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Wednesday, February 12, 2014


His name is Alain and he has occupied the same spot on the street for 14 years.

I started noticing him each time I rode along the bike path on my way to the Bois de Vincennes. All throughout the winter, bundled in layer-upon-layer of clothes caked with dried mud, I would see him: sometimes reclining on a cement step against the small bundle of his belongings, other times rummaging through a nearby trash can. I often saw him nursing a can of beer disguised in a torn paper or plastic bag. I puzzled at his choice of the shady, cold wall along the highway that circles Paris. Why not sit in the sun on the other side of the street?

Is he drunk? Mentally ill? Dangerous? As a woman alone do I dare approach?  But I am curious, wondering how he came to be in this place.

Last week I finally worked up the nerve to stop.
He is homeless, but he does not ask for money. He has no cardboard sign asking for pity. No outstretched hand, no recipient to collect coins from passersby.

I call out a greeting, mentioning that I am American and interested in talking with him. He shambles over to see what I have to say. "I often see you here," I begin in French, "have you always been here in the same spot?

"Yes, I've been here since the year 2000," he calculates, fingering his beard. "This winter is not so bad, much more mild than last winter. Last year at this time it was -10. The Red Cross came by wanting me to go into a shelter. But I don't like being cooped up."

"Don't you ever sleep in a shelter? Or eat a hot dinner?" I ask. He motions to the nearby pedestrian underpass where he sleeps and I'm surprised when he asserts proudly that he chooses to live this way - even in the cold - without constraints. I ask his name as well as permission to take his picture – a request that he seems to find amusing. I want to give him a few euros which he finally accepts - but only after some urging.

I discover that he reads the newspaper (when he can find one) and is remarkably well informed. He goes off on a long-winded capitulation of the day's news, commenting on the French president's visit to the U.S. as well as the situation in the Central African Republic. I am astonished by his lucidity.

What did I expect?

As we talk, or rather as he talks and I listen nodding in agreement, I notice the looks of condescension or disapproval by a few well-dressed passersby.

Alain goes on to lament the current rates of unemployment in France and the number of homeless people. But he doesn’t fault the government and I learn that his ideas are more socialist than capitalist. I wonder what circumstances have brought him here: Illness? Unemployment? Divorce? Alcoholism? He doesn’t say.

After the better part of an hour I must break away from the conversation. "I'll be back another day," I promise.

1 comment:

  1. It looks as if he eats either too well or not wisely.