On the cusp of villainy … or at least drunkeness

The neighbourhood where we normally walk ... fa la la la ...

We have only four channels on our television, and this paucity of choices has knocked us right off our evening television habit.

Happy streets, shining homes.

Happy Swiss walking to work.

We can’t just sit in the suite and stare at one another, or even out the window where the view is other windows like ours. Might as well paste a mirror up there.  And so, we’ve fallen into the practice of taking an after-supper stroll. Normally we head west, not because we are following an innate migratory desire to head back home to Canada, although that would be okay, but because it is the direction of the lake, not to mention a number of lovely waterfront cafes.

The trees along the way are huge with oddly rumpled trunks, and the canopy is thick owing to the town’s vigorous amputative pruning program that chops off branches so burly that the sight of it would trigger environmentalists into action, raining press releases down on the media, chaining themselves to shrubs, complaining about the effect on fish habitat and marmot reproduction rates.

Where was I? Oh yes:  The wide walkways west of our place follow a network of open canals that lead down to the lake, making it a happy walk, but last night we decided to venture east.

What harm could come of that?

Early clue that we weren't in Kansas anymore (North American cultural reference to being really lost)

Not a third of a block in, we noticed an open produce market. How delightful. But we did not check on it, owing to a number of loitering males. We avoid loitering males, especially in the evening hours. We always suspect they are up to no good, especially if their hygiene regimen appears substandard.

A few feet later, three chums – two men flanking a corpulent woman –  spanned the breadth of the sidewalk. It is difficult to describe them now because we averted our eyes so as to not call attention to ourselves, but it didn’t work. They did not so much walk as lurch, beer cans in hand (very likely as a balancing mechanism), eyes glaring wherever they landed, which was on us.

I’ve noticed this about the town drunks – they look right at passersby menacingly, as if to dare them/us to point out their inebriation.

It’s a little different than Canada’s street drunks, a vigorous lot who spend daylight hours in the courthouse challenging city hall for looking down their noses at addicts and alcoholics pitching tents in parks (I know this seems like a pejorative statement, but I’ve gone and checked, and haven’t seen anyone in those tents who looked much different than what we saw on the seamy side of the street last night).

Nevertheless, at least our Canadian drunks have some gumption. And lawyers.

We passed the wild-eyed, teetering trio, then turned a corner, thinking a one-block walk was sufficient exercise, when we spied another staggering fellow. Apartment buildings took on a blemished look, their balconies curtained in makeshift bamboo screens, and in the narrow walkways and alleys, waves of debris piled up against the buildings.

I went back the next day - this is the seedy mafioso-looking cafe, although really, it probably isn't that. Just looked like it after treading Intoxication Promenade.

We rounded the corner and came upon a scene that looked right out of the Godfather – the early New York ghetto scenes, not the later rich-crook scenes: An assembly of dog-eared cafe tables filled with somber middle-aged men with greasy combed-back hair, shaking hands formally in introductions. It could have been the Knights of Columbus planning its spring fishing expedition, or it could have been the Mafia, plotting what to do with all these foreigners wandering into their turf.

A few metres later, we were back on our street where pedestrians walked in straight lines without the balancing benefit of beer cans in their hands, the alleys were clear, the streets charming enough for a movie set, and the trees appropriately park-like and trimmed. What a difference a simple left or right turn can make.

It is fair to say that we are not ordinarily so jumpy, and in my work I engaged street people in conversation many a time, but there’s a new dimension at play when the street-folk speak another language altogether.

It can be socially awkward. For one thing, you have no idea if they’re asking for the time, or your wallet.

One wrong turn, and the scenery changes. Even Swiss towns have a wrong side of the tracks, although, technically, this is on the same side of the tracks as our neighbourhood, just one block over.

The poor you will always have with you

Jesus’s words about the ever-present poor hover about wherever we go, although each country seems to have its own particular type of impoverished.

