New York and Paris. So different and yet somehow so alike.
In New York, everyone speaks some version of English, even if the speaker’s vocabulary may be limited to, “I’m sorry I don’t speak English.”
In Paris everyone speaks French and it’s not because they really can speak English and just don’t want to.
A case that proves the point: the Parisian dog-owner. When Monsieur or Madame calls out “Viens ici!” the animal scampers right up. Surely even the British, that most animal-loving of nations, and, along with Americans and Australians, among the last mono-lingual cultures on Earth, do not suppose that French dogs are bi-lingual.
In New York, dogs, like cars, croissants and everything else, are larger than the Parisian. Canine New Yorkers watch TV all day alone in their apartments, relying on people dropping by occasionally to open cans and doors, sleep with, bark at and accompany them when they venture outside. If there’s a sale on, dogs in New York enjoy taking the subway to Bloomingdales, dressing for the occasion in plaid jackets and riding in shiny black vinyl sacks carried by their humans.
In Paris, if you are a lady, and a man opens a door for you–which all men, without exception, do (another difference), it is proper to say “Pardon” and not “Merci,” to show you have not confused gallantry with service.
In a Parisian restaurant, it is possible to carry on a conversation without being obliged to shout over loud music and even louder fellow diners. The waiter will never ask you, while you are chewing a mouth full of food, whether you have finished eating, nor will your empty plate be removed before everyone else at the table has put down their fork and knife.
And thank heavens this is not the case in New York. Half the city’s gastroenterologists and hearing aid manufacturers would be put out of business. Just another example of American superiority over the French,in keeping productivity high and unemployment low.
“Pardon” is French for “Excuse me.” When the word is spoken for the purpose of making one’s way through a crowd of people, it means “Having spoken, I will now stop and wait for you to make an adjustment to your spatial orientation which will allow me to pass.” The speaker then suspends all forward motion while the obstructing human moves out of the way. Once the path is clear, forward motion is resumed.
In New York the concept is more spiritual in nature. The words are spoken like some magic charm the utterance of which, while shoving to the right and left, not to say trampling over, inconveniently slow or stationary men, women and children, absolves the speaker of any hint or blot of rudeness such pushing, shoving and trampling the pusher, shover or trampler might otherwise incur.
On those unfortunate occasions when the New York interpretation of “Excuse me” is addressed by a bicyclist toward a motor vehicle, its flaws become immediately apparent. Just as no one in Paris, nor indeed in all of France, ever believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or that the physique of the giraffe or the penguin are the result of a Divine Plan, so it must be conceded that in the matter of “Excuse me,” the French usage has distinct advantages over that which prevails in the great city of New York. In this particular case, one hopes for less, rather than more, courtesy.
As they say, Vive la différence.
Turning to geography, one notes that Manhattan and Paris are about the same size. Both cities are defined by their waterway. In Paris, the water runs right through the middle of it; in Manhattan, around the sides.
From the point of view of population, about the same number of people live in Paris and Manhattan, quite a large number. With regard to the inevitable space problem, Manhattan residents go in for the taller solution, Parisians favor the smaller.
Two million people live in central Paris, where there are exactly two high rises:the Tour Montparnasse, built in 1973, and the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889.
The Tour Montparnasse was built mainly to improve communications with the Shadoks and the Gibis who have been trying to get to Earth with their ridiculously miniscule wings since 1968.
The Eiffel Tower was built to demonstrate how steel construction could liberate architectural design from the height limitations of load-bearing walls. In Paris, this spectacular breakthrough in engineering instantly produced a law restricting building height to seven stories within the city center and 20 on the outskirts, a classic case of French “I can but I shan’t.” This cultural characteristic is very useful in an urban agglomeration where 15 million people live crammed into tiny apartments. For if one cannot expand upward, one must divide living space into ever tinier units.
No reticence such as that which inhibited the French afflicted anyone on this side of the Atlantic. Architects and plutocrats alike spoke with one voice to greet the new technology: Yahoo!
The unbuttoned enthusiasm that ensued resulted in ever-taller buildings of such unwholesome design that, following the construction of the 38-story Equitable Life Building in 1915, a law was passed requiring that henceforward, all skyscrapers must be designed so as to allow daylight to reach street level for at least two hours a day.
Just as it was at one time possible to see the sky from the ground in Manhattan, there was also a time when it was possible, in either Paris or New York, to go out for a pleasant drive around town just to feel the wind in one’s hair, or, within no more than 20 minutes of setting out from the city center, find oneself rolling briskly through green fields. Ah, the Nationale Sept, what have they done to you? Perhaps the Canal de l’Ourcq might be a friend to turn to in your agony.
Both cities now sit at the center of gigantic urban agglomerations of 15 and 20 million people respectively. I myself can’t count higher than the six people I can fit around my dinner table, but I can tell you this: depending on whether you start out by taking the Lexington Avenue Line Uptown or the A train Downtown, one doesn’t really get the feeling of having actually left New York City before reaching Maine or North Carolina. Had you gotten on the F train by mistake, your fate would remain unknown as there is some debate among New Yorkers as to whether or not there actually is anything beyond Philadelphia.
