Saturday, August 06, 2005

Back to Beggars

Beggars and advertising hoardings form a large part of my life. I try not to think too much about either of these subjects, but nonetheless they keep impressing themselves on me. The advertising hoardings are the least acceptable of this duo. I do not even want to take my children into the Metro at all over the next week of my forthcoming vacation, just because of the gross and depraved hoardings that are disgracing Paris these days.

Like the advertisements, the beggars are there in my life through an affinity with crowds and money. My first blog about beggars mentioned the fact that I had noticed a couple of them wearing MP3 players and then just a few days ago I responded to a fellow blogger's thoughts about begging in India with my own experiences of being begged from in Cairo.

Beggars in Paris tend to want to bend you ear. They generally have a story to tell you, and they won't restrict their story to the person sitting next to them, but instead project it along the whole railway carriage. It is as if the train were not in fact a means of getting somewhere, but merely a convenient oratorium with a constantly changing audience. A few weeks ago, a woman got into our carriage and gave us a particularly touching rendition. I gave her fifty cents and then she got off at the next stop. She scuttled away and then, somehow, as the train pulled out, she forgot which carriage she had got out of and jumped back on again right next to us. Of course, she immediately started giving the same story again. My wife looked at her and said in a loud voice "How bloody embarassing!" The woman apparently understood and immediately stopped and went off into the next carriage.

Today, on my way to work, a man stepped onto the train and began to speak very quietly. I suppose that no more than half of the carriage could have heard what he was saying. But his voice was persistant and droning and it cut into me as I tried to read. He was telling us the story of his whole life. (Sounds familiar?!!) Well, I really wanted to read. I was studying a long article sent to me by a friend and I wanted to understand what he had written and perhaps try to give him some feedback on his research. But the voice went on and on, wearily trying to work its way into my consciousness. Eventually I had to stop and listen. The man was going on about how once he had worked for a computer company that made computer chips for automats. Perhaps there was a punchline to this story that explained why he was begging in the Metro, but if there was I didn't get it.

What I did get was a sort of nauseous feeling as he walked past me and I had not the slightest inclination to put my hand in my pocket. It seemed the rest of the carriage felt the same. Somehow this story had left me cold like no other. It was a story of failure. Here was a man who said he had worked for a high-tech company (he might have just made it up of course) and now he was here, grubbing for small change. If he had spoken of some responsibility (a child waiting for him to bring home the shopping) or simply of his need for a good meal, my feelings might have been different.

He went and stood by the door, looking feeble and ineffective. There wasn't a spark of life in him. At La Defense we both got out and I watched him shamble down the platform. He waited until everyone had got into the next carriage and then, just as the doors were about to close, he jumped in, as if he needed this momentum to start himself off again. As the train began to pull out of the station, I saw his lips begin to move, and all over again, the same quiet, insidious, pathetic request: "I used to work for a company that made computer chips for automats..."

What was it about this man that so failed to touch me? Which almost made me feel sick? Was it that he had put together a story which he thought we might be able to relate to? Did he imagine that by saying that once he had been like us, with a job, responsibilites, prospects, we might feel able to relate to his predicament more easily? If he was, he was making a big mistake. Better to be a failure from the word go. That way, no excuses are required.

2 comments:

Andrea said...

Go to my blog and click on the side link for Emily-Travel Itch. She has some amazing begging stories from around east asia.

Deepa said...

thanks for your comments. I did not take that pic though.
beggers are a nuisance in India too. for most it is the easy way out. but some stories are heart wrenching. when I was little, there were this set of beggers who would come by every week and we would help them out, the old timers were mostly genuine. the situation is horrible if you are a foreigner and in tourists places.
best regards.