The Tragedy of the Common—Sense
C’est la guerre.
The long-dreaded World War III is finally here. The waiting is over. It is here and now, everywhere and against everyone.
When the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, we thought then—this was it. The end of the world, the Doomsday,the Armageddon, the Apocalypse Now.
Only it wasn’t.
Then came Y2K—remember that? That had to be it. Computers versus Humans. Sci-fi in real action. Money in the bank wiped out; planes falling off—just because no one bothered putting two more digits in front of the years. Ooops. We were convinced that it was the end so we partied through 2000 right up to midnight.
Only, we woke up on January 1, 2001 with nothing worse than a hangover.
However, a year later, something did happen, and the planes did fall from the sky: the September 11. We watched the second tower crumble and people falling off—on TV. Real, live, hell on earth—and it was not even on pay-per-view. Right there in Manhattan. Not Godzilla. Not Independence Day. Neither monster nor alien, but human—yes, it was humans who came to invade New York. Then the War on Terror followed. And followed. And followed. And followed for a long 18 years. By the end, did it really matter who won? Or do we even know who won? These days, it is hard to get our attention just by shooting a few missiles into the ocean or abduct a few little children. Seasoned, cynical and even a bit senile, we have got used to the bloody 6 o’clock news. Not again. Tell us something we don’t know.
But we have survived. Thanks to human ability of adaptation, we adjust and we acclimatize and we get used to it and we get on with it. We are very good at this—adjusting—because we are able to forget. Human beings forget to live. Ask the man, Jean de La Bruyère:
“There are only three events in a man's life; birth, life and death; he is not conscious of being born, he dies in pain and he forgets to live.”
We forget—not just the grocery list or the laundry list—we forget birthdays and anniversaries as well as old fights and faded scars. A five-year old who gets burned on the stove would cry non-stop, but once you show him an ice cream, a smile breaks through faster than the sun. If you think grown-ups are any wiser, just look at the stock market. Age does not create wisdom; just more experiences. History repeats itself because we never remember any mistakes.
“Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.” Oscar Wilde, cynic laureate, you got that right. Even burned and scarred, we still get distracted and then we forget. Let time heal us. Leave us alone. Let us get on with our lives.
Inertia, after all, is the most formidable force in the universe as it just keeps going and going until…well, until it is stopped. Gurus love to talk about inner strengths (how else are they going to get paid as even they need to eat, sometimes, you know), but it is the inner inertia—that keeps us going (whereas grain of truth never gets paid). Inertia gets us out of bed in the morning, sends us off to the overcrowded subways, and summons us into the office. Inertia is the one who keeps us in check and oils the big machinery called society. How else can we go about it day after day? We do what we do because we have been doing it forever. No reason to stop now. Let inertia carry us. We are the little rolling stones—get us rolling and we never stop; rolling and rolling and rolling down the hill—and to hell, apparently.
This time, though, it did not take the warmongers, human or alien, to start a war. Nature has done it for us. Ecological, energy-efficient and effective—their crowned weapon is infectious and lethal. According to Monsieur Jean Rostand: “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a God." Then nature really was god after all.
“I think God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.”
No doubt about that, Mr. Wilde. You would have known the follies of men more than anyone. Indeed, you had been too serious about living to be deemed serious enough.
“Yes, but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.” Toast to that from Café de Flore—trying to catch the attention of the waiter for one more round.
The smell of war (and the virus) was already in the air, in and around Paris. Unbeknownst to the diners at le Bistrot Paul Bert, the shadow was creeping up, casting darkness on Monsieur O’s smile. “We don’t know, we just don’t know.” That Saturday, the 14th of March, 2020, the world seemed to be still going about its business—marchés bustling; cafés full; but restaurants—already half empty. Whatever the fate had planned for the Parisians, the plate of famed frites (of course, you do not call them “French fries” in France) still looked as golden as ever; and so did those savory gougères. Two cheesy gougères to amuse the mouth for a lone diner with known limited stomach capacity, which was already ominous in itself in hindsight.
