“From the moment someone starts going to bars in the morning he’s on the road to self-destruction,” Maurice announced. “I have many friends who’ve become drifters and some who’ve even committed suicide, and they all used to frequent bars in the morning.”
It was a hot morning and we were walking down Rue de Seine. Suddenly Maurice stopped and pointed to a narrow street.
“That’s Rue Visconti,” he said. “Lots of people think it’s named after the Italian film director but it actually takes its name from the architect Visconti who designed Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides.”
As we reached the intersection of Rue de Seine and Rue de Buci, packed with people and stalls selling fruit and vegetables, Maurice commented: “Look, isn’t this a marvellous scene that we’re a part of? On the other hand, imagine if you were in a café right now, no doubt leaning against the bar under artificial lighting, you’d have nothing in front of you except the waiter and the boring sight of bottles carefully lined up behind him. Am I right?’
“You are, Maurice,” I replied.
“What a person does in the morning determines his future.” He went on: “Take me, for example. I start work every day in the afternoon, and so I exploit the hours of the morning practicing sport.”
Listening to Maurice and nodding agreement, I noticed for the first time that smoking had ruined his teeth. At that moment I saw Marcello Mastroianni standing at one of the fruit stalls chatting with the young shopkeeper as she handed him a piece of fruit. He blew on it, put it in his mouth and ate it. I had seen the same sight many times.
“Look! It’s Mastroianni,” I said to Maurice. “Come on, let’s go and say hello. I know him personally.”
“Do you really?” He looked at me in amazement.
I made sure I was in front as we approached Mastroianni. “Bonjour, Monsieur,” I said.
“Bonjour, Monsieur,” he smiled back. “Ça va bien?’ he asked.
I nodded to show I was well, and said shyly: “Trés bien, merci Monsieur.”
“Passez une bonne journée!” he said and continued on his way.
A few moments later, back on Rue de Seine we saw film director Marco Ferreri coming out of the Champion supermarket and I greeted him loudly: “Bonjour, Monsieur Ferreri.”
Ferreri stopped for a moment and regarded me silently. Then all of a sudden he smiled as though remembering who I was. “Bonjour, Bonjour!” And continued on his way.
“You know them all,” Maurice said.
“Well, I see them and they see me nearly every day.”
Maurice coughed and spluttered for a few minutes, then said: “It’s quite normal, I suppose. You’re constantly on the streets, and if you live on the streets of Paris for years on end you’ll come face to face even with God himself.”
I had got to know Maurice two years earlier at the Café Au Chai de l’Abbaye. We both drank at the bar and had started chatting to one another. He had heard me talking about movies once and told me he worked as a technician for one of the French television channels.
I told him I dreamed of making movies: “But at the moment I make do with watching them.”
“Have you seen Midnight Cowboy,” he inquired.
“And The Elephant Man?”
“That’s the kind of movie I love,” said Maurice.
“Have you seen Ironweed?” I asked.
“Is that the movie that begins with Jack Nicholson sleeping out in the street on a cold day and meeting his old friend Meryl Streep, who’s also living as a tramp?”
“It’s a very sad film,” said Maurice. He took some gulps of his beer. “Yes, it is a very sad film.”
“I love that type of movie,” I told him.
That day Maurice said he was going out to buy some cigarettes. He insisted on buying some for me, too, and asked what brand I smoked.
“Camel non-filter,” I said.
I was surprised when Maurice came back carrying two packets of Winston. He passed one to me, I took it and said nothing. A few days later we met by coincidence on Pont Neuf. It was afternoon. He pointed out a small garden below on the bank of the Seine.
“I spent my teenage years down there,” he told me. “I used to play my guitar every day under that large tree.” Before we came off the bridge he patted my shoulder and added: “One day I’ll hold a picnic in that very place and invite all my friends and let them hear how I played Sixties music.”
Throughout our meetings over those two years, whenever Maurice went to look for cigarettes he insisted on buying me some too. Each time he asked me the same question: “What brand do you smoke?’
“Camel non-filter,” I would reply, and he used to go off to the tobacconist’s and return a quarter of an hour later and hand me a packet of Winston. The last time this happened, which was about a week ago, I was determined to surprise him.
“I’m going for cigarettes. What brand do you smoke?’ he asked, putting his empty glass on the bar top.
“Winston,” I answered quickly.
He looked at me, quite taken aback: “Have you changed brands?”
The following summer when I came back to Paris after spending a month at the Hamel campsite in Trouville I met Maurice propping up the bar in Le Conti and looking extremely sad.
“Do you know,” he said, “that when you’re away from Paris sad things happen.” He told me about Alain, who sold paintings in the street. “He committed suicide yesterday.”
“He gassed himself,” said the kind-hearted Parisian, who could not know that next summer I would be lying on the grass at the L’Eau Vivre campsite in the village of Mougins, which looks out over the French Riviera, and that the campsite owner would tell me: “You’re in luck, Monsieur. Right now, in the garden of the villa next door, right by your tent, Mr Clint Eastwood is playing golf with a French friend of his.”
That summer afternoon, too, I will feel in need of something to fire my chest and will head down the road leading to the market in search of a bottle of Jack Daniels. And what a surprise it will be when I meet Selina, an Armenian artist and the ex-wife of Maurice. She will tell me she has come to sell her paintings on the sidewalks of the Riviera and will add: “Oh! I forgot to tell you. Maurice has died. We scattered his ashes in the Seine, near Pont Neuf, as he requested.”
Afterwards I will take my Jack Daniels and lie down on the sandy beach until the sun goes down, repeating to myself: “You’re right, Maurice. Sad things do happen when I’m away from Paris.”
