Paths Chosen

New York - Times Square - July 1977

I question my choice. The borrowed outline is telling me that my favourite plot line is dead. What will I do with that story now?

Rob Goodroll became Daniel Jacmar after a drug deal gone bad. Alone with his mind, paranoia took over. He went to friend that was good with potato-art and left for Africa, a place where he could answer questions about his papers with money.

I worry that I am borrowing the plot. Writing as I read has me unprepared for where the story is going; for which characters get one more scene, one more chapter; and for new characters. The names and the places have been changed and any resemblance to the original is probably not a coincidence nor is it intentional.

Today’s chapter of the line for the wagon the Goodroll story is hooked up to. An ending that is the beginning of an existential crisis. Exist, not exist. Hamlet with Cartesian word play. And I am thinking, continue, not continue. I have no idea what to do with this. The original is starting to tire me. The crisis seems oh so melodramatic and it goes on and on and on.

I think the crisis is over. He picks up a newspaper, and the thinking because he exists is replaced by an article on a rape murder. False hope. The rape murder gets thrown in to the soup. I start thinking, prophesying, dreading, that he will end up being the despicable individual. All this going on about wanting to not think is making me think that he is trying to delete the events from his memory and the newspaper article is a trigger for the half-suppressed memory.

The chance that my guess is right feels high. This chapter started with a bit on presence that sounds like some thing I did earlier. And it’s not the first time I have anticipated themes.

It’s understandable. I am reading the book slowly, taking notes, analyzing, distilling and reducing the story down to an outline. And then I start to develop, thinking forward. We’re starting from the same ideas, similar thoughts are expected.

I am not betting on my premonition. Its foundation isn’t logical. And I am hoping that I am wrong. Because if I am wrong, then maybe Goodroll’s counterpart will make a return. Despite the fact that these two things are not codependent. Because that’s how I would prefer the story to turn out.

Christmas day. I am looking for a warm place (outside temperatures below five degrees Centigrade defeat my home’s insulation, an upgrade overdue, an investment avoided) to read the book. I walk past the first open place, a brasserie that looks like it serves a lot of beer breakfasts. Passing a restaurant with its lights on and no visible customers, I head to a coffee shop that I know. I can make it out on the corner of the block. The lights look off, then again it’s a shop that uses a lot of natural lighting. Still hoping that it is open, drifting to the outside of the sidewalk, I keep on advancing. I can clearly see the chairs are stacked. I turn around.

I can see someone behind the bar at the place of the invisible customers, I head toward the doors. Doubt. A few more steps. Chairs on tables. One man cleaning and not dressed for service.

The wind picks up speed. A headwind that speeds me up through its chill factor. I step through the door for the bar section of the brasserie.

I am overwhelmed by the crowd that buries the bar. A barrier at least four people deep. The prospect of elbowing my way through while not spilling anyone’s drink chases me back out.

I contemplate going home. The wind points out that I went out to cure my freezing toes, the toes that are my coldness gauge. It’s when they feel cold that I feel the cold, it’s when the cold goes from momentary discomfort to a state of discomfort, it’s a state of discomfort that I fell helpless to change, that makes me grumpy, makes me lash out, swearing at the inanimate objects that refuse to compensate for, adjust themselves to, my cold-driven clumsiness.

I get scientific, hot air rises, so the feet feel the cold first, sweaty feet, wet feet that stay cold. Part of the story I tell people when they catch me in my ugliness, or searching for ways to avoid my feet going cold. Unashamed of sweaty feet but ashamed to include circulation in the explanation, like that would be exposing a frailty, as if feeling the cold when sitting for long periods is a weakness, as if activity isn’t on the list things to do to feel warm.

The laundry is done, the clothes ironed and put away. It’s too early to prepare dinner. I am out of home remedies for my freezing toes. I go to the brasserie’s other entrance, ready myself for a slow swim through the crowd, pull open the door, and get surprised by sparseness, the bar’s zinc counter easily visible.

Searching for a reason for the one-sided filling of the place, I look to my right and see, on a screen on the wall, horses racing. Men lined up before it, betting slips and racing forms the hymn sheets for this altar.

I walk straight to the counter. It’s clean, no beer-sweat stains, no stale beer smells either. A bar with multiple personalities: beer, Calvados and coffee in morning, office workers at lunch and the horse crowd in the afternoon. It’s the cleanliness that says the kitchen has a rush hour.

I check what the other patrons on my side of the bar are drinking and look for the bartender. The place is refusing to conform to the stereotype I have assigned it. I see coffee drinkers, lots of house wine (wine is for sipping, good for a long stay at the lowest cost) and the gamblers drinking beer.

I spot the barman; tall, friendly, full pre-hipster (unstyled but trimmed) beard with a touch of grey at the chin. I order my coffee and it shows up quickly. I pull out the book and look for a foot rest. I see the collection of sugar wrappers, crumpled betting slips and small litter. The disappearance of cigarette butts has not done much to improve the appearance of the floor space next to the bars in France.

I want to read a page-turner next. I read a paragraph, lift my head, watch a customer walk up to the bar, greet the barman by name, and order a glass of red. I read another paragraph and notice a barmaid, small discreet tattoo in the hollow of her clavicle, has joined the barman.

