IN FEAR, WE’RE ALL LOST. “When is Mom coming back?” Hallie, 12 at the time, asked. “Yeah,” added Gaines, 5 at the time, “she’s been gone a long time.” Dan, jet-lagged at the time – with two children next to him, the Eiffel Tower behind him and the City of Light all around him – realized several things:
Jet lag causes fights with your wife.
Nora wasn’t coming back.
Nora took 12 years of French.
Nora had the money.
It was getting dark in the City of Light.
I didn’t know what the name of our hotel was.
There had to be a Paris Metro underground station somewhere close, so we set off to find it. Calling on my extensive command of the language from a year of high school French and hearing the Beatles ask, “voulez vous coucher avec moi, ce soir,” I was able to cobble together another question, “Où est la métro?” (Where is the Metro?).
Dan Conaway’s book, “I’m a Memphian,” a collection of his Memphasis columns, will be published in October.
I asked that question several times, and I have no idea what the answers were. But after the children got a few pats on the head, after the children gave the dogs (everybody in Paris has a dog) a few pats on the head, after a long stream of good-natured French, people would always point, and so we advanced until the Metro station appeared.
I knew from dropping off our luggage that our hotel was across the street from the Sorbonne, so the new question became, “Où est la Sorbonne?” and strangers led us through the maze of colored lines and corridors and turned our few francs into safe passage.
On another night, two people found themselves alone at midnight in a Tribeca subway station. One was a touch drunk, a lot lost, and looking for Brooklyn. That would be me. The other was huge, black, dressed in black from his shaved head to his steel-toed boots, and walking toward me. He opened his mouth and I was sure whatever came out would be the last words I would hear. “You look lost, man,” he said. He not only told me how to get to Brooklyn, he walked me back up into the city and across the two blocks to the station that would get me there.
Fear of strangers is one thing, abundance of caution another, but the stranger fear of anything or anybody new or different is what holds us back from who we can and should be.
If we decide to live our lives looking for someone, or something, or someplace to be afraid of, we’ll never get out of bed in the morning. We’ll never rise from dark places to live in the light, never discover the joy of discovering the new and unexpected in ourselves and in others.
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Blanche DuBois said that in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and we should all relate. We need each other, whether we know each other or not.
I’m a Memphian, and Blanche and I need a little help.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.