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Playing air guitar in Paris

By Roberto Loiederman,

During my first week in Paris, I shooed away several groups of would-be thieves and pickpockets: thin young men and women preying on vulnerable tourists, swarming around them, badgering them to sign a piece of paper or read a document in English, or pretending that they’d found a valuable gold ring. These scams must work some of the time, because you see these groups over and over.

A week after we arrived, my wife went to Israel to visit her family, leaving me alone in Paris. The day after she left, a Saturday morning, I started early and walked for hours, heading toward Montmartre. When I got there, I was exhausted and looked it: a sweaty 72-year-old tourist; a turkey fit to be plucked.

It was enormously crowded in Montmartre, many thousands of people jostling and moving and gawking. Did I flash my wallet when sitting in the little park, the one with the carousel and the kids playing? Maybe. In retrospect, I remember a man in his 20s eyeing me and talking on a cellphone. At the time, I didn’t focus on him.

I walked through narrow streets, then up some steps toward Sacre Coeur. Suddenly, I felt a twinge . . . of what? Sciatica? I was dizzy, as if something had been sprayed in the air. I stopped and felt my back pocket.

My wallet was gone. Gone!

I felt woozy, faint. Not just because I’d been violated, but because of the embarrassment: I, someone who’d been around the world — and around the block — too many times to count, had been fleeced. Me!

My wallet had been removed as neatly as if a magician had done it.

I looked around, saw no one. He, she, they had disappeared. I stumbled down the steps and walked into a restaurant. The owner was preparing the day’s menu. I tried to get his help, but he waved me away: He wasn’t going to let a desperate tourist interfere with lunch business.

I staggered down the street. Two young women working at a vegetarian restaurant came to my rescue. They sat me down, brought me water. At least I still had my phone. I was too frazzled and sweaty to manage canceling my credit cards, so I called my wife in Israel and she took care of it.

The young Frenchwomen made calls, police came. I filed a report, then used the few coins I had left to take the Metro back to the rented flat. By the time I got there, it was the afternoon. I couldn’t help replaying the scene in my mind: the moment when I realized I’d been pickpocketed. I heard a cuckoo sound in my head, over and over: You sap! You sap! You sap!

I’d been so careless. I, of all people, should have known better. The problem is that Paris is excruciatingly civilized, not like Brazil or Turkey or Cambodia or Pakistan or some other places where I’d lived or worked, places where I’m very careful about what I take with me and how I carry it. So I’d lapsed into my lazy American habits, carrying all my cash and credit cards in my wallet, in my pants, instead of using the money/document pouch I use when I’m in the Third World: Secure and zippered, it hangs around my neck, inside my shirt.

I mapped out what I had to do. I called Visa: It would send 200 euros via Western Union. Fine. But, I realized, the neighborhood post office bank, which handles Western Union, wouldn’t reopen until Monday morning. That was 40 hours away.

So . . . I had no money, no credit cards, no ATM. But I had a bed to sleep in and enough food to last a couple of days. Oatmeal in the morning, noodles at night.

I explored the neighborhood. Botanical Garden. Luxembourg Gardens. Rue Mouffetard. The market stalls and cafes, people buying and selling. Just walking and looking at it all, observing, not a penny in my pocket. Not a cent.

That’s when it suddenly hit me: I was in Paris and I was broke.

Broke. In Paris.

Ever since I’d dived into a smuggled copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” in 1956, ever since I’d read George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” this exact situation had been my dream: to be broke in Paris. I’d finally achieved it!

This thought didn’t blot out that sickening moment when I’d realized that my back pocket was empty, but it helped make the dark memories get lighter and lighter.

Monday morning, I picked up the 200 euros, but I decided to go on pretending that I was broke. Over the next week, I never ate at a restaurant, made sandwiches before leaving the flat, carried as little money as possible.

Each day I walked 10, 12 miles. When hungry, I’d find a park and eat the sandwich I’d brought. All day I’d drink Paris tap water. When I was too wiped out to continue walking, I’d take the Metro back home.

Feeling strong again, I went back to Montmartre. I put a packet of tissues in my rear pants pocket, hoping that someone would try to steal it. I had fantasies of grabbing the pickpocket’s arm and tearing it off. That never happened, of course, but it made me feel better, and the memory of my desperate moment faded a bit more.

When my wife returned, we went back to a normal tourist schedule — opera, museums, meals at charming cafes and bistros. We even went to Montmartre, where we visited Sacre Coeur and had dinner in the neighborhood.

My fling at being broke in Paris was over. Of course, it had never really existed. I was never really broke in Paris. I’d only pretended that I was. It was a jarring reminder of all those other times in my life when I’d pretended to be something I wasn’t.

Perhaps because I’d been pickpocketed, so counter to my image of myself, I couldn’t help reliving my life. I’d been so many things: merchant seaman, kibbutz farmer, world traveler, ashram resident, screenwriter, deli owner, journalist — the list goes on. But even when those phases lasted for years, I was just skimming the surface. Always pretending.

Now, too: pretending that I was broke in Paris. You sap! You sap! You sap!

The next day, I got an e-mail from AAA. The subject line was: “Your wallet found in Paris.”

What?! An employee of AAA had had an e-mail from a young California man who’d found my wallet in Montmartre and wanted to get it back to me. AAA didn’t give him my data, but it gave me his. He’s in Paris, the employee wrote.

I contacted the man. He was living at the end of a Metro line. He asked for one thing: a baguette, since he lived in a suburb where he couldn’t get a good one.

It turned out that he was living on a 45-foot sailboat divided up into three small apartments. I asked him what he was doing in Paris.

“Staging air-guitar extravaganzas.”

“You mean, guys pretending they’re playing guitar?”

“We have competitions. We’ve done them all over; it’s spreading like crazy.”

He gave me my wallet, minus the cash, of course, and I invited him to dinner.

He joined my wife and me on our last night in Paris. Since we had no reservations, we were seated near the restaurant door, which was good because inside, in the main room, someone was singing sultry songs, off-key, in English. If we’d been any closer, it would have been hard to carry on a conversation.

After a couple of glasses of wine, I told the young man that by returning my wallet he’d renewed my faith in mankind. Embarrassed at having to bear the burden of my faith — or lack of it — in mankind, he got up to go to the men’s room.

When he returned, he said, “Do you know who’s been singing? A drag queen!”

Sure enough, the transvestite entertainer came over, singing, looking for tips.

So here I was, having a fabulous dinner and delicious wine with a guy who stages air-guitar competitions, listening to an aging transvestite sing American songs with too much emotion and not enough talent: two men whose current lives are proudly built around pretense.

Was that the takeaway from this incident? That we’re all pretenders, to one degree or another, that we all skim the surface, and the trick is to be at peace with it?

With each glass of wine, that seemed to make more and more sense.

Loiederman is co-author of “The Eagle Mutiny,” an account of the only armed shipboard mutiny in modern American history.

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