Sunday, March 27, 2011

The beggars of Paris

During my visit to Paris my two offices and my studio were all essentially on the same block, that I got to know by heart.

By the bakery on rue Gay-Lussac, there is a beggar, not always the same one. One day there was a woman and child, who I noticed looked at the chocolate bun that I had bought for breakfast. I gave the child half of my bun, whereupon the adult immediately said: "She is thirsty, too." I answered: "I can't give her that" and went on my way, annoyed for some obscure reason.

By the sea and water institute, there sometimes is a man begging and looking sad. After emptying the tiny fridge in my studio and checking out, as I walked by him with my bag of leftover groceries, his eye caught mine and I was compelled to offer him some of my extra food. But he refused my offer of a box of microwavable lentils and bacon dish: "I have no way to reheat it", he explained. I looked again in my bag, but there was nothing edible without cooking. "Sorry, I don't have anything else", I said regretfully. "It's all right, never mind. Have a nice day!", he answered gracefully. I continued on my way, wondering about the one thing that I could have given him but chose not to take out of the bag and offer him: a bottle of wine...

On rue Pierre et Marie Curie, there are often traces of a presence on the street: empty beer bottles, a sleeping bag drying on a railing, and sometimes an indistinct human form buried in layers of cloth. When I stayed late in the office, once or twice I heard loud drunken noises coming from the street.

At the corner of rue d'Ulm, there is a phone booth that was inhabited last January, but that is currently available. On the other hand, a woman seems to be spending many of her days sitting on a heat grate on the sidewalk. Late one night, I saw a shape in a sleeping bag, set up in the middle of the street, on the piece of pavement off limits to traffic that marked the middle of the intersection! Was it her? Was that her way of setting up some boundaries?

Further down rue d'Ulm, there is a university whose main entrance cuts off the first floor of the building diagonally, providing a shelter. A beggar is set up there. Sometimes he is sleeping. Other times, some large pieces of cardboard are set out and dozens of books are on display, as an improvised streetcorner bookstore. I wish I had looked at it more closely.

Closer to the RER, by the side entrance of the church of St Jacques d Haut Pas, there is a beggar, usually but not always an older woman. One day she was selling daffodils and I bought a bunch, happy with that creative way to generate an income. But she was indifferent to my presence and never raised her eyes to my face. She is only there during the day: perhaps she has a home to go back to at night.

The main entrance of that church also has occasional beggars, two men, but they're not regulars. Maybe they're only there at night and to ask for charity at Mass time.

The beggars in Paris are diverse. Men and women, young and old, with dog or child. I have seen an old woman reading a prayer book, oblivious to her environment. I have seen a young woman, her hair carefully covered with a scarf, in a silent kneeling posture, full of dignity. Her body is there, but her mind seems absent. According to statistics 17 percent of homeless people in Paris are women.

I often wonder what kind of beggar I would be.

1 comment:

  1. I've just returned from a short trip there, my 2nd in a month. This time we brought our young daughter for her first trip to Paris. She has a huge heart and always wants to give kleingeld (small change) even here in our town in Germany. We decided that she can donate to the poor box at Notre Dame and hopefully take care of her loving need to help others as well. However, I do have one question for you. My husband and I, as dog owners, are at odds about the dogs, some puppies, with the homeless. They are so lethargic or uninterested in the world passing by. He thinks they may be drugged. I think they are either weak or bored, preferring to be with their human. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.

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