Even if everyone stayed right where they were, 20 million people would still be quite a large crowd. But these hordes do not stay put. The need for employment requires a large portion of them to travel into the city center daily, and then go back home again at night. Somewhere P.T. Barnum is fuming with frustration that he is no longer alive to throw a tent over such a spectacular feat.
Not to be outdone by Jobs, his beautiful twin sister, Leisure, brings in a further 45-50 million visitors per year, for the sole purpose of livening things up when footballs fly through the air or there’s a sale on at Bloomingdale’s.
In 1959, Jean-Luc Godard made a movie whose plot relied entirely on Paul Belmondo’s ability to park his car absolutely anywhere and leap out from behind the wheel to chase Jean Seberg all over Paris, she herself afflicted with a mania for jumping out at stoplights. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, it’s obvious why these two were made for each other.
Twenty years later, Paris was the second most polluted city in Europe after Athens.crammed round the clock with barely moving motor vehicles, horns blaring.
More cars meant more dogs, naturally. If you weren’t sitting, irate, in your car not going anywhere, you were picking your way through so much Dachsund and Yorkie residue that the Sanitation Department created a custom-built fleet of motorcycles equipped with vacuum hoses designed for the sole purpose of sucking up dog shit.
What to do with all that shit was a problem at first but it seems to have been resolved—nobody knows how. Maybe there is a Yucca Mountain full of crap somewhere, perhaps in some sub-Saharan former colony, or if not that, le Quatre-vingt treize.
Had Paul Belmondo fallen in love with Jean Seberg circa 1980, the first time she jumped out at a stoplight he would have lost her forever while he drove around in circles for hours looking for a place to park instead of running after her. Even if he had found an empty space after a mere two or three hours and a sidetrip to the gas station, the minute he started to run he would have slipped in dog shit, broken his neck and died. It would have taken 90 seconds instead of 90 minutes to tell the story. Scene one, fade to black, roll credits. Trying to drag things out rather than shorten them, Godard never would have hit on the idea of using jump cuts. Today he’d be a cashier in one of those combination Dunkin’ Donuts Exxon stations instead of saying things like “Even when it’s not funny, it’s more funny” to Dick Cavett, who should know what he’s talking about, if anyone does. Only the movie title would stay the same, Breathless, but it would mean something completely different.
More cars, more people, more pets. It will be 1973 all over again,the same only different. It is estimated that by 2030, one million people will move to New York City; 90% of the population of both France and the US will be living in cities. Coughing and honking across the Atlantic, Manhattan and Paris will each fuse into two giant parking lots, the glow of every streetlamp and headlight surrounded by a misty, romantic glow equal parts carbon emissions and Cromolyn, the sky permanently dark with self-driving helicopters transporting Masters of the Universe to and fro between their citadels of productivity and parking space-sized habitation pods.
Or, alternatively, Bike Share. Here again, as ever, New York and Paris, twin souls.
In Paris, before Bike Share, on the best of days, bus drivers used the horn like an improvement to the accelerator, and a reasonable alternative to the brake pedal. On less good days, they urged their municipal steed from depot to depot with a single-minded devotion to speed. Passengers wishing to ascend to or descend from the juggernaut counted as no more than mere insults to be ignored in their passionate pursuit of the greater goal.
About a week after the beginning of Paris Bike Share, I was riding one of these pleasure boats when the vehicle slid up behind a small flock of six or seven wobbly Bike Share cyclists noodling along at about 3.5 miles an hour. Anyone needing to pee or on their way to a sale at La Samaritain would walk twice as fast as these cyclists. I could not believe my eyes, therefore, when the driver slowed the bus to a crawl, taking the occasion to crack the window and, leaning back in his seat, light up a cigarette as we floated up the Boulevard Sebastopol as if on a summer cloud.
In New York, within six weeks of Bike Share, cyclists began marveling among themselves about the “Citibike Zone,” describing it to each other in hushed, awestruck tones as a kind of Shangri-la where motorists drive slowly, carefully and have even been sighted yielding to cyclists at intersections and other barely credible phenomena. I would not believe it if I hadn’t with my own eyes witnessed pedestrians acknowledging the ringing of a bicycle bell with a pleasant smile and a wave, rather than the torrent of obscenities to which the New York City cyclist is accustomed.
Seen from Outer Spac, these blue riders sprinkled throughout the streets make the city look like a field of blue-eyed grass. A kind of serene dignity attends the pinball-like trajectory that characterizes the more or less forward motion of these cyclists, and a far-off gaze hints at great minds filled with more important things than the nonchalant revolution they carry out with arms outstretched to welcome the future that is now, and legs spinning at speeds that recall why Tex Avery is so beloved by all.
Paris Bike Share celebrated its fifth summer this year: 250,000 annual memberships, 1.3 million rentals in 2012, and fewer accidents than any other mode of transport, including cyclists using their own equipment, with a total of six fatalities among 130,000,000 Bike Share trips.
New York Bike Share projected 60,000 annual members for its first year. Use surpassed all estimations in the first three months, with 80,000 annual members and, in Auguse an average of 36,000 trips per day. “I actually think you could quadruple what we have now,” said Jon Orcutt, DOT Policy Director at a public discussion in September.
New York like Paris?