The people of Paris turned out for May Day in droves and it was a day for sirens and darting eyes. In the courtyard outside the Louvre, France’s Gendarme roamed in packs of 4, shoulder pads and stab vests, assault rifles at the low ready. The soldier part of my brain saw the city the way a mountaineer sees an avalanche in the making as people ran by us with bandannas over their mouths in the little coffee shop we’d holed up in. We were on foot from the Marais, at the end of a meandering line that led through the business district and over the Seine under a dusty grey sky with empty threats of rain. Shops were boarded up. Crowds were gathered near the government buildings. Later, two policemen would be set on fire by protesters as the buildup of tension and anger let go and came rushing down the mountain, and at that moment, sitting in our coffee shop watching the city go by with its guard up, we could feel it.
We caught a cab to Montmartre just to escape the dread and the driver dropped us into a throng of people who had apparently had the same thought we had and gotten the fuck away from the city center. We pushed through the crowds of them, past shops full of knick knacks, through clouds of cigarette smoke. The bustle and energy of the place was a welcome respite from the eerie quiet of downtown, with its empty potential like a balloon about to pop. Midday found us at a dog park on a bench looking out over the city in all of its vastness. Beautiful and old. A wind was jostling the trees and pulling the shroud of cloud cover off the city, sunlight speckling buildings, blue skies like stripes on a grey tiger.
“I’m hungry,” Dad offered. It was our most common offering as a family in general. Burdens are not complainers for the most part. My dad re-broke his back and he didn’t know it until his legs literally started to give up on him. My mom almost died from chicken pox because she was busy taking care of sick babies and she didn’t address it until it took hold of her lungs. My grandmother had a root canal without anesthesia because she “didn’t like the way drugs made her feel.” But if we’re hungry, you’re gonna hear about it.
We began to scroll through our mental rolodexes for lunch suggestions, which should have been overflowing. I had spent weeks watching travel shows and scouring blogs about food in Paris. My parents had watched youtube videos about the city and its food and filled notebooks full of addresses and names. But with much of the city so boarded up, we were drawing blanks. We made some calls and got some answering machines. We visited websites and got holiday closure notices. Finally, I remembered a lunch I’d had almost a month ago in a Polynesian place in Seattle with Krishan, our friend Jackie and her friend, who was visiting from Bend, Oregon. I had mentioned my trip to Paris and Jackie’s friend lit up. She gave me suggestions that were like thoughtfully selected gifts just for me. Real places with fond memories attached to them. A fondue place that served wine out of baby bottles and a world renowned falafel place that could cure a hangover or just set you right in a general sense. She had written them down in careful handwriting in the notebook I keep in my pocket and I fished it out, there on that bench in Montmartre. The entry was easy to find, because it was neat and helpful and completely out of place amidst the craziness that is the rest of that notebook. Right next to “That muthafucka looks like he eats crayons…” (different day, different story) were the words:
“L’As Du Falafel”
I threw it out there. There was agreement. We dislodged ourselves from our quiet park bench and dove back into the hurricane of people roaring through Montmartre, in search of falafel.
Down a staircase with a tram that ran along it, through choked streets. Middle Eastern men playing a shell game with black disks, cash changing hands as they shuffled and flipped. Cabs fording the rivers of people like alligators slow and predatory and the rain on a tin roof sensation of languages and music and new smells all around us as we made our way to the Marais, Melissa leading us through it all. I don’t know whether being a geography major in college made her a good map reader, or being a good map reader made her a geography major, but that little spitfire is fuckin Magellan even with a halfassed map in her hand. She held her phone out at the end of her arm and it pulled her along the streets and down alleys while we hustled behind her. A cobblestone path wound between buildings and we pressed up against the walls as cars rattled past us, rims rubbing against the narrow curbs. Fifty meters from our destination we smacked into a line of people who had made the same plans we had. There were a hundred something of them, hope on their faces in a gradient scale from the front of the line to the back. The closer you got, the more you could smell. The more you could see. There were men behind the counter, working with mechanical precision, loading pitas, manning fryers, changing out empties. Fire jumped out of pans, knives chattered on cutting boards.
Out on the street, 15 yards from the big show, a kid took our orders and our money. When he passed we realized that he wasn’t wearing anything that indicated he worked at this place and that there was a distinct possibility that he had just capitalized on the obvious pre-falafel delirium that we were exhibiting and cleverly robbed us. Fortunately, that was not the case. We approached the counter and handed the ticket the kid had given us to the maestro with the tongs. He nodded and began slapping ingredients into steaming pitas. His movements bordered on machine automation and I genuinely believe that if that man had a passion for building cars, he’d John Henry the Ford Production plant right out of the fucking market. Falafel, eggplant, sauces, cabbage, tomato, into the pita, into my hand. I floated away from that counter into a different Paris than the one I’d woken up to. The stress and the fear fell away. The sun was out and I was smooshing falafel into my face, little bits of it sticking to my cheeks and cascading down onto my hands. Crunchy, salty, fried chickpeas and smooth, bitter eggplant. Creamy sauce and soft pita. Cars whistled down the alley, drivers ogling us as we hunkered in the gutter, inches from their hubcaps, eating like raccoons from the garbage, probably thinking something along the lines of “ Those Mothafucka’s look like they eat crayons…”
Las Du Fallafel