Kiki In The Metro

by HRM on August 16, 2011

Portrait 3: The Suitcase People

Death of a SalesmanIn 1960, Louis Malle directed a film called “Zazie in the Metro,” telling the story of a young girl who is sent to Paris for two days while her mother spends the weekend with her lover. All the child wants is to ride the Metro, but as is often the case in Paris, the trains are on strike. Thus, Zazie is forced to travel by foot, embarking on a series of adventures in cross-dressing and dangling from the tops of monuments, encounters with amorous street sweepers and brawls in cafés, empty carousals and car chases through town — a portrait of late surrealist Paris in the 1950s and 60s.

The first great challenge when you arrive in a new city is to learn its geography. But before the map exists in your mind, you rely on the way that has already been carved out for you. You ride the train — the act of speeding through the darkness beneath an unknown world, packed intimately into intestine-shaped spaces with crowds of people you know nothing about. You glance at a blank window that gives you no clues, forget yourself in the passage of a book, cling to a pole or get caught in a stranger’s eyes, all while being rocked into the trance of getting somewhere, and being nowhere in the meantime. Between the approximate hours of 5am and midnight, half of Paris is doing this at any given moment.

A long time flâneur of great American cities – a former New Yorker and Angeleno by birth –I’ve learned in my humble wanderings that Paris is far more civilized than many of the places I’ve known. In Paris, the working man takes two hours for lunch and school children get a vacation every few weeks. The seats on the Metro are comfortable, the cars are relatively clean, the tracks breed nothing bigger than mice, the trains stop running only a little after midnight, but at least they (usually) come on time. While the movement of the city and the speed of business holds no comparison to the New York minute, nor the merciless sense of self-invention in Los Angeles, when you get stuck somewhere in Paris, more often than not, that somewhere is beautiful. But sordid or civilized, the strange anonymous intimacy of riding the train exists here, too. At rush hour we still pack ourselves in to the point of vertical spooning with a perfect stranger, and yet when our hands touch by accident as we grasp for the rail, our faces suddenly flash with alarm. “Oh, excuse me, so sorry,” we stutter urgently.

That being said, in a culture all but consumed with maintaining “la belle vie,” we have now reached the pinnacle season of the ideal. August has arrived. Parisians everywhere are fleeing the streets, heading no doubt for a myriad of beautiful coasts. Shops are closing, windows boarded up, and all but the tourists seem to be hiding in the ruins. For those still lingering in the abandoned city, the summer of penniless decadence rolls on, leaping intermittently between sudden sheets of rain and glorious sunshine. But despite the general emptiness across town, life underground still boasts a lively crowd. The trains these days only carry a different breed of strangers: that is, people from everywhere but here, chattering on in all manner of languages, none of them knowing where they’re going or the place in which they move through. While the rain always draws more people to the Metros, in the summers the carriages don’t just fill with passengers, but with the things that they carry. All sorts of cargo are brought onto city trains: animals, musical instruments, giant mirrors, mattresses, strollers—the list of items (dead or alive) goes on and on. A friend of mine once saw a homeless man hanging his wet laundry from the hand rails. But as the season of “les vacances” continues, it is not unusual to get tangled up with someone lugging a suitcase in some direction, leaving the city or just arriving in it.

The Metro, like the street, is one of the best places to experience the population, if through nothing more than its daily rationing of momentary encounters both epic and ordinary. In our wanderings through town, we learn over time to make our own maps – not only of the place itself, but of the people in it, whether we find ourselves sitting beside one of our city’s archetypes or another nameless drifter. In all cases, we don’t know where they’re going and we don’t know where they’re from.

Thus unfold the adventures of Kiki in the Metro (a childhood nickname that finds me again here). In my time in Paris, rushing along with the stream, I’ve often been stirred to take notes on those I encounter on my way, continuing here with a man carrying a suitcase through an underground tunnel…


He blended in with all the others—the suitcase people limping through the passage. Children in sandals wandered up ahead, away from their parents, running across his path to stare at movie posters or hop on one foot down the stairs. They all had the buoyancy of summer in their steps, the swift current of the tunnel sweeping on towards the platform, breaking up into fragmented parts: the sun-beaten child, the scantily clad woman, the branded vacationers wagging their tails. But the winter-skinned sir went along slowly, a man out of season, steadily grasping his old red valise. He inched along amid the panicked mob, a stampede of modern suitcases rushing by on wheels, as though being pulled by a single thread from another time, a black and white world of obsolete objects, lost in the newness of life in color. One imagined his valise to be full of ancient books, a portable library, weathered prettily at the edges, detailed with the markings of many long voyages, against the fragile hold of a broken latch.

On the train, he swayed in the middle of the crowd, barely standing, a Band-Aid over his nose. He was an old man as old men must be: the brown suit, the gentleman’s hat, the quaking hands of a previous century. A young woman stood beside him, jammed between two men in long black coats, trapped inside the smell of them, as they pushed their bellies up against her with no regard to her presence. The train was too full for anyone to be sitting, so the man with the suitcase simply teetered in his place. Every hand in the crowd reached out to steady him, the sea parting with each of his frail movements.

“Je descends à la prochaine,” he announced to no one in particular, approaching the door.

The young woman stood with her cheek against the pole. She watched the man with the suitcase disappear into the tunnel, back through the hole, into the universe he came from. She imagined him passing the old crones sleeping on corners, tipping his hat to every last one of them. Then perhaps he would make his way up creaking steps to a little flat with red velvet walls, a life of sitting wearily in mammoth armchairs, shriveling from himself like all the rest. There he would switch on the same radio program recorded years ago, reporting the weather on its way from a winter long past. He would open his suitcase and carefully unpack the items inside: first the books, then, hidden among them in the middle, a clock wrapped in a piece of old silk. This he would dust off and place high on a shelf, the suitcase now to remain empty. There was little left for the man to do but to sit himself down again and watch his clock tick— until the horse neighed as it waited with the carriage in the courtyard, and the drifting storm began to hum in the distance.

The train stopped and the young woman stepped off, going more quickly than anyone else underground. With this came the sudden memory that she once lived in another city, a faster place across the ocean, and that she too belonged to an entirely other world.

*A portion of this article originally appeared on

Photo taken from

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