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Le Royal Custine, Rue Custine, Paris

Paris—September 20, 2007

Le Royal Custine. It's on the corner of rues Custine, Ramey, and Labat. It's one of those wedge-shaped bars in Paris. Such corners challenge architects and builders. In Paris the results are gems. In San Francisco there is only one that I know of that qualifies as a gem. It is the Coppola Building in North Beach. Know that green-tinged building in need of polish? It was once the home of Caesar's Grill and the Hungry i.

August was a bit strange in Paris with high temperatures and then rain. But now the temperatures are more normal and it is turning just a little cold. That, however, doesn't stop people from hanging out along the street in the sidewalk cafes. And now that it is September and vacations, vacances, are over they are crowed with hanger-outers. Shops that were shut during August are now open again and music is heard along the streets. I don't know what anyone else did during August for a pressed shirt. The blanchisseries, or laundries, were all closed in Montmartre. I resigned myself to wrinkled shirts and the look of someone who is falling slowly between the cracks. With glass of wine and dangling cigarette, the images kind of go together.

I watched the water run down the gutter of the old tree-lined street. With moist healthy trees providing a canopy over almost the whole street, it almost looked like a mountain stream. Where do they get all the water to do this? In San Francisco an official who let water run down the street would go to jail for it.

Basilique du Sacre Coeur is just up the hill. It was built in 1870 following a war between France and Germany. There are explanations for why it was built but none is very satisfactory. Today it is a major tourist attraction and broods over the hill in Montmartre. Rising high above Pigalle, the red-light district of Paris at the base of the hill, Sacre Coeur seems to cast a critical eye on the doings of those below. But I think it has long since given up any notion that its presence will change Pigalle. "Pigalle is Pigalle and will get its due in time," I think is the attitude of that towering edifice.

But back to lower altitudes. Rue Custine is a lovely street that runs in back, or along the north side, of the hill; and it is a little off the beaten track of the tourists visiting Montmartre. Consequently it is quieter than Rue Abbesses on the south of the "La Butte" as the hill is also known. But like Rue Abbesses, it is lined with bars, cafes, tabacs, boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries ... It is in short a very comfortable place to live. A big glass of wine—good wine—is no more than 3 Euros and usually less. Les bagettes are 0,80 Euros and are so fresh and good, and crunchy on the outside and soft in the inside, that you see mature adults walking home with bread for the family dinner taking little bites off the ends. Le bagette is as irresistible as cotton candy to a child.

I like Pigalle but on this side of the hill it is mostly out of mind. On the other side, there are always a certain number of people headed to Pigalle or coming from it. I don't know if that has any effect on the area or not, but I do know that it is calmer on this side of the hill. I have lived on the other side and know. Pigalle is a bit like lower Broadway in North Beach in San Francisco but on a much grander scale. But it is not known for violence. North Beach in San Francisco has unfortunately seen its share of violence in recent times, much of it gun-related. But about two weeks ago rival gangs decided to have it out in Pigalle. I don't know if gun control is more effective in Paris or not, or guns are simply more expensive, but the rival gangs had it out with machetes, hatches, and broken bottles. Maybe there is a positive side to going at it with such ugly weapons, however; no one was seriously hurt, as far as I know. In San Francisco the opposite is usually the case.

But back to gentle Rue Custine. It doesn't go far until it turns into Rue Caulaincourt. Such is the case of many streets in Montmartre. A little crook appears in the street ahead, a slight turn to the left or the right, and the street changes names. I suppose the origins of this go back to the days when Montmartre resembled more a series of villages.

Life has been good here in Paris but I have had to sharpen up my language skills. The French have a little problem with words that are mispronounced by foreigners. They don't seem to hear them. Close is not close enough. The word simply fails to register. I don't know how many times I said vin blanc and got vin rouge on my last time here. I have sharpened up pronunciation of those two words and now get white wine when I order white wine and red wine when I order red. However there are dicier situations. For instance, the other day my tax accountant sent me a document that need my signature. It was one of those awful Adobe PDF files. Well, I did not bring my HP printer/scanner/ copier/fax combo with me. They do not fit well in a suit case. So I had to go to an internet cafe and explain that I wanted to send them an email with an attachment; I wanted them to print it and wait for me to come back to sign it; then I wanted them to fax it to the United States. That's a whole lot of words in French. "Je voudrais vous envoyer un email avec attachement ..."