I add coffee sips to the routine: paragraph, sip, the barman is filling a pint glass, paragraph, sip, the barmaid heads into the kitchen, paragraph, sip, my neighbour settles his tab, 1.20€ for a coffee, another customer asks for a refill, paragraph, sip, the barman is wiping glasses. To my right, a man with an African accent is having a lively one-sided conversation, plenty of chuckling. My man-at-the-bar pose has me facing left. I turn my head just enough (I am not interested in seeing the seedy-side of the bar) to see he has a pint and the tip in the bill tray tells me has already paid. Paragraph, sip, the barman is talking, having a conversation, with a regular at the far end of the counter.

Two-thirds of the way through a long paragraph, I hear the barman talking to my neighbour. “Are you all right?” “Yeah, yeah.” “You sure?” “Yeah, yeah.” “You worry me.” He walks back to his friend and my neighbour goes back to his conversation.

I turn my head a little more this time. He’s a few inches shorter than me, wreath-crown baldness, gold rim glasses, well dressed (neither flashy, nor luxurious), mid-fifties (my age, ouch) and a large smile that matches the tone of his conversation.

The barman is back. “Is everything OK?” A yes comes out in between two sentences. The talk is speeding up. “I’m worried about you. You’re talking to yourself.” A laugh to say yes and to say I’m fine. It now sounds like he has three trains of thought going simultaneously, switching between them after a few words. The barman, looking him in the eyes, gives him the intense worried-friend look. From the jumble of words, he picks up that the man hasn’t taken his medication today.“I worry for you.” He goes to serve a customer, I return to the book, my neighbour, slowing down, goes back to his chuckle punctuated conversation. “I’m really worried for you.  Are you going to be OK?”“Yeah, yeah.” “Where you from?” He stops mid-sentence, makes a sound as-if he is about to answer, hesitates, starts again, goes back to what he was saying before, a few words later, the tone of his voice changes, the sign that he has changed subjects. “I’m from Algeria,” the barman. The man responds by speeding up his conversation. “I am not hiding anything.” Subtext: I am also a foreigner, not a xenophobe, just trying to start a conversation, to talk you down back to the real world. “Where you from? Senegal?” He runs away from the questions by creating a new thread to his self-talk.

The barman answers the call of a customer, I take the last sip of my coffee and pull out the change needed to pay for my coffee, stacking it next to my cup. My hand works at getting the stack as neat as possible while head works at catching the barman’s eye. He sweeps the coins up “Schizos make me uncomfortable.” I nod and wish him a good day. I trust his experience. The man seemed harmless, friendly, cheerful, but I’ve read stories about manic episodes turning quickly. Quickly, I rush home, hoping to get there before my toes go cold.

There is an email from the insurance company. A Christmas day response can only mean they have offshored their support, probably North-Africa, for the language. I am expecting an acknowledgment that they had received my letter cancelling the policy for my phone, an acknowledgment I had requested because I had received the rates for next year, ten days after I had cancelled.

“We have received your cancellation request. After studying your file, we regret to inform you that we cannot respect your request because the notice period was not respected.”

What? I sent it seven weeks before the anniversary date! I dive into the binder with my contracts, not there. I force myself to slow down, to register what I am seeing, still not there. Wait, maybe it’s with my receipts, it had come with the phone when I purchased it, some sort of hocus pocus which meant I was saving 20€ by buying it with. Still nothing. I double check the dates to make sure I am looking in the right binder, I go back to he contracts binder, I go to the balcony and smoke half a cigarette.

I am angry at the insurance company. How can I find the terms and conditions of their stupid contract? I sit, open the book, look at the page, and put it back down. I head for my binders, look at them. They probably didn’t give me a copy of the contract. Unlikely.

I visit their website. It looks like it was designed 15 years ago! Figures. It has one modern feature: an absence of a clear path to get support information. Click, click, click. Special offers, price simulations, catalogue of products, contract extensions. I go to the page for extended phone guarantees and I debate going through a simulation to see if it comes up with the terms and conditions. I see a link for a ‘feature,’ automated renewals, click, FAQ, click, two-month’s notice. Assholes! Rip-off artists!

Another visit to the balcony. This shit is not good for my health. I go back to my computer, it is still showing the FAQ. I go make myself a coffee and gulp it down. I close the page. Why are they making it so hard to cancel? Is a  couple hundred Euros worth pissing me off? Stupid, beyond rhetorical,  question. AOL built a successful business on service that was almost impossible to cancel. How much are the bastards going to take me for? 12.95€ per month. Fuck, at those prices I could buy myself a new phone in a year. I head towards the balcony, stop. My throat will hurt if I smoke another one so soon. I should have sent the cancellation notice earlier. It was on my to-do list for a few weeks. That’s a couple hundred Euros worth of procrastination. Isn’t there a way for the government to regulate companies that are out to take advantage of people? Enough! Now I am sounding like one of those professional victims. Save 20€, lose 200. Ha! I am mad at myself.

I remember feeling good the day I sent off the notice, satisfaction at crossing something off the list. Today, I’m feeling extra stupid. They’re still assholes, I’m still angry at them, angry at myself and taking it out on them. And the bastards raised their prices. Oh! They raised their prices. I have an out! They have unilaterally raised their prices and that is a reason I can use to cancel the contract. The government does have some laws to protect consumers. Probably because a minister got burned. I smile at my cynicism.

I pick up the book. This may be a classic but the existential crisis really does go on for too many pages.

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