Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jokes from the bums

For some reason the few people I have meaningful contact with in Paris are the clochards, or what my father would call: bums. I have a predisposed liking for them as one of my grandfathers was a bum. Literally. (The last time my mother saw him he was a homeless man begging for quarters on a street.) So there is a kind of family tradition there. On at least two occasions the locals felt compelled to make wisecracks about my jogging. I suppose when your whole day is a physical challenge: trying to find a place to eat, to sleep, hauling your crap from one spot to the next, passing the time like a character from a Beckett play, the idea of putting on a T-shirt and what look like a pair of nylon undershorts to run around in circles and deliberately tire yourself is absurd.

There are two guys who have been living not far away in the back doorway of a Shell station mini-mart on Boulevard Raspail. How long they have been there I don't know, but they are as much a neighborhood fixture as the Musee Maillol diagonally across the street from them. One guy has long gray hair and a beard. The other guy has dark matted hair and glasses. Crammed in the doorway is some sort of duvet for their bed, their sleeping bags and two backpacks which I guess contain all their life’s possessions. I have seen a lot of people stop to chat, including the manager of the mini-mart. They sleep in the doorway all year long, even this past brutal winter.

Although they have a small plastic bowl with a perfunctory “Monnaie, SVP” sign in front of it, they are not aggressive beggars and actually don’t seem to care if you put money in it or not. I must have passed them hundreds of time going to and from my run. Mostly I just nod. A couple of times I put money in their dish to their great surprise. One day I was walking past them sweaty and relaxed on the Rue de Grenelle on my way home and the graybeard said, "Hey!"

I turned. "Where you going? The track is that way." And he started laughing at his own joke. I knew Spring was here.

The other, more droll comment came from a black homeless guy sitting meditatively on a bench tucked in a corner of the Luxembourg Gardens. He studied me each time I went past. I have a grim, preoccupied look on my face when I run, like I’m thinking about a dead puppy. So as I loped by him a third time he urged, “Allez. Avec JOIE” which basically translates into, “At least try to look like you’re enjoying it.”

Fascinating French fact: The word clochard comes from the French verb clocher, to limp.

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