But now as I'm stirring sugar into an espresso at one of those little tables in front of Le Royal Custine and watching the stream of water flow down the street, I'm thinking about a call I just got from a friend named Harold. Harold and I have lunch together now and then in San Francisco and discuss just about anything, but recently our discussions have focused mostly on Harold's inability to get work with Silicon Valley companies. This surprises me, as Harold is one of the brightest guys I know, except when it come to relationships with women.

He has a PhD from the California Institute of Technology, in physics, I think, and has worked as a high-tech writer for over twenty years now. He ought to be in his prime but claims he is practically unemployable. The cause, he says, is offshoring and H1B visas and greedy shareholders who have given the industry away for a quick million or two.

So what was Harold doing in Paris? "It's as good a place as any to spend your time while 'down and out in Silicon Valley.'" I think he is making reference to a book by George Orwell called "Down and Out in Paris and London." I don't know that the comparison holds between Harold's position and Orwell's when he was trying to make it as a writer in Paris and ended up being plongeur, or dishwasher. As far as I know Harold has not had to wash any dishes yet, so maybe he had better count his blessings. Anyway that is stereotypically an Hispanic job in Silicon Valley. I don't think Harold would fair any better getting a job washing dishes than he would getting high-tech work these days. Sorry Harold! In fact I was recently looking at advertisements for dishwashers on craigslist.org—for other reasons than employment—and noticed that most ads wanted to see a resume and were not interested unless you had experience. Now I thought that was the one job you applied for if you lacked experience and a resume. I had always thought of plongeur as a starter position in life, not one you worked up to, but maybe times have changed. Anyway, I agreed to meet Harold the following week for lunch.

"Where you staying?" I asked.

"Saint Germain," he said.

"Nice?" I asked.

"Kind of," he said.

"Want to come over to Montmartre?" I asked.

"Sure," said Harold.

I didn't have to ask if French was okay this time. We usually meet for our little get togethers at Cafe Claude in San Francisco. But in San Francisco there are plenty of other choices.

It was a Thursday when Harold called. The following Tuesday we met at La Butte up the street on Rue Custine. There is a little area of tables on the outside near the stairs that lead up to Sacre Coeur. It is set back from the street and quiet there.

"Ça va ?" I asked as I walked up to the table. Harold was already there swirling a glass of vin rouge and sniffing at it like a dog.

"Ça va," he said. "But I don't think la serveuse likes my accent. I asked her for vin blanc and she brought me vin rouge. Does blanc sound like rouge to you?"

I knew the problem. Unless perfectly pronounced, blanc doesn't sound like anything to a French waiter or waitress. All they hear is vin.

"Anyway, I think I really wanted le vin rouge anyway. Or maybe a whiskey. Do they have whiskey here?"

"Of course they have whiskey here, if you like Four Roses or Jack Daniels."

"That's it for bourbon?"

"Yep. But I've kind of gotten used to Four Roses," I said. "Even bought a bottle the other day. It tastes a little like cinnamon. Once you get used to that, you kind of like it."

"Well, they're not big bourbon drinkers here. That is all there is to it," said Harold.

"But they have absinthe here again. The wine shops have it but not the bars for some reason. I haven't figured that out yet."

"Well, I'll let you know if I do. I don't have too much else to do. I wouldn't mind seeing the little people."

"I think they are green people, not little people," I said.

"Same thing," said Harold. "I'll bet they all have H1B visas and work for nothing in cubicles. How do you say 'cubicle' in French?"

I ignored his question. "Now let's stay away from that for a minute or two, okay? How's Ginny?"

Ginny is Harold's girlfriend in San Francisco. Her full name is Virginia, which she prefers but everybody calls her Ginny anyway. She's one of those healthy types you see jogging on Nob Hill with earbuds after work. She works for an "environmental" company downtown. I'm not sure what she does, but I think the company is more into helping other companies "comply" with environmental regulations than it is into the environment, if you know what I mean. But Ginny is kind of self righteous or at least never wrong, though she certainly makes other people feel that they are wrong. I'm not that fond of her and I'm not sure Harold is either. For one thing, Harold smokes, which drives Ginny nuts. She looks like she wants to kill him whenever he lights up. And she only drinks white wine. Harold drinks everything.

