Sunday, December 2, 2012

Horizon 2000: college days, caves, and car thieves

I worked a brief stint in the 1970s as an overnight security guard at a large apartment building in France called Horizon 2000. I was just out of college and living in that particular apartment complex at the time with my French girlfriend, who was a student at the local university.

The building had seven stories and a two-story underground parking garage that also housed individual storage facilities for residents. The grounds included additional parking behind the structure and some manicured greenery. A few hundred people lived in that building, including students like my girlfriend but also, as I soon found out, a wide variety of professionals from a police captain to several reputed belles de nuit.

I wore a green uniform and was initially armed with a meter-long piece of heavy steel cable about two inches in diameter and encased in black rubber. I used the building manager’s office off the main lobby as my base of operations but was required to patrol the building and grounds repeatedly throughout my shift. They gave me a ruled notebook to log any incidents and unusual occurrences.

One night at about 2 a.m. I was outside in front of the building when I heard a woman’s voice coming from above urging a man to come back inside. I looked up to see a man standing on a fourth-story window ledge, swaying on his feet and leaning against the building. He told the woman he was going to relieve himself. I was amazed. The man was clearly drunk and unsteady. At that moment there was no doubt in my mind he was about to fall four stories onto the stone terrace in front of the building. My girlfriend and I had the same ledge outside our seventh-story apartment window. It was no more than six inches wide.

I took a few steps back to watch the unfolding tragedy. There was nothing I could do to prevent it. The woman noticed me below. She grabbed the man’s arm, “It’s the guard, it’s the guard,” she told him urgently. The man now saw he had an audience below. He let himself be guided back inside to safety. I figured I had saved a man’s life, if only by my presence on the ground below. I went back to the office and sat down with a feeling of accomplishment. I made an entry in the logbook.

The next day the building manager wanted to speak to me. Good work, he told me. The woman in that apartment was a nuisance anyway, he contended, frequently holding loud parties. Now he would warn her to stop or she’d be evicted.

The building manager was a dignified-looking man in his 60s, but reading my incident report had reminded him of a story from his college days. On a late night as he was walking home from a student party where he had been drinking more than was usual, he came upon a small, deserted town square. He could no longer resist the urge to relieve himself so he leaned against a building in the shadows and peed. Standing there he marveled at the night’s constellations as he heard himself tinkle. He peed and peed some more. He said he just kept peeing. After perhaps as long as ten minutes of this, the woozy, future building manager began to wonder how it was even possible he could still be peeing. A downward glance confirmed that the job was indeed done but the cockeyed young man continued to hear the same splashing sounds. It took his besotted brain several more moments before he realized he was listening not to his own personal waterfall but to the splashing of the public fountain in the center of the square. It was a funny story but I never bonded with the building manager, after all he was purposefully abusing my situation as a foreigner by paying me half the minimum wage.

Some weeks after the ledge incident, as spring turned into summer, the building's concierge, a blue collar type who claimed to have belonged to the French resistance during World War II, gave me a small handgun. It fired only blanks and tear gas pellets but he wanted me to have it because he believed gang activity would soon be heating up in the area.

Sometimes the concierge would accompany me on my rounds or we would run into each other in the basement. He liked Americans and taught me slang and told tales of his days as a member of the French resistance during World War II. I was learning Japanese karate at the time but had not become proficient. In a deserted corner of that underground parking garage the concierge trained me on techniques for disarming a man with a knife.

He also told me he had a cache of WWII-vintage weapons including grenades. The concierge lived with his wife and teenage daughter in an apartment across the lobby from the building manager’s office. He kept a pop-up camper trailer in the rear parking lot and often told me how his family could be ready at a moment’s notice to travel to the south of France in case of nuclear war.

This was the era of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union after all. The concierge said he and his French resistance comrades still had food and supplies stockpiled in secret caves in the south. He would wait out any nuclear holocaust there with his family, protected from fallout. He wouldn’t begrudge the Yanks from taking out the Russians but didn’t care to end up as radiated collateral damage. Fair enough, I thought, wondering how much of his talk was true and how much invented to impress a naïve kid from Ohio.

After a couple weeks, during which I hadn’t had any occasion to use the gun, the concierge asked for it back. I gave it to him without reservation since I had already made known my reluctance to ever use it. After all, it looked like a real gun. As I had remarked to the concierge after carrying it around for a few days, what happens if I pull it out against a bad guy who has a real, lead-spewing gun of his own? Oops.

The next afternoon the super asked me to walk with him to the parking garage. As we strolled down the ramp a woman in a new Mercedes Benz Roadster convertible was driving up. Because I had never seen her or the car before, I stopped the woman and asked for her parking permit. She was an attractive blonde in her 30s. She made some excuse about not having it handy. I started to inquire as to the number of her allotted space when the super crowded past me to get close to the beauty behind the wheel. Pulling rank, he reassured her everything was cool. Don't worry about it, madame, he said as he ogled her in overdrive. She smiled and roared off.

You're not even on duty, he admonished me as we continued underground into the garage. When we had made our way to his secluded corner he returned the pistol to me. The concierge had reworked the gun so that it would fire live rounds. Now I would be fully armed, he said, and showed me a makeshift shooting range he had improvised in one of the storage units. He wanted me to practice firing the gun.

Okay, it was summertime in France and my girlfriend had completed her college finals. She wanted to take a vacation. As for me, I was earning half the minimum wage and really did not want to be in a position where I might have to shoot somebody. I gave the concierge back his re-tooled gun along with my resignation.

The following week my girlfriend and I left for the south of France. We toured a cave where some 15,000 years ago Paleolithic man had painted scenes of the hunt. I was reminded of the concierge’s claim that former resistance fighters had a natural bomb shelter waiting for them in case the Cold War heated up. So much for 150 centuries of progress.

A couple of days later, camped near the Mediterranean at Narbonne, I saw a small article in the local newspaper about a large Mercedes car theft ring being busted in northeastern France. The thieves had been using an underground parking garage at an apartment complex to hide the cars while they changed the license plates and waited until the heat was off. The name of the apartment complex was reported as Horizon 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment