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.

No comments:

Post a Comment