Today I can’t think of anything that has happened, aside from the longshoremen en colère. So I will put in a memorandum I wrote about our concierge, who died two years ago. Two years ago, but when those of us who knew her get together, we still can’t help ourselves: we have to gossip about her. She was endlessly fascinating.
Nowadays the word concierge seems to have acquired a negative connotation, and the polite word is supposed to be gardienne; but our concierge always called herself the concierge, so I call her that too.
I knew the concierge for fifteen years, and she was the most evil human being I have ever known personally. She was straight out of a story by de Maupassant, the kind of person I thought did not exist until I met her, every day in my own building. I always wondered what she did in the war. I would give a good deal to know the story of her life. How did she ever become the way she was?
She had no teeth and didn’t bother to put any in. She had huge, watery blue eyes and was thin, wiry and strong. How old she was, no one could tell. She could have been any age between forty and eighty, and in all the time I knew her, she never seemed to change. She always wore a shabby skirt and sweater and slippers. When not working, she was in her loge night and day, every day of the year, twitching the curtains at midnight to see who came in or out. No one ever came to visit her. She was friendly with no one except the housemaids who came to work in the building or on the street. She had no television, she did not read. But her handwriting was small and well-formed and she wrote an educated French with no mistakes. She was certainly very intelligent, but the word “cunning” fits better.
On Christmas day she would stay alone in her loge with the curtains closed, perhaps eating the boxes of chocolate we gave her. She told me her name was Marie-Noëlle [Mary Christmas!], that the doctor had named her that because she was born on Christmas day, and that she was the youngest of a large family. “I was very spoiled.” For years after that, I gave her a birthday present at Christmas, until one year she snapped at me, “That was just a lie. My name is not Marie-Noëlle. My birthday is not on Christmas. I tell people that so they’ll leave me alone.”
She troubled me, but I couldn’t hate her in spite of all of her screaming, scolding, lying and misconduct. I felt too sorry for her. But no one in my life has made me cry so often.
When I first moved in, she hated me for two years. She hated any kind of change. She hated foreigners. She hated that we actually wanted to use the chambre de service on the sixth floor that we had paid for in our rental contract. She would put buckets of water on the service stairs in the middle of the night and then shut off the electricity to the staircase, so that whoever was living up there had to feel their way down the twisty, uneven stairs in total darkness. She would tell me if the girl up there had a male visitor and how long he stayed and what time he left. She would throw away your mail if she didn’t like you. She hated the woman on the 5th floor (a foreigner!), so the elevator was always out of order. We all thought it was very fragile, and would take great pains not to overload it. But after she died, it stopped breaking down.
She called the tow trucks to tow my car from in front of our building at four o’clock in the morning. The car was in an entrée carrossable (the driveway of the building), so technically they were allowed to tow it, even though the driveway has not been used in living memory; but there was always a car parked there. She knew it was my car when she called.
Her mind worked in savage ways. She was always prepared to believe the worst about everyone. Once I had made blueberry pancakes with frozen blueberries. As the garbage bag was carried down the stairs, a few dark drops of leftover blueberry juice had leaked out onto the service staircase. It was during one of the periods when the concierge was being nice to me. She came up with a conspiratorial air and whispered, “What was that blood that dripped on the stairs? What did you have in that bag?”
My favorite story about her doesn’t come from me. You can find it at the end of this post.
The hardest thing about living with her was that you never knew what to expect, and you could not avoid her. One day she would be all smiles as you walked in the door of the building, the next day you would be greeted by torrents of shrill abuse. I saw that she kept postcards propped up on her mantelpiece, so I wrote her a card while on holiday, and she was fulsomely grateful on my return. Another time I gave her a big tip at Christmas when she had been especially helpful at a party, and without opening the envelope she threw it angrily down on the ground and slammed the door. It wasn’t just me; she treated everyone like that. She never apologized for anything, but when she was particularly outrageous, she seemed to sense that she had gone too far, and would disappear for a few days: you would see the hem of her skirt whisk behind the loge door as you passed. Then for another week, she would smile and nod to you and ostentatiously rush out of the loge to open the door for your visitors.
She bowed and scraped when she saw a chauffeur, an officer’s uniform, a fur coat, or a ball gown, and she spoke the word “propriétaire” reverently, but she thought all businessmen were bloodsucking scum and that the solution to unemployment was for everyone to work fewer hours. She was always talking about how poor she was, and thought everyone else was radin [miserly], but she was very proud and most years she wouldn’t take her Christmas money. It was totally unpredictable, though. One year I gave her a blue cashmere scarf instead, because I had noticed that she often wore blue. She didn’t ever seem to wear it, but one Sunday morning I saw her heading off to church in her best clothes, and the blue cashmere scarf was around her neck. I was so pleased.