However, when the beef tartare arrived, all worries flew out of the window. Come what may, here was goodness right there. Cool, chopped lean boeuf was mixed with cornichons and onions, adorned with chives and mustard. One bite of the meat, one bite of the bitter greens, then throw a stick of that hot, golden fry into the mouth. Heaven—pure heaven. Paris may be modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah (cough cough, my friend, there is neither pun nor venom—viral or vicious), but who cares? The sky was blue, and the food was sublime. Nonetheless, another shadow fell when Monsieur O carried two canelés to the lean diner, now lazy and languishing for just the digestive café. Another “two for one” deal warranted an explanation. “On verra.” Signing and shrugging, his smile sagged as he escorted the diner out of the door—the door which would remain shut to this day.
All the restaurants and cafes closed that day. Yet Paris woke up to another beautiful day—and it being a Sunday, the people convened in conviviality at the Marché biologique Raspail; complaining yes, but crying no—not yet. There was no room for gloom in the gay market among the plump white asparagus and ruby strawberries. Shoppers reached into samples of bio bread—munching away while waiting in the line—closely and contentedly. Coronavirus—oui mais non. It was not bio and it was not welcome. With all the bread and cheese, people headed off to the parks for picnics.
Then came Monday, the 16th of March, a long and loyal patron of Chez Paul—lunching in the low-ceiling room with the uneven floor everyday for the past 25 years—called. “Let’s see if I can get the chef to do something. There must be something in the kitchen, otherwise I have no lunch!” However, the chef had already escaped to his country house—a wise decision given that the hammer was to fall that very night.
Left to our own devices, we headed off to traiteurs: Fauchon, Stohrer and Lenôtre. For post-prandial contemplation, we went off to converse with the famous dead at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, which was the chosen residence of our own Oscar Wilde—which would hardly appear “to point to a very serious state of mind at the last.”
“See, see, there! Don’t you see? It’s cut off!” shouted a self-appointed guide to an American couple, shoving them closer and closer to the glass wall, which was meant to protect the already castrated monument of the dead playwright. Even the glass wall was smeared with rose pink lipsticks in sticky kisses. Mr. Wilde, what do you think about that?
“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
Certainly. That is why Japan has asked for its citizens to practice “self-restraint”—with the typical Japanese ambiguity as to what it actually means. Restaurants and cafes are “allowed” to open from 5 a.m. (yes, you read it correctly, it is A.M.) and serve alcohol until 7 p.m. but “must” close at 8 p.m. The rule of self-restraint has bundled all bars, cafes and restaurants into one category; and demanded that they all apply self-restraint voluntarily. The only unregulated rule of thumb is to avoid “Three C’s”: “confined spaces,” “crowded places,” and “close contact with people.”
But how close is too close? How many is too many? The parks are packed; the supermarkets are stuffed; and the doctors ask patients to fax their insurance cards from the crowded convenience stores (no photos via email accepted). The reasoning? The rationale? Totally unreasonable and irrational.
Many “pubs” and “snacks” (a.k.a. Japanese Hooter’s on a more alcoholic and sexual scale) definitely fit into the 3 C’s—many of them no bigger than 4-5 stools long. As a matter of fact, many of the fanciest sushi restaurants (not surprisingly, often to be found in the same locale as those priciest pubs and snacks) are not much bigger, seating 6 to 8 select customers who can pay $300 per head. All these are squeezed into a beehive known as Ginza, where the land price has recently topped the Bubble Period to over 350,000 USD per square meter. But whether the main selling point is the food, the alcohol or the sex appeal, they are all asked to self-restrain.
Some restaurants have chosen to shut immediately. Others have opted for take-outs and deliveries to just meet the overheads, barely. Uber Eats are busier than ever—carrying food and germs and money and potentially virus all at the same time. Restaurant chefs are trained in cooking, not shelf-life. Uber Eats cyclists may have trained legs, but not in hygiene. With the warm and humid months coming, is food poisoning safer than coronavirus? Nevertheless, a line has been drawn—no matter how arbitrary it may be. Stay-in is good; stay-out is bad.
