JOHN VON SOTHEN turns his attention to the organ transplant scooters he sees whizzing by him in Paris – the emblem of French socialist medicine and a harbinger of what’s to come.
I celebrated my 40th birthday recently and like any newly turned old person, I decided to embark on a major life change. I didn’t want to get divorced though or take up painting, so I decided to aim lower and get a French driver’s license instead – the first step I thought towards becoming a real adult, one capable of polluting the environment just as much as any teenager.
The plan started with me buying a copy of Le Code de la Route, the bible of French driving, but unfortunately, that’s where my life change has currently stalled. For one, Le Code de la Route is unreadable. It’s a bad mix of boring and complicated, and frankly, it’s poorly written. Any book that has “accompanying you in the framework of anticipated apprenticeship of driving” in its FIRST sentence or “bifurcation without impacting lane change” as a chapter, is a book, in my opinion, that’s not very interested in being finished. But you have a right to be boring I guess, just as long as you’re thorough, and unfortunately, Le Code de la Route falls short there too. With all its “pedestrian indications and hazards” there’s not one mention of what to do when in the presence of the L’organe moto (organ scooter). That’s right. The organe moto, the member of “the transplantation team” you often see on a motorcycle or scooter weaving in and out of Parisian traffic at high speed, delivering an organ somewhere to some lucky patient.
We don’t have the organ deliveryman in the states, or, at least, I’ve never seen him on the road. That stuff’s usually done via helicopter for people with good enough insurance plans to pay for it. Theirs are hospitals with chic helipads so that everything’s done out of sight from the rest of us, those I assume who get their organs shipped FedEx.
The organ scooter, on the other hand, seems very French medicine to me. It’s cheaper and effective, and if the organ’s strapped on the back of a motorbike in a thermos I usually find at picnics, who cares? Well, Americans for one might. And in the midst of the current debate raging in the US over President Obama’s plans to nationalize healthcare, I could easily see the Republican opposition seizing on the organ scooter as another perverse effect of a public plan. “Under President Obama’s new system of socialized medicine,” their ad would run, “that new heart you thought you were getting… just got stuck on the beltway.”
And I must admit, it is a bit unsettling when an organ’s sitting right there in traffic, waiting for the light to change. The first time I crossed the organ scooter, I didn’t know who it was. I assumed he was just another asshole delivery guy who had cut me off. I gave him the finger and shouted an insult, and it wasn’t until he pulled in front of me, ORGANES, written in big red letters, did I realize who it was. And it wasn’t until he scooted off into the sunset with that uterus in his cooler, did I realize I had so many unanswered questions, questions never addressed in Le Code de la Route.
For example, if I had caused an accident with him, was there a special fine for that? And if so, was it a question of points or was I personally responsible for replacing the ruined organ myself? And who are these organ motorists anyway? Are they ex-gendarmes or former professional motorcycle drivers, or can anyone just send in their CV with a letter of motivation, underlining of course that “I’m very sensitive to the organs of others.”
No doubt it must be a stressful job, one that merits a break now and then. But what are people to think when the organ motorist saddles up to the café bar while his scooter sits outside idle, “Well he’s kind of blasé isn’t he?”, they’d say. “Sitting here while those poor kidneys go bad in the sun.” Yet maybe organ motorists don’t take breaks. Maybe like much of France’s hospital employees nowadays, their hours are getting stretched as staff gets reduced to the point where doctors simply use them now as they would a courier. “While I’ve got you here, think you could run this heart over to Hôpital St. Louis on your way back? It would save me another call.”
Again, Le Code de la Route had no answers, nor could it prepare me for what to do when in the presence of an organ scooter with a lock on it. I’m not sure where that ranks on the evil scale, but “organ scooter thief” I’m betting has to be pretty high. Almost as high as “organ scooter imposter.” You laugh, but I’m sure it’s been done before. A guy impersonates an organ motorist, so he too can drive at high speeds; take the bus lane, use the siren, while secretly he’s just going to the office or visiting his mistress. Technically it’s less a crime I guess then impersonating a police officer, but it has to be morally worse. And the sad thing is I doubt he’s ever been caught. How could one verify? “Can we check your cooler sir, just to see if there really is a liver in there?”
I even found an organ scooter merchant on eBay, offering a variety of different kinds of used organ scooters for what seemed to be reasonable prices. However I don’t think he understood the irony in listing in bold letters “for sale – entire or in separate pieces.” Or maybe he was the “organ scooter thief” after all, selling off quickly whatever he could.
Regardless, the organ scooter has made me realize how much more reserved Americans are on all these sorts of things. In France, they recognize life’s horrors in a mundane way much more than we do. Mutilés de Guerre (war mutilated) for example are listed on Social Security applications as well as museum entrances, while each “family book”, something we don’t have in the states, devotes a page to each child, but gives equal space to both its birth and possible death. In the subway, the alarm one’s supposed to pull “en cas d’accident” features a Hitchcockian illustration of a man falling back first with flailing legs and arms onto the tracks of an oncoming train. Why not include an open briefcase with papers falling out or screaming onlookers while you’re at it?
The only equivalents I can think of in America are our driver’s licenses, which usually have a place on the back where you can sign and “make an anatomical gift to be effective upon your death.” It even goes as far as giving you the option to list (on the drivers license in pen) the body parts you’d like to donate and the others (like that Hermes scarf) you just can’t bear to part with. All of it’s pretty gory and it’s usually bizarre to see a list of body parts on the back of a driver’s license and a shiny smiling face from the State of New York on the front, a sort of macabre before and after scene that’s rehearsed each time I pull out my license.
So maybe, in the end, the organ scooter and the New York driver’s licenses are there for a reason– to remind us of our fragility. And perhaps that was my main problem with Le Code de la Route in the first place. With all its attention to “proper lighting situations according to rural or city driving,” it never could quite convey how dangerous the whole enterprise of driving is.
And I’m sure the reason the organ scooter is constantly in my head, is because I’m 40 now. At 39, he was just another deliveryman, not too different than the sushi guy or the bike messenger. But now when I cross his path, I can’t help but think of him riding with my own organs or me waiting for one on the other end. And it’s then when I start to question why I’m even trying to get a French driver’s license in the first place. Maybe I should just take up painting after all and stick to the subway and train where everyone keeps their organs to themselves. And maybe that 40-year-old life change I thought I needed should start with me taking care of myself more and yes, the environment as well.
Because honestly, (and I’m sure Le Code de la Route would agree) nobody wants the organs of a person my age anyway.