Tuesday, April 19, 2016

`The Most Pleasant Item on the Schedule'

In the dark, flooded streets don’t look flooded, even under streetlights. Water lapped at the undercarriage, making a sound like a lightly thumped tabla. My brakes softened but held and the engine never sputtered, but a light on the dashboard came on: “low tire pressure.” Two miles from home, I pulled into the parking lot of a shuttered gas station. I’d seen a dozen abandoned cars, some parked at awkward angles, blocking two lanes. It was 6 a.m. The front tire on the driver’s side looked a little low, but without the warning light I would never have noticed. Another guy was already standing under the awning above the pumps, smoking. “What do you hear?” I asked. “Shit, man. Nothing. Enjoying the rain.” I liked his attitude – not a whiner – and we stood together for awhile enjoying the rain. He smoked one cigarette after another and told me he was never in a hurry to get to work. I called AAA for road service but never got through. Other people had bigger problems than mine.

Passing trucks sloshed waves of dirty water ten feet off the pavement, almost hitting the gasoline pumps. In the fire station across the street, firefighters stood in the open doors, drinking coffee, watching the rain. We watched a white SUV stop in the street, and then drive backwards in the direction he had just come until we lost him on a curve. “Dumb fuck,” my companion observed. His head was shaved and almost spherical, and he looked a little like Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. He left before me, saying he wanted breakfast. My tire hadn’t gotten any flatter. I figured I’d sit in the car and read until the water receded, assuming the tire never went flat. I pulled out my lunchtime reading – Zbigniew Herbert’s Barbarian in the Garden (trans. Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985), essays about his travels in Western Europe, viewing art and architecture. It’s a book I never really ever stop reading – the account of a civilized man’s pilgrimage to his civilization. In “Memories of Valois,” he describes a visit to Senlis and its museum and twelfth-century cathedral. After his cultural tour, Herbert gives a fanciful itinerary for the rest of his stay, a list that almost reads like one of his poems:

“I pocket both note-book and sketch-pad. It’s time for the most pleasant item on the schedule—loafing around,

“wandering aimlessly, a guest of perspective,

“looking at exotic workshops and stores: the locksmith’s, a travel office,

the undertaker’s,


“picking up pebbles, and throwing them away,

“drinking wine in the darkest spots: Chez Jean, Petit Vatel,

“meeting people

“smiling at girls”

And so on for another eleven lines. Herbert concludes: “The French are a rich nation.”

I started the car, and drove home carefully without a flat tire.

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