There is always a chance for unexpected encounters, like the brief encounter I once had with a proud Vietnamese lady. She had been in Hanoi as a young girl when Ho Chi Minh declared independence in September 1945. In his speech, Ho had referenced both the American Declaration of Independence and the French Rights of Man and the Citizen after fighting against the Japanese occupation. Incredibly, the woman had told me how Ho had provided weather reports for the Flying Tigers of General Chennault (one of Uncle Ho’s heroes): "Ho was a weatherman for the Americans," she joked.
Ho Chi Minh was honored with six Colt pistols for his services in working with US intelligence, in addition to receiving an autographed picture of General Chennault after the two atomic bomb blasts carried out by Enola Gay and Bockscar over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These events, plus the threat of Soviet troops rolling into Hokkaido, frightened the Japanese into retreating. They also served to showcase American military prowess for the rest of the world to tremble in awe. In Vietnam, the entire nation celebrated with traditional gunpowder fireworks!
While he was relieved that the atomic fireworks had finally brought an end to the Japanese occupation of Vietnam, Ho was unhappy about the impending American withdrawal from the region. He knew that this would lead to heightened conflict in U.S.-Vietnam relations as Hanoi continued to strive for independence from the French occupation.
This was one of the forgotten ironies of early Cold War history, as time has a way of erasing important events that jolt the conscience. It was not long before that walking monument of sculpted jade vanished from my sight after folding her clothes and enigmatically strolled out of the Laundromat through the glass doors. Unfortunately, it was a chance encounter that never fulfilled its promising potential, and it seems completely unrelated to this unfolding story about fireworks now scintillating.
Yes, there is always a chance for chance encounters—an opportunity to engage in a conversation that transcends the mundane struggles and introspection of everyday life, revealing one's true potential and unearthing something meaningful—and on rare occasions, even something of historical significance. A chance encounter can be deeply fulfilling, but only if one is genuinely interested in connecting with others and is willing to seize the moment.
Interestingly, laundromats seem to be more conducive to strangers striking up conversations compared to metro cars or buses. For those desperately seeking to break free from intense loneliness, there are even courses available that claim to teach the art of picking up and connecting with others. The thrill, akin to rolling dice, lies in the unknown consequences of such encounters. It is still possible, albeit unlikely, to meet a lifelong companion, even in the depths of a Paris FDR Metro station.
The problem with most chance encounters is that, unlike firecrackers, they generally pop in the sky like soap bubbles. Most encounters are truly not worth the time or effort, and sometimes they merely represent a means to illustrate one's acting skills, particularly when one of the individuals involved pretends to be someone other than he or she really is. Or, if such encounters do solidify into some form of meaningful contact, they might ultimately result in some unexpected form of personal commitment, necessitating a handout or something else...
The downside is that it is possible that one could be dragged into something unmanageable, completely beyond one's ability to cope, that is, unless one is a saint, a social worker, or a head shrink, with one's whole heart engaged in a struggle for humanitarian causes... like the woman whom I had once picked up hitchhiking in Washington, D.C., and who, after questioning me about my astrological sign, began to scream in paranoia—accusing me of trying to delve into her personal life—after I had merely asked her the same question, "And under what astrological sign were you born?" ... Her irises scintillating in rage, I politely asked her to leave my car at the nearest stoplight...
Can or should one ever enter into a conversation with a perfect stranger? Is it even possible to talk to those who guzzle down their own bottles of cheap booze while breathing in the fumes of the dry-cleaning machines, waiting for a few shreds of clothes to be cleansed? Exactly what can one say? What can one really do for them? Is it really possible to tinker with souls and bodies in the same way that the attendant repairs the washing machines and dryers each night at closing?
There are, after all, reasons not to associate with anyone; there are reasons not to even try to initiate a conversation, whether meaningful or fulfilling. (The same, unfortunately, may also apply to those whom one may believe to know fairly well.) One may need to take precautions. After all, there are security considerations. One's laundry must be protected from potential thieves and also from those who might toss it to the ground if no one is there to claim it.
It's problematic. Perhaps it's best just to sit there, with or without a book, with or without music plugged into one's ears, or simply play Apex Legends, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty Warzone, or some other "roll the iron dice" wargame, completely oblivious—amidst virtual bombs bursting in the air—and thus say nothing, nothing at all.
Unlike those flaxen-haired, lice-laden longhairs, your hair is cropped short, crew cut, in Milton's "Round Head" or Mayakovsky style. Your worldly affairs spin around and around; it's as if you are totally absorbed in your favorite daily soap opera but are nevertheless able to find a moment to look up and glare suspiciously at all who enter or exit, even if there are never any commercial breaks for this particular showing.
