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Monday, June 07, 2004

Ah! Yesterday I had the best brunch of my life. A treat from my old boss Joe, from ten years ago, and his wife, Rachel. They took me out to the Water Club on the East River and I ate so well I was sure I would never, ever be able to eat another morsel. I would never, ever be hungry again.

I watched the BBC coverage of all the Normandy ceremonies. It was a masterpiece of preparation and execution. All those old codgers, now in their eighties, marching proudly like the young men they had been sixty years ago, with tears in their eyes still welling up for the friends who fell beside them and never were given the chance, to live our their lives, grow old, or even experience the satisfaction of their success. Their sacrifice is what made it possible for all of us to have a united Europe today, instead of a 1000-year Reich.

It was really too bad that the present leader of the United States, who should really be more respectable and respectful, should have been chewing gum on the podium besides all the other leaders of the free world of today.

It was also really too bad, at this particular historic moment of recognizing for the last time the sacrifices of the heroes of 1944, that this same leader of the United States should have broken rank to honor the recently deceased President Reagan, that Hollywood cowboy, who by no stretch of the imagination should have been mentioned in the same breath as the heroes, dead or alive, of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. For starters.

Reagan? You mean the man who won the presidency from Carter because he was able to delay the release of the Iranian hostages until after the elections? Who benefited from the Iran/Contra scandal? Gimme a break. What can I say? I am biased, maybe, I may be wrong, but I do not believe the end ever justifies the means. This was no hero, this was a master of deception.

Reagan, the man with missile envy who spent 3 Trillion Dollars on nuclear weapons during his eight years in office, more than any other U.S. president before or since? The man whose decisions on national security and foreign policy were based in large part on what he read in The Reader's Digest? You say: "Glasnost". Yup, sure, Glasnost. But all humanity is still held hostage to nuclear threat, bigger than ever, isn't it so? Nothing has really changed, except we are just a little more polite to each other.

My friend Gil in Canada was watching slightly different coverage up there. To her surprise, sitting on the podium alongside (well actually a little behind) the Queen of England, she spotted a man who had fought with her father.

We are the children of that war. It is what colored our entire childhoods and thereafter our lives. I still to this day shudder at the sight of a German shepherd: they are the only dogs that make me tremble. I can see no beauty there, at all, at all. It's visceral.

* * * * *

It is great to see Doug is walking his hills once more despite the sciatica.

In his honor, the other day, I looked for one of those lazy boy chairs when I swung through Crate & Barrel on my way home. That's the beauty of that particular store, they actually encourage visitors to try out all the seatings. It was easy to settle down into this particular item, and I had a wonderful time rocking gently for a while. It was another matter altogether to rise up out of it and there was a moment there when I thought I would have to call out for help!

Congratulations, Doug, on hitting the trails again!

* * * * *

I threatened the other day to tell you about the time I hocked just about everything I own.

I was living in Paris at the time in a small room which had a washbasin and a kitchen cupboard with a sink, so that I didn't have to wash my face and my dishes in the same recipient. There was a shower and a WC down the hall, which I shared with all the other people on my floor who had similar little rooms. It didn't cost very much, which is just as well because I didn't earn very much, on top of which I was often without a job or underemployed, or somehow or other short of cash.

I was also very young, like maybe 21, 22, tops.

I don't remember what the financial emergency was on this particular occasion. Maybe I just needed to buy food to tide me over until next pay day. I was just in a situation which I estimated required heroic measures, and I set out early one January morning to hock all my earthly belongings, which consisted of: an electric turntable (not top of the line), an electric, plug-in radio, a small portable Singer sewing machine in its case and an electric steam iron.

If you want to hock something in Paris, you go to the Credit Municipal. It is connected to the City of Paris, separate from the Town Hall, and it has been in existence for a long time. I don't know whether it goes back to the French Revolution, it may, or it may be part of Napoleon's reforms. In any event, it is commonly referred to as "Ma Tante", "My Aunt", because of some Napoleon descendant, some great nephew or other, who used these services regularly to cover his gambling debts, who was caught short one day, while visiting his parents and they noticed he was not wearing some item of jewelry they had given him (a ring, I believe), and who when he was challenged as to what had happened to the ring, answered, on the spur of the moment, "I left it behind at my Aunt's"...

The morning I went to my Aunt was a very cold, foggy morning, I didn't have an overcoat but I was steaming hot from carrying all my packages, held together with hairy white string that cut through my frozen ungloved hands.

This was a first for me. I found myself in a huge inner courtyard, leading to an elevator the size of a small ballroom, with a white-gloved elevator operator operating one of those manual handles that look a little like a ship's steering device (sorry, I don't know what they are called). The elevator operator was old, skinny, professional and in uniform. We waited for a while in silence. I supposed he was waiting for the elevator to fill up some more before starting up.

