Maybe it was the rain. Or maybe the weather that had been veering towards winter cold, and now seemed to be trying an unexpected, futile, and frustrating climb back to summer. Maybe it was because of rush hour and the crowds that always seem to clutter the fairly wide, yet far too narrow sidewalk of the Rue de Belleville.
I walked carefully down the steeply descending Rue in a pair of impractically high wedge boots. I’d just finished a particularly productive session with my new psychologist, and was feeling optimistic and cleansed. Even if this hadn’t been the case, it would have been hard not to be seduced by the charm of the street I found myself on.
Belleville isn’t the most famous Chinese neighborhood in Paris – that honor belongs to the aptly named “Chinatown” in the 13tharrondissement. But the community here is strong, and mixed with a large African, Jewish, and native Parisian population. With these influences, plus a generous helping of artists and eccentrics, Belleville is one of the most diverse and vibrant areas in the city. The stretch of the Rue de Belleville near the "Belleville" Metro station, is full of Chinese markets, gift shops, and bakeries. Eateries of all Asian origins insinuate delicious perfumes into the air. Hard to resist going into a small Vietnamese restaurant and ordering some of their heavenly-smelling Pho.
But today, I have to get home. There’s sweeping and dusting to do, and our cat Ali to comfort. The most dog-like feline I’ve ever met, he’s still a bit shaken about being left alone (with automatic food and water distributors, of course) when we went out of town for a long weekend recently.
I just have to buy some potatoes, and since what I’m making isn’t anything special, I’ll tuck into a Dia grocery store (previously called Ed) near the bottom of the Rue de Belleville.
Inside, this Dia looks just like all the other ones I’ve seen. Whether in a working class eastern Paris neighborhood, or near the Louvre and the Hotel de Ville in the city’s jewel-like center, Dia’s are drab affairs. To cut costs, decoration is limited to a dull gray with a few touches of green trim. The meat and fish for sale always look a bit suspect, and while the other items are all right, you never know what will be there from week to week.
Dia’s clientele is also a mixed bag. There are many perfectly nice people, minding their own business and buying their groceries. Unfortunately, they’re a minority. I think it’s that gray interior – it pisses people off. Maybe there’s something to be said for paying a little more for a can of cassoulet, if the crowd around you seems benign. At the Dia near my house, the main problem is rudeness: loud talkers, people who refuse to move over a little and let you look for a product on the shelf, cashiers who’ve, themselves, completely checked out. So I went into this unknown Dia prepared. I knew what I’d see. Or so I thought.
You ever go on that Disney ride, “It’s a Small World”, the one with all those smiling, world-peace-promoting dolls? Going into the Dia on the Rue de Belleville was the complete opposite of that experience. People avidly reading the labels of products in their hands looked up to give me dirty glances. Some shoppers didn’t move at all when I came by, even after I said “Pardon”. I tried to squeak around them without nudging them with my overstuffed purse. Often, I failed.
As I approached the back of the store, I couldn’t shake the idea that an old man had a gleam in his eye as though he very much wanted to reach out his cane and trip me. I pictured him spending his days lurking here where cheese and eggs met the fruit juices, just waiting for some innocent, friendly-faced sap like me to come by. I carefully moved past him and turned up an aisle.
At last, with a sack of potatoes and a box of cookies in hand, I headed for the registers.
I don’t know if this is true, or if I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve never been to an American grocery store where there was a serious lack of cashiers manning the registers. In just about every moderately priced Parisian grocery store, though, this is what you’ll find. You’d think that by now they realize rush hour = people leaving work and buying something for dinner on the way home, but it makes no difference. I patiently got into the very long line at one of the two (out of five) open registers and prepared to wait. Still feeling chipper and peaceful, I started to zone out.
Suddenly, a woman's mean voice from behind me: “Hey – what are you doing there?”
The voice was addressing a sweet-looking old lady standing near the line. She clearly had not yet begun to get her groceries. “Sorry,” she replied. “I just wanted to see the prices of the vegetables.”
