassed suggestion that she seek other transportation, I didn't hear back from Traci Macnamara that day. It was as if she had finally realized that the whole offer had been nothing more than a fever dream, a transatlantic hoax. I sheepishly wondered whether I would ever again see or hear from that poor woman whose time I had wasted, while she was stranded, lame, in Paris. I imagined she thought I had made the entire story up, for obscure and perverse reasons of my own.

The next day, to my surprise, I found in my inbox the continuation of our correspondence. "Unbelievable, mission accomplished! I have your yellow velo and a new kryptonite lock." (Velo means "bicycle" in French. As Steve Martin once said, "those French people have a different word for everything!")

The bicycle, saved, or at least salvaged? It seemed impossible, or at best, unlikely. I wrote back at once: "Please ring me tomorrow. This is a story I want to hear."

When Macnamara called, she explained that she was holding yet another bag of frozen peas hard against her inflamed achilles tendon. Her long and arduous trudging about the far-flung quartiers of Paris, while attempting to solve the bicycle conundrum, had caused a relapse. Nonetheless, she was effervescent.

The day before, she had made her way to the Avenue de Suffren and, with the help of a Google streetview snapshot I had sent her, easily located the building. I had suggested that it was a large and crowded complex, and that even without the passcode it would be easy enough to gain access to the courtyard by opportunistically gliding in on the coattails of a resident. But Traci soon discovered that this notion was simply another one of my optimistic fabrications. She lurked and lingered about on the street in front of the locked doorway to no avail, until, perhaps, passersby began to look at her strangely and wonder what sort of sordid business she was up to. It was as mortifying as it was unproductive.

courtesy: Google Streetview

Already, imagining the raised eyebrows and the leers that might have been directed her way, we could forgive Macnamara had she abandoned the whole enterprise and gone hobbling back to her hotel. But I had described the courtyard, in which the bicycle might or might not still exist, as being a full city block long, and backing onto a sort of an alley. Instead of going home and sulking, she limped down to the corner and along the side street, looking for the service access to the back of the building. After jumping over a waist-high retaining wall, she found herself with her nose pressed up against the bars securing the courtyard, mere inches from the bike rack. "And there it was," she said. "I saw it right away."  (I believe she added that "The bicycle looked like it was painted by Jackson Pollack, with a bad hangover." Or words to that effect. I didn't record the conversation, so that might not be verbatim.) The bicycle was directly in front of her, elusive and unobtainable behind the bars.

Realizing that she needed a plan of attack, Macnamara set out in search of two tools that her scouting had revealed were necessary: a pump for the visibly flat tires, and something to cut a lock off with. Many disappointments were in store. The Avenue de Suffren, which divides the 7th from the 15th Arrondissement, is a rather toney address. Imagine lurching along Park Avenue in the neighborhood of 70th street. with a gimp leg, trying to borrow a hacksaw and a bike pump from the doormen there, and you will get some idea of what Traci was up against. There is a boulangerie on Suffren where the woman behind the counter looks over the tops of her eyeglasses with a disdainful sneer, as if to suggest that Americans are not fit to eat the baguettes that she bakes. On the corner, at the epicerie, blemishless fruits are piled in immaculate pyramids by fastidious Tunisians. There are no sordid corners in this hood. It is not the kind of place where a wink and the offer of a few francs in return for the short-term loan of a pair of bolt-cutters will be met with the knowing smile of approval of an underworld collaborator.

Seething with frustration, her ankle throbbing, Traci refused to lose focus. Instead of the criminal route, she determined to triumph with smiles, and perhaps even some feminine wiles. Plan B was to arrive at the front door, ring the bell, and explain her predicament to the concierge, who might, if he believed her story, be happy to see a surplus bicycle removed, never again to take up space on the bike rack of which he was the steward. With any luck the more friendly, flirty sort of concierge (if there is such a thing to be found in Paris) might even offer up a demonstration of his manly French bolt-cutting prowess. There was also the risk that she might be sent away, having accomplished nothing except the alerting of the building's guardian to her designs on one of its bicycles. She had to exercise caution, for nothing less than Wordsworth's legacy was at stake.

There is a uniform worn by workingmen all across Europe, a sort of coverall, in royal blue. German carpenters wear it, as do Swedish auto-mechanics, Spanish plasterers and French maintenance men. In front of the doorway Traci wanted opened was just such a workingman, all but blocking the entrance as he sucked on a Gauloise and chattered on a téléfone portable. He was clearly taking a break from some sort of task within the premises. Perhaps he himself was the concierge. Macnamara approached, trying out a few polite French trivialities. The man refused to come unglued from his cellphone, but he turned, punched in the code, and gestured toward the door with gallic dismissiveness. She was in!

