Big City Cold
IT’S FREEZING IN THIS bled, the wind makes my eyes water and I have to run in place to get warm. I tell myself that I’m not living in the right place, that the climate around here isn’t for me, because in the end, climate’s the only thing that counts and this morning the crazy French cold paralyzes me.
My name is Ahlème and I roam around in the middle of everybody, the ones who run, the ones who beat each other up, are late, argue, make phone calls, the ones who don’t smile, and I see my brothers who, like me, are very cold. I always recognize them, they have something in their eyes that isn’t the same as everybody else, like they want to be invisible, or be somewhere else. But they’re here.
At home, I don’t complain, even when they cut off the heat, or else Papa tells me: “Don’t even talk, you weren’t here for the winter of ’63.” I don’t answer him, in ’63 I wasn’t even born. So I head out and wander around the wonderfully smooth streets of France, I pass rue Joubert where some hookers yell across the street to each other. You could say that these old, wrecked dolls aren’t afraid of the cold anymore. Prostitutes are the climatic exception, location doesn’t matter, they don’t feel anything anymore.
My appointment at the temp agency is at 10:40. Not 10:45. Not 10:30. Everything’s precise in France, every minute counts and I can’t seem to make myself get into the rhythm. I was born on the other side of the sea and the African minute has more than sixty seconds.
On the instructions of M. Miloudi, the adviser at my neighborhood unemployment office, I went to talk to this new place: Interim Plus.
Miloudi, he’s a real veteran. He’s been at the agency for the Insurrection Housing Projects for years and must have seen through every case in the district. He’s pretty efficient. But he’s also always in a hurry. At my interview, he didn’t waste a minute:
“Sit down, young lady . . .”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And next time, mind that you knock before you come in, please.”
“Sorry, sir, I didn’t think about it.”
“I’m telling you for your own good, because that sort of thing could cost you an interview.”
“Good, so let’s get started, no wasting time, we only have twenty minutes ahead of us. You are going to fill out the competency form in front of you, write in the boxes in capital letters and don’t make any spelling mistakes. If there’s a word that makes you hesitate, ask me for the dictionary. You brought your résumé?”
“Yes. Five copies, like you said.”
“Very good. Here’s the paper, fill it out carefully. I’ll be back in five minutes.”
He took a box of kitchen matches and his pack of Marlboros out of his pocket then left the room, leaving me to stare down my destiny. On the desk there were piles of folders, a mess of papers that blocked your sight, they took up all the space on the desk. And above it all, an enormous clock hung on the wall. Every tick of its hands knocked out a sound that reverberated in me as if it were my death knell. All of a sudden I was hot. I was blocked. The five minutes passed like a high-speed train and I hadn’t written anything but my last name, my first name, and my date of birth.
I heard M. Miloudi’s hacking cough in the hallway, he came back into the room.
“So? Where are you? Have you finished?”
“No, I’m not done.”
“But you haven’t filled out anything!” he said as he leaned over the paper.
“I haven’t had enough time.”
“There are lots of people who are waiting for appointments, I have to see other people after you, you saw them in the waiting room. We only have ten minutes left at the most to contact the SREP, because it won’t help at all to go through the AGPA at this time of year, there aren’t any more spots. We can try FAJ, the paid apprenticeship program . . . Why haven’t you filled it out yet? It’s pretty simple.”
“I don’t know what to put in the box marked ‘life objective’”
“Do you have any ideas?”
“But on your résumé, it’s clear that you have a lot of work experience, there has to be something that you liked in all of that.”
“I’ve only had little jobs as a waitress or salesperson. Just to make money, sir, not as part of my life objective.”
“Fine, let’s forget the form, we don’t have time. I’m going to give you the address of our temp agency so you can go while we’re waiting to contact FAJ.”
Johanna, an office worker at Interim Plus, looks about sixteen, has a quivering voice, and speaks like every word hurts her. I realize she’s asking me to fill out a questionnaire; she gives me a pen with their ridiculous office logo on it and tells me to follow her. The mademoiselle is wearing ultra-tight jeans that betray every violation of her Weight Watchers diet and give her the look of an adulterous woman. She points me toward a chair near a small table where I can settle in. I have trouble writing, my fingers are frozen, I struggle to loosen them. It reminds me of when Papa—The Boss, as we call him—used to get home from work. He always needed a little time to open his hands. “It’s from the jackhammer,” he said.
I scratch along, I fill out their boxes, I check things off, I sign my name. Everything is miniscule on their form and their questions are kind of annoying. No, I am not married, I don’t have children, I am not a B-permit cardholder, I haven’t done any higher education, I am not a Cotorep-verified disabled person, I am not French. Where do I find the box marked “My life is a complete failure”? At least with that I could just immediately check yes, and we wouldn’t have to talk about anything else.
In a compassionate tone, Johanna, her jeans pulled so tight they could make her uterus explode, presents my first “interim mission.” It’s funny that they call them missions. It makes these shitty jobs feel like adventures.
She offers me a stock job at Leroy Merlin next Friday evening. I say yes without the smallest hesitation, I really need to work and I would take pretty much anything.
I leave the office all satisfied, proof it doesn’t take much.
Later I head out to meet Linda and Nawel at La Cour de Rome, a bar near the agency over in Saint-Lazare. They’ve been trying to see me for a few weeks and I admit I dodge going out when I’m broke. And then the last few times, the girls have all been glued to their boyfriends and it wears me out, always feeling uncomfortable planted there alone in the middle of them. IR...