This panhandler near the Georges V hotel in Paris remained motionless with her hand and cup outstretched. Completely cloaked, we couldn't be certain of her age, if she was conscious, or even a she. The still prostrate posture was common among Parisian beggars.

In Madrid, we saw them lean, their ragged clothes drifting over their hollow rib-cages, camped in low-lying creek valleys and ditches, living in makeshift box and sheet-metal ghettos invisible to the eye until the passerby almost stumbles in to them.

In Atlanta, a woman and her eight-year old son lingered at a downtown parkade’s exit, looking for some change. Dave drove them to a Burger King. On the way, he offered the child a piece of gum. Instead of chewing it, the boy gobbled it down – a sobering vision of hunger in America.

In Victoria, B.C., the poor lack the hollowed-out visage common to the poor of other countries. On Douglas Street at a poverty protest, a group of “homeless” panhandlers assured me that they had food aplenty. What they really wanted were cigarettes.

And in Paris the poor sometimes lay prostrate on the pavement only a few feet from where people lined up outside designer stores where women’s summer pumps sell for $1,500.

The most well-fed beggar we saw had a corner on the Royal Pereire Cafe near the metro entrance. You can even catch a glimpse of him on Google Maps here.  (the link will not take you directly to him, but if you check the pavement in front of the cafe, you can see him – he’s obviously a fixture).  Locals stopped to chat with him, and except for the upturned cap on the pavement, his calm demeanor would have been just about right had he been seated a few feet away at a cafe table.

Security manages the line at the Louis Vuitton store on Paris's Champs Elysees - the couple at the front stood patiently, their faces befuddled and frustrated while he let other customers walk right in ahead of them. Nevertheless, when he waved them in they were all smiles. I think they're called "marks."

Many beggars in Paris were women dressed in burqas. We don’t know what to make of that. We didn’t see any of the drug-induced lurching and mentally ill erratic manifestations of Victoria’s street population.

Nevertheless, in Paris’s underground, there were signs of possibly drug-related poverty: On the metro, a man appeared in one of the cars, mumbling, his head swaying rhythmically while passengers studiously looked the other way. When he turned to leave, his shoulder blades jutted in sharp profile against his beige sweater that was tucked into loose slacks, revealing his skeletal form.

Out on the broad promenade at the Champs Elysees, people were practically begging to get into the exclusive designer house stores. At Louis Vuitton, two security guards kept the line-up roped in a New York club-style. The line inched slowly along while the occasional “well-heeled” customer walked right up to the security guard and was let in without even so much as a glance at the waiting masses, much to the disgruntled expressions of those  in the queue. It was a statement of class, money and power.

I made my own statement by not trying to get into the store, although I doubt that Louis and his cohorts missed me much.

Those familiar with the title of this post as coming from the New Testament, the seventh verse of the 14th chapter of the Book of Mark might know what comes after – that Jesus goes on to say we  “can help them (the poor) anytime you like.” We can. We’re just not sure how.

Here are more images of Paris’s down-and-out population – and for something a little more upbeat – here’s my not-very-good vid of a Paris busker who was fabulous. His singing starts at the 39-second mark.

A man sleeping the doorway of a commerce building facing the Seine River.

A panhandling woman looks around, seemingly bored with her line of work.

Not technically a beggar, but a street-performer. It was the worst show on earth - for a coin or two, she would nod, then go back to this position. Nevertheless, as a hot-flash-enduring middle-aged woman who cannot keep make-up on my face, I want to know her secret. It was scorching outside, yet her gold patina was flawless.

Another beggar, keeping her face down, kneeling motionless and silent on the Champs Elysees.

One panhandler was nowhere to be seen - must have run off for a cafe' au lait, although he still left his post open for donations.

Amazing that he was comfortable leaving his stuff unattended on Paris streets while nervous tourists clutch onto their bags in fear of robbery (quite rightly).

Sleeping on the job., but with the cup still in full view.