Last week, on a spectacular July morning in Paris, I stepped out into the streets groggy-eyed but energized in that special way you are when, after a long night, a child is born. My wife had just delivered our son and was asleep, and I was summoning a cab on my phone. It was barely 6 A.M., but the sun was already high and warm. The maternity ward, in the environs of what Hemingway used to call The Quarter, was directly across the street from one of his favorite spots, La Closerie des Lilas, where my wife and I had had our first Parisian date. The taxi picked me up and turned down the Boulevard Saint-Michel and towards the Seine. The kaleidoscope of life flickered past, and I must have been especially receptive to it that day.
Dawn in Paris—when the sun rises at five and night and day jostle for space in the crowded streets and along the river’s picturesque banks—deserves and demands a special attentiveness. On the Ile de la Cité, we passed small camps of refugees in tents, sleeping and stirring to life, making meager meals en plein air as the streetsweepers swept and the early-bird tourists headed to Notre Dame. A weary man with a suitcase sat on the bridge. What looked like a trio of young American college students tottered home in dresses and heels—for them it was still night. Near the Faubourg Saint-Denis, I saw a clean-cut man my age in sandals and shorts withdrawing euros from an ATM. A jittery prostitute bounced up and down impatiently waiting for the next step.
My sleep deprivation and mawkishness sent my thoughts reeling back to my newborn son’s face—a pure tabula rasa, the cleanest possible slate. It struck me—obviously, naïvely—that everyone I glimpsed from the cab had begun like that, before a series of circumstances and decisions had accreted to lead them into these beautiful and filthy streets.
I had the driver drop me at a café at the corner, and I ordered a coffee and waited for the deliveryman to deliver the bread. I tried to recount to myself the random decisions and sheer luck that had brought me to this table. And I thought about all the things I hope my son will be.