• Paul D. Wilke

Ugly on the Inside: Lessons from the Paris Metro

Personal Photo - Victor Hugo Station

My daily commute on the Paris metro is a joy for a people watcher like me. Every day I see something interesting. Maybe it’s a beautiful woman dressed like a runway model. Maybe it’s a distinguished-looking older gentleman with just the right scarf, worn just the right way, commendably still giving a fashion-damn even after seven decades.

Other times, it’s the panhandlers, trudging through the cars reciting sad monologues in rehearsed monotones before making their way with a hand out to take whatever spare change people will give. They’re great at making and maintaining eye contact. We’re great at avoiding it. And so the balance is maintained.

Then there are the musicians. You have the middle-aged Russian couple who play instrumental versions of the pop classics. She plays the electric keyboard, and he plays…the tuba. Yes, that’s right, the sexy tuba. Some days I’ll pass them playing on my way to work, him tooting his tuba, her slowly swaying back and forth at the keyboard, eyes closed and a dreamy smile plastered on her face like a Slavic Stevie Wonder.

Amazingly, even in the late afternoon, they’re usually still in that same spot. Have they been belting out the hits all day, or do they run a morning shift and an afternoon shift? I wonder. In any case, she’s still playing with the same dreamy smile at five-thirty in the afternoon that she had at seven-thirty in the morning, so it must not all be bad.

Another red-headed Russian woman does karaoke on the morning commute, but not with so much passion. I often see her at the Concorde Metro with her music box. She sings, slowly, fitfully, but never for more than a few seconds. In the time it takes for me to pass by — maybe 30 seconds — she’ll invariably stop to fiddle with the settings of her music box or get something out of her bag. Every day, the same thing, as unsatisfying as she seems unsatisfied.

My favorite, though, is the group of Ukrainian guys singing old folk songs in a loud baritone. The music is hauntingly beautiful, echoing as it does throughout the tunnels of the metro. These guys are an example that the sum can be so much greater than the parts. Each of these middle-aged Ukrainians would probably blend gray into any crowd, but together they sing like angels.

These are just a few of the regulars, the ones we see just about every day and who give the Paris metro its unique character.

But then there are the one-offs, the people you only see once, but who make a lasting impression.

One morning, for example, I boarded the train and saw a solitary drunk guy, not an unusual sight at that time of the day.

The pre-rush hour metro often carries the inebriated flotsam and jetsam from the previous night’s bar hopping. For these lost souls, the night is not yet over, though it probably should have ended hours ago. No one took them home, sadly, and so they are left to wander like drunken ghosts.

Anyway, on this warm autumn morning, I noticed I was alone in the car, except for this drunk fellow. Immediately I realized why. He was slumped in his seat, head sagging forward, and seated above a considerable splat of vomit spread out on the floor beneath him.

It looked like he had already thrown up his dinner from last night, his lunch from the day before, and perhaps a large stack of pancakes from yesterday’s breakfast. How can one person have so much in his belly? Well, I corrected myself, it’s actually not in his belly anymore.

The smell of vomit was overwhelming, which is something that has always been an olfactory trigger for me. Seeing puke, smelling puke, makes me want to puke, elevating the risk of a runaway chain reaction of puking. If that happens, well, puking makes me puke even more, and it doesn’t stop until the puke tapers off into bile.

The worst thing was — and I throw up a little in my mouth typing these words — the man was slowly scooping up his chunky vomit off the floor and eating it. One, two, three handfuls of puke, straight from the floor to his mouth. Slurp, smear, slurp, and then I was out of there as fast as I could go, trying to think of something, anything, other than what it must be like to be that guy right at that moment, chowing on his chow from a few hours ago.

My mind did what the mind involuntarily does in these situations: I imagined that it was me eating the vomit. Why? I don’t know. I couldn’t help myself, and this made me even more queasy. So I set my mind against itself, trying to think of anything else other than eating puke. Blueberries. Apple pie. The smell of Christmas. Biscuits and gravy…well no, not that! Something, anything not puke-related. I held my nose and fled to another car filled with more sober commuters.

There, everyone was acting like it was just another morning commute in Paris, eyes forward, headphones on, present but not present, and most importantly, no one re-eating their last meal.

I sometimes wonder where this guy is at now, who he is kissing with his barf-tainted mouth, and whether she knows where that mouth has been.

