Last week I saw Francis for the first time in many months. He was sitting at the rear of the laverie on the Rue Cardinet around the corner from where I stay.
Francis was glowing, but that could be because he was clean-shaven and hatless. His pink skull gleamed. His red cheeks shone. When I’d first seen him a few years ago he was bearded and hatted, muffled in hair and cloth.
“Bonjour, Francis,” I said.
“Bonjour,” he mumbled in his ruined voice, his eyes recognizing me. He tilted his head as if surprised that he could still speak.
A moment later, while I was loading sheets into a washer, Francis shuffled out onto the Rue Cardinet. I smiled at him there on my return home, and wished him a good day as he perched against a store window. He nodded but didn’t really see me this time. He was already lost in thought.
I wondered where he’d been. Perhaps hospitalized. Or in a temporary lodging. I didn’t ask. Our relationship, such as it is, hasn’t reached a point where we share much. I don’t know Francis. Not really. Just to say bonjour. But he was back. And I was actually relieved to see him again.
I certainly don’t know him as well as the office workers had appeared to, people who would actually chat with him and offer him cigarettes. Just as he has become part of the fabric of the neighborhood where I live when I’m in Paris, Francis had been woven into the texture of their workdays.
That was before their building was closed for renovation. Now it’s mainly shopkeepers who speak to him. Or the femmes de ménage. Or the street-cleaners. Or the vigipirates, the French military patrols who drop in on the neighborhood from time to time to survey possible terrorist targets, such as the synagogue on the Rue Léon Cogniet, opposite the apartment where I stay.
Francis has a tent pitched near the steps to the lobby of the now-renovated and still-empty building, on the other side of the street from the laverie. He lives between that tent and the laundromat, and passes his days sitting on the steps of the wine merchant’s next door or at the kitchen design center on the corner that faces a busy restaurant, La Fille du Boucher – the butcher’s daughter. He’s often lost in a reverie or a haze, or caught in a fugue of some sort beyond me.
Francis doesn’t beg. He doesn’t ask for anything, really. Except perhaps for connection. That is, that you let him be, but that you also acknowledge him. He never spoke this aloud, of course – but I noticed that once as I walked by him without a word, he said to me, “Bonjour, monsieur.” A gentle reprimand, almost.
“Oh,” I said, mortified. “Bonjour. Bonne journée.”
Francis is politer than I am.
I’m not aware if the office workers who spoke to him had actually known him beyond the vague pleasantries that count for conversation among cigarette smokers. But they engaged with him. He counted for something. He was human. I don’t know, either, if these Parisian office workers had more of a personal touch with the clochards du quartier than I do – I’m awkward enough with people who don’t live on the street. But their behavior toward him made Francis more real to me – and they also showed an enviable ease with a troubled person, an ease that made me question my own behavior toward those who are different, who are challenged, who force upon me a grittier image of a postcard city.
I only know his name because I had heard one of those office workers call him Francis. I remembered this because it humanized him, ultimately. I can easily dehumanize others if I’m not aware of my offhand callousness.
And now I can think of Francis as Francis, then, rather than as a him.
I still don’t know Francis. Not really. I don’t know if this is even possible. But I see him. And I no longer avoid him, which is something. I meet his cloudy blue eyes when I greet him. Perhaps a bonjour actually means more than hello. A nanosecond of connection is still a connection, after all. Perhaps a fleeting exchange allows me to make up for my continual failings.
Last winter, as a sudden cold descended at dusk on a balmy January day, I passed by as three people from a Parisian homeless outreach organization chatted with Francis, his head poking from his tent. I heard them asking him if he wanted shelter for the evening, or to see a doctor, or to receive a sandwich. Or, I said to myself, if he preferred red or white. I immediately regretted my unkind thought, as if the indignity of someone fending off the cruel night were suitable for my pathetic mockery.
I had come to Paris to become larger than myself, but Francis made me realize how small I still can be – regardless of the language I’ve learned speak, regardless of the culture that has enriched me – if I’m not aware of a tendency to compartmentalize the sufferings of others, or of believing that I am not myself a hairsbreadth away from whatever situation that led to Francis’s living as he does. Even within the limits of what is possible for him, he has choices, and they’re not mine to scorn.
Once Francis helped me by giving me his pocket change, when the machine to run the washers only took coins instead of bills. I gave him a ten-euro note, and he gave me in return whatever he had, which was probably far less than that, but so what? He didn’t count it, and I certainly wasn’t going to. Shortly after this, holding up the stub of a cigarette, he asked, “Ça vous dérange?” – or did I mind if he smoked?
I shook my head “no” politely. Far be it from me to be bothered by the smoking of someone who lives on the street, and who never really bothers anyone. In any event, he smiled at me then, as if he could read my mind, and meeting my eye with a sly regard, he went out again onto the Rue Cardinet. I’d been found out. I’m always found out.
Being courteous to Francis doesn’t make me a better person. It was Francis’s courtesy after all that had shown me the limits of my compassion. Thanks to knowing French I can make out what Francis says through the garbled wreckage of his voice, when he chooses to utter whatever it is he has to say, and I can understand what others say to him. I can even reply in turn, if I break free of my own fearful hesitation about connecting with another.
I have to guard against my predisposition, in English or in French, in New York or in Paris, to belittle or to sweep aside the kind of person I may become myself, if I’m not careful, if I’m not lucky. If I remain locked within my limited perception. How much do I hold myself back from experience because I might actually have to become open to an interaction? How much do I retreat from the vital moment because of a momentary discomfort at someone’s otherness? How much do I still deny myself because of fear? I have been bold enough to take a great leap into the unknown in acquiring a new language in a new country, but I still retreat from the face-to-face, the eye-to-eye, the heart-to-heart, the actual day-to-day exchanges that define what it is to be alive, to become a participant rather than a spectator, to be rather than to seem.
Years after building a temporary but lasting life in Paris, I’ve created another home there, I’ve profited from immersing myself in another culture, in absorbing another way of life, of befriending many people. I’ve changed my point of view. I can express myself with subtlety in a language I didn’t grow up speaking. My French has become very good. But I hold myself back in other ways. It was Francis who taught me that while my knowledge has broadened and my experience widened, my humanity is still lacking.