A family travel story from a long time ago. Winner, Bronze Certificate, First Annual Solas Awards for Travel Writing.
As the Seine meanders aimlessly through Paris, Gustave Eiffel’s work of wonder appears to glide from one bank to the other. Our Batobus commuter boat docks in the shadow of the Tower, and I shepherd my small flock to the shore.
Razi, 14, and Danny, 11, have been troupers on this first trip to Europe, and they are eagerly anticipating the Eiffel Tower.
Except — my wife Susan has a phobia. Elevators make her anxious, and she’ll only ride in one if there’s no alternative. Fortunately, the small hotels we have stayed in on this trip have booked us on low floors so she can climb the stairs. But the Eiffel Tower is no walk-up, and we approach with some apprehension.
The stale mugginess of midsummer replaces the slight breeze we had enjoyed on the water. It’s nearly August, the month most Parisians flee the city. My shirt is soaked through as I reach in my pocket for money to buy ice cream from a vendor.
Thousands of hot tourists surround us. “I’ll go up with you guys,” says Susan bravely. “Part way, anyway. But if we get separated, let’s agree to meet right here by the bridge.” We often set up emergency rendezvous points — what parent wants to lose a child? — but we’ve never had to use one.
We queue up in a long ticket line, though we’re not sure how far up this elevator will take us. The Tower is impressively huge, with several levels, and the kids remain patient. The prospect of shooting to the top in an elevator is as thrilling for them as it is horrific for Susan. When we finally reach the head of the line, Susan asks if she can walk up, but the ticket man can’t or won’t understand her college French and couldn’t care less. He waves four fingers at us with an inquiring look, we nod, he calls out a price. As we pay, the pressure of the line propels us into a nearby elevator car with a crush of other tourists.
Susan stiffens as the door closes and the crowded yellow car begins its ascent. I hold her hand and smile reassuringly into her eyes. I know panic grips her inside, but she manages to act calm. The elevator arcs up along one girdered leg of the Tower and soon arrives on the 1st Floor. Susan pops out of the car the instant the doors open. “I’ll hang around here,” she calls with a smile of relief. “You guys go on up, and I’ll meet you here on the way down, maybe 45 minutes?” The doors quickly close, and we zoom upward. It’s a spontaneous plan, but surely what goes up … must come down.
The magnificent sweeping lines of the iron girders — the ultimate Erector set — seem to suck us up into the stratosphere. This elevator ends on the 2nd Floor, where throngs of tourists crowd a broad observation deck. I slowly ooze through the warm bodies, using my size to break a trail for my kids, and we join the gaggles of gawkers at the railing.
On all sides, the observation deck is enclosed by steel mesh fencing, with three- or four-inch openings, ”which rises vertically to about eight or nine feet, then curls in over our heads. Steel rods reinforce the fence.
We swim slowly through the molasses crowd, past a couple of shops and the restaurant Jules Verne. But is this the top? Can we go higher? I notice a sign pointing upward:
Here is another elevator, and another line. We examine the Vernesque flying machines hanging from the girders as we wait. Young Frenchmen in line ahead of us are letting their friends cut in — and they have lots of friends. I recall with irritation waiting for tickets at the Cannes Film Festival with Susan years before, fascinated and repulsed by this maddening, anarchistic French disdain for queuing up.
The Tower narrows during our final ascent to the 3rd Floor, the top of Eiffel’s original 1889 structure. We exit the elevator, and only the broadcast antennas and meteorological station, all added early in the 20th century, loom above us, and another steel fence surrounds us. The view down is so distant and so steep that we feel like we’re in a plane. I worry about Susan waiting below. It’s been well over an hour since we parted, and we now know that it will take two elevator rides to get back to her.
I try to limit our stay on top. We endure another long line for the elevator down to the 2nd Floor and wait again there for the next car down to the 1st. We stuff in with a horde of garrulous Italians and morose Moroccans. They’re heading all the way to the ground, but we pop out past them to emerge on the 1st Floor, where we left Susan.
We look around carefully, but she’s not there. Nearly ninety minutes have passed since we parted.
“Mommy’s lost,” says Danny.
“Well, she’s somewhere,” I reply nonsensically, a bit rattled. Kids are supposed to get lost, not parents. But we can’t leave until we’re sure. If we go to the ground now and don’t find her there, we’ll never get back up.
It takes 20 minutes to search this level. Luckily the crowd is now pretty light, and we hurriedly inspect shops and cafés. Where could she be? From the northwest side of the Tower, we peer apprehensively down at the river. I zoom the video camera in to our meeting spot by the white marble bridge on the Left Bank. She’s not there.
“Well, guys, I bet Mom’s gone down, though I can’t picture her in the elevator alone.”
“There must be stairs,” says Razi.
