RIVERSIDE — At the time it seemed a form of courtesy, to let the homeless have their bridges and their benches, even to contribute a little money for their thirst. Otherwise they were left alone, as independent spirits. But they were also left to die, to perish with the same indifference that sustained them.
During the summer solstice, this longest day of the year, the sun rises while the city is still dormant. But one long ago longest day I found dreaming difficult, so I walked around Paris streets at 4 a.m. The street-sweepers with their tattered brooms were out, as were the garbage collectors and those who clean the gutters by laying down heavy rags next to street faucets to guide the stream first in one direction and then another.
While all this was going on, a few remaining ladies of the night leaned against facades, making themselves conspicuous as they waited for possible last minute transactions. Their clothing and their paint revealed too much; what might have fascinated a man at midnight now looked grotesque in the streaks of dawn.
Along an alley on my route an elderly woman was feeding all those unwanted, mangy city cats. She talked in loving tones to them, and for the time they were her household pets, competing for the attention of their mistress, rubbing up against her legs.
About that time the cafes opened their doors. The Algerian streetsweepers and gutter washers gathered for a drink of some brightly colored liqueur, yellow or green. And I walked into their cafe for a coffee and croissant. After another round, the workers went back to their work while I remained to drink another coffee and watch another clientele emerge, other kinds of laborers taking conversation with their friends for breakfast, before they went to work.
Around six or seven, most mornings, I would head back to a Left Bank apartment to begin my studies for the day. But this one particular June morning something happened. Crossing over from the Ile St. Louis on the new bridge connecting to the Ile de la Cite, I found police had gathered at my favorite viewing spot downriver. I asked what they were doing and was told it was nothing to concern myself about. But I continued to watch all the same, as they began to drag the river next to a place along the Seine where I often sat. Two police divers went down together and came up with a stiffened body, his arms emerging before his head, arms stretched out like a diver's, only going in the opposite direction. He was the first dead man I had ever seen, and when I saw his face, I discovered that I knew him.
It had been a melancholic summer, that summer of '75, so I had taken to reading Henry James' "The Ambassadors" in the late afternoons and early evenings, sitting on a particular bench on the port side of the Ile St. Louis, below street level and just above the Seine.
Watching the barge traffic proved a distracting comfort. Those barges were also their pilots' homes, with families, pets and autos piled on the barges too. On sunny afternoons laundry would be hung to dry; in the evenings I could smell the aroma of old-fashioned French cooking, rich in sauces and cream.
There were water fowl on the river, with the current still strong from the spring and winter rains. I used to look out for a mother and her brood of little ducklings, as she guided them from one ile to another. Occasionally a duckling would begin to slip downstream; the mother would paddle to the rescue, quacking all the way. This particular brood of ducks had taken up residence at the ivy-covered end of the Ile de la Cite, behind Notre Dame cathedral and at the spit of land, now a memorial, where the Jews had been shipped off to the death camps in World War II. Such a place as this had finally found some room for kindness and for refuge.
One moody day I came away from my distractions to discover a clochard sitting on the bench beside me, nursing wine. It is said that in earlier days the Parisian homeless person, or clochard , was just an independent soul who preferred his life outdoors. Now most of these street people are city alcoholics with nothing but old clothes to wear, bridges to sleep under and a thirst that is unquenchable.
This particular clochard struck up a conversation, asking why I was so quiet. No, he wasn't beginning his pitch for contributions, since his bottle was still fairly full. Rather, he wanted to talk, to enjoy the summer evening air and a civil mood. When I didn't at first reply, he did the next best thing and offered me a drink.