samedi, mars 12, 2005

The Ministry of Vagrant Education

Homeless people in Paris are extremely polite. They are also astoundingly well dressed. No tattered clothing, no mismatched shirts and pants, or falling apart shoes. Most of the ones I see don't even stink. This, combined with what I imagine to be a more socialist and generous federal aid program, makes me ever so hesitant to give them money.

The crazy ones, rather than spouting evangelical victive about your imminent arrival in hell, sing songs, recite poetry, or have philosophical conversations with themselves and their imaginary friends. They laugh, they fling their hands in the air, and say, "That's impossible! Don't you see? But don't worry, it happens to everyone!" It's rather festive, and almost as good as a 15 euro ticket to the theatre.

The more lucid ones are unfailingly cordial. There is one woman who sits on a low wall outside the stop I get off at to go to work. At the approach of each and every person who passes by, their heads down against the wind, she sits up straight and sticks out her feet enthusiastically and beams a warm and bubbly, "Bonjour!!" as if she had been waiting all morning to see you rush by on your way to work. She looks well fed, often has a different clean and warm jacket, and doesn't look like she's touched drugs in her life. It makes me wonder - is she really homeless, or just a little lonely?

The ones that board the metro trains have almost identical monologues, as if they'd gotten the appropriate script from the National Vagrancy Ministry. (I made that up, I don't know what Ministry deals with homelessness in France, but I'd bet my eye teeth that the people who work there have surly attitudes and don't give a rat's ass about homeless people).

The National Vagrancy Ministry monologues almost always begin when the homeless person boards the metro at a stop. The door closes, and once the train starts to move, he/she clears their throat and starts a speech that goes something like this:

"Mesdames et Messieurs, please forgive the intrusion as you make your way to your homes or to meet your friends for a social gathering. I shall be brief.

After losing my job (or alternatively, "After being released from the hospital, where my convalescence lasted six months.....") I found myself on the street without means, sustenance or adequately affordable housing. My young son/daughter and I rarely have enough to eat or to survive on. If you could spare some change, or a restaurant ticket (no translation for this concept exists) I should be ever so grateful. I have applied for aid, but it has been eight months and the State has not provided me with a penny. Your generosity this evening will provide me with a place to sleep or a hot meal. Please do pardon the interruption, and I will importune you no further."

By which time, as a foreign passenger, you are open-mouthed at the eloquence (not to mention attire) of the homeless person, who just used the subjunctive, made the past participle of "avoir" agree with the indirect object, and employed about three words you never heard before.

As they pass down the aisle to collect coins, you might at this point feel like giving them a euro or two, but only for being so damn well-educated.

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