When I first arrived in France in the early 1980s, I was a young, struggling, unknown writer and composer. Today, more than 30 years later, I can look back with satisfaction on the considerable progress that I’ve made in one of those areas: now I’m an old, struggling, unknown writer and composer.
But I’ve learned a lot from living in Paris. One of the very first things I learned after moving here was that some professionals seem to be proud of not being able to do their own jobs.
This was made clear to me in a two-part lesson, part one of which was provided by a local “alternative” radio station. When I was new in Paris, looking for opportunities, a friend told me about a station (now out of business) that played contemporary music and liked American musicians.
I called and talked to a very nice young guy who sounded enthusiastic about the possibility of giving some of my pieces a little airplay. So I went to the station to meet him and handed over what for me, in those pre-digital days of primitive audio technology, was one of my most precious, treasured possessions: a cassette tape of my compositions.
And not just any cassette: it was a metal tape! To clarify for readers who didn’t have to suffer through the era of crude, lo-fi sound reproduction, “metal” in this case does not mean “containing heavily rhythmic, thick-textured music conceived for the purpose of annoying parents of teenage boys with bad haircuts.”
It was literally made of metal: the tape itself was coated with some kind of alloy that was supposed to improve the sound quality. A metal tape cost about 10 times as much as a regular audio cassette and was therefore guaranteed to deliver something like 0.5 percent greater fidelity with 0.1 percent less noise, distortion, flutter, wow, woof, tweet, oom-pah and all of those other obsolete technical terms that used to keep audio engineers awake at night.
The blank cassette itself was a fairly serious expenditure for me in those days, and, more importantly, it was the only “high-quality” copy of those recordings that I had with me in Europe. Naturally, when I gave it to my contact I emphasized that I needed to get it back, and he gave me his word that I would.
As it turned out, the word he actually meant to give me was “hah-hah.” When I called two days after the broadcast to ask when I could come get the tape, I talked to the station director, who informed me that my contact didn’t work there anymore (which was something of a surprise) and that he, the director, didn’t know where my tape was.
I had the suddenly former DJ’s home number, so I called him and got his exact description of where he left my cassette. Then I called the director again and was again informed, after a suspiciously short and silent pause to “give him a chance to look,” that it was nowhere to be found.
Then came the lesson. When I expressed my dismay, given the cost of the tape, its irreplaceable nature and the reassurances of the person I had given it to, the director (I repeat: director) said, “Hey! This is a radio station. Tapes get lost.”
These words rang in my ears not one month later in the offices of a publisher, also now (and also deservedly) out of business, that used to put out a monthly English-language magazine about Paris. I had dropped by to submit my very first humor piece about life as an American in France.
This was before the days of e-mail and home computers, so I had typed the essay on an electric typewriter and, after calling to ask if they were interested in the submission, delivered it by hand. Photocopies were not expensive, but I still wanted to get my manuscript back, and mentioned as much to the guy I gave it to.
Who, I guess predictably, said, “Hey! This is a magazine. Manuscripts get lost.”
And he was right! They lost it! But not before rejecting it! (The head editor seemed not to understand the value, or existence, of humor: her comment was, “Most of our readers live in France, so they already know that there are differences,” as though my article had been intended as a serious “whistleblowing” essay revealing the shocking truth that France is not the United States.)
And by the way, both of those guys really did preface their explanations with “Hey!” As though berating me for failing to understand the simplest facts of reality.
So there I was, having dealt in rapid succession with two institutions that seemed to have no mechanism or desire to keep track of the one thing that gives them their entire reason for existing: music for the radio station, manuscripts for the magazine.
I started wondering where else in France I could expect to find institutionalized incompetence defended, and in fact proudly proclaimed, with a fatuous rationalization. I thought of a few possibilities:
Hey! This is a school. Children get lost.
Hey! This is a bank. Money just disappears sometimes.
Hey! This is a hospital. You can’t expect us to keep track of every single patient!
Hey! This is a prison. We lose release orders all the time. Get over it, already!
This line of thought came back to me recently when one of my imagined parodies came true: my bank actually lost some of my money.
Last November I did a very small editing job for a reliable client who always pays me right away. I received a check two days later, went to my bank and deposited it.
And then noticed, when I got my next statement, that the amount (60 euros) had never been credited to my account. I had the deposit receipt, with all the right numbers on it, and my client informed me that it had indeed been debited from her account, so it was obviously my bank’s fault.
But it was not obvious to everyone. My bank was nice about it, and promised to investigate, but week after week went by with no sign of my 60 euros, making me increasingly glad that it wasn’t a larger amount.
Finally, earlier this month I received an e-mail announcing that they never did figure out what happened, so they were going to reimburse me.
Fair enough, but get this: what the message actually said was, “Given your many years as a client of the bank, we will credit your account today with the amount of the check.”
A question leaps to mind: WHAT THE @#%!?
Given my “many years as a client”? Really? Why is that even a factor? Do they routinely lose deposits by new customers and then laugh it off? Is it part of some kind of hazing period for “freshmen” account holders?
Radio station, magazine office, bank… The wording is different, but the message is the same: by the very nature of this place, you can’t expect us to do our job properly and protect you from loss.
Since this mentality seems to be even more widespread than I had suspected, now I’m trying to think of ways to use it to my advantage:
Hey! This is a department store. You have to expect some shoplifting.
Hey! This is a bar. Sometimes somebody else beats you to your drink.
Hey! This is a hotel. Some people end up in the wrong bed. Nice negligee, by the way.
Hey! You’re a tax inspector. So, like, you probably lose people’s payments once in a while, right? Right?
© 2016 Paris UpdateFavorite
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.