Issue 167, Fall 2003
Friday 23 March 1990
This morning in front of the Felix Potin grocery store, rue du Cherche-Midi, Mme D., my next-door neighbor, came alone dragging her shopping cart, full of items bought en fonction de her chronic constipation. She said, “The concierge is catching it from the building manager! She’s spent more than seven hundred thousand francs on cleaning products.” (She meant Old Francs, of course. Owing to a nationwide inability to move a decimal point, thirty-two years after New Francs were inaugurated Mme D. still cannot name the coins and banknotes in her handbag.) Apparently the concierge has sent a letter to the building manager naming the tenant who throws unwrapped cat litter followed by floods of liquid disinfectant down the garbage chute. “This is known as informing,” says Mme D., who is friendly with the cat lady. “Well, now it’s her turn to catch it. Her, and her princessy manner. Believe it or not, at the last general meeting we sat discussing the concierge until eleven at night. She’s got half the house against her.”
“The way she dressed. She takes herself for a lady. She behaves as if she owns the concierge’s lodge. She even had me visit it to see how she’s fixed it up. Why should I visit the lodge of a concierge?”
I know but do not say that the concierge uses my phone to call her relatives in Portugal, sometimes, if I’m out of town. Judging from the phone bill she doesn’t say more than, I’m fine, how are you. When another tenant caught her doing the same thing the concierge wept and said, “Don’t tell my husband.” By her Brechtian rules we’re fair game. She says this is the worst building she’s ever worked in.
Now, she’s in trouble over the anteroom outside her lodge, the space where mail is sorted and our extra sets of keys are kept in a locked cupboard. She had filled the room with pots and pots of plants, so that it looked like a flower shop, and hung bird prints on the walls and put up starched white curtains. There was deep resentment about her having decorated the room “as if it were parts of her lodge.” From now on she is to be allowed just one green plant. Selected, important tenants will each be given a key so they may wander in and out and prevent the concierge from imaging she owns this space. “Elle fait trop dame,” my upstairs neighbor explained when I remarked that all this was pretty silly. (This neighbor’s grandfather founded a famous store near the Opéra, where generations of Parisian brides bought their trousseau linens.) Thank God I don’t have to attend meetings where they talk about the concierge until eleven at night; I rent my apartment and don’t have a voice. I am content just to lobby my landlord, without changing the subject, on how I think he should vote. Owing to his respect for writers, though he never reads anything that looks like a book, it sometimes work.
Sunday 25 March 1990
People I know who had no great use for Alice S. as an actress seem hungry for details. The house, and her shuttered windows, appear on TV like a celebrity. Strangers collect in the street as if visiting a shrine. She was an eccentric, a deliberate, a calculated oddity, with her wide-brimmed garden party hats and long cigarette holder, the butt of male comedians and imitators on chat shows. Once a few years ago when we were both standing in the street, waiting for taxis, I asked her why she put up with it—just like that. She said in a normal, not an affected, voice that I didn’t understand her career, that it was important to be recognized and talked about. When the car came for her it wasn’t a taxi but an open car with two young men in it, one in the backseat. The driver leaned over to open the door from the inside but when he saw me staring changed his mind and got out and came round to usher her in. His face and manner were supremely insolent: he was playing it for the fellow in the backseat and for a total stranger. Meanwhile she swept in, holding her hat. Did she have on long gloves? I mustn’t add props to the scene. Impossible not to think of Gloria Swanson, and Sunset Boulevard, except that Alice S. was in a real world every minute, every second, playing the idea of an actress, a grande dame, a monstre sacrée. I’d like to take it one further and say she knew it was a joke, but I can’t be sure.
Mme B., the concierge, tells me what happened yesterday. (Some of the friends who called me this morning kept asking if Alice S. had really died; there were contradictory stories going about.) Friends or relatives had arrived before the firemen, who were supposed to be giving first aid. The friends or relatives wouldn’t let them in. They kept issuing statement, “A.S. is alive and under intensive care.” Meanwhile the captain of the fire brigade—pronounced caption by Mme B.—sent for the police. That was how conflicting stories occurred. The capitan told Mme B. that her loved ones would not accept the truth, and that she was “dead, dead, dead.”
Read our 1999 Art of Fiction interview with Mavis Gallant here.