Friday, January 21, 2011


The first several times I came to Paris I never saw a beggar. At least I never saw one if you didn’t count the little women of indeterminate Eastern origin that skulked at the doors of the major tourist attraction churches with babes clutched to their multi-rag-wrapped breasts as beggars. I always assumed they were hired employees of the state put there to enhance the tourist experience.

From the vantage point of the subject of this blog and the retrospection that its writing has required of me, I have considered that it may be that, in those early days of my relationship with Paris, I just didn’t get out to all the places that the beggars inhabited.

But I don’t think so. The Metro took me far and wide. I even went to the Marché de Puce.

The years from 2000 to 2007, in relation to the subject of beggars, I will admit, are rather vague. However, I do have a sense of an increase in the tempo of the begging game during those years.

I know it was during those years that I had my first encounter with the woman and child combo (a version very similar to the crouching-on-the-steps-of-the-church version) accosting me on my way through the Tuileries with the question as she strode purposefully toward me “do you speak English?”

I said, as a reflex, “yes”.

She said “my baby is hungry and my husband has fallen ill. Please give me money.”

I have trained myself since that encounter to not even look at the now, in 2011, hoards of those supplicants, let alone answer them.

It was in 2006 when I had the first encounter with a pigeon dropper. That gambit is described in excruciating detail elsewhere in this blog, and in my memoir Screen Saver, so if you are interested, have at it.

The point is, merely, that the tempo from 1999 to today has picked up.

So let’s move to 2010-2011.

I wonder if they have copyrighted the formats.

There is the crippled old woman with the cup. The cup has something – presumably coins – in it that rattle harshly when she shakes the cup, which she does continuously. She is always bent – I am not making this up – at ninety degrees to the ground. One of her thighs is always wrapped in, maybe, cheesecloth. She almost chants – something – I don’t think it is French, it sounds more like what a witch might say while stirring her kettle.

She is a really sad sight.

And she, or her clones, are now spread across Paris. They are everywhere. And they are all the same.

There is the hunched-on-the-ground-with-the-dog-wrapped-in-the-blanket person. My first question, every time I see one of these people, is, what, other than brilliant marketing, does the dog have to do with it, and, as a follow on question, do you dope the dog to make it stay there looking pitifully out at the passing scene?

They are everywhere. And they are all the same.

There are the hunched-in-the-doors-of-the-church format. They were local color in a few places when I first came to Paris. Now they are everywhere – every church ahs one or some.

And they are all the same.

There are the pigeon droppers. They are the entrepreneurs of the beggar class it would seem. On one warm rainy day in November I was dropped seven times.

I was ecstatic.

The pigeon drop gambit makes my blood run happy.

There are the I-have-enough-money-to-buy-a-metro-or-RER-ticket people.

These seem to come in two formats. They either stand at one end of the car that they have chosen to harvest, or wander through that car. In any event they rave. Even I am able to hear the word “deranger” said multiple times.

That is one format.

The other is simpler from a theatrical viewpoint. They just walk around and put on the seats of the passengers a slip of paper that says “J’ai faim. J’ai deux enfants, etc. etc. etc.”

On the RER to and from the airport yesterday I was approached by three of these and one of the ravers. The paper-on-the-seat in all cases was identically verbatim.

There must be a beggar central somewhere.

So what is my point? Am I John Boehner’s brother and Mitch McConnell's cousin venting, not surprisingly, my highly self-satisfied and conservatively very large spleen on the nation of France and its unique “model?”

It would be a cold day in hell were that to ever happen.

What I have just written is merely an attempt to document what I have seen and the changes that what I have seen seem to imply.

It tears my guts out to see many of the people I have described. They can’t help it that they have nothing. They are at least trying. But if I were to try to give a euro to each of them that I encounter in a day, what is left of what I managed to save over the years and that has been massively reduced by the great tranche disaster would be gone.

And there is another consideration.

Gut wrenching aside, I still have a sense of self preservation: I am hard wired into the American model. That model says that I must be a part, as much as I am able, of the inevitable periodic bailouts of Goldman Sachs, Citicorp and the rest.

There is nothing left for beggars in Paris.

The bonuses for the bankers must not be set aside. And I am but a cog in the wheel that assures their on-going payment.

My sense of self preservation arises every time I see one of these beggars. As the humanly-intense feeling of need to give the beggar something warms my heart, I see a hologram of Jamie Dimon and I pass on; and my heart chills.

The bonuses must be paid.

But back to France: it would seem that one of two things, or perhaps both, are happening.

Is it possible that an increasing number of French citizens are falling through the mesh of the safety net?


is it possible that immigration has swelled the ranks of those that don’t qualify for the protection of the safety net?


is it both?

This needs to be figured out post haste. France is too great to have so many beggars on the streets of the city of lights.


  1. I remember on my one brief trip to Paris seeing one or more elderly women of, as you said, indeterminate Middle Eastern ethnicity; at least two, now that I think of it, one with a very small child (no dog). I probably saw more (in 1994, this was), but not as closely. More memorable were the women outside sex clubs near the Moulin Rouge who appealed to men to come on in. They were pretty insistent and I had learned a French phrase that meant "Leave me alone," but they ignored that. One, as I walked on, grabbed my shoulder and said, "But I am not feenished!" I said that she was and moved on. Now that I think of it, I remember one night, a rainy evening, walking back to a small hotel in Monte Martre and seeing a man sleeping on the sidewalk as close to a building as he could get, an awning providing some protection. I slipped I forget why kind of franc note into his overcoat pocket and moved on.
    As for Portland, the young street panhandlers here have the dog thing down pat. Well, they have dogs. For some, I think the dog is a prop to induce contributions. For others, the dog is a companion in a hard life. I feel for the dogs forced into it and hope they are decently fed.

  2. I once gave this answer to a "Do you speak English?" pest:

    "Not a god-damned word."

    Her double-take was priceless.

  3. "The bonuses for the bankers must not be set aside."

    What a putz.

    1. If I understand you, you have completely missed my irony.