Friday, March 18, 2005

Tune in, drop out

Twice in the last couple of days I have noticed a new phenomenon: tramps with MP3 players. I don't know whether this is a new global phenomenon, but it certainly seems to be taking off in France. It may be a trend restricted to France. Tramps and beggars in France do seem to enjoy a special status which I haven't seen elsewhere.

When I first came to France, I noticed, on my way to work, people sitting by the wayside on little folding chairs, like the ones coarse fishermen use in the UK. These people, dressed in clean clothes and looking entirely capable of doing an honest days work, were professional beggars. They sat with discrete signs requesting a small contribution towards their general welfare. And generally, I noticed, they got it. Quite regularly, passers by would tip a few coins into their plastic cups and receive a humble smile in acknowledgement.

When I moved out to the suburbs, I discovered that the same thing was happening on the commuter trains. Every morning, one of about five different beggars would climb on board the train and announce themselves to the entire carriage, 'Monsieurs, mesdames, je suis sans abri, ni travaille. Et j'ai une petite fille a ma charge...' The first time you heard the story it would break your heart. The thirtieth, well...

These beggars always gave you a choice of payment methods: a few 'pieces' (coins) or a 'ticket de restaurant' which I suppose is a sort of lunch voucher for those unlucky enough not to have a canteen at work. One particular beggar who never failed to amuse me was an enormous fat fellow in a baseball cap who would give us his life story, tell us he was homeless and hungry, and then ask for our 'tickets de restaurant'.

More respectable, in my opinion, are the buskers who also work the trains. They come in all types from poetry reading latter day Rimbauds to gypsy fiddlers with singing girlfriends. A particularly popular style is the accordionist with a loudspeaker on wheels which is trundled around and turned up to reach all corners of the carriage. Once, wanting to reward a singer who was wheeling one of these contraptions, I dropped a handful of coins into what I thought was a cup taped to the side of his speaker. It turned out to be a tube for putting his microphone in and my coins went all over the floor. He looked on amused as I picked them up.

Another busker I see often, and who must be one of the most succesful in Paris, is a little old lady about four and a half feet tall who looks like she really ought to be sitting in the kitchen making ginger bread men in a story book. She plays the harmonica and literally rakes in the cash. One night I gave her a euro and a smile. She repayed me by playing 'Moon River... my Huckleberry friend etc....' at full volume into my left ear. It hasn't been the same since.

Beggars and buskers inhabit a different class from tramps. And there are tramps and tramps also. Some tramps are nice old guys who live on the streets but who would, in another life, have been hermits living out frugal lives in caves. Other tramps are vagabond types who hang around the bridges of Paris drinking cheap Calvados and lying like beached seals on any particularly hard and uncomfortable piece of concrete they can find. Theirs is a more desperate plight, as they invoke little sympathy and are their own worst enemies. My Dad told me that when he came to Paris as a school boy after the Second World War, there were lots and lots of homeless people living under the bridges of Paris, many of them refugees. This is perhaps where Paris' enlightened attitude too tramps and beggars has come from. A respect for that long ago refugee status. One rarely sees tramps being moved along despite the fact they are often seen lighting fires under the arches or lying gutted on the pavements. Only in Paris have I seen a man defecating in front of dozens of passers by on the pavement of a busy street.

Anyway, to come back to the tramps with MP3 players. The first one I saw, or rather, smelt, was sitting on the train I take to work. I was about to sit down when suddenly my nose commanded me to walk further down the compartment. When I turned around, I saw a tramp sitting contentedly in a corner with two shiny grommits sticking out of his ears. An MP3 player. How could someone who smelt like that possibly afford an MP3 player I wondered. Although, if he's sat down next to me, I would have willingly given him mine to make him go away.

When I got to the office and was walking through the underground shopping centre, there was the tramp I see every day sitting on his sleeping bag on the tiled floor. Sometimes he's asleep and soundly snoring but today he was sitting up and out from the gap between his long grey beard and his mane of grey hair peeped the tell tale wires of another MP3 player. As normal, kindly folk passing by were giving him croissants they had just bought for him, cash, and there he was listening to music. To quote Victor Meldrew: "I could scarcely believe it..."

I don't exactly envy this guy, I wouldn't want to sleep on the pavement after all. But this is France, it rarely gets that cold at night, and for doing absolutely nothing, he does seem to have found the odd recompense.

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