THE BLOG
01/12/2015 09:04 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

Charlie Would Have Laughed

NIKLAS HALLE'N via Getty Images

We were talking about poetry when the French woman on the train shamed us.

All day Thursday and Friday sirens were the backbeat of our writing seminar at NYU-in-Paris. That European siren -- the one that sounds like an air-raid warning from a World War II movie -- had bled into the day, infecting each moment with the harsh reminder that writers are not safe here.

Yesterday, we spoke with two smart, young Parisians who had told us about the cartoonists: "They were our childhood," one said. She explained that she had grown up in the '80s with ironic French television in the background and a strong inherited sense of national pride in a lively satiric tradition.

But it was later, on the train, when the French woman snapped at us: "Do you know twenty people died today?" It was not really a question. At first we were confused. We had just learned six hostages had died, was it up to twenty? But the woman meant nearly twenty had died collectively -- at Charlie Hebdo and then during the standoffs. Of course we knew this. We told her, Yes, we know.

Five of us -- two poets and three fiction writers -- had left class that evening and set out for the Palais de Tokyo. We were battling that feeling of squandered time during any moment one is not actively improving oneself in Paris. Are we still awake? Then we should really hit a museum. Young French hipsters spilled out of crowded bars laughing on the sidewalk as they -- what else? -- drank wine and smoked. "Pardon, pardon," we said to them.

We took the C train, a behemoth commuter train that looks like something you might move farm animals on. I worried we were going to end up in Normandy or something -- that I'd never get to bed at a reasonable hour. But the jocular métro attendant assured us it was the correct train, smiling as we Americans awkwardly clambered on. We sat facing each other, knees to knees.

My poet friend Byron (yes, that's really his name) had written a poem contrasting a man who could not speak well with Demosthenes, the great orator of ancient Athens. No one had appreciated the irony, he said; the other poets had accused Byron of not understanding Demosthenes. We laughed. (Some of us laughed at the misunderstood irony. I laughed because, Oh poets. I mean, freaking Demosthenes?)

And so there we were, discussing the irony of speech in artistic expression of all things, when the woman turned to us.

"Do you know twenty people died today?"

She hissed the words. The hot spotlight of shame brought us all up short. We were adults at the principal's office. My stomach and heart briefly switched places as I felt the woman's emotions, pain, and judgment rain down on us, the obnoxious Américains. My friends and I had entire conversations solely with our eyes then. Should we not have been laughing? But all the cool French people at the bars were laughing. And the métro attendant, too. The woman got off the train at the next stop. We exhaled.

I felt too much at once and had a strong urge to run after her. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for her pain, for her country. I wanted to tell her that we were writers, that I was a journalist, that we felt the horror of Charlie Hebdo acutely. I wanted to tell her that I was in Washington on 9/11, that I understood the gaping trauma of an attack on one's home city, on one's national identity.

"We were talking about poetry," said my poet friend Emily (not Dickinson).

It struck me as a good argument. We were talking about poetry. We were talking and laughing about poetry and irony, and the woman had silenced us because she found us offensive. Waves of meta-meanings momentarily paralyzed my brain.

Was it too soon to laugh? I remembered the first Saturday Night Live episode after 9/11; Lorne Michaels asked Mayor Giuliani if it was OK to be funny. Giuliani replied, "Why start now?" And what about French satire and irony? What about the cartoonists from all over the world who have already joined in? (My favorite: David Pope's image of a terrorist over the body of an executed cartoonist: "He drew first.")

"Charlie would have laughed," I offered.

At Palais de Tokyo, the museum and its posh restaurant were packed. The French people there did not mind exuberance. Table after table of stylish Parisians smiled and spoke animatedly to each other. Two tipsy middle-aged French women screamed with laughter outside the bathroom. Only our waiter was surly.

But I couldn't shake the woman on the train's reprimand. It clung to me like a scarlet letter. So I went to Place de la République after dinner, where all the activists, citizens, and mourners gathered. Large piles of pens circled the plaza. Tea lights spelled out JE SUIS CHARLIE -- in French and Arabic. A young couple climbed the monument at the center of the square, imploring the crowd to chant with them ("Tout le monde! Char-lie, Char-lie!"). But everyone just walked around and looked pensively at the makeshift memorials instead, as if visiting a museum of grief. A small group was plastering cartoons and covers of Charlie Hebdo at the base of the main statue. I began to walk back to the métro.

I couldn't talk to the woman from the train. I couldn't explain how confusing this was, how everyone seemed to be responding differently, how I wasn't sure there was a correct response. And I couldn't explain to her the effect she'd had on me, I couldn't engage her in dialogue -- and anyway I'm no Demosthenes.

But I also couldn't thank her, because though I bristled at her rebuke (and still do), the woman on the train did something for me. She stopped me from becoming inured to yet another terrorist attack. She forced me to consider more deeply this nightmare we in the West know all too well, to think about the families of those killed, to meditate on the power of writing, and to simply let the moment resonate, to honor it.

I couldn't thank her for all this, so I did what I could do: I turned around and added my pen to the pile.