Probably not.

Moving on.

More recently, I was waiting at Charles de Gaulle Etoile to catch the 2 train home after work. The westbound 2 at Charles de Gaulle Etoile is only a few stations from the end of the line, so there are usually not many people standing around waiting.

For people-watching, this is a pretty sleepy station. One guy, however, stood out. Like me, but differently, he was not a handsome man. Probably in his late twenties, he was a tall, thin, nerdy looking white guy, though kind of doughy like someone who doesn’t get much exercise or sunlight. A gamer, maybe? He wore over-sized coke-bottle glasses and had an under-bite that defaulted his expression into a permanently goofy, mushy grin.

Shoulder slouched and pigeon-toed, he was intently pacing back and forth on the platform and gently nodding his head ‘no’ while mumbling to himself as if in calm conversation with some interlocutor in his head. But still, always, that goofy grin.

At one point, he stopped his pacing to check out a garbage can. A disposable plastic bowl from someone’s recent lunch got his attention. He grabbed it out of the trash and held it up while squinting to get a better look before then gently putting it back where he got it. At this point, I filed this guy away into the category of eccentric but harmless.

My train pulled into the station. I watched the first few cars go past as it slowed down to stop. A woman on the train caught my eye. She wore a lavender-colored top and matching pants, both a few sizes too small. She was in her early thirties and very heavy, with short, red hair, a ruddy complexion.

Obesity is an uncommon sight in Paris. Everyone’s generally slim, fit, and well put together, so I figured she was just a wide-eyed American tourist who had passed out in some Arkansas Walmart only to wake up magically transported to Paris. Maybe this would explain why she was looking out the window and laughing in such joy. In any case, she seemed to be having a great time in the City of Lights. Good for her.

Then this sight passed with the train car and I didn’t think much more about it. Another fat American, so what? We are legion. I boarded my train and took a seat, settling into my state of being present but not present, just like everyone else, headphones on and eyes forward. But as the train started to pull out of the station, I looked out and saw the most incredible sight.

The goofy guy with the coke-bottle glasses was now sitting down next to the fat woman in lavender. They were sitting in some chairs next to the vending machines, each leaning on the other and embracing tightly. That childlike laughter I had seen a moment before was her excitement at seeing him on the platform waiting. Likewise, he wasn’t a crazy guy talking to himself but someone eagerly awaiting the arrival of his sweetheart.

So there she was, desperately hugging him, laughing and sobbing all at the same time. He was grinning from ear to ear as his hand caressed her back. These two homely people, together, were beautiful, purely, wonderfully, unabashedly beautiful, and the affection they felt for each other was an inspiring sight to behold.

Then my train moved into the tunnel and they were gone.

The moment was only tainted by the uncomfortable realization that, not just two minutes ago, I had judged the two as worthy only of contempt, labeling both dismissively before then ejecting them from my smug little universe. They were not the ugly ones, not anymore, not at that moment.

No, goddammit, I was.

Funny, how the ground can shift so suddenly like that, and perspective too when expectations get transformed into something else entirely by seeing someone for the first time from another angle and in another light.

Ugly is more than skin deep and true beauty often hides under the surface of things. I’m too shallow to see it most of the time. For all my philosophical musings, I still tend to dwell on the superficial, no matter how consciously I try to do otherwise. I’m not alone with this defect.

Our social reality is rarely more than the surface of things, performances, and snap judgments based on first impressions. We assume physical beauty equals spiritual virtue when the two are often light years apart. I have it happen to me all the time, so I should know better.

“Paul, what’s wrong? You look angry.”

Do I? Really? Well, I’m not angry or in a bad mood but cursed with a permanent scowl that puts me in the social hole when it comes to first impressions. It sucks.

And yet, look how quickly I slid into snap judgements with someone else who stood out. I wonder if the human default does not skew towards this quiet ridicule of everyone who falls short of a society’s arbitrary definition of beauty.

I didn’t see fellow human beings, but others, and others obviously a little less worthy of my respect.

Others exist elsewhere and outside our warm social orbits. Others get silently mocked and dismissed for their differences. Different is only celebrated when it’s seen as beautiful or cool. Everything else just makes us feel uncomfortable. In our day and age, the superficial reigns supreme.

All I can say is that I’ll try and do better next time.

And the next time.

And the next time after that.

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