The new and regular clients are eager to show financial support (if not personal) by ordering take-outs and deliveries. Already notorious for its obsessive over-wrapping, the consumption of plastic in Japan has jumped even more. But don’t worry—plastics are at a bargain price now as the oil price has tanked in this pandemic. Besides, we are doing so much better on global carbon footprint anyway. Hence, not only do they get the self-satisfaction and seeming safety of staying home, but they can also the advantage of lower sales tax (8% for take-outs but 10% for dining-in) and the lack of cover charge.
The good citizenry of Japan is ever obeisant and respectful to authority; and they remain home and remind each other to stay indoor—applying peer pressure more effectively than police watch. “I suppose I should not post these photos on Facebook!” A young diner whispered to her even younger friend, giggling merrily in an Italian restaurant. Which 3 C’s now? The restaurant is bloody empty.
All these self-satisfied snobbery stems from the noblest sentiments: self-restraint for the safety of humanity.
“Yes, we are open, and yes, we can take your reservation this Saturday,” the madame answered at L’Amitie,a bistro which opened its doors in 2000 and counted Joël Robuchon among its clientele. It has always been famous for its unapologetically cheap pricing and massive portion, and thus equally infamous for the impossibility to get a reservation. Staring incredulously into the phone, the fact that reservation at this particular bistro was possible even the day before spoke more vehemently about the plight of the restaurant industry than any news articles. That l’Amitie, with yellow lighting and red leather seats was open—and open widely, as much as their small space allowed by sitting one person at a table for four. Yet even in this time of crisis, l’amitié was there for sure: in the courteous friendliness and in the solid food.
A plate of three oeuf à la mayonnaise on shrimps followed by a large duck confit, sitting regally on top of garbure. Stuffed like a foie gras duck by then, yet “How thoughtless of me. I should have remembered that when one is going to lead an entirely new life, one requires regular and wholesome meals.” And, how can it be wholesome without finishing off without the house-special, Îles flottantes?
We now face the god called nature which we have neglected on this Judgement Day (or these Judgement months), and we have all been presumed guilty until proven otherwise and we are all (well, nearly all) locked up in purgatory. But before the gate closed, what did we do for the final binge? Hording up on toilet paper, no less. We had built the pyramids, the great wall and had even decoded our own DNA. Yet 5,000 years of human civilization has come down to the production of toilet paper, and even that we are not very good at as there was world-wide shortage. We show our true colours in our moment of truth; and we have conclusively proved that we are all buttholes. Only one man, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang, showed some common sense: “we have only got one butthole.”
Yes, that—common sense. The governments are asking us to use our common sense—that is the biggest C—more important than confined space, closeness or contact. But that C is notably absent from any speech. Why? Because that C—the common sense—is in shorter supply than toilet paper or hand sanitizers. Stay home; stay safe. But we also need to stay sane. One person’s behaviour could damage the common good—which is called the tragedy of the commons. But the true tragedy of commons is the tragedy of common senseas common sense is anything but common.
Bistrot le Paul Bert
Address: 18 Rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris, France
Phone: +33 1 43 72 24 01
Address: 13 Rue de Charonne, 75011 Paris, France
Phone: +33 1 47 00 34 57
Café de Flore
Address: 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
Phone: +33 1 45 48 55 26
Address: 2 Chome-9-12 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku City, Tokyo 169-0075
Phone: +81 3-5272-5010
 The Important of Being Earnest—by who else do you think?  We’ll see.  The Important of Being Earnest.  In Japan, restaurants usually charge a cover (500-600 JPY) for service; instead of % on the final bill. There is no tipping in Japan. And yet, people want to be stingy on cover charge.  They don’t put on the accent aigu, not my failing.  A hearty vegetable and bean soup from the Southwest of France.  The Importance of Being Earnest.  A delightful dessert of meringue and custard.