He remembered how, late at night, he would love to cycle down the street at high speed and how he would visit the gay sexshops just around the corner. They were the first gay sexshops in Paris. He had many sweet memories of the street.
I am surprised to hear his story. When I cycle down the same street today at high speed I am mostly happy to be home again, close the door behind me, glad to leave the fume-intoxicated corridor which is now the street where I live.
The street is like a tunnel connecting two parts of Paris. Traffic descends from a steep slope leading right into the centre of the city. People always seem to be in a rush. Most buildings are black. It’s noisy. I often hear people swear, shout and scream at each other. There is nothing in particular I enjoy about it.
Next door from where I live there is a clothing store. The clothes sold there date from the 1980s. The shopwindow displays a variety of leopard-skin dresses, glittery handbags and cheap sandals.
The worst thing about this shop is the owner. For the last few years, every time I exit the door I bump into her. I try to greet her with a friendly nod or a brief bonjour. But these friendly attempts have received no reply. Last night however I finally managed to make contact. Watering my plants on the 5th floor and cleaning the gutter, just before closing time when rush hour is at full speed, I dropped some dirt right in front of the woman’s shop and watered the cigarette-covered pavement. I could hear her scream at me from downstairs.
I was at least quite happy that finally I had made contact, but I also realized it was time to leave this street before I really became infected by it.
If only every day I could look behind the soiled surface I would be able to see that there is a human dimension to the street. Every street is filled with people (at least in this city) and everyone has stories to tell.
Here are a few details of things I see in the street where I live.
A young man from Africa holds up the palm of his hand. Every time you pass by the bakery on the street corner he will ask for money. He always stands upright and has one arm crossed in front of his body, clasping his waist, while the other arm reaches out to receive money, a sandwich or anything else. One day he told me that half of the money he receives he spends on food. The other half goes towards his journey back home. France is not what he had hoped it would be. I have not seen him for a few days. His place has been taken by someone else. This man sits on a carefully folded piece of cardboard. He is also holding up the palm of his hand.
There is a candy store owned by an old lady. This shop is a time capsule. A small selection of candy and chocolates are displayed in glass vitrines. You have to choose your sweets carefully, one by one, as each one is wrapped in a piece of soft brown paper. Every night when she closes down her shop the candy and chocolates are covered by pieces of cardboard. An image of the Virgin Mary watches over the store.
There is a man who walks up and down the street every day. Some days he will shout and insult people. On other days he tells passers-by how lovely they look. Almost every week he wears a new pair of sneakers. He has a strong smell of alcohol around him and a look in his eyes of a wild animal.
Next to a sad-looking café, close to the station, a woman wearing a headscarf sits on the pavement. She is there almost every day. Over the last few years, she has had different animals accompanying her. She had a little dog that lay motionless next to a pile of unattractive-looking dog biscuits. The dog disappeared and was replaced by a kitten.
One day I saw her dragging the kitten along on a piece of string. I ran across and tried to grab the kitten from her. She started to scream at me and accused me of taking her dog away from her. “Police, toi police, chien!!” she shouted. I was relieved when I realized that someone had called the police to save the dog. She held on tight to her kitten and I did not manage to take it from her. But then the kitten disappeared too and another dog came in its place.Then this dog disappeared and was replaced by an old cat. Now she has an even older cat and a kitten. I now pass her by on the other side of the pavement.
The owners of the launderette are an elderly couple from Cambodia. The temperature in the launderette resembles Cambodia. Sometimes I wonder if this was the reason they started such a business in a country where 85% of the time the weather is gray and miserable.
Tropical plants thrive in the damp heat of the launderette and decorate the window. When I entered the launderette with my newly-born daughter, the woman asked me how life is with a baby. I told her we were doing fine, only struggling a bit with the intensity of crying spells. The woman became still and stared into the distance. She tells me that she had three boys, but now only two are left. Her oldest son died when he was only six months old. She never discovered the reason why. We smile at each other. There are no words that feel appropriate. Our paths separate again.
A woman stops me as I walk back home. She looks at my baby and, with a penetrating gaze, she stares into my eyes “You should smile more. This will work like a pingpong ball throughout her life,” she says. I promise her that I will.