That night I stayed in Uncle Salih’s until two o’clock. I drank a lot and ate a nice couscous, and I cried a lot and wrote a poem to my father.
“Bonjour, Jean Valjean, Bonjour, Jean Valjean. He opened his eyes and felt only the pain of a monstrous hangover. The darkness of the early hours of the morning still lingered over the fifth arrondissement of Paris. He glanced at the doors of the Panthéon and saw a tall spectre with a thick beard enter and close the doors behind him. He had been too tired the night before to make his usual journey from Place de Panthéon, down the Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, to Rue des Ecoles, to Rue du Cardinal Lemoine and after onto Quai de la Tournelle and Quai Saint-Bernard to end up at Austerlitz station where he slept most nights. He noticed a police car approaching the Panthéon and was immediately awake and leaning back against the cemetery railings, shuffling through his folder of papers: his pillow. He was fearful of the police as refugees like him were not permitted to sleep on the streets. The policemen glanced at him as they passed by in their car. He thanked the voice that had woken him from his sleep, “Bonjour, Jean Valjean”, and said to himself: “Who else can take pity on the homeless at dawn but the enemy of the police, that giant Victor Hugo?’ That early morning, as the leaves of autumn covered Boulevard Saint-Germain, he saw an empty cigarette packet. He kicked it with the toe of his trainer and the packet began to roll, getting bigger and bigger until it arrived at the Odéon very near the statue of Danton. By then the packet was the same size as the statue. He sliced into the wind with his hand and grabbed hold of an invisible staircase. He climbed to the top and when he opened the huge packet, he found his father asleep inside, smiling.”
Just as I went to look at Shamil’s window, which was still dark, the one next to it lit up. “Dino,” I said to myself. I looked up at the dark sky and hurried to ring Dino’s doorbell.
“Who is it?” came a voice through the entry phone.
“Dino. It’s me, the lost Iraqi,” as he sometimes referred to me.
“Ha ha ha, zzzzzzz.” His laughter fused with the sound of the electric buzzer opening the outside door of the building. Dino, who was originally from Italy, worked as a bouncer at one of the nightclubs in Neuilly-sur-Seine and during the day he performed in some small Paris theatres – comedy sketches that he wrote himself and in which he played the role of clown. The year before he had told me that when he had performed his artistic clown acts at a festival in Krakow he was unexpectedly confronted in his dressing-room after the show by the famous writer Umberto Eco, who congratulated him and expressed admiration for his performance. Umberto Eco told him of his own passion for the art of the clown and said he was preparing a book on the subject based on the works of the film director Federico Fellini who was another person who admired the clown. Dino told me Umberto Eco had expressed a wish that they should meet in the future.
“Did he speak to you in Italian?” I had asked at the time. “Of course. The whole thing was very friendly.”
Dino welcomed me warmly and straight away said: “You can have a wash, if you like.” I told him I had washed that morning in the washroom at Austerlitz station but he looked at me angrily: “You can come to me or Shamil any time.” Then he started to pour a glass of wine. “You know I like you very much.” After a silence: “I’ve come straight from Rome. Do you know who I was with?”
“Umberto Eco,” I replied quickly.
“Exactly! Who told you?”
“I guessed. You told me the story of your encounter in Krakow, don’t you remember?”
“You’ve got a good imagination and strong memory, you know. You don’t need to be on the streets. You don’t deserve all this suffering,” Dino spoke passionately. “Are you hungry?” he asked.
I nodded an affirmative.
“I’ll make you some spaghetti.”
I had got to know Dino during my visits to Shamil, who would knock on Dino’s door whenever he needed an onion or some garlic or bread. Also, if we were having a party we knocked on his door and invited him to join us. As the days passed we became friends. I recalled the first time I had been to Dino’s place. It was in the afternoon and Dino was in the kitchen. “What do you do for a living, Dino?” I watched him take a small tomato. After he had hollowed it out he put it on the end of his nose. “This is what I do,” he had said and smiled.
I devoured my spaghetti quickly. “You still have the same bad manners,” Dino said. “Don’t eat so fast.” After we started talking about the theatre and cinema, about dreams and aspirations, Dino looked at me inquiringly. “You’ve been homeless for a long time,” he said. “I’m sure this must cause you a great deal of suffering. Can you tell me how you deal with your pain?”
“I postpone it,” I answered straight away. “Yes, I always try to postpone my pain to another time.”
“My dear Dino, I discovered at the very beginning that when a man finds himself lying in the street he has no option but to do as Sheherazade did. He must postpone the pain. The homeless guy has to be clever like Sheherazade in the Thousand and One Nights. He recounts his dreams and fantasies to take him away from concrete roads, public park benches, train stations, cold winter winds and his empty stomach, and then he will see the benches become feather beds and the cold winds blowing around him become warm and comforting.” I looked at Dino. “And you, dear Dino? How do you deal with pain?” I asked.
“Pain is what drives a man to be a clown,” he said softly.
Dino started making up a clean bed for me in the sitting-room. I watched him arrange the sheets and put on a new floral pillow-case. As I came out of the bathroom in the morning I found him waiting for me holding a wallet in his hand, like a mother getting her child ready to go to school. He had made me a sandwich and handed me fifty francs, a few metro tickets and up to thirty-three francs worth of food vouchers. When Dino saw me looking at the postcards hanging on the wall of the hallway, among which were a number I had sent him from the various cities I had visited, he laughed. “You know,” he said, “François Mitterand sends postcards to his old friends from wherever he travels. He has kept up the habit since he was young.” Then, just as I was leaving the apartment, he said: “You see, there is something in common between someone living in the street and the President of France!”