First day on the job in Paris

I was awakened by a woman standing over me and gently shaking my shoulder. Did I want a job? It seemed that because of the transportation strike, which was now in its third full day, the winery cooperative downstairs from her flat was shorthanded because some of the delivery guys could not or did not want to venture into the Parisian mess.

This was just my second day in Paris, having come in 1968 as a young man to learn the wine industry firsthand from the Old World. A series of chance meetings culminated with me sleeping on the couch of a young American woman named Alice, and now she was offering me my first job in France — and at a winery cooperative, of all places.

The co-op's director had asked Alice whether she knew of some able-bodied young men who wanted to make some fast money. She had suggested me, and he had, evidently, shrugged and said, "Send the guy down."

That was all there was to it.

I asked Alice whether I could take a quick shower and clean up before I presented myself downstairs, and she was more than happy to oblige. Then there was nothing more to do but walk into this huge space and ask for a job.

What I found in this cavern could only be described as controlled chaos. Twenty or so men and a few women were moving around a large table set at the side of the room and grabbing whatever food they wished and putting it on wooden plates. I noticed everyone was making a sort of sandwich with cheese, hard salami and two slices of very rustic-looking country bread. All of this was washed down with black coffee served in dented tin cups.

I was famished and moved right along with everyone else. I thought, What the hell, they could kick me out or hire me, but I was going to fuel up. I was about halfway done with this enormous breakfast when I was handed a cobalt agricultural smock that resembled a Captain Kangaroo coat with huge pockets and oversized buttons. Later I would learn this smock was worn by everyone in the vineyard trade.

The workers' beehive of activity was almost choreographed. This co-op featured various growers who blended grapes and made simple and inexpensive reds, whites and rosé wines to be delivered to households and restaurants within the inner city. The workers knew their jobs and they were moving quickly in a determined and no-nonsense manner.

Among the concrete fermentors and huge oval, wooden barrels stood many three-wheeled, motored-scooter-looking things with panels on each side. They were already groaning with wire, six-bottle carriers with handles, stacked between the panels behind the driver's seat. I was unceremoniously hustled into the passenger seat of one of these three-wheeled contraptions. Then a very powerful-looking woman sat next to me, said nothing, and we took off.

We careened out of the two enormous doors of the cooperative and wove in between the crazily parked, strike-stalled vehicles on the streets of Paris. My French was pretty good, but this woman's heavy accent was causing me some real angst.

The rule was simple: The more wine we delivered, the more we would be paid. It was a bottle-franc proposition. She drove, I delivered. Marie, it turned out, was a very nice woman but first impressions are hard to shake. She rolled her own cigarette (which she managed to tuck between her two front teeth), wore a strap T-shirt and had very crude tattoos over her forearms. And she never stopped talking! Seeing that I was an American, she began a litany on the counterculture nightlife of Paris the moment we got into the scooter.

My job was to run to a stoop, grab the empty six wine bottles in their wire holder, bring them back to the little scooter-delivery truck, read the order, then take a full six bottles back up the stoop. In one of the empty bottles would invariably be folded franc notes with an order for red, white or rosé wine. Marie had a pocketful of coins and notes to make change, if needed.

I could tell that Marie liked me because I hustled. More than a few times she nodded in satisfaction as I ran like a crazy man up and down stairs. From time to time I encountered clients on the stoops, and if one talked to me for any length of time, Marie would honk the horn loudly, or, in worse-case scenarios, get up from the seat and berate the customer. A shouting match would ensue, with insults flying around like angry hornets.

At one point, in a gridlocked intersection, Marie spied a girlfriend of hers and, much to my astonishment and to the enraged horns of seemingly every vehicle in Paris, they embraced and kissed for over a full minute.

From 1 to 2:30 p.m. the winery was locked down for a full-blown lunch. Marie could not say enough kind words about me and informed everyone who would listen that in the evening, she was going to show me the "real Paris" and would not take "no" for an answer.

To be continued ...

Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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