People I’ve Known: The Porter
Life is filled with encounters, some meaningful, some less so. But even the most transient shape our experience in some small way, and often linger in our thoughts for a long time to come. This story recounts my meetings with one such person; not family, not a friend, merely an acquaintance — but one that lives on in my mind even years later.
He was surprising. Almost every apartment block in the world has a porter, and almost every person in the world has an idea of what that porter might look like, sound like, act like — shaped in part by hyper-generalised film tropes of a muttering, bustling old man lugging a broom and a frown.
This porter bore many of the hallmarks of the film-fed stereotype. Straggly hair and a flannel shirt, quietly sweeping the floors and stairwell of the building where I was living as a student in rural France.
I don’t know the porter’s name. To my embarrassment, I never asked. After months of brisk greetings and fleeting encounters, it felt too late for introductions, and yet I never remember an earlier time when they might have felt more appropriate.
In fact, many of our first meetings filled me with an unreasonable, but unshakeable, sense of dread, for he was easy to misread, and I often scurried away from our encounters with a feeling of having embarrassed myself. One time, for instance, he held out the back of his hand to me, with no explanation, and I stared back at him with bewilderment. It transpired that he had invented a new form of greeting, an alternative to the handshake, to avoid placing his dust-covered palms, dirty from the broom, against my own.
And so he remained simply “the porter” or, to the French, “le gardien”.
It is tempting to draw parallels with the English etymological false-friend related to that term. Gardien, above all, means caretaker. But he was also, in a sense, the guardian of the building’s inhabitants. More than merely their handyman, he was always looking-out for their interests and offering solutions to occupants’ problems.
One of the tenants was a frail old man who, it seemed to me, had little to live for save smoking. He would stand under the overhang at the entrance to the apartment block puffing on a cigarette several times a day, always in the same earth-coloured knitted cardigan — like a wearable 1970s carpet — and faded jeans with an elasticated waistband. Even when it was bitterly cold — as it often was in those wintry alpine foothills — he would still stand blissfully outside the entrance, wearing nothing but his jumper and jeans, staring vacantly out into the quiet street.
The porter once introduced me to this man, who had lived nearly all of his life in villages along a stretch of countryside that he termed the Plateau de Valensole. Like many rural communities, those living on the plateau were once wealthy and important agricultural producers, but their influence had long since waned, ushering in an embittered brand of poverty and insecurity in its place. Only the lavender fields, purple and mesmeric in their long, even rows, remained. That, at least, was my interpretation of the story that the old man told. He spoke in a faint whisper, laced with a thick, rasping accent that made him almost incoherent. His lips hardly moved as he spoke, as if communicating through an invisible ventriloquist’s dummy or, more likely, as if the value of conversation with an English stranger did not outweigh the effort that it took him to make it.
It was several months before the porter and I broke our cycle of brief pleasantries and defective handshakes.
Not to be outsmarted by his innovative hand-actions on this occasion, I greeted him with a self-conscious fist-bump, conducting myself with the uncomfortable air of someone who knows that they’re being tested. I must have passed with distinction for, unusually, we fell naturally into polite conversation, gradually learning more about each other and what each of us was doing in this distant corner of France.
It was turning to evening outside and the stairwell, set-back from the entrance and slightly around a corner, was growing murky in the impending twilight. I stepped back to find a light switch and we kept talking.
In fact, we spoke for almost two hours, what had initially begun as a formulaic effort at politeness now broaching subjects as diverse as the importance of grammar, the success of various political ideologies — from Macron’s centrism to Trotskyism — as well as the causes of anti-EU sentiment that had led to the Brexit vote and, finally, a comparative study of homelessness in the UK and France.
Every thirty seconds, there would be a sharp click, then a faint hum, before the lights, on an unforgiving energy-saving timer, failed and we were plunged into darkness. And every thirty seconds — more than 200 times in total — I would stumble back up the stairs, fumbling in the blackness for the light switch, before earnestly returning to our conversation just in time to repeat the ritual all over again.
From that surreal conversation onwards, we were close. I benefitted from our mutual respect, a sort of intergenerational friendship, on several occasions.
When I told him a few months later that I would be leaving sometime in the coming weeks, we made arrangements to have a beer in his apartment on the ground floor of the building. We even swapped phone numbers and said that we’d stay in touch.
But we never set a date and, a month or two after, I left without seeing him again. Soon after, the contract on my French phone ran down; a kind of technological symbolism that mirrored our dwindling friendship.
Writing now, I wonder whether he still lives in that apartment block in France’s southeastern corner; whether he ever thinks of the young Englishman whom he never really got to know. For my part, I doubt it.