To me, this was a logical response; the produce section was placed rather impractically near our register.
“You’re bothering everyone in line,” the woman behind me said, her voice a cruel sneer. “Get out of the way.” You could somehow tell she wanted to add “old bag.” But the tone of her voice was enough.
“That’s not right to talk to me like that,” the old woman protested. I was with her, but too afraid to turn around and face her opponent. I mean, what kind of person picks on a completely harmless old lady?
“Get out of the way!” the woman hissed.
“I can’t read the vegetable prices if I do!”
“Go get yourself some help,” said the nasty voice behind me.
“Oh, you, too,” the old woman muttered, shuffling off just the same.
The cashier at our register was one of the most depressed-looking people I’ve ever seen. She sat like my sack of potatoes in her chair. Her face looked like it once had been happy, but resignation had erased her smile. She heaved heavy sighs as she scanned the items of the shopper in front of me.
There seemed to be some issue with the key to the register. I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t opening so that she could hand customers their change, but she had to keep calling over to the guy at the other register, and he would bring her the key, then she’d get up and bring it back to him. This doubled our checkout time, but I’ve experienced worse in Paris.
When it was my turn, she sighed again and said, “I’m sorry, please wait a few minutes.”
Okay, I thought. Maybe it has to do with the register. She got the keys from her fellow cashier, opened the cash drawer…and started to organize the bills inside and put them into an envelope. I’ve never worked as a cashier, but normally when I see them do this, it’s at the end of their shift. Okay, I figured, maybe I just got here at the wrong time, and someone’s coming to take her place.
Suddenly, an eruption of outraged cries thirty feet across from us, at the other register:
“I don’t care!”
“I have a child!”
“I’m not moving!”
From scattered shards of conversation and protests, I managed to figure out what was happening at the front of the other line, which was now becoming a cloud of waving arms and exclamations.
Apparently, unable to stand any longer and wait – or maybe just more annoyed than the rest of us – an elderly woman had decided to play the senior citizen privilege card and move to the front of the line. Normally, this kind of behavior is tolerated by other customers, who try not to show their dagger-staring eyes. But normally the senior citizen asks before cutting. This one, who seemed to be carrying a six pack of beer, hadn’t.
But the problem was even more complex. She might have made it to the front of the line, but the client about to put her things onto the conveyor belt, had a small child, and was perhaps (I couldn’t get confirmation on this) pregnant. And so, another priority customer.
If the world were fair, who would get precedence? What’s harder: being old and frail, or being pregnant and tugged at by an understandably bored kid? I had to wonder how it would end. In hand-to-hand combat, the possibly pregnant woman would probably win, especially because she had an equally outraged friend with her.
The yelling was getting louder. More and more disgruntled customers were getting involved. Suddenly, the store manager, who’d been idly sitting at a closed cash desk, went to the line, raised his hands in despair, and said, “Fine, we’ll open another register!”
I got the feeling this kind of thing happened all the time. The old lady was only using some kind of strategy to get things moving faster. It was probably the only way it could have happened. She shrugged and moved nonchalantly to the third register. Another woman, who seemed to have no relationship to either of the two ladies who'd caused the commotion, stayed at the edge of register two, scolding the cashier.
I noticed the back of the manager’s uniform. On it was the store’s slogan: “You’re going to love hard discount prices.”
Meanwhile, back at my own register, the despairing cashier had calmly finished filling up the cash envelope and filling out the slots on the front of it. I waited for her to get up and leave the chair to her replacement. But none came.
“Sorry,” she said to me, with a deep sorrow in her voice masked by banality. She sighed again and scanned my purchases.
“That’s all right.” I said the opposite of what I really thought. But then, did I really want to stay in the Dia any longer than I had already? Outside, beyond the silhouette of a mother pulling her tantrum-throwing toddler up by the arm, was freedom.
So I kept quiet, took my change and potatoes and cookies, and got out of there. Even the dreary, rainy sky hanging listlessly over the Rue de Belleville, seemed less gray than the Dia’s walls and floor.