Monday, February 27, 2012

Madame Coo
I remember the pigeons in Paris. During my second year there, I lived on Rue de Bois de Bologne in the 16th arrondissement.  I was a block or two from Avenue Foch, which if I recall correctly, radiates like an axle spoke from the traffic circle around the Arch de Triumph.  I don't have a great memory of how the streets of Paris were laid out, because I went everywhere on the Metro. 

Paris is divided into different neighborhoods or arrondissements and the 16th is pretty damn ritzy. Most of the buildings were constructed during the late nineteenth century as apartment buildings for the wealthy.  They were made of stone with beautiful metal work around the floor to ceiling balcony windows. All featured amazing main entrances; double swinging doors of impressive size made of naturally finished hardwoods designed to accommodate horse and carriage from which one disembarked in the building's central courtyard.  Each set of doors had a smaller pedestrian entrance built into it.  One announced themselves by pushing a buzzer on the outside wall.  The concierge,  who occupied the ground floor apartment beside the entrance, would peek out her window, determine your identity and either buzz you in or join you at the door to determine your business. In France, there is a certain formality even to the most mundane daily activity.

I rented a maid's chambre.  It cost about $100US a month.  It was tiny.  It had a small closet, a narrow cot-like bed, a sink and a bidet.  The communally-shared Turkish-style toilet was located down the hall.  My rental had two great features.  First, the building had an ancient, two person elevator that ran from the lobby to the sixth floor, leaving only one level of stairs to climb to reach the septieme etage, where I lived.  The year before I had not been so lucky. My place on Rue Marbeau had been accessed solely by a spiral staircase that connected the back doors of all the apartment kitchens.  That was the set-up in many buildings and it made for a real workout for the seventh floor tenants.  In my case, each trip up or down consisted of 126 small wooden steps, a sum I tallied unconsciously at least twice a day.  The second big plus of my new room were the windows. They were built like French doors, half the height but just as wide, and they overlooked the huge park on the city's western edge after which my street had been named. When they were open, the room felt like it belonged to the sky.

On my side of the building, the windows were built into the rise of the leaded Mansard-style roof-line.  Below the window sill was the wide curving lip that made a kind of eave over the building's edge.  It is there the pigeons liked to roost, particularly if one tossed a few bread crumbs their way.  Pigeon feeding was strictly forbidden and the city ordinance against it was posted on most buildings somewhere near the concierge's apartment.  The law existed because when pigeons take flight, like all birds, they lighten their load by pooping.  Concentrated feeding areas therefore result in high volume avian waste zones.  A "little pigeon shit"  is one thing, but when it rains down from a height of seventy or eighty feet and drenches your beautifully attired date as you embark for an evening stroll on the Champs Elysees, it's no laughing matter.

Paris, like New York or London, shelters its share of lost and forgotten souls.  The little old lady who lived across the hall from me fit that description perfectly.  She had a face shriveled as a California raisin and wore layers of clothing from conflicting but equally desperate eras. She seldom was seen except from behind her cracked door, which she opened ever so slightly to spy on me  as I passed.  I always greeted her in French with a merry and bright,  'Bonjour Madame!" Just as predictably, she would grunt and jam her door shut.

I didn't know her name and since my French was lousy I never asked it of concierge.  Instead, I simply referred to her as Madame Coo, friend to the pigeons. Regardless of the anti-feeding ordinance  (which may have been left over from the German occupation of the 1940's) she derived great joy from scattering chunks of her left- over baguettes on her window sill for the birds. She would also put out plates of water and other culinary delectables, drawing endless flocks of the beasts to the west side of our building. 

The sound of the pigeons as they gorged themselves on Madame Coo's handouts was incredibly disturbing, particularly on mornings after a late night with friends at the Mazet Cafe.  The flutterring of wings and the incessant scratching of clawed feet on the metal roof was bad enough, but that cooing!   My God, the cooing was unnerving.  It had such a human quality, the tone and rhythm of muffled love making experienced through the thin, stained walls of a cheap motel.  The eeewwwwws and cooooooosssss  of  arial rats pleasuring themselves.  It was just wrong.     

Let's not forget, what goes in must come out, and what goes up must come down.  The mess below, not to mention all over the roof, was disgusting.  But Madame Coo must have had a powerful nephew on the Paris Police Force, for I never heard anyone complain about her feeding the birds.  And the ordinance warning?  The official sign displayed seven stories directly below her window? It was almost illegible due to the Jackson Pollack size drips of grayish green and white pigeon excrement smeared across the lettering.  