Back at the elevator, we are first in line for once. Eventually a car arrives, coming down from the 2nd Floor, nearly empty. The green-uniformed operator, a pretty young woman with frosted hair, is sobbing uncontrollably as she opens the elevator door and walks away. Not knowing what to make of this, we board the car and wait. In a few minutes she returns, consoled by an older, African-looking man in a similar uniform. Still crying quietly, she closes the door and takes us to the ground.
As we rush out of the elevator, nerves jangled, I hear a familiar voice! “Honey! Here! Over here!” I’m easy to locate in a crowd because of my height. Happily I spot Susan coming toward us, striding quickly away from some kind of disturbance in the center of the vast plaza defined by the four immense sloping support pillars of the Tower.
We are delighted to see each other, but she is clearly agitated.
“Did you see that? Where were you? It’s been two hours! What did you do up there? Are you all right? It was terrible!” She squeezes me tightly around the middle, and the kids hug her in our traditional Mommy sandwich, welcoming her back into the-four-of-us.
“I tried to phone the hotel to see if you’d left a message for me there,” she says. None of our cell phones functioned in France at that time. “But only one phone booth worked, and some people chatted on for 20 minutes and didn’t care that I was waiting. I hate Parisians! Where were you? Did you see it?”
We all blurt simultaneously, interrupting each other, telling of the elevators, the lines, the slow crowds, the people cutting in, our search of the 1st Floor. But how did she get down? And did we see what?
“It was awful,” she says, starting to cry. “As I came back across the plaza from the phones, somebody fell next to me!”
“Someone fell down?” I ask, puzzled. Why the tears?
“No, a person fell from the Tower and landed right next to where I was walking! Right there, in the middle of the plaza.”
I look back behind her and see security guards and policemen crowding around the center of the plaza. I think of the steel mesh barriers on the decks above us. “Someone fell? But that’s impossible.”
“Fell or jumped or was pushed.”
“There’s a huge fence, a serious suicide barrier, up there.”
“Daddy, maybe the elevator operator saw the person fall,” says Razi. “Maybe that’s why she was crying.”
The knot of security people has produced some rope. They are pushing the crowd back and trying to establish a perimeter. As they clear the center, I see a pile of men’s clothing lying in an unlikely position on the hard ground.
“Did you hear anything?” I ask Susan.
“No, just a loud thud, nothing before.”
“How did you get down?”
“There are stairs down the legs of the Tower. It was easy. I figured we had missed each other. I waited forever. I don’t recall if the stairs had a fence around them.”
The perimeter is now established under the Tower. The lump of clothes holds its position. No one has approached it. We hear sirens.
“You’re all okay? How was it on top?” Susan looks very beautiful to me now, despite the sweat and grime and shock. I beam at her in mute relief.
“It was okay, but we rushed through it ’cause it was so late and you were lost” says Danny.
The scene in the plaza grows bizarre. Two ambulances arrive and disgorge a half dozen paramedics. One approaches the pile of clothing, gazes at it casually. The others stand around, light Gauloises, and chat. Parisian firemen in polished silver pompier helmets arrive and join the others visiting and smoking. Some drink bottles of Evian or buy ice cream. They all seem to know each other, and no one is in a hurry.
A tragedy has taken place here, but as Susan calms down, I feel strangely removed from the scene thatâ€™s no more than 50 feet behind her. And something is missing. I can’t put my finger on it. “Can I have the video camera, Daddy?” asks Danny.
“No, I don’t want any shots of dead bodies on our summer travel movie.”
“I won’t shoot, I’ll just look.”
“No dead bodies.”
Eventually they take away the body in a bag, and the confluence of public employees breaks up. We splurge on a cab, and, as usual in this muggy climate, it’s heavily refrigerated. Susan and Razi soon befriend the cabbie with their school French, and they describe the incident at the Tower. He is incredulous.
He turns to me, my tall frame folded up in the front passenger seat, shivering in the aggressive air con. “It makes no sense to me, M’sieur,” he says with dexterity in English we hadn’t anticipated. “No one ever jumps from the Tower. It is unheard of.”
At our hotel later, the night clerk, whom we’ve been chatting up all week, confirms the cabbie’s opinion. I hear him say “am-poh-see-bluh!” several times. “Impossible!” He, too, has never heard of a suicide at the Tower. We find no mention of the incident on television or in the newspaper, and I realize what was missing from the scene in the plaza: no media swarm, no jostling camera jockeys or cloying journalists.
Later I learn that the Eiffel Tower does indeed have a history of suicides, more than 400 in the first century after its construction. I read accounts of falling bodies getting stuck on lower girders of the Tower — which of course widens at the base — and of Parisian firefighters specially trained to climb the sides and recover the remains.
In recent years the Tower’s safety fence has greatly reduced the number of deaths. No wonder the smoking civil servants today were so relaxed: no unpleasant retrieval problem this time, just a tidy pile of clothing that used to be a man.
But how could the victim get over the barrier without being seen or stopped? Or if he jumped from the steps on the Tower’s sloping legs, how did he land in the center of the plaza? We’ll never know. We’re just glad to have our lost Mommy back.