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My First Economics Lesson--A Memoir

My First Economics Lesson--A Memoir



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Published by Devon Pitlor
How a dead cat changed the course of my life
How a dead cat changed the course of my life

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Published by: Devon Pitlor on Jun 19, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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My First Economics Lesson: A Memoirby Devon PitlorPART ONEThere comes a time in every person's life when you start developing a specific vision of your childhood andtrying to match it with what you have become in adulthood, and, in doing so, we usually see a hugedissimilarity between what we once set out to be and what we eventually became.We see, as it were, pivotal moments when life could have gone either way and taken us to far different vistasthan we now inhabit.For me, the story of how I came to the United States has always seemed as if it merited some degree of reader interest, if only because when it happened, it was the farthest thing from my mind, and now I havealready made my life and home here for over a quarter of a century. But I will let that rest for the timebeing because I do not have access to any readily available wisdom to extract from the tale.What I think I will attempt to unveil in this brief autobiographical sketch is how I became a workingeconomist and have succeeded in this sometimes cheerless business for nearly twenty-two years.No one is born with a fervid interest in economics. That is one thing you can count on. Nor is anyone bornwith any special sense of economics or a gene that predisposes one to the study of the often arcane fire-dances of wealth and capital.I was certainly no exception to this. Being an only child of an alcoholic and very blue collar father and arather indifferent and often psychotically dreamy mother, I grew up in a crowded neighborhood of a mid-sized European city without any exceptional dispositions of any sort. My family was poor, but we didn'tthink of ourselves that way. There was always food on the table, and my early years were filled with theinestimable company of a band of kids like myself who relied on one another to fill the material vacuum of our home life. In short, we had no electronic devices, very little television if any, and indoor diversionssimply did not exist. Our lives unrolled outdoors in the narrow streets and beside the gloomy industrialcanals of my timeworn city. Our lives were intimately wrapped up in each of our separate personalities andin the bravado we exhibited as boys and, of course, in what daily trouble we could get into. Our parentsexisted only as guardian shadows who intervened only occasionally in our quotidian routines, and then onlywhen they needed us to perform some minor task to help the household, which in my case was rare.I was, for example, called upon each Friday to take the train from my hometown of La Rochelle to aboutone hundred and seventy kilometers south to Bordeaux in order to retrieve my docker father fromwhatever alehouse he was haunting, bring him back to my mother in La Rochelle and make sure he wascleaned up and fed enough to re-embark on the Monday train to Bordeaux where he would resume hisbackbreaking task of unloading fish and produce from the holds of ships carrying goods into France fromour far-flung economic client states in the Pacific, South America and Africa.Beyond this weekly task I had limitless hours of unsupervised free time to roam the streets and parks of myancient city looking for whatever adventure I could either create or which naturally awaited gangs of innocently wayward boys with non-refundable hours on their hands.School in all of its manifestations was likewise only a perfunctory and emotionless task which inspired verylittle interest in me or in the majority of those I frequented. Unlike the goals of the American system, theschools of my country were designed not to make sure "no child was left behind," but rather that scores of children who did not pass the testing merit gradations each year were indeed siphoned out and redirected
into either labor or trades. Cerebral or professional careers were reserved only for the intellectually elite,the top of the education pinnacle, as it were, and I was incontestably not one of that cadre. My schoolgrades throughout my childhood represented what was often termed "tepid mediocrity," and I wasscholastically categorized as "hopelessly average." There was no promise of some shining tenth floor officewaiting for me in anyone's spyglasses. Instead, it was going to be obligatory military service (which I did)and some menial position in a minor state function or small, insignificant enterprise.My only assets, therefore, by age fourteen in 1979---a pivotal year in my life, although I did not know it atthe time---were in my physical prowess and the fact that I had, by no effort of my own, a face "that pleasedyoung girls and old ladies alike." Or so they said. I was outgoing, curious and affable. Unlike my taciturnparents, I liked to socialize, smile, hear stories and be involved with others. Perennially in trouble at school,I often heard from teachers that I was going to make a great waiter in some café or brasserie, and for a timeI even decided that this was most likely going to be my life's calling. After all, in France, a waiter earns adecent living and no one looks down on the job. Being a waiter was about as professional as I planned toget. It was like a pre-determination or whatever. When somebody tells you what you are good for early inlife, you start internalizing it and taking it seriously. Unlike the American children of our times, unlike myown children, neither I nor my comrades were ever encouraged to dream about larger things. Doing one'smilitary service and settling into a mediocre but secure life was always the goal. There was no reason toargue with it. I suppose this simply embodies a different cultural posture than what we know today,especially in the U.S., where kids are encouraged in the better homes to get interested in somethingrewarding early in life and thereupon develop their latent skills.I was interested in very little at fourteen. Finding adventure, my "gang" and, of course, girls. An obsessionwith girls always punctuated my youth---but these were girls like us, of our social class, girls that would notrequire much maintenance, girls that would appreciate being wed to a well-placed waiter working in alively downtown café.Like everyone else in my neighborhood, I grew up not in a house per se, but rather in domestic quarterscarved into the side of a streetside building which housed not only other families but bakeries,watchmakers, bars, and a fishmarket. The residents of my building and those that adjoined it along theseemingly endless and meandering streets of La Rochelle's old quarter came in all shapes and sizes andages. Many were old and on pensions and had medals from service in the Maquis or in the Free FrenchArmy hanging from their chests at all hours of the day. Many seemed only to be warehoused in theirquarters waiting for the final hour to thump. This was another reason that I and my cohorts spent so muchtime outside. To remain indoors during the daytime hours was considered odd and even perverted to theextreme.But one fine summer day as I was leaving the house (we always called our quarters "houses'), my motherstopped me with a washed-out paint can full of cheap