When the 2000 census came along, the census forms were given to the concierge in each building to be distributed along with the mail. The concierge did not approve of foreigners being counted, and threw our forms away. “The census is just for French people!” It was no use arguing with her. I went to the Mairie to fill out my form.
She hated dogs even worse than foreigners, and woe betide anyone walking a dog on her side of the street. Everyone in the neighborhood learned to keep the dogs on the far side of the street. Since she died, the dogs have come back and now there is one that leaves a mess in front of our building every day.
Construction workers attracted her wrath more than anyone else. I know now that it was because she liked to keep her building spic and span, and she couldn’t if there were men traipsing in and out, trailing sawdust and plaster. She followed them around like a ghost, they could not escape. Worksites were always unusually neat in our building. Delivery men were followed up the stairs by her shrill, angry voice scolding on and on and on, and they usually arrived wringing their hand next to their faces: “Oh là là, she needs to retire, that one!” The clever workers figured out that the way to deal with her was to flirt. She had a weakness for handsome young men, and they could get away with anything if they laughed and charmed her. “Oh, laissez-le, il est jeune!”
She loved children, although they were usually afraid of her. The way she would grab at them almost hungrily, with her scrawny, powerful claws, always reminded me of “I fear thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand!” They often started crying when she touched them. She looked just like the wicked witch in all the fairy stories. Poor woman.
I had learned how to deal with her by the time my first visitors arrived in Paris, and told them to forget their American openness and egalitarian ways: be Lord and Lady Bountiful, kindly and condescending. The concierge respected that. If you made the mistake of trying to be friendly with her, she thought you weren’t upper-class enough to live in her building with her revered propriétaires.
She liked my mother and father. She approved of families. She even wept silently when I told her that my father had died. “Were you all there?” she said. I nodded. “Then he was a lucky man at the last,” she said. At that time we were on good terms.
After we had lived in the building for years, she cried and hugged each of us when we moved away to another country. I thought we were over the hard times with her. I thought I had broken through the ice.
But two years later, we bought the apartment and moved back to our old home. In high spirits after signing the contract, I bought a huge bouquet of hydrangeas, which she had told me were her favorite flowers, and presented it as I told her the good news.
The concierge froze, then glared and screamed at me. “I don’t want your flowers! We don’t need any more rich foreigners! You’re just buying it for an investment.”
“No! It’s for our home!” I said.
“You foreigners are ruining this neighborhood! Des gens comme vous pourrissez le quartier! You won’t like it here, you know! It’s all just old people in the building now! Why don't you go live somewhere with young people?”
One of my old, friendly neighbors from before came by. “What is going on here?” she asked the concierge in her grandest manner. The concierge lifted her nose in the air without speaking and went back into her loge, slamming the door.
I thrust the flowers into the friendly neighbor’s arms. “She won’t take the flowers I bought for her. Please take them!” I burst into tears.
The neighbor kissed me on both cheeks, gave me a sympathetic smile, and took the flowers, which occupied the whole elevator. “This will be perfect for my vente de charité,” she said. “She doesn’t like change, you know. Welcome back!”
Later on the concierge grew milder to us again, but only because more and more new people, and even more foreigners, kept moving into the building. Our status rose with each new arrival.
One day in September, she slipped and fell in some dog feces and broke her hip. I did not know about her injury till after she died. She got a cane, limped a bit, and continued to work. I think she wouldn’t have known what to do if she did not work. In early December she got a walker. I wanted to ask how she was, but I had long ago learned not to commiserate. She perceived any form of kindness as weakness, and when your guard was down, would use it against you to say or do something vicious out of the blue.
It was impossible not to be sorry for her, though, as the days grew shorter and colder and she hobbled around with her walker, shrilly scolding delivery men in a feebler voice than before. I felt heartless walking by her, and gave her a nice Christmas present. She refused it with cutting words, even though the year before she had accepted her gift.
The day after Christmas she wasn’t there. A kind Portuguese woman, a nurse, who lives a few doors down came out of the doorway of the loge as I went out. She told me that she had gone to see the concierge on Christmas eve to wish her "Joyeux Noël." “She was lying in her bed and could not even move, la pauvre! I called the ambulance. The boys told me that she would not have survived the night if I had not called.”
