Monday, October 5, 2009

The Transaction

Mme/Mr. A: "Do you have it?"
Mme/Mr. B: "Yes."
Mme/Mr. A: "Let's see. (Views object of desire.) OK."
Hands Mme/Mr. B cash.
Transaction complete, the two people glance over their respective shoulders and slink off in opposite directions.
[End scene]

All over Paris on any given day, two or more complete strangers are interacting this way, usually in a public place - on a bridge, outside a Metro stop, at an anonymous bench in a vest-pocket park, on a street corner in a double digit arrondissment, perhaps even in an apartment if they are feeling particularly adventurous - where they quickly introduce themselves, make perfunctory small talk then go through a quick, vaguely furtive exchange of money for goods. Minutes later they scurry off, aflutter with the dark thrill of having met a stranger's needs and their own.

They are the aficionados of La Liste de Craig, more commonly known as Craigslist. Every western country, every city of note seems to have one and Paris is no exception.

I was thrilled when I found it. There were offers of platonic relationships, one-on-one translation classes, used bicycles, used motorcycles, massage therapy, and, for all I know, a French Craigslist Serial Killer. I wasn't really interested in any of those goods and services, but it was nice to know they were out there.Then after a few weeks I started seeing stuff I could use. Hot diggety

The first transaction was typical. It seemed like every few months someone moving back to their country of origin was doing an apartment dump, offering everything from washing machines to flatware. In this instance a young American minister and his wife heading home and offloading much of their French bought possessions. Following his vague directions to a Metro B line stop south of the Luxembourg Gardens I arrived to find absolutely no one. A later phone call to him revealed he he had parked his truck full of stuff two blocks away around the corner.

"Everyone else found it," he said. The implication was I should have spotted it. Lacking X-ray vision and ESP unlike his other customers, I apologized. We re-met. The payoff was a good printer/scanner/copier at a great price which I hauled, sweating and gasping, about a mile through the streets of Paris back to our place.

My second transaction was what for what was described as a "party guitar." Basically it was a beat-up classical guitar. The seller was a bubbleheaded American student heading home. Via email he made, and broke, at least a dozen appointments. All of a sudden I was less interested in the guitar and more intrigued in seeing if I could actually make this deal happen.

The day before he left he decided he could actually do the thing. He gave me the outdoor code and the hall code to his girlfriend's -- not his -- place. A climb to the sixth floor got me to an apartment that was so small we had to take turns turning around. A sulking young woman who was glaring at me was banging and slamming her one cup and spoon as she cleaned them at a teeny-tiny sink, next to a teeny-tiny two-burner stovetop in the microspeck of a kitchenette which seemed to be about two feet away from where he and I were standing in the living/bed/everything room. It was two in the afternoon but it appeared as though he just got up.

"I don't have a case for this or anything," he apologized sleepily as he pulled out the battered instrument. I had anticipated this and pulled a garbage bag out of my pocket to carry it home. "Kewl!" he gushed. He was so impressed it frightened me a little.

The guitar was only 40 euros so I was not expecting a recital hall quality instrument. A good thing. It was awful. Three of its six stings were steel, an atrocity on a guitar not built to handle the heavy stress of tightly wound steel. There was a thumb-size dent in one side, and the fingerboard was pulling away from the body. I strummed it and realized I never heard such and odd sound come from any stringed instrument. It was strangled plank. I sold it two months later on Craigslist for the price of the new nylon strings I had bought for it. I could not in conscience pass this dreadful thing on to another unsuspecting soul for profit. My buyer and I met, of course, near a Metro stop.

But hope springs eternal. Two months after I sold that I saw another Craigslist ad for another classical guitar. This time the meeting was in front of a bar at an anonymous corner in the 17th. My contact was nowhere in sight when I arrived in the seedy neighborhood. I walked into the dark, gritty drinking establishment. The huge African bartender glared at me and gave me a hostile, "Bonjour."

I cheeped, "I'm looking for a friend." I looked around at the room at the few drunks sitting in the dark. "Alors, he's not here." And rushed out like my clothes were on fire.

It was bitter cold.I remember lots of young malnourished looking young people with lotsa tattoos on their necks skulking by. I paced up and down the sidewalk to keep warm and everyone, everyone, who walked by me as I stood on the corner gave me a wary look as though they thought I was a cop or something. Finally a wan, pale young man with a ratty little soul patch on his chin slipped up next to me.


"Yes. Steven?"

"Here it is." For some reason he was accompanied by a wan young boy even paler than he who watched the whole transaction in total silence. Steven pulled out an elegant little guitar - they call them parlor guitars in the States - out of its padded nylon case. It had five nylon strings and one steel string on it -- what is it with these freaking steel strings? I wondered - but it had a lovely tone.

"Very nice," I said.

Then he looked up and down the street before he leaned forward and whispered, "I also have a music stand if you're interested."

I said no and that was that. "So, do you play classical guitar," I asked as he was counting the euros I gave him.

He looked up with a baffled expression as though it were an odd question. "No. But if you're interested," he lowered his voice. "I give lessons in music theory." With that, he and his young silent companion slipped down a side street like two characters from Oliver Twist.

Later I put on a fresh set of nylon strings and played that sweet instrument for a year before I sold it to an American architectural student who was in Paris for the summer. (This was only after I had exchanged frantic emails with a mom in the 6th Arr. who said she was eager to buy it for her daughter, and then abruptly stopped communicating. A typical Craigslist experience.) He said he's probably sell it before it went home. I like to think somewhere in Paris it has a good home, and six nylon strings.

Fascinating French Guitar Fact: For jazz manouche fans, Django Reinhardt's guitar is on display as part of the permanent collection of the Musée de la Musique.

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