côtes du Rhône
wine. She asked me to step aroundthe building to an apartment on the canal side and deliver this wine to an old lady whom I knew only asMadame Vartain, as aged adults did not have first names in those days. This was a rather typical task,especially in France where cheap red wine was considered a necessary component of any meal, a componentwhich we drank with abandon from the earliest memories of childhood onward. Madame Vartain, who hadas everyone knew lived through the worst hours of the Occupation and had done some services for theFrench Army during its absentia in England, was a craggy old relic who hobbled about her apartment witha prosthetic leg which was actually carved out of wood, as was the fashion in the days preceding the war,when the mutilated were as plentiful as sparrows and seemingly every old person, women included, hadsome limb or organ missing. Madame Vartain had never taken much interest in the kids of theneighborhood either, something that was not expected of old people and would have been anembarrassment for all concerned if they had. As it turned out, Madame Vartain was even older than Ithought she was. Her missing leg was the result of some tramway accident following the War of 1914 when
chaos as usual reigned in French cities. Some overly eager young man had accidentally pushed her onto thetrolley tracks---and her story ended there.I have always wished it didn't because today I look back on Madame Vartain as someone who must havebeen seductively veiled and mysteriously beautiful in her youth. Her leg could have been lost, therefore, insome fanciful and romantic manner. She could have at least given me that much. But, alas, she did not.Sometimes the truth is as dry as powdered fish liver on the tongue.So, I am jumping ahead. Yes, I did deliver the wine, and yes, I did allow myself, affable as I was, to engagein a conversation with Madame Vartain. Like all old people, she told me about the war, about the atrocitiesof the Nazis, about her two dead spouses. I liked stories, so I listened patiently. But in reality, MadameVartain, who became so influential in my life without intending to be, had very little else to share. Theintoxicating spirits of exaggeration had never reached her brain, and her stories always ended like thetramway at a brick barrier, which in her case was simply the last terminal of her recollection of the mattersat hand. She had no lessons for the young either, something we often expected with garrulous old people. Isuppose I found that aspect something of a relief.What Madame Vartain did have, however and somewhat characteristically, was a cat. It was as Iremember it, a very large and unusual cat, having over-long legs and a strange heart-shaped head withenormous and patently sinister eyes that followed your every step around the room and seemed to ruminateon your intentions. In all, the cat was to say the least singular and markedly different enough for me to ask Madame Vartain what its breed was. Like so many other questions, she dismissed my query at once bytelling me that Minou was just a cat...and that was all. So to this day I wonder about the cat, what itactually was, where it came from, what had engendered it. I wish I could say more about that cat becauseat my age today, I am sure that I have seen pictures of every sort of cat breed that exists on Earth, andMadame Vartain's cat was decidedly none of these.As this is autobiographic not fictional, the provenance of Madame Vartain's cat will of necessity need toremain one of the unresolved mysteries of my youth. I could have simply written: I knew an eccentric oldlady with a wooden leg and a strange cat.But all tales and especially autobiographical ones are essentially about the teller--who is in this case me, andI want to develop a little imagery about the atmosphere of Madame Vartain and her cat. So I will continuea bit more with this line of narrative.In the first place, Madame Vartain had awarded her creepy cat with positively the most common name acat in France during any era can have: Minou. The word itself means "kitty." Secondly, any reader whohas made it this far needs to know a little about the maintenance of pets among lower class city dwellers inthe Europe of my youth. There was no packaged pet food. Domestic animals in the city either were letoutside to scavenge, as was Minou every day, or were fed scraps from the meals of their owners.Occasionally, butchers--especially the ubiquitous
bouchers chevalins,
whose shops dotted the urbanlandscape of France in those days---would offer some undesirable trimmings of horse flesh to kids or tofamilies with a dog or a cat. And that is exactly what Madame Vartain wanted me to get for her cat. A fewstreets away from ours, there was the inevitable horse butchery with its characteristic wooden horseheadnailed over the entrance. All families in the France of my youth occasionally, or sometimes not sooccasionally, ate horse meat, and so I knew the butcher and was able to ask him for some scraps of intestines or mouth parts that would not be sold.Several times I performed this task for Madame Vartain, and any French person chancing to read this willyawn no doubt and say "So what?" There was nothing more normal. A kid helping and old lady with hercat, getting the latter horsemeat scraps from a
boucherie chevaline.
Certainly no big deal. And it wasn't.

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Mike Dietzel added this note
I am curious about Devon's entrance to America. What did he think? I am looking for those stories. I hope that Devon writes about his feelings about the economics of America. What was his first jobs in America? I can't wait for a new story. My Devon favorites is his realistic work. I am hoping that he has a series like: "When you Lunch with the Emperor." Ludwig Bemelmans
Mike Dietzel added this note
I am so glad that I read this again. I love this type of memoir and it is both funny and instructive. If I had the clout, I would make this into a movie, but Americans don't go to foreign films anymore, but I see it as a little gem, with the struggles and vagaries of life. It also reminds me that most kids are not trained in the art of money, until it is too late. I want to know more.
Devon Pitlor added this note
Thanks again to all who have read and liked. And to Rose, I will share more soon. Been in a slump lately.
Rose added this note
Wonderful story! Hope you will share more!
Devon Pitlor liked this
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MaryAnnaX added this note
Devon's life! What strange stories you have even when you don't intend to be strange.
Carson89 added this note
Personal glimpse into our favorite writer's early life appreciated by all here. Give us more memoirs.

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