After a while, an ancient of all ages joined us, flannel pants, a grey tweed jacket and a long scarf, no hat, no gloves, no overcoat, white hair, and two large shopping bags filled with mysterious bundles wrapped in old newspapers.

As soon as the old codger came in, the operator swung the ship into motion.

"Heavens!" I cried out, "We're running on empty! Shouldn't we fill her up a bit more?"

The operator shrugged and was silent.

"Does it ever get filled?"

The operator shrugged and was silent.

"Why bother to have such a vast elevator if it never fills up?"

By now, my tone had switched to the rhetorical.

The operator shrugged and was silent.

We chugged on, and after the appropriate time had passed, the elevator operator pronounced, in a quiet, matter of fact voice:

"Suppose someone wanted to hock their grand piano, Hey?"

Well, that sure made sense. The gates clanged open, and the ancient of all ages and I entered the sanctum sanctorum of my Aunt.

It was our first time for both of us. We had to take our "stuff" to a counter where it would be evaluated and someone in the back room would determine how much to lend us, according to all sorts of criteria, such as: would we bother to redeem the loan, could we ever redeem the loan, were we likely to live long enough to redeem the loan, etc., etc., you get the idea.

They took our stuff into the back room and gave us each a number and we sat down to wait.

It was not a busy day, we were alone, our numbers were called together.

My loan was approved. Seriously insufficient for my actual needs. The thought of sweating the whole load back home, sans a penny, was just too dreadful to contemplate, so I accepted, happy at the mere thought that I would be able to walk out emptyhanded and light.

I have great peripheral vision. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the old codger starting to rewrap his stuff, beautiful old fire irons of brass, elegant beyond description, into the old newspapers, into the paper bags. His whole body was shaking from head to toe.

I went over. "Did they refuse you the loan?"

"Yes." Barely a breath.

"Why?"

"They think I am too old and that I won't come back to pay it back."

"Hold on," I said cheerfully, "I got mine. Take your time packing, just wait for me, I need to wait to get my money."

Eventually, we were sitting side by side, me empty handed, him with his two repacked paper bags. Finally, my number was called out once more and I got my money.

"OK, let's go!" I took his arm and we were swallowed up by the huge elevator once more, back out into the courtyard, and into the street.

I gave him all my money. Every penny.

"I don't know your name, your address, how to repay you, when can I repay you," he was confused.

"This is not a loan, it's a gift."

He couldn't believe it. It turns out he needed the money because he needed to get a doctor for his sick wife.

It suddenly occurred to me to ask: "Are all these brass items precious to you?"

"Well----" He hesitated, "To be honest, not any more, not in relation to my present situation and my wife's condition."

"So, why hock them?" I asked, "Why not try to sell them? They are absolutely beautiful, I'm sure an antiquarian would give you a good price for them."

"Here, you can have them!" He wanted to press the two bags on me.

"No, no, no, I don't want them. Maybe you could sell them and get more money."

It was as if he had been parched out and someone had given him a drink of water. "But I happen to know an antiquarian," he said happily, "He's an old friend of mine, he has a store alongside the Seine, I can go there now."

"So, go see him!"

"Yes, yes!"

We walked down to the subway station together, arm in arm, he was no longer shaking, his step was eager and sure, and we hugged each other goodbye and each went our separate ways.

Months later, I got all my stuff back. It always has made me laugh to think that I thought I had gone to Ma Tante to solve one of my problems, and it turned out the only reason I went there was to help an old stranger and his sick wife.

You never know, really, do you, what your share is in the whole picture of things.

Wildfire Jo posted this recently:

She was talking about the death of Rachel Corrie, who was bulldozed by the Israeli in Rafah as she attempted to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home.

"I was in Iraq when she was killed and dedicated that day's dispatch to her. A friend in England was reading selected, non-political parts of my writing to the kids she taught in a secure unit for young people with severe emotional problems such as advanced eating disorders or repeated suicide attempts. One of the girls wrote her a letter a while later, having moved on into another place, saying that was what turned her around, realising that there was someone who had travelled miles from home and died for something really important, while she was trying to kill herself for nothing at all.

The point is that you never know: Rachel couldn't have known that her going to Palestine would inspire a young woman she'd never met to live; I didn't know when I wrote about it and my friend didn't guess when she read it out. You don't know the effects your actions and words are going to have and often you don't find out afterwards, so you just have to throw yourself in and do what you think is right without trying to add up the results and despair if they don't seem big enough. That's what I think anyway."

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