Friday, December 22, 2006

A Piece of the Berlin Wall

I'm writing today about something that happened a couple of weeks ago. I guess it has been playing on my mind.

Since I arrived in France three years ago, there has always been a man sitting begging for change in the small underground shopping plaza I pass through on my way to the office. The plaza supports thousands of office workers who make their way out of it into the basement levels of three major office blocks.

He was a thin man, quite tall, with a kind and intelligent face. His eyes were mournful, often rather sleepy looking. He sat there all year long with long grey hair and a thick grey beard. I sometimes saw one or other of a number of young women giving him a croissant for breakfast. Once I saw an old man talking very earnestly to him. In general, he was seated alone, like a hermit. I never saw him behaving in a drunken way.

Since about a year ago the precinct and passages which take office workers from the Metro to their office blocks have been patrolled by groups of three or four soldiers with machine guns. I don't like seeing them every morning. Different regiments seem to do the job in rotation and I never see the same soldier twice.

Sometimes I would see these soldiers standing with their guns around the begging man, and this would make me annoyed. I don't think they were trying to move him along, but he looked so pitiful compared to these tough young men.

During the month of August the begging man would disappear for a month like the majority of other French people. I suppose the donations became too few and he had to go and find a new clientele. When he came back in September, he always had his hair and beard shaved off. The first time I saw this it was quite a shock for me. I realised he was not an old man. He must have been about forty-five.

I never gave him money in the morning, because in a way he annoyed me, the fact that I was going to have to work all day long while he would just be sitting there doing nothing.

By the evening though, my thoughts towards him would soften. As I headed for warm home and family I would sometimes take pity on him and hand him a couple of euros. He always received them gratefully and acknowledged my contribution politely, looking me in the face as he did so. I never stopped to talk to him.

It seemed he owned more or less nothing in terms of worldly goods. A sleeping bag, a blanket and a bag with a few things in. He would sit with his back to an outside wall with large picture windows on either side of him. Outside the windows was a concrete lined area, submerged below the main esplanade where people streamed past. In this submerged area, nothing ever happened unless someone lost wandered down there. The only thing of interest there was a section of the old Berlin Wall decorated with graffitti. Just above where the man sat, positioned just above his head, was a brass plaque which said: "A Piece of the Berlin Wall".

On Monday two weeks ago, the man was gone. In his place, under the brass plaque, were two small bunches of white roses. Fixed to the plaque itself was a piece of paper with a full page message written on a word processor. A couple of people had already stopped to read the piece of paper, and I stopped as well.

I didn't feel very comfortable reading it. It seemed a very personal message and I couldn't tell who it was from. Was it written by the man who had sat here, or was it from someone else to the man who had sat here. Anyhow, it was emotional, and as I read, I could sense the angst of the person who had written it. I think I understood that the begging man's name was Laurence, but I may be wrong.

Through the last two weeks, more and more flowers have accumulated. Then candles which were left burning on the floor below the flowers. Other message arrived sellotaped to the brass plaque. I didn't stop to read them, but I saw that every so often some of the messages disappeared, and that others were added.

I feel sure the man has died. It is terrible that he should have died so young, so hopelessly. I wish I had paid him more attention. I wish I had asked him from time to time if there was anything I could do for him.


Clare Dudman said...

That is such a touching post, Jonathan. I wonder what that first note said. From what happened next it looks like he must have died. It is so sad when people seem to lead empty lives and then disappear - but at least you, and the other people who encountered him remember a small part of him.

Jason Erik Lundberg said...

A very beautiful and sad story. It also makes me wonder what the notes said, and it's touching to think of people leaving flowers and messages for this man.

(And please forgive me for the threadjacking, but could you email me sometime soon? It concerns your submission for A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. Each time I've tried to email you at wonham at mac dot com, it bounced back to me. Since I'll be sending out contracts soon, I want to make sure I have all your info, and a way to get ahold of you. Thanks!)

Jason Erik Lundberg said...

In case the link doesn't work, that's wombat dot fishbone at gmail dot com. Thanks.