Silver bells and sand “wishes” – part one

Nov ’07

I could never have imagined that with four shopping weeks remaining until Christmas, I could breeze into down town Paris so easily.  Bing Crosby was Ring-a-ling-ing in my head, I had diligently respected speed limits, obediently stopped for all red lights, even the amber ones too….and yet, here I was.  No traffic. 

It was even more surprising considering it was the first day after nine days of public transport strikes had grid locked the city streets of the French capital.  Add to that, only four Saturdays remaining for the mad shoppers with the last minute panic to spend money.  Theoretically, traffic should have had my stress levels readable on the Richter scale.  I was feeling positively energetic and uplifted. 

Life felt pretty good, even great,  as I left home that morning with my one mission for the day, to be one of those mad shoppers, only I belonged in the category of « extra clever ». Yes, I would be ahead of the game and get in a week or two before the insanity hit, avoiding the crush that will come as the weeks countdown. 

The sun was beaming, the sky was pristine. A thick white frost stuck to everything it touched.  It felt great to be tucked in a warm coat, planning that if I managed my time with great efficiency,  I might be able to sit and indulge in the warmth of a large milky latte once my mission was over, before I returned home to take my shift of ankle biter duty.

Under the tunnel at La Defense and the indicator was telling me it was a record-breaking four-minute delay from my spot on the A14 until I reached the périphérique.  You can’t even manage it that quickly in summer when Parisians vacate the city on their annual pilgrimage to the southern beaches. My upbeat attitude was turning into euphoria! 

In no time at all, I had traversed Place de la Concorde, zipped past Madeleine, along Boulevard des Cappucines, turned a left and a right and all set to emerge from the public parking under Drouot. Up the stairs and out the door.

Then I came across her. 

Her eyes rose, then they dipped, trailing away after the shoes that walked by. Her image, sitting there, huddled, in want and need. A dirty little hat, grubby and much used, hoping for a coin to land in the bottom.  Her face downcast, her eyes seeking distraction in the cracks of the concrete that kept her cold.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from her vision, watching as her eyes gently lifted, just enough to watch a new set of knees walk toward.  Again the sound of nothing, and again, her gaze descended to the backs of heels as she listened to them walking away. Deflated, it was nearly possible to feel the  heaviness that filled her chest. It was impossible not to witness the disappointment as her eyes followed those ankles away.

 I tried to avoid looking, shamefully.    I had something to do, a mission, time was short, I needed to hurry. 

Yet, every minute I worked on achieving what I set out to, there in my mind, I could see the photographic imprint of her image, the memory of those eyes as they sank,  following the back of an empty shadow as it moved on.

In the space of a couple of minutes, she was the fourth sans abri I’d encountered trying to wrap up against the ill November chill that filled the streets.  Two of them slept, or so they seemed, laying on bubble wrap in the stairs of the Drouot parking, their faces tucked away from the startled, peering eyes of those who headed up to street level.

Leaving the car park, sat another, an elderly gentleman,  with his sign « S’il vous plait, J’ai faim ».  Huddled and balancing on two small piles of his worldly possessions.  He too watched as many headed in and out, passing him by, his wanton wish for just a few pennies. 

Yet, she left the biggest impact.  Watching her eyes move as they did and feeling her heart as it sank, I was filled with the deepest sadness, an emptiness at being limited in ability to do more.  She was someone’s daughter, perhaps a sister, possibly even a mother and yet, here she was.  Her next meal depending on the coins that were tossed into her hat, and the scraps that were tossed into the garbage.  Her next night of sleep like the last, cold, alone and sheltering in a dark corner exposed to the elements.

The contradiction and the sadness of it all. 

The loneliness contrasting the time to be surrounded by family, the warmth of love against the cold of the lonely night she had spent the evening before, the thought of the gorging and the waste, to that of her battle for continued survival.  It lingered, haunting me in what I was doing.

With the time to spare I had so hoped for, just thinking of that latte, curdled imaginary milk in my stomach. 

After all, here I was, my car in the garage of the elite of elite auction houses in this chic European city,  and there sitting opposite two of the world’s billion dollar fast food suppliers, were hungry, homeless people. The appeal of that coffee was lost, replaced with individual bags of sandwiches and muffins for four.  If only those bags could do more and make wishes come true.

Laden, I approached her. Her eyes sensed someone walking directly toward her, and she lifted her head.  Her face collected the warmth from the sun and her eyes met mine.  She smiled radiantly as she held tightly to the tiny dog hidden tucked under her arm keeping her company.  There was so much beauty and warmth in her smile, a gentleness that ran deep through the lines creased into her face.

The same could be said of the elderly man around the corner.  As he beamed his smile, the gaps where once he had teeth, were like shadows of the spaces in his life. Every black space representing chapters of love and loss, each with its’ own story buried deep in his heart.  He too, lifted his gaze enough to feel the warmth of sunshine, a moment of reprise from the cold and grey that resonated off the footpath.

 I didn’t get to see the faces of the two men sleeping in the garage, they remain a mystery.  They were still horizontal, their faces tucked away from passersby and hidden under their coats, sleeping, or so I thought.  But, then I heard them.  I guess I hadn’t been quiet enough, trying gently to lay  the bags beside them.  As I descended to the lower level of stairs, there was a rustle of paper. Engulfed by a feeling of warmth that they might eat today, I continued down the stairs.

Driving out of the garage, I passed him.  I waved as he sat eating his sandwich.  He smiled, waving back, his eyes indicating that despite those so few minutes having passed, he had no recollection of who I was, just a stranger driving away, leaving in my wake the sounds of ‘children laughing, people passing’ , the empty heels that tap back and forth,

…..…..it’s Christmas time in the city.

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