One evening I was on the RER (a regional train) on the way home from work when a woman of indeterminate age got on. She was eating a Toblerone. Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, she said loudly. (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.) Could you give me some change, perhaps a euro? She pulled out another Toblerone and examined it closely, turning it from side to side. Sometimes I lure a man into a parking lot, and I bite him. She put it slowly into her mouth. Sometimes in Cameroon, I would eat a man. Another Toblerone, which she chewed on meditatively.
By this point, I was seriously questioning my ability to understand spoken French. I looked at my French coworker who happened to be sharing the train with me. Did she just say… Yep, he answered. Parisians most definitely do not speak to strangers on trains, but this time a young woman sitting next to him joined in: “She says she eats men.” (It’s pretty easy to tell that I’m not French, and she spoke English.) The lady examined another Toblerone before putting it in her mouth. I’m hungry. If you have some money, some spare change…
This was a very strange little speech to hear, and the whole box-of-Toblerone thing added a certain hallucinatory element to the experience. But, in a Parisian context, it made a certain amount of sense. Visitors to Paris usually notice pretty quickly that there are a lot of beggars here. We talked in a previous post about why there are so many beggars here, and there are perfectly good reasons for it. Although there are a lot of folks who are out there asking for money in this town, they actually fall into a finite number of classes, at least one of which is specific to Paris, and the cannibalistic Toblerone eater was an instance of one of them. Here in France we love to classify things, so let’s run through the categories. Beyond the intrinsic interest of the facts that there are categories at all and the nature of the categories themselves, it’s interesting to think about how the various and sundry categories manage to live together in an ecosystem of sorts–different kinds of beggars fill different niches in the city.
Métro: You will occasionally see someone–usually a man–get onto a métro car or a regional train and ask for money. There’s a set ritual for this. Basically, the guy makes a speech. It tends to follow a specific pattern.
- Apology: Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to disturb you during your trip.
- Statement of problems to be solved: I am homeless/jobless/I have four children and a sick wife and need a hotel room/money for food/diapers.
- Request: If you have some spare coins/restaurant tickets/a euro or two…
…and then they walk through the car with a paper cup or with their hand out. These guys don’t necessarily make much in a single car, but they typically do make something–more if they’re old, less if they’re young and look like they could be working for a living like the rest of us. Then it’s off of that car and on to the next one. In the light of the existence of this genre of begging, the Toblerone lady makes a certain amount of sense, and you have to give her credit for originality (or for insanity–I’m actually betting on the latter).
Eastern European Roma women on the Champs Elysées: There’s a genre of begging which until recently I’d only ever seen in Eastern European countries. The way it works is that the beggar kneels on the bare sidewalk with his head on the concrete and his cupped hands held out to receive alms. It looks really, really painful. For the past couple years, I’ve seen Roma women doing this on the Champs Elysée. Only Roma women so far, and only on the Champs Elysées so far. Why them, and why there? I have no idea. Clearly, they’re Eastern European, but there are lots of Eastern Europeans in Paris, and I’ve yet to see any others begging like this. Occasionally the police will come by and roust them. They pick up their water bottles (this is, after all, 2016) and move on, then return later.
Disabled: One day this past winter I was on the metro on the way to work. I was bundled up like everyone else in Paris, as it was cold–hat, leather jacket, neck warmer (I still haven’t been here long enough to wear a scarf), gloves. Into the car climbed a guy in short-shorts. His legs were these skinny, twisted things–maybe as big around as my forearm, and oddly bent. He didn’t say a word to anyone–just struggled down the aisle with his hand out. For a year or so, there was a guy sitting on the ground outside my metro station all day–no feet. There’s a kid (I say “kid”–I would guess that he’s in his twenties) who has a spot outside the grocery store. He sits there, silent, his head hanging, with a paper cup in front of him. I’m pretty sure that he’s schizophrenic.
