October 12, 2019
When I lived in Paris, my apartment building had a small two-person elevator that had been installed inside the old stairwell. My apartment was on the fifth floor so it was helpful when I came home with 15 kilos of produce from the Belleville Market, one of the biggest fruit and vegetable markets in Paris. Most of the Belleville stall-holders were from the Magreb, mainly Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Much of the produce came from these countries. It was fresh and delicious. I always bought too much.
You get to know your neighbours when you live in a French apartment building. You might think they don’t know much about you but they do. Some if not all your windows will face a courtyard and unless you live with your blinds down, people will be watching what you do. But while your neighbours probably monitor you, for the most part they will leave you alone. This is French politesse. Neighbours are polite to your face but do the decent thing and leave unpleasantness until you are out of earshot.
It’s obligatoire to say hello when you pass a neighbour in one of the common areas but a chat is generally taking things too far. I was new to this game so I chatted and invited neighbours in for tea. While people were friendly to me, the general feeling was that I was a bit simple.
On the fourth floor we had a neighbour, a man who must have been handsome in his youth. Indeed, he still had something of his looks when I moved into the building. By then he was already on the slippery slope and over the next couple of years, he slid into a desperate, destructive alcoholism. He stopped washing. His body bloated and his face became ragged and puffy. He would stand in his doorway and shout filthy things at his neighbours. He was nearly always drunk and angry. I didn’t want trouble with him. I kept my distance.
After another year or two, he started urinating in a corner of the tiny elevator. At first it happened occasionally. A small damp path that left you wondering. Then it became a regular thing, something I’m sure he did to upset his neighbours. The elevator started to smell. A corner of the coir mat rotted and the mat was replaced. It rotted again and a corner of the mat was simply cut off, French fix-it style. This exposed the metal base of the elevator where a patch of rust had developed.
By this point, I was actively avoiding the man and had stopped greeting him. People made complaints to the management company and building committee but the man kept shouting and urinating. His sister owned the small studio where he lived so eviction was virtually impossible.
Then one day, the man disappeared. By now, I was sick of the pissy bastard and happy to see him go. The studio, which was jammed with rubbish, was cleared out. It was given a lick of paint and sold. The mat inside the elevator was replaced.
A year or so later, my partner was hailed on the street by a familiar looking man. The former neighbour was slim and healthy, almost unrecognisable. His greeting was friendly. He’d stopped drinking, he explained, and was doing well. He said he wanted to thank my partner. ‘You were the only one in that building who was friendly to me.’