There you are, stripped down to your blue track shoes and white socks, in matching blue plaid boxer shorts. It's nearly 40 degrees at the very beginning of another summer heatwave, when the French would infamously sacrifice the health of their elders to the head-chopping block of the "bourreau" of misfortune—an execution job for those once skilled in the axe, and then the much swifter guillotine that had been handed down from father to son for the enriched bread of six-week-long vacations—during that unexpected "canicule". Green tattoos stain your flesh and mark the fears of your spirit. A green-gray wolf head adorns your left forearm; a boa constrictor curls around your right. A shark peers from your right shin; a scorpion jabs from your left. A crucifix arches up your back. I can see the screams of pain in scarlet letters rippling up and down the nerves beneath your pale, emaciated frame.
Is it worth attempting to engage in conversation, if only to witness your reaction? If one were to dare, a sarcastic question could be posed: "With tattoos like those, who needs clothes?" However, such a mocking insult might disrupt your profound contemplation and potentially awaken one of those wretched, vengeful creatures that simmer like a volcano, ready to erupt beneath your skin...
It appears to be a typical day. People, both tourists and Parisians, are sipping their afternoon coffee and wine while perpetually smoking cigarettes. They gaze out from the bistro, observing the passing cars on the street. Some cars honk aggressively, attempting to maneuver through the wandering crowds, who seem eager to move from one place to another without a clear destination. Above them, the Eiffel Tower looms, reflecting its steely presence. No one knows where to look for a celestial light.
At an angle, resembling a "bateau mouche" mirrored in the Seine, the Eiffel Tower begins to flicker. Excitement and restlessness fill the air as young teenagers toss "petards" onto the street or through the open doors of apartment buildings, startling passersby with sudden headaches. Initially, it all seems harmless (aside from the ear-piercing blasts). Then, out of nowhere, dozens of young men, their faces concealed by black masks or motorcycle helmets, stormed into the square. They unleash flames at the department store across the street, hurl rocks, and wield metal bars...
Stars explode, sending shimmering, iridescent hearts in countless directions. Sparklers cascade down like effervescent waterfalls, while electric fizzlers radiate in spiraling patterns of green and yellow. It's a sight reminiscent of the rocket's red glare... The sky undergoes a remarkable transformation, shifting from a velvety matte of blue to an electrifying acrylic sunset. Rays of blood-red emanate from severed warheads, flowing like rivulets onto the shattered glass strewn across the sidewalk.
Some individuals break into the shopping center opposite the bistro and laundromat, seizing iPhones, TV sets, and computers. Others hastily gather essential household items like cornflakes and paper towels, claiming it is what their mothers requested (in hindsight). Anything unwanted, unsold, or too cumbersome to carry is carelessly piled onto the grimy floor and set ablaze...
Star Spangled Bangers purchased for the 14th of July are transformed into newfangled bazookas, shooting rapid pulses of fire. Small gangs ignite schools, concession stands, apartments, banks, mayor's offices, theaters, offices, and department stores. The charred remains of cars and buses smolder for days, reduced to skeletal frames. The thick smoke fills the air, suffocating the lungs. People at the bistro and on the sidewalk scatter in every direction, seeking shelter. Tourists urgently seek flights back home.
As the news reports, it's a relentless "burn baby burn!" despite the pleas of mothers not to destroy schools, apartments, and the cars of their fellow neighborhood residents. For some, the burning is fueled by pure hatred, "la haine", stemming from the killings of Nahel and George Floyd who were both murdered by also angry and frustrated police officers, who acted impulsively, lacking self-control in the line of duty. For many others, the burning is an act of showing off, a means to howl in derision while inflicting destruction—to show off whatever harmful acts one is capable of out of sheer spite and hatred. It's an expression of pure hate borne from always being at the bottom rung of the social ladder, devoid of respect, and constantly deceived by unfulfilled promises about the rights of man made by politicians.
Sirens echo through the streets, growing louder as police reinforcements arrive in heavily armored trucks. They are determined to apprehend those whose identities and involvement in the attacks have been exposed on social media, as well as those suspected of planning looting operations. Unfortunately, their efforts may also result in the arrest of individuals who are simply caught on the streets during the chaos of the protests. The pillaging continues, inflicting direct and immediate harm on those who already possess the least.
