Thursday, April 30, 2009

Just Buzz Me In

The morning we walked into the courtyard of our apartment building for the first time a compact little woman came walking towards me. She was shaped like R2D2 and was carrying a 50-pound suitcase from the curb – mine – in one hand and shaking my hand with the other. This was Madame Rosa, our concierge.

The last concierge I dealt with was a smarmy, oleaginous fellow working the front desk of a hotel in Los Angeles who helped me find a good Thai restaurant. Madame Rosa was part of a different tradition. Her job dates to the 19th century. Back then Napoleon started the whole thing by requiring that every apartment building in Paris have a caretaker, a concierge.
(No one seems to knows where the word came from, but one school of thought says it was a corruption of le compte de cierge, literally the “keeper of the candle” and originally referred to a person in the Middle Ages whose job was to light the castle candles - cierges - at the end of day and take care of other housekeeping matters. Or maybe not.)

Whatever the word's provenance, Napoleon wasn’t thinking of candles or the comfort of Parisians when he laid down his mandate. He wanted to keep his eye on his fellow Frenchmen. The guy was a world class paranoid.

Concierges in those days knew a lot - part of their job was to open the doors for their tenants and their guests - and were paid little. Consequently they also made ideal informers for government agents and anyone else willing to buy from them what they knew. Fairly or not, the concierges became typecast as a kind of latter-day Madame DeFarge, cold-hearted gossips and greedy harridans willing to turn in their tenants for the right price.

By the turn of the 21st century many of these
gardiennes had been replaced by the security keypad with numbered buttons [see photo] you will see in the doorway of most Parisian apartment buildings. The concierge was becoming part of a quaint, fading tradition like the hurdy-gurdy man outside the Luxembourg Gardens or the guy in the Tuilleries who rents sailboats to children. In many buildings the little one or two-room concierge apartments by the front door were renovated and sold for a tidy pile of Euros, and their occupants were encouraged to return to Portugal where many, including Madame Rosa, are from.

The number of concierges in Paris have shrunk drastically. In the 1950s there were around 70,000 in Paris. By some estimates today there are around 20,000. Now that they are so rare, there is a newly discovered chicness to having a concierge in one's building. I found this out one day when Peter, an American I met in Paris, was stunned to hear me say that we had one. Or as he put it: “You have a concierge?” He was impressed.

I was impressed that he was impressed. He had lived in Paris off and on since the 70s and was continually bemused by the simple minded discoveries I was sharing with him. (“Peter, have you seen this huge pointy thing on the south bank of the Seine? Made by a guy named Eiffel?”)

Because of his approving reaction I looked at Madame Rosa in a new light. But she seemed oblivious to her status. She had the forlorn expression of someone constantly beset with worry about: the cleanliness of our courtyard, the efficiency – or lack of it – of mail delivery which the tenants complained about, the parade of workmen
renovating the apartment upstairs in, the mess they made in her hallways, the theft of champagne from one of the caves in the basement during the renovation, the carelessness with which people sorted the trash. Notices were going up almost weekly to alert us to be on the lookout for thieves, to tell us that she was not withholding mail and delivering it when she felt like it, to tell us we should crush our cardboard cartons before dumping them in the trash, to tell us it wasn't her fault the workmen were making a mess.

Still, she had power and we were instructed to woo her. “She has a lot of time on her hands during the day for ironing," our landlord suggested. "You could give her some of your shirts.”

Crap, I thought. All the shirts I brought with me were made of some astonishing no-wrinkle superfabric. If you tied them in knots and drove a steam roller over them and staked them out in the dessert soaking wet, they would never, ever, ever show so much as a pucker. But I had to do something, so one day I grabbed a couple of wet shirts right out of the wash, smushed and twisted and knotted them and immediately ran to Madame Rosa's apartment to hand them off to her before they unwrinkled on me.

An hour later I heard was a buzz at the door. There she stood proudly holding out my shirts as though they were vestments. I don't know how she did it but somehow she had managed to iron new wrinkles into them. (A year later they are still there.) But they were folded neatly.

I gushed, “So quick. Thank you. Thank you very, very much. How much do I owe you?”

“Pffffff,” she waved the matter off as though it were just a favor, neighbor to a neighbor. But it was like more a favor done by the Godfather. The burden of just and appropriate recompense was on me. And whatever it was I knew it had better be good.

Paranoid French fact: Napoleon had Baron (who was not a Baron) Haussmann widen some of the narrow streets into leafy boulevards not for their gentle ambiance, but to make it difficult for a revolting citizenry to blockade them and to serve as routes to dispatch masses of crowd controlling troops in case of an uprising.