When I lived in France, I volunteered a couple of times a week at a major expat cultural center. I’d intended just to help out at the soup kitchen and maybe with a little tutoring, but this somehow also turned into working the security desk, too, under the direction of a fiercely proprietary octogenarian Englishwoman, Nancy, who was despised by everyone else, but performed her volunteer tasks with such zeal that removing her seemed out of the question.
I was terrible at security. For starters, I wouldn’t follow the protocol; I refused to demand peoples’ papers—which I think was Nancy’s unofficial innovation anyway—and I didn’t like to push too hard about why anyone was there, either, because some people were cagey about attending the AA meetings downstairs. As a guard, in short, I was a total failure.
“We are the first line of defense,” Nancy liked to say—she had been somehow involved with the Royal Air Force auxiliary—which I found so ludicrous that I proceeded to thwart all the rules. I got in the most trouble for fraternizing with Florette, Nancy’s particular enemy, a very old lady—at any rate, she seemed very old—who looked out of another time. Her stringy white hair was pulled into a bun; she had no teeth; she wore a shawl. She smelled none too clean. I was told that years before she and her mother had done mending and housework, but now she was too old, and alone, and still came for want of anything to do. She seemed a deeply pathetic figure.
Nancy would have none of it. She posted signs all over the office: IMPORTANT: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ADMIT WOMAN FLORETTE TO OFFICE. IF SHE ATTEMPTS TO ENTER CALL HENRY. (Henry was the very nice janitor.) And if Florette tapped on the window with her cane when Nancy was there, she’d be roundly scolded and chased away.
Of course, I let Florette into the office whenever she wanted, and let her sit by the heater, and since she would always ask hopefully for a snack, I took to bringing her sweets. She usually wouldn’t eat these, instead stowing them in one of the many plastic bags she carried with her.
I wish I could pretend that Florette taught me many life lessons, but the truth is that between the language barrier and her lack of teeth, it was hard for me to understand her. And when my French improved, I realized that she mostly wanted to talk about Nancy (“a pig!”) and say derogatory things about immigrants, blacks, and Jews. I tried to reply with stern corrective platitudes in very poor French. Once I told her that I, myself, was Jewish, but if I expected her to be abashed, I was very much disappointed. “You don’t look Jewish!” she said.
As the months went on, even I could see she was deteriorating. She cried out whenever anyone went near her things and lashed out fearfully at the small children in the daycare. One day she became so angry that she became hysterical. She wouldn’t let Henry hail her a cab; she clung to me and cried. “They’re taking my things,” she said over and over, after I’d joined her in a taxi to her housing estate.
The next week, I was met by a triumphant and bright-eyed Nancy, who informed me that Florette had struck a small child with her cane; Nancy had called the police. Florette would now be banned from the premises.
I did not particularly relish the prospect, but I felt I should visit Florette in the nursing home where, I learned, she had been moved. She had had a fall. I tried twice to go and had missed visiting hours. When I finally did, she was lying in a bed looking tiny and frail and very old. I don’t think she recognized me. And when she died a few months later, there was no service.
Now that I’m back in France, I paid a visit to the cultural center yesterday. Inside I found two security guards: one checked my bag while another escorted me through a metal detector. Things looked much the same, but of course, Nancy was not there. Henry told me that she had died two years before. “It’s different,” he said in his philosophical way. “But in other ways the same.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.