The year the Berlin Wall fell, I was living in Paris, sharing an apartment with two French students on the fourth floor of an old, rundown building. Despite the building’s state, it had a concierge and an elevator, a rickety metal one with an accordion gate. I was living the bohemian dream.
Besides rent, one of my major expenses was transportation. I was taking classes at the various campuses of Université de Paris. The closest course, an art history course, was at Le Sorbonne, which was walkable, but the other campuses—Juisseau, the Grand Palais, and especially St. Denis and Nanterres—meant a Metro ride. For probably the equivalent of $20 per month, I could get a student pass, a laminated ID that had a little pocket for a new unlimited ride ticket every month. Occasionally, I tried to see how long I could go without renewing my ticket.
On buses, you could enter from the front or back and the bus driver didn’t care whether you validated your ticket in the little machine or not. The Metro was a little harder because you had to go through turnstiles and, in some stations, you couldn’t go under or over the turnstiles because they had sliding doors and there was no way to squeeze between them. If I was caught without my monthly ticket, I could be fined more than twice as much as the cost of the ticket itself, which you’d think would be incentive enough for me not to cheat. But I had expenses: food, wine, cigarettes, movies.
On both the Metro and the buses, you had to watch out for contrôleurs, the transportation police, and they were strict. One morning, as I made my way into the bowels of the subway station, turnstiles hissed open and banged shut, and trains rumbled underfoot. Commuters marched toward their destinations in silent, serious concentration. I slid my ticket through a turnstile, and the doors jerked open. There was shouting on the other side, but it sounded strange, as though underwater, bouncing off the tiled walls. I looked up to see a young, brown man chased by two contrôleurs with German shepherds. They caught him in an instant, slamming him against the tile walls. I had stopped halfway through the turnstile, gawking. Around me, the bang and hiss of other turnstiles continued, as did the uninterrupted march of commuters.
Such a scene would seem to be a cautionary tale. But the contrôleurs practiced racial profiling before it became a topic of controversy in the U. S. I could usually rely on their targeting young men who looked North African before their attention might turn to me. As a short, white girl I often slipped below their radar.
Unless they launched a take-no-prisoners strategy and fanned out across a Metro tunnel. Once, coming around a corner in a Metro tunnel, I was stopped short by a wall of contrôleurs who were checking everyone who came through. C’etait chiant. It was shitty. But there were no scary dogs, and I wasn’t slammed against the wall. I was issued a fine.
In the spring of that year, an American friend of mine came to France and decided she wanted to stay a while. After a couple weeks of sharing my room, she found a chambre de bonne – a maid’s room under the eaves, with a shared hallway bathroom—near Les Abbesses, a very trendy neighborhood.
The day Meema moved, the sky threatened rain. She filled her black trunk, with its sharp, neat lines, and we pushed and shoved and dragged it onto the rickety elevator. The metal cage was too small to fit both of us with the trunk, so Meema rode and I walked down the four flights of stairs.
At the lobby, we each took one end and carried the trunk across the marble entrance, the concierge’s face peering out from between lace curtains. The concierge was always spying on people in the lobby. We joked that maybe she thought Meema was an illegal, or worse, that there was a body in the trunk. As we left with our clunky package, the lace curtains twitched closed.
Despite having once been caught without a ticket, I still tried to get away with not updating my pass. Until Meema started her nanny job, she was on an even tighter budget. She would buy a packet of ten tickets, board a bus, and not validate her ticket. But she would stand near the stamping machine, in case contrôleurs appeared.
That day we boarded the rear of the bus, where there was space to rest the trunk on its side. I stood with my back to the door, facing Meema, both of us conscious of the stares boring holes into us. I never got used to how Parisians stared; it was shameless staring. In the U.S. people stare, but if you catch them at it, they look away as though they weren’t watching you. Parisians always won the staring contest.
Just then Meema glanced over my shoulder and her eyes widened in surprise. I was about to turn my head when Meema hissed, “No, don’t look. Contrôleurs.”
I sucked in my breath. Neither of us had a proper ticket. At the same instant, the bus doors exhaled open. I turned and there they were, two groups of Metro police in black uniforms blocking the doors. No one could leave or board the bus. Except the contrôleurs, who now stormed on.
But we were in luck. At the back of the bus, a man panicked and jumped out of his seat. The contrôleurs rushed toward him, leaving the door cleared.
“Come on,” I said, dragging the trunk. Meema quickly grasped my plan and we pushed and shoved the trunk off the bus. It fell to the ground, nicking one of its corners. Meema swore, but I ignored her and grabbed one end while Meema took the other. We lugged it around the block and down one street before we stopped, out of breath. My stomach was a tight ball with the fear that a contrôleur might run after us. But we were safe.
I looked for the nearest Metro entrance and updated my student pass.
When the Berlin Wall fell, I saw the events on a small, black and white TV in a friend’s apartment. We watched for hours as East Germans and West Germans danced on top of the wall, sprayed champagne, and chiseled and hammered the wall into bits. A couple years later, I traveled to Berlin and picked up a souvenir piece of the wall, a chunk about the size of my fist. There’s graffiti on one side and the rest is a gnarl of stone mixed into concrete. At the Checkpoint Charlie museum, there are photos and stories of the people who smuggled others across or tried to get over the wall into West Berlin. I wished I could have been that brave, but I knew that I couldn’t have done it.
In the Metro that day when contrôleurs chased the young man with dogs, for a moment I froze, shocked out of my prosaic routine. The turnstile closed behind me with a hiss. The contrôleurs pulled the man out of the station. No one else seemed to notice, going about their business in the Metro, as though nothing had happened.
I didn’t yell or protest. I didn’t say a word. I joined the silence.
About the Author
Justine Dymond is an associate professor of English at Springfield College, where she teaches writing and literature. Her stories and poetry have been published in numerous journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Pleiades, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Briar Cliff Review. Her short story “Cherubs” was selected for an O. Henry Prize and also appeared on the list of distinguished stories in The Best American Short Stories 2006. She co-edited the collection Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives (Demeter Press, 2013). She lives in western Massachusetts with her family.