A dappled mutt quivers, shakes, and tries to escape its leash. Another dog with curly hair whines and scurries under a parked car. A third dog is held tightly by the trembling hands of its elderly owner, who cautiously navigates the seemingly omnipresent landmines lurking beneath. Memories of past horrific explosions appear to haunt these reincarnated creatures in the present. The following afternoon, I see you once again, but you make no acknowledgement of my presence. The waiter in knickers secures his corkscrew on his swiveling hip, resembling a pistol in a holster, as he serves you a bottle of "le gros rouge qui tache" in a cowboy-like manner. Your glazed eyes briefly meet his, but you turn your bald head with its plumes of razor stubble to the side, avoiding the chance encounter.
After drinking alone amidst the spectacle, you totter home from the bar in your meticulously clean sweatshirt, its long sleeves concealing your slender arms. It is merely two weeks before that yearly revolutionary rite, where you will somberly reflect on the promises of that annual spectacle that have consistently revealed how, throughout history, political promises are rarely fulfilled...
Your mother awaits your footsteps. Her prematurely gray, matted hair cascades like a powdered wig onto her shoulders, draped over the blue smock she wears when taking out the garbage—a smock she removes along with her rubber gloves upon returning to her apartment to care for the children.
Slender and pale as white asparagus, you often doze off on the couch, huddled like a pile of tattooed bones within an ancient Egyptian crypt that was plundered by Napoleon's troops, along with the Rosetta Stone and the Pharaoh's malediction.
With little to say, no job, and no part-time work, you spend most of your days staring into space, still dressed in pajamas, pretending to watch TV. When the parents of the children ring in the late afternoon after work, your mother hastily ushers you into the kitchen of the one-bedroom apartment. If they knew the truth behind the scarlet letters stitched on your skin, they would no longer allow their children to stay. Yes, if they knew what I knew, they would all vanish in an instant...
Your mother seems to care more for the children in her home day care than she ever cared for you (when your father, whom she never speaks of, was still around). She once told me that a match would ignite the fumes from his breath. (Yes, the alcohol in his blood would set ablaze that tiny room where the infants now play and where the preteens study in utter silence.)
As she mops the Laundromat floor in the hours before the children arrive and empties the garbage cans, she refuses to acknowledge the number of extra jobs she now works, the number of extra children she can support in her cramped apartment, the additional funds required, and how much extra cash you take as you transition from oblivion to uninsured oblivion...
Salmon, black boudin, and plumed pheasant peppered by grapeshot vin de table—an eighteenth-century "nature morte"—become your mother's Sunday company now that you have already become a ghost. In which circle of hell, purgatory, or heaven would Dante have placed you? a victim of contaminated tattoo needles? or a cover-up for blood contamination? or perhaps a result of some chance encounter? ... You vanished long ago, and nobody knows or truly cares about your whereabouts or which otherworldly realm you now inhabit. Doctor Rieux still awaits the lifting of the plague.
Before the laundromat, rats scurried across the foggy steps, fleeing from the exploding firecrackers set off by individuals and gangs of young men gone wild. The new "Sans-Culottes" and the "Neuf Trois" Precariat of the Seine-Saint-Denis set off their sonic booms in revolutionary despair. You, too, have nothing to lose.
A police bullet to Nahel's brain ignites another nationwide fireworks display, even more violent than the protests in 2005. Promises that were never fulfilled, twenty years later, the Sans-Culottes seek revenge in the storming of the Tuileries, reminiscent of the time when they urged the Legislative Assembly to depose the King, known as "Monsieur Veto" or "Louis the Last."
"Off with Jupiter's head!" they now cry!
This year, the unofficial fireworks of the July 14th storming of the Bastille, which symbolized the liberation not only of France but of all humanity in 1789, are celebrated two weeks early...
However, it was only about three years later, after the French revolutionaries had already declared war in April 1792 against the "eastern realm" of Marie Antoinette Josèphe Jeanne de Hapsburg-Lorraine, also known as Madame Deficit and "L'Autrichienne" (or the "Austrian bitch"), that all of France began to march to the tune of the "Marseillaise, or Chant de Guerre pour l'Armée du Rhin"...
In their struggle against the Monarchist alliance and the British Bulldog, the French Revolution ignited a global fireworks display...
Over there, in that international story across the continent, while you willingly join the parade of mighty warriors here in Paris, your face covered in a black mask, the White Compass Rose, Europa, and Black Sea Cossacks are fighting over a Ukrainian "Napoleonide" against the new Tsar's renewed claims to a mud-strewn rasputitsa.
The Zaporizhzhia power plant threatens to melt down, while American tactical dial-a-nukes are deployed to counter the Iskander-M missiles of the Russian Double-Headed Eagle in the new imbalance of terror.
Maybe the concerns raised in the opening of this story are not so irrelevant after all...