With kids: An Eastern European friend taught me that there’s a special place in hell for people who abuse their kids by using them for begging when they should be in school. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly a Roma thing in Paris. You park your family on the sidewalk under a blanket, children prominently displayed, and hold your hand out to passersby. You occasionally also see Roma women with a baby panhandling–be especially careful, as some of them do a trick such that they only appear to be holding a baby, as it’s actually supported by a sling. That’s the hand that picks your pocket. (Let me point out that the vast majority of these ladies are just begging–but, the pocket-picking thing does happen, too.)
With animals to pet: You’ll see a lot of people with an animal or two on their lap. Drop some money in their cup and give doggie/kittie/bunny a scratch, if you feel like it. Most weeks petting beggars’ dogs and cats is my only physical contact with another living being, so a lot of my change goes into these folks’ cups. One of my favorite guys is usually in the Latin Quarter on weekend nights. He has these two little spaniel mixes, and it’s clear that he adores them and they adore him. The last time I saw him, I leaned over to drop a coin in his cup and pet the dogs. It’s Orthodox Easter tomorrow, you know, he said. (If it’s in italics, it happened in French.) Really?, I asked. Yeah, Easter–Orthodox Easter. Cabbage, I said. Have a good night. (My French continues to suck.) I still haven’t figured out why we had that particular conversation, other than the possibility that the next day might actually have been Orthodox Easter. Lately I’ve been noticing shiftless young people with ill-kempt animals trying to do the pet-my-animal thing. Their animals look like shit–not loved or cared for at all. You can tell the difference, I think. Note: be sure that the animal is there to be petted before you try to pet it! This sounds obvious, and I guess that it would be to any non-stupid person. However: I bent over to pet a kid’s pit-bull-looking dog one day without checking him out first, and he snapped at me. I had no clue whatsoever that I was capable of jumping that far that fast–backwards, no less. Obviously, if this dog had felt like ripping my arm off, he could have–he just gave me a little warning. Learn from my stupidity.
Finally, there are plenty of run-of-the-mill beggars. If they’re young, people mostly walk right by them, because there are plenty of frail old run-of-the-mill beggars that probably need your money even more.
Now, I’m not talking here about people who hustle–“hustle” in the good sense, or “hustle” in the bad sense. With the exception of the people with animals, the people that I’m describing here are straight-up beggars. Street musicians, mimes, comedians, dancers–that’s a whole nother genre. Pick-pockets, 3-card monte, the ring scam, the bracelet scam–that’s yet another genre, and they each have their niches in the hustling ecosystem of Paris.
Short-shorts: very, very short pants. Line from an advertisement for Nair, a leg-hair remover: Who wears short-shorts? Nair wears short-shorts. How it was used in the post: One day this past winter I was on the metro on the way to work. I was bundled up like everyone else in Paris, as it was cold–hat, leather jacket, neck warmer (I still haven’t been here long enough to wear a scarf), gloves. Into the car climbed a guy in short-shorts.
bunny: an informal/children’s word for rabbit. On my first visit to Belgium, I knew just barely enough French to order a meal in a restaurant. Seeing a meat on the menu whose name I didn’t recognize, and being an adventurous eater, I ordered it. It being pre-Internet, I had to ask a coworker the next day what I had had for dinner. His response (in English): You ‘ave eaten, ‘ow you say… Bugs Bunny. How it was used in the post: You’ll see a lot of people with an animal or two on their lap. Drop some money in their cup and give doggie/kittie/bunny a scratch, if you feel like it.
Cameroun: Cameroon. Pronunciation: the e is silent, so [kamrun].
Roma: there are many ways to say “gypsy” in French. In part, I know this because my favorite neighborhood bum gave me a lecture on the topic one day, with statistics. I have very little clue as to the current social acceptability of any of them; as far as I know, Roma or Rom is OK (just as it is in the US, where the word gypsy is definitely not OK in all circles), but I’m pretty sure that all of the others have varying levels of pejorativeness. How it was used in the post: For the past couple years, I’ve seen Roma women doing this on the Champs Elysée. Only Roma women so far, and only on the Champs Elysées so far.