"Okay, I guess," said Harold, taking a drag on his cigarette, then slowly releasing the smoke though his nostrils. Ginny would have gone ballistic seeing that—in fact, I don't think it is a pretty sight myself—but here at La Butte it did not seem too obnoxious. The French still don't seem to be too bothered by smoking. When Harold dines in San Francisco he has to take smoking breaks outside. I feel sorry for him when it rains. But I think Ginny loves it. It proves, well, that she is right and Harold is wrong. Now is that the basis of good relationship? I think not.

"Well, have you talked with her?" I asked.

"Once last week," said Harold.

"What does she think of your being over here in Paris?" I asked.

"Not much, as far as I can tell. She doesn't like Paris. Says it's just a lot of unhealthy food and too much wine. I don't think she knows about Pigalle."

"Probably not," I said. I changed the subject. I wasn't sure if I wanted to hear about what Harold was doing in Pigalle.

"So work is not good?" I asked.

"Well, it's neither good nor bad. There just isn't any."


"None that I want to do. These days you're hired at the wage level of one of Bush's "guest workers" and made to work in a cubicle from nine to five. Is that progress for the American professional worker?"

"Doesn't sound like it. But there is some work?"

"Yeah, but I won't do it. I've worked over twenty years in the industry, have advanced degrees, was treated as a valuable contributor just a few years back, and now I'm nothing. And of course quality no longer matters either. If it's good enough to get someone to buy it, then it's good enough. Why waste money explaining how something works? Why waste money explaining what to do if it doesn't work. The idiots will buy it anyway."

"Shame, shame, Harold. You make it sound like the whole industry has gone to the dogs. Surely there is a sound bone left in the high-tech corps."

"Well, if you spot it, let me know. All I see is fractures."

Our serveuse came by, a young woman in a very low-cut blouse, pretty much the style in Paris these days for women who have anything to show off, and leaned over the table revealing her goods to Harold. Harold looked away muttering something like "vin blanc, s'il vuz plup."

"Vin rouge?" she asked.

"Blanc," I said, dropping the "c" and she promptly said, "Qui,Monsieur, vin blanc."

"Je voudrais Le Monsieur Jack Daniels, s'il vous plait. Avec les glacons."

She returned shortly with more drinks and a bowl of chips. I guess Harold didn't mind going from red to white. I thought you went the other way, at least according to the wine experts—that is, from lighter wines to stronger ones—but then there were no experts around to spot this faux pas and I certainly wasn't going to tell.

"It seems to me we've had this discussion before," I said to Harold. "What do you think is the resolution?"

Harold looked grim now. As long as he were able to complain about something he retained an element of humor. Now, however, he was serious.

"I don't think there is. I think shareholders are going to grow richer; I think management is going to continue to take care of itself well, especially upper-level management, and I think the rest of us, those who do the work, are going to get screwed."

"Kind of the old story?"

"Yeah, kind of the old story. In America, or maybe I should say California, you develop something new and if it turns out it has value and people will buy it, the dark forces go to work to take it away from you. All the creativity, all the work—it is pulled out of your hands and you are told to get lost by the people with the big money. There is not much you can do, because the people with the big money appease those in management who might rebel otherwise. We are simply not a nation of protesters anymore. Look at Iraq. No fangs, no teeth to the opposition. So the Bush people make big money off it."

"You think that is all Iraq is about?"

"I do. Alan Greenspan said it the other day before he began mincing his words."

"Well, at least you haven't lost a leg to a roadside bomb or been paralyzed from the waist up or down."

"True, and I do think about that. But I would still like some decent work to do and I would like to be treated with respect. Do I ask too much?"

"In America these days, I'm afraid the answer is yes. I wish it were otherwise, Harold. Have you considered another profession? One less subject to 'globalization' ..."

"As a matter of fact I have."

"What are you thinking about?" I asked Harold. I saw a little shine come back into his eyes.

"Teaching," he said. "I don't think you can offshore teaching so easily," he said.

"And what would you teach?" I asked.

"Anything you can't offshore too easily. India doesn't know much about California native plants. I was thinking ..."

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