The thing about Paris, despite how many times you had been there and had gone back to each arrondissement still had the effect of feeling new. One could return to their familiar surroundings, but it was impossible to have noticed every brasserie, boulangerie and boutique which seemed to blend together on many identical-looking streets. You were always stumbling across something you hadn’t seen before and in this way the city never felt boring or tired. One small annoyance, which did in fact make many cities feel tiresome or boring, was the constant problem of the homeless people wandering the streets. The vast majority were probably certifiably crazy, or at least fell to the extreme poles of the spectrum for normalcy.
“Sometimes, I can’t tell if they’re a beggar or a real person,” said Julie’s mom, as a woman draped in ragged, ill-fitting clothing, who is obviously one, approaches them. She shoves a plastic cup under their noses and mumbles something about a petite pièce. Refusing to make eye contact with her and acting as if she were invisible, a nothing, was the most effective way to get rid of them. After lingering for a few more seconds, shooting them more pathetic glances, she sets her sights to other tourists and travelers nearby in hopes of them taking momentary pity on her.
Along with her collection piece, she is holding a bundle of swaddled cloth in her arms, arranged to resemble an infant The face of the bundle is not visible and the thing is completely still, which leads Julie and her family to believe that it is only her prop, used to further her pathos as a pitiable woman. Julie’s mother turns to face the other direction, as if simply not looking would eliminate the problem, which it probably did for most people.
“I don’t like to see these things,” she says, but turning around there was no escape. Not far away, on the other side of the train station, they see a woman with similarly sloppy clothing carrying about half a dozen stuffed shopping bags, another tell-tale sign of the homeless, but they are wrong. At first glance she does look like a beggar, but the nice baby carriage she is pushing gives her away as a “real” person.
“I got attacked by one of them,” says Owen to the group, as this topic comes up, as they are enjoying drinks and dinner.
“You have to tell them about el diablo,” says Antoine, and Owen is left with no choice but to recount the story. He begins to regale the group with the tale of how he came to be feared and revered by a local gang of the Parisian homeless.
The tale of el diablo
Owen commences the story and the atmosphere of the evening subtly shifts. The full attention of everyone is now focused on him, as he is about to divulge his enthralling tale.
“So, I’m walking home one night, and one of the homeless guys starts yelling at me from the little camp that he and some of his friends had set up. Never leaving their familiar place, there were a few of them who I always saw around the front of a grocery store, sitting on a pile of blankets along with a dog or two. I was drunk and must have yelled something back at them, and as I was continuing home, I realized one of them was following me.”
“I start to walk faster to try to get away from him, but he keeps picking up his pace, and then, he was standing right in front of me with a knife demanding that I take out my wallet,”
“Before I knew what was happening, I realized that I had punched the guy square in the face, and I heard him hit the pavement with a hard smack. One of his friends was coming up from behind so I couldn’t stop to see if he was okay; I just kept running around the corner to a restaurant where I knew the waitress and began pounding on the window.”
“She looked scared and like she didn’t want anything to do with me, but I was somehow able to communicate to her what was happening through the glass with gestures, and she let me in.” He pauses
“I was depressed for weeks; I really don’t like punching people. I thought I might have killed the guy. He was older, obviously not in good shape, and the sound he made hitting the pavement made me think the worst. Each day I was checking the obituaries for descriptions of homeless guys in the area and whenever I saw one of them collecting change or sitting with a sign reading J’ai faim, I’d give a coin and ask about him, but I couldn’t find out anything.”
“Then one day, a few months later, I saw him. He was peering out at me from behind a dumpster with a dirty blanket wrapped around him; it was as if he were hiding from me. I didn’t think it possible at the time, but it seemed as if he were afraid of me,” Owen says, looking completely harmless as he sips his wine with a plate of salad in front of him. It seemed unthinkable that he could have punched anyone, but in those situations survival instincts just took over. He wasn’t telling the story to impress or to paint himself as tough, but merely because he found it such a completely puzzling series of events.
“Then right before he turned around, he said something to me in Spanish. He just stared at me coldly and muttered: el diablo.”
“Soon the story must have gotten around, as they were all calling, el diablo, el diablo, to me whenever I passed through. They were always careful to speak to me from a distance though, perhaps for fear of another confrontation.”