A unique aspect of the quartier in Paris in which I live is its fascinating beggars. Over the years I’ve become familiar with their routines: daily, weekly and seasonal – some take a break in summer, others do so in winter. There’s the quiet young woman in a print headscarf who squats at the street corner on Sundays. She could, if provoked, overturn a cathedral with her voice. I know this because at four o’clock on her intermittent Wednesday beat she sometimes yells into her phone – a more recent model than the one I own – at someone who’s habitually late picking up the kids. Then there’s the man who hobbles on crutches and lives in scruffy briefs and a blue striped pyjama top. He keeps his face contorted and groans when you pass. But as soon as he crosses the Boulevard St Germain, his face relaxes into something almost pleasant and his crutch becomes an accessory. I once watched him give a sandwich to a less fortunate beggar; I wouldn’t have known it was him if he hadn’t been wearing those signature bottoms. Then there’s the mourner. His lament wakes me up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He sustains the dismal face and plaintive cries all day outside the bakery. Come eight o’clock when the bakery shuts, he’s a happy chappy, and he hobbles off chatting with the friends that have come to get him. But my favourite of the lot is Fred.
Fred sits cross-legged by the cashpoint down the road. Beside him his phone charges on a photocell battery charger that he moves around in pursuit of sunlight. His begging bowl, a sardine tin, is half-hidden most times as if he’d brought it along as an afterthought. He has long twisted blond hair, a slim face ending in a pointy beard and the gentlest eyes on the planet. His look is never pleading, rather you get the impression he knows something you don’t, and if you lowered your head he’d let you in on the secret. Fred never speaks but always smiles. And Fred is the name I gave him; I haven’t asked for his name yet.
I pass him twice a week on the way to the market. He’s helped me with directions a couple of times, tracing out routes on my map with a tobacco stained middle finger. He also warns me when the cash point is out of order or eating cards – that’s what he mimes. Once I gave him some carrots and he displayed his teeth, the few left in his mouth; so I gave him bananas and peaches instead, which he carefully placed by his side before bobbing his head. Occasionally I’ll put a coin or two in the tin. He looks up with a smile as if to say “what a pleasant surprise”, as if he hadn’t expected the sardine tin trick to work.
Recently I discovered his watering hole, not for beers or spirits but for coffees. It’s the local Tabac and he’s a regular. When he’s amassed enough coppers, he goes over there, tips them onto the counter, and settles down to sip the coffee the coins get him. Someone will buy him a second or third when he’s done. The day I tried, he put up his hand, palm towards me: he’d had his fill. He twirled a stained finger forward: next time perhaps. I smiled and nodded.
I saw him stride out of a bank the other day and it didn’t surprise me. Nor would it surprise me if his bank balance was better than mine. He’s does less kowtowing than anyone I know and has such an air of laissez-faire about him that he’d be as unsurprising in the back of a Bentley as he is on his regular turf. Tomorrow is market day again. I think it’s about time I know his name. I’ll take a pen.