Chapter Four

It was unbearable. She was now standing over the bicycle, touching it, and admiring the patina of its comparatively recent repainting. But she was no closer, really, to victory. Three years ago, I had purchased the most inexpensive lock I could find, five euros worth of cable. With the key permanently lost, that lock was now the only thing preventing Macnamara from continuing her glorious journey down the Loire valley. She tugged at it, and peeled back the plastic tubing that protects the cable from rust. It might have been a cheap lock, but it had done its work for three years already, and it wasn't done yet.

But neither was Macnamara. She is, after all, as close as one can come to being from Antarctica, a place where people survive the long dark winters by gnawing on frozen seal blubber and eating penguin sushi. Traci had dressed fetchingly for her trek to the 15ieme Arrondissement, in order better to manipulate hapless, besotted concierges, but inside her clutch she had a weapon. She took it out now. It was a petite and delicate Swiss Army knife, but one with a saw attachment. Looking about her to see if she was observed, she attacked the lock with the three-inch blade, like a prisoner on Alcatraz trying to remove a cinderblock with a smuggled spoon. If you lived there, and had been home that day, you might have spied out the window a woman in a dress, with an inflamed ankle, bent over a bicycle and savagely hacking away.

Those Swiss don't only make watches. Under the pressure of the serrated steel, first one strand of wire gave way, and then another. Soon Traci found her rhythm. Look around, saw feverishly, pause. Repeat. FWANG! Finally, the lock gave way. Macnamara smiled. Looking around calmly, she pulled the bike away from the rack, pressed the button to unlock the back door, and pushed out into the alley.

I'm expecting a postcard from Switzerland, any day now.

The bicycle, reclaimed, relocked and loaded

Macnamara, heading South, like Shackleton

Next stop, Chamonix

All photographs: Anne Aghion


j_Sender said...

I have a somewhat similar story, but in my own building last fall. Almost got tuned into the gendarme municipale for "borrowing" a dusty bike in my building. It was in one of the basement bike rooms, I did so after being assured that it was perfectly fine by a wayward NGO working Oregonean who gave the impression that at an earlier time, he was rather pre-occupied with "sticking it to the man". Just my subjective impression.
After a month of biking around town, I got busted by the returning owners one day coming out of the ramp in the basement. A couple of ex-pat Spaniard grand-parents who live in the adjacent building. I explained in my worst Spanish how and why I was riding their bicicleta, THe Oregonean connection was conveniently away on "mission" in Central America for a few months. I went over to Carrefour and bought a new bike a few days later.
That was last October and I have yet to see either of the Spanish grand-parents out for a ride. I also found out that my "friend" from the north-west coast made a profit of 5 euros when he offered to have a copy of the bike room key copied for me at the Saturday market from the keyguy.
One of the small trials of being a stranger in a strange etc...
As for Madame Macnamara, a bed or a wrench?
Let me know, certainly a possibility, have to check with the others.


They say it's a cold world said...

@j: Of course the secret is to flee the scene, and the building, before the original neglectors of the bicycle have a chance to notice that you have done all the sprucing, oiling and pumping that they have been endlessly putting off for a sunny day.
In my defense, the bike was a geological specimen when I started with it, and I suspect the owner would have had to come back from the dead to claim it.
I don't think Madamoiselle Macnamara will need a bed, and I hope she won't need a wrench. The favor I want to ask is more along the lines of wondering whether you might have a bicycle room in your building's basement, or something like it, in which you could stash the bike until either I have a chance to come and collect it, or forever, whichever comes first. Mme. Mac's plans don't include passing by Paris on her way back to Antarctica, so the idea is to lock it somewhere where it might survive until I pop round and get it. In fact, it's a pity you've already run off to the Carrefour and shelled out. Maybe Carla wants to ride it....
Since you've unwittingly revealed that you have access to precisely such a space, it sounds like you could be just the man for me!

j_Sender said...

Paris ≠ Antartica, head towards Gibraltar, keep going south...

I never meant to imply you did anything nefarious. Hey man, liberate! Steal this book, etc.

They say it's a cold world said...

July 27th, Macnamara emails to say:
"(the) bike cruises. Hit the Saone today and will start south towards Lyon tomorrow. Rode the canals from the Loire to the Saone to keep it on the flat. You've got to get on this bike and camp. So funny, Euro campsites. Like this is totally normal over here, you know? People come over and chat but don't think I'm a wacked-out freak on this bike from Paris. It's like, no worries...people pulling their kids behind them in bike trailers. Good stuff. Camping for 10€ a night and having supper yummy dinners with glass after glass of wine..."

Okay, now I'm jealous, and I want my bike back.

They say it's a cold world said...

July 29th, Macnamara writes:
"Made it through Lyon today, very tired! Lots of good times along the way. May be back on foot by Monday." (The plan being not to ride a somewhat hefty one-speed very far eastward into the Alps, but to go back to hiking...)