Ten seconds. Ten seconds—if even that—and the moment was over, the only thing left to do was head home.
I had just caught the métro at the Dupleix station in the fifteenth arrondissement. Blue skies, bright sun, but only a few degrees above freezing. It was 3:40 in the afternoon and I only had to go two stops on line 6.
I’d spent the last hour or so at a little bakery where you can get a coffee without paying extra to sit at a table. Nice! (But really, what’s wrong with that place—don’t they know they can charge at least an extra euro for that?) Sixty minutes of organizing a whole load of documents I’ve created over the last year full of backstory material, character notes, and world-building ideas. I’m a little over a month into working through the second draft of my novel, and when you’re inventing a fictional world from scratch, there’s no shortage of things to keep track of—technology, architecture, history, religion, even just what kind of things people eat for dinner… and on and on and on. It had been a good session but I was ready to shift gears. I was even thinking it might be good to write another blog post. You know, set the sprawling multi-year project aside for a bit and write something fun.
So: laptop packed up, scarf wrapped tight, baguette for tonight’s dinner in hand, on the way to the Passy stop. Throughout most of Paris the metro runs underground, but this stretch is elevated above the street and affords some nice views, even crossing over the Seine just southwest of the Eiffel Tower. It was a typically quiet ride. People almost never talk much on the métro; when I do catch snippets of conversations it’s as likely to be among tourists as not.
I found a place in the front of the car where the folding seats are as well as a pair of vertical poles to hold on to. It wasn’t particularly crowded. I easily could have found a seat, but for such a short trip I didn’t bother, so I was leaning against the front wall of the car. Sitting on one of the folding seats was a woman with a mane of curly hair spilling over her scarf, tapping away on her phone. Texting, or surfing the internet, I didn’t notice, but whatever it was, she was very intent. Across from her, a youngish guy slumped in his seat, hardly anything distinguishable about him under his big winter coat. A middle-aged man with thinning black hair got on and I stepped back to give him some room. The doors closed and we sped off to the next stop: Bir-Hakeim, the one closest to the Tower.
We got to the station and the doors opened. I was facing the open doors, not particularly focusing on anything as a few people stepped into the car. And then: a blur of movement burst into my peripheral vision and I spun my head to see the young man in the big coat rushing the woman and then he instantly tore away and lunged out doors and onto the platform. Immediately she was yelling. But it wasn’t a scream; he hadn’t hurt her. It was shock, it was alarm—it was anger. And then I realized what I’d seen: he’d snatched her phone right out of her hands and was running away with it.
Those who had gotten into the car poured right back out and a moment later at least three people had the thief pinned against the wall of the platform. The woman got right into the fray and ripped her phone back out of his hands, all the time berating him in a steady stream of loud, angry French.
It’s still hard for me to understand spoken French; Parisians in particular are known for speaking so quickly that comprehension can be a challenge for novices like me. So I didn’t catch a word of the torrent of outrage that she was blasting the young man with. But her tone of voice, her body language? That I understood.
Ten seconds: that’s all it took from the time he grabbed the phone out of her hand to the time she tore it from his. I was still on the métro, still stunned by what I’d just seen. I looked down and noticed a small shopping bag on the floor where she’d been sitting. It appeared to be a few frozen meals. I picked it up and joined the circle surrounding the would-be thief. One of the men holding him was dialing on his phone, calling the police, I assumed. The woman was still venting her anger. When she took a breath I held up the bag to her. “Excusez-moi…” She took the bag, turned back to the young man and started in again. I watched for another moment and then got back on the métro.
The buzzer sounded, the doors closed, and we pulled out. The Seine was soon passing beneath us, the Eiffel Tower standing starkly against a cloudless sky. I got off at the next stop and walked the few blocks home.
As I made my way, it occurred to me: if the thief had just timed his crime better he might have gotten away with it. If he had grabbed the woman’s phone when the buzzer sounded, he could have dashed through the closing doors and been running down the platform before people knew what had happened. For her sake, I’m glad he hadn’t thought of that.
I can still picture the look on his face as he stood on the platform, held by the Good Samaritans. He didn’t look like a hardened criminal. He didn’t look like anyone who would even make me nervous or make me check that my wallet was still in my pocket. He looked like a kid who had just gotten a bad grade on a test or who had been scolded for not making his bed. It was hard for me to tell how old he was. Sixteen? Twenty? Should he have been in school? Did he have a bed? Had he done this kind of thing before? He didn’t look homeless, but whatever his situation, I’m sure I wouldn’t want to trade places with him. What would happen to him now? I have no idea.
It’s a bit ironic: this morning I was perusing a forum where people were discussing an area in the outskirts of Paris known for pickpockets, where you probably don’t want to go alone at night, and where you need to have your wits about you at any time. But there’s a great cathedral there, so it’s on my list. I was thinking of going out there today, but decided to save it for another time.
Instead I stayed close to home, on familiar turf. And witnessed something I’d never seen before. Bad things can happen anywhere, anytime. Paris learned that lesson last year. I was reminded of it again today.