At the end of my year abroad, the students in Paris went on strike. I’ve forgotten the order of events: did they strike first and the unions joined in solidarity, or did they strike as a show of solidarity with the unions? It doesn’t much matter. By late spring the strike was full-blown with protests and marches and banners flying everywhere.
I didn’t pay that much attention, I’ll admit. It barely affected me and I was vain enough, callous enough, to pay little heed to things that didn’t affect me. The idea of a student strike was surprising because (again with the lack of awareness) I knew nothing about Paris in 1968 … or Columbia University for that matter. I figured there’d be some shouting and then some negotiating and then everyone would settle down and go home.
Then things turned violent. The first appearance of riot police shocked me. It wasn’t 1968, after all. What was going on?
Still, I had a naïve blind faith in the idea of negotiations and everyone settling down and going home. I watched the news, but really believed it would all blow over.
One night, I went to a dinner party and caught a cab home with my friend Erin. As we neared Saint-Michel, we saw shattered bus shelters and overturned cars, cars on fire. The driver slowed and then stopped, told us we’d have to get out, that he could go no further. I remember being annoyed. We were so close to the ladies’ boarding house where Erin and I lived. I was tired and just wanted him to get me home.
We paid the driver and watched him back away from us then turn down another street. We looked around at the burning cars and broken glass. We shrugged it all off and headed for Saint-Michel. Which was when we saw that there was an enormous crowd in front of us. A crowd that seemed to be pulsing with energy, ready for something … already in the middle of something. But we kept moving. We just had to get to the other side of them, get past the boulevard and we’d be half a step from our door.
We moved into the crowd and made it to the boulevard. I looked both ways as I prepared to cross. Left: nothing. Right: a wall of riot police — shields up and batons out — about the reach the intersection.
Erin and I started backing into the crowd. Or tried to. The crowd had become a solid thing and we couldn’t move through it. The police turned into the street and took formation across the width of it, keeping anyone from leaving that way. Someone at the back of the cordon shouted a meaningless command through a bullhorn. Meaningless because the French I’d learned hadn’t taught me anything about police commands.
We decided to try a lateral move, to get to the periphery and try edging along the buildings to make our escape. The bullhorn voice shouted at us again and the crowd became less a single, heaving body than a splintering crystal vase, people set loose and trying to move in all directions.
Erin and I had almost reached the sidelines when I heard a series of strange, hollow pops. I didn’t know what the popping was, but the sound pushed the people around us into something close to a frenzy.
More pops as we neared the buildings and then something hit my foot. I looked down and saw a little cannister of some kind. Had someone thrown it? What was it? I bent down to check it out just as it started smoking. Someone grabbed my arm and yanked me back. A young man with a bandanna over his face. “That’s tear gas!” he shouted in English.
Tear gas? Tear gas? That was what everyone was so upset about? That was how the big bad riot police were going to bring us all to heel?
Yeah. Tear gas. I really knew nothing about tear gas. I’d always wondered why it was a tool of choice. So what if you cry? You’re still able to do whatever thing it is the cops want you to stop doing. Right? I mean, what’s a little crying, for goodness sake?
Then my face started to burn. As though someone had sprayed it with acid. I reached up to rub it and the bandanna guy pulled my hands away.
“That’ll only make it worse,” he said.
“Make what worse? What’s happening?”
He pulled me with him away from the cannister. “It’s the tear gas,” he said. “You didn’t know?”
‘Didn’t know’ would be such the understatement. Didn’t know. Didn’t imagine. Didn’t have even the first clue. No. I didn’t know.
And I didn’t know that when you cry — which I started to do immediately — the tears make your skin burn more, ratchet the pain right up to excruciating.
My face was on fire, and I couldn’t stop crying. And I’d lost Erin the moment I’d bent down to look at the tear gas cannister. Bandanna Guy shepherded me down the block and around a corner. He gave me some oil to put on my face, said it would help. It did. The pain didn’t go completely, but abated enough that I no longer wanted to claw my face off.
I stopped crying, pulled myself together, saw that Erin was right there. Bandanna Guy went to look around the corner, came back to us. “They’re in the street now,” he said. “Swinging at anything. Come with me.” He took us each by the arm and started jogging us away. I was wholly disoriented and had no idea where we were, where we were headed. We were in a neighborhood I walked through daily, but I was more lost than I’ve ever been.
Somehow we came out on the other side of the mess, pretty close to our house. Bandanna Guy made sure Erin could get us home from there then took off back toward the fray. Erin got us home and sat up with me a while, rubbing my face with olive oil.
Tear gas. Tear gas. Who knew? Or, rather, how didn’t I know?
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.