The next day, I took some of our family to visit her in the public hospital where she was, out near the Roland-Garros stadium. It was a clean and correct kind of place, but desolate too, full of old, sick, lonely people at Christmas. No one there looked as if they would ever come out again. The concierge was lying in bed in a two-bed room, with her hospital gown pulled up above her waist and the sheets at her knees. I tried not to look. The children were mortified. The concierge seemed not to care. She smiled weakly at the children and then began to complain. She asked me to bring her food, sweets, meat, water. I noticed there was a woman patient sitting in a chair quietly nearby, listening. She shook her head at me. The concierge saw where I was looking and said, “C’est mon amie. She has been wonderful to me. She is a good, kind person. She has saved me.” I had never heard her say nice things about anyone. The other woman smiled deprecatingly and said, “I try to see the good in everyone, that is all. And to cheer people up. There is no use being sad all the time.” I am so happy the concierge had a good woman like this to talk to near the end.
I visited the concierge several more times in the hospital. She was very worried that someone would break into her loge and steal her few pitiful belongings. The doctor met me outside the door to her room and told me not to bring her anything to eat. She was now being fed intravenously. She complained bitterly the next time I came. Why hadn’t I brought the food she asked for? I still feel guilty when I think about it. It would have been one of her last pleasures.
“I don’t dare,” I said at the time. “The doctor has forbidden it.” She turned away, looking disgusted, and wouldn’t say goodbye.
“I’ll come back Thursday,” I said. But on Thursday, it was raining and cold and I decided to stay home. She had been so nasty anyway, the last time I saw her. I knew people in the hospital are sick and not always on their best behavior. Anyway, it was my duty to go. I resolved to go the next day. But as I was going out the door in the morning, on my way to the hospital, one of my neighbors told me that the concierge had died.
Her handsome nephew, in his thirties, and his family came up from the Basque country to go through her things. He said she was 91 years old, which I don’t have any trouble believing. I think it was illegal to employ someone that age, but her work was her only life. One of the propriétaires, the one who had taken the flowers, told me later that even though it was illegal, they all had thought it was the kindest thing to keep her on rather than make her retire into poverty. “She had nowhere to go, you see. She was terrified of being forced out of her loge.”
The next propriétaires meeting was the first one I attended. The first order of business was to find a new concierge. In the six months after she died there were six burglaries in the building. But the loge had to be completely rebuilt first. “No one decent would live there.” I had not realized how bad her circumstances were, and I thought it was disgusting that the propriétaires had to wait for her to die to improve them. The concierge had lived all those years, without my realizing it, with a bedroom and sitting room on one side of the main entrance, a tiny kitchen on the other, and a Turkish toilet in a little closet behind the garbage cans, in the courtyard. While people in the building walked in and out with fur coats! I understood better now why she talked like a communist.
A few days later there was a funeral service for the concierge at a nearby church. I went with another family member. It was January, and there was almost no one in the church, which was freezing cold. I looked around. The whole congregation for the funeral service consisted of the propriétaires and the Portuguese nurse. A priest and an altar boy came onto the altar, the priest checking the time as he walked. He rushed through the service, looking at his watch several times. When he finally mentioned the poor concierge, he asked us to pray for “notre frère en Christ.” [our brother in Christ]
“I wish I hadn’t called the ambulance,” the nurse told me when we talked after the service. “It would have been a kindness to let her die in her own loge that night.”
New people have moved into the building now. You can hear little children playing, and teenagers laughing, and we have even had a neighborly party down in the courtyard and everyone came. The new concierge, who lives in a totally modern, renovated loge on three floors with two bedrooms, is a smiling South American. The door-handles of the apartments are no longer polished every morning, the staircases are not as spotless; but coming home every day to a friendly, goodhearted person, in a building where everyone says hello, I feel as if we have all come out of a bad dream into the daylight.
Ten years ago my neighbor across the hall had a Filipina maid named Doris, who was well-educated, thoughtful and interesting. She later went back to the Philippines. I was friendly with Doris, and she was friends with the concierge, who respected her involvement with the Filipino Catholic community; Doris organized pilgrimages to Lourdes and Fatima. One day when the concierge had screamed at me for some particularly stupid reason, Doris looked at me sympathetically and followed me upstairs. I was crying again, mortified and humiliated that Doris had seen it.
“Madame, may I talk to you?” she said.
We went inside and Doris said, “You know, I saw a photo of the concierge as a young girl. She was beautiful when she was young. She had fine features, and big blue eyes. I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you ever get married? You were so pretty!’ She said, ‘Car j’ai un sale caractère.’ [Because I have a nasty character.] And then, Madame, she cried and she said to me, ‘Do you think even your God can love someone like me?’”
I never could hate her after that.