Gare de L'Est, Paris
On the right of the picture and further into the background is an old man with crutches. If you look closely, you can see that he has only one leg. There’s a Burger King on this corner, and, just a few minutes before this picture was taken, the old man was standing at the door, looking disheveled and heartbreaking and hungry. I saw him, and immediately felt a sharp sense of guilt. He didn’t ask me, but I dug a euro out of my jeans pocket and handed it to him. As soon as I did, the two kids pictured started asking me for money, hoping for a few extra coins. It’s common knowledge that not all panhandlers are innocent, and that children are often placed in key spots throughout Paris in order to play upon the sympathetic response mechanism of the average tourist. I am sometimes, to be brutally frank, entirely unsympathetic when I see some beggars, their style of panhandling rooted in cloying, falsely beseeching tones, frequently employing the use of strong, hard eye contact with passerby, a sticky engagement strategy used to bait and snare, often accompanied by very young children or animals. Not everyone uses this hard edged strategy….many people who are in the worst situations just sit, wordlessly, with an empty, dull and hopeless stare, allowing people to pass by without the discomfort of open engagement. At least, I feel uncomfortable–I don’t know how others feel.
After I gave the old man a euro, a Burger King employee opened the door and handed over a bag of food and a bottled drink of some kind. The man took what was given to him and stepped away from the doorway, and stood near these two teenagers, and immediately started hurling abusive French at the girl. I was dumbfounded, mostly at myself for having displayed such a superficial and prejudiced assumption, rewarding what seemed on the surface to be passive acceptance of homeless poverty, but was in reality a mask in place only for the time required to wait for a free meal.
He drank some of whatever was in the plastic beverage container the Burger King employee handed him, and then poured the rest down the steps of the nearby entrance to the metro. He then immediately bounced the empty container off the girl’s head, hurling it with all of his might. It didn’t hurt her, but it was terribly embarrassing, and she reacted with a numb acceptance of this abusive behavior. He continued to throw his napkins at her, and kick at her, and call her names in French loudly and vehemently. She sat, and silently watched him, and although she didn’t know how to handle the situation and was upset by it, it was obvious to me that other similar occurrences had left her with a resigned demeanor usually encountered in someone far older.