But it was okay.  The street cleaners, with their blue uniforms and long handled whisk brooms, would arrive in the morning and rinse down the sidewalk.  The sun would peak through the shimmering leaves of the sycamore trees and life in Paris would go on, carrying old Madame Coo's pigeon pooh away on a curb-side stream of  non-portable l'eau.  As for me, during those all too frequent not so chipper early morning hours?  Well, I would roll my face to the wall, pull my pillow over my head and picture plump French girls romping about in a Manet-like setting until I drifted back to sleep.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Nineteenth Century

                                              Wish I was alive two hundred years ago
                                              Back in the age of anything goes
                                              You could rope and ride, shoot your gun
                                              Belly up to the bar and have some fun
                                              Chicks in town were all Irish whores
                                              Ready and willin' behind swingin doors
                                              Well that kinda of life works for me
                                              You gotta love the nineteenth century

                                              Shoot a redskin or own a slave
                                              Beat your kids if they misbehaved
                                              Preacher would slap you on the back
                                              Say " Son, what's wrong with that?"
                                              Stake a claim, mine for gold
                                              No EPA regs for diggin holes
                                              Yeah that sounds pretty good to me
                                              You gotta love the nineteenth century

                                              Rob a railroad or blow a bank,
                                              Call youself Jesse, your brother Frank
                                              Half the world, desert and sun
                                              The other half,  Miss Kitty's bun
                                              Old Mississipi when cotton was King
                                              When you could hear the darkies sing 
                                              A big plantation, your Bell's sweet tea
                                              You gotta love the nineteenth century

                                              I've asked the question, its hard to say
                                              Will today be tomorrow's good old days?
                                              With all the pollution, drugs and crime
                                              It might be perfect for some future guys
                                              But me, I'm old fashion, sort of set in my ways
                                              I like mid-wives, horses and open range
                                              If I had my druthers you'd know where I'd be
                                              You gotta love the nineteenth century

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Air Mask Man

I am standing in a doorway between two rooms of an old farm house.  It is a warm summer day, the sunlight diffuse and soft as pastel.

I am dressed in worn jeans and a white t-shirt. There is a fly buzzing around, making lazy loops from room to room, landing here and there, the way a big bass drifts among the lily pads.  The fly finally comes to rest on my thigh.  I watch it contentedly cleaning its snoot with its front legs. Suddenly the green plastic head of an old fly swatter appears from behind the door frame.   With a flick of an unseen wrist, it slaps down and squishes the fly into its webbing and onto my pant leg.  Dead.

At that same moment I realize the fly is actually my son and now my son is dead!  Just like that; poof... dead!  I stumble out of the house crying, hysterically cursing the sky and the God it conceals, my mind racing over all the things my boy and I have done together and all we will not.  My anguish at his loss is too much to bare and I wake up in a gasping jerk.

The gasping jerk is not part of the dream.  It is one of the twenty or so self emanating suffocations I experience every hour of the night.  You see I suffer from OSA, Obstructive Sleep Apena, a nocturnal disorder effecting some 12 million Americans.  I was diagnosed with it this past summer and I'm afraid is not pretty.

Beside the wall-rattling snoring, gasping and thrashing about symptomatic of OSA, the real damage is inflicted internally.  It seems my blood oxygen level drops to around 85% at night; something you might expect to see in a chronic emphysema sufferer but not a robust fellow like me.  The depleted oxygen level starves the organs of nutrients, causing them to deteriorate.  High blood pressure, heart disease and strokes are the most common side effects.  Depression, with its outward manifestations of irritability and poor concentration, are right up there on the OSA "Greatest Hits" list.

Sleep apnea effects as many adult as diabetes, but it often goes undiagnosed.  To raise awareness of this night time villan, we suffers are coming together  to form support groups like A.W.A.K. E. (America Sleep Apnea Association).  Soon we hope spouses and partners will start bonding as well, forming Al-anon equivalents like S.N.O.R.E.  (Sleep Normally Or Risk Everything*).

The treatments for OSA are varied and include everything from surgery to oral inserts, healthy living, medicinal herbs & spices, copious amounts of green tea and even a derivative of deadly African Calabar bean.  This shaman special was traditionally used on suspected witches to rid the body of evil spirits along with everything else in the bladder, bowels and salivary glands.  Of course real witches, as we know, can never be rid of evil spirits, so respiratory failure and death by asphyxiation were an efficient determinant of guilt. 

Opting for a slightly less holistic approach in treating my OSA, I will be fitted for a face mask and pressurized air delivery system which I will have to wear every night for the rest of my life.  This is a very depressing thought.   Its hard not to view doning such apparatus as anything but another sign post along the scenic highway of aging.  I am divorced and without a partner.  I worry about finding someone who will want to share the bed of the Apnea air mask man.  Were the roles reversed, I would be none too excited at the prospect of snuggling up to a hose-nose lover.

Of course my doctor thinks my reservations are silly.  I guess he looks at the date of birth on my chart, and the gray hair on my head and thinks:  "Just wait till this guy sees what's coming in the next ten years!"

I'm scared people!  Scared and lonely.  So if you know of any happenin' gals with a bent for polymer-based attachements, then send them my way.  I think I'm going to be needing all the help I can get.  For that matter, those A.W.A.K.E. meetings are sounding better every day!

*AWAKE exists, but SNORE is a just figment of my warped sense of humor... oh and instead of the elephant air mask, I opted for a small oral retainer that moves my bottom jaw slightly forward.  I slip in at night and it seems to be doing the trick.