I recently spent the better part of an afternoon looking for a fax machine. France is overrun with hair salons, lingerie shops, and stores selling outlandishly priced baby clothes, but alas, there is not a Kinko’s to be found.
With documents in hand, I left my apartment and walked with great purpose until I realized I had no idea where I was going. I’ve never sent a fax in all the years I’ve lived in Europe. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a fax machine. So, I did what any experienced expat would: I walked into a bar.
You know how you can’t leave your family’s house after Thanksgiving dinner because you’re trapped in the middle of a heated discussion, from which you are excluded, about the best way for you to drive home? I sipped a glass of (excellent, two-euro) wine and played pinball until the final consensus of the bartender and four drunks was told to me like an urban legend: Someone, at some point, had seen something resembling a fax machine, maybe at the tabac on the corner.
I should have known. Europeans place no small amount of faith in the multitasking superpowers of their tobacco shops.
This particular tabac sells cigarettes, puzzle books and candy; tiny, dusty, kitschy souvenirs languish in the sun-baked window. I entered and waited for the old couple that runs the place to finish grilling a customer about the health and welfare of every grandchild in our postal code. The couple bade her adieu – literally – and waited until the door had closed with a click before turning their attention to me. They have the same mannerisms, as old couples do, and they tilted their heads in unison to see me through their bifocals.
We engaged in a lengthy exchange of pleasantries, during which I learned they did not have a fax machine, nor did they know of anyone in possession of such a relic. They were sad they couldn’t help me, so I bought a pack of gum, which cheered them immensely.
I headed down the street where the fondue place is (I rarely call French streets by their names after a mispronunciation of Boulevard Jeu de Paume had me asking for Apple Juice Street) and wondered if I had enough money left to bribe one of the 53,000 real estate agents in town to use their god-forsaken fax machine.
Then I noticed a tiny storefront on the other side of the street. The window displayed a little sign that read, Chez Kate – Ecrivain Public. I crossed, angling for a glimpse inside. To hang a shingle advertising one’s business as a public writer struck me as absurd and quaint; but then again, so are fax machines.
I opened the door wearing my “Hi-I’m-sorry-I’m-American” smile and found Kate, public writer, sitting behind a desk. I am assuming she was Kate – Chez Kate was slightly larger than a freight elevator, and she was the only person in it.
But the middle-aged, plainly dressed woman who greeted me could not possibly be the Cyrano de our town. She struck me as more of an Eileen, or a Betty, or a Lorraine – whatever the name is of the lady in your office who wears Christmas ball earrings, always has candy at her desk and creates elaborate, passive-aggressive signs regarding break room etiquette.
I asked her if she had a fax service. She seemed surprised and thrilled to be able to answer in the affirmative. She took my documents, tapped them into crisp uniformity, placed them perfectly squared on the desk, reached for her notebook and pen and asked me for the phone number. I pointed to what I had written on the cover page and apologized for being bad with French numbers.
(Actually, I’m not that bad – it’s just that the French seem to be able to understand phone numbers only if they are presented as a series of 2-digit numbers, and invariably, those numbers include 70-something, 80-something or 90-something. These numbers in French are impossible: 74 is said “sixty fourteen;” 85 is “four twenties five;” 99, “four twenties nineteen.” I can either speak a foreign language or do math; I can’t do both at the same time.)
Kate rewrote the phone number in two-digit groups in her notebook, snapped up the documents and slipped them into the fax machine. As her finger hovered over the keypad, I saw her panic. Her smile froze and then faltered, just for a moment. I think it was the first time she had used the fax. But she rallied, typed it in, hit send, and then sighed as only the French can, as if to say: I’ve done all I can here.
Once we established that the two fax machines were communicating in their secret fax language, the atmosphere toed the awkward line. There was nowhere for me to sit, no magazines to flip through; her completely bare desk did not allow her the pretense of multitasking. So she over-busied herself with supervising the fax machine, and I did a slow tour of Chez Kate.
I looked at her collection of beautiful black leather-bound books, which from their embossed titles seemed to be about the regions of France. I noted her price list, which made the rates Cal and I charge seem extortionist. She had a special cushion for her seat, perfumed soap in the small corner sink, and tiny figurines on a shelf next to the window.
In a way, Cal and I do what Kate does. People come to us and ask us to write something for them. We charge them a fee, they pay us (or not, but that’s another story), and we send them on their way with a virtual wave and a smile.
But we never have to speak to anyone, or meet with anyone, or even get dressed in order to provide our services. We hide behind our Internet profiles, portfolios and online feedback. We can appear to be the model of professionalism and efficiency, even though we’re calling up for takeout and fighting over who’s up next on Guitar Hero while the cat nips at our feet.
Kate has nothing to hide behind except a large window with a small sign. She doesn’t get to decide who walks through her door, or what that person will ask her to do.
These few minutes with Kate in her Chez made me wonder what kind of person would seek out a public writer. Although I could plainly see her computer and printer, I imagined her performing the much more intimate act of writing by hand. She would be a kind of confidante, listening to tales of lost love or injustice, or maybe she would be handed a letter to read and respond to. Then, picking up her quill, she would begin to compose
Somewhere in Manhattan, a fax had been received. Kate visibly relaxed as if she had just come back from delivering it herself. I paid her, and she shook my hand – an odd thing to do, but it felt right.
I was tempted to ask her how she had come to be a writer for the public, with a tiny storefront office and black books and perfumed soap. But I did not stay. I took my documents and left her to wait for her next client.
At that moment, Kinko’s was a million miles away.