There are all manner of people pandering for money on the trains of Paris. They work the rails as desperate and street bound as pigeons who hustle the parks for food. If you live in a place long enough, you know the recurring characters.
In Brooklyn, each train carries a different repertoire of many varieties. There’s the kid saving up for a basketball jersey, the candy man just trying to stay out of trouble, the break dancing brothers, the Mariachi singers, the man with the Asian harp, the unwanted sermon from the Jesus freak, the hunchback crack-head bent over a shopping cart singing Otis Retting, the slurring homeless man willing to settle for a sandwich, or the toothless junkie with the same unbelievable sad story month after month “ I’m pregnant, I lost my job, my house burned down, I was robbed, I’m hungry.”
Some people are for real, some aren’t. Some are fine musicians; some just have microphones and amps on wheels, and mumble through bad Karaoke. Whatever the case, if they’re not trust fund kids posing as hippie road people with starving dogs, or aspiring musicians doing it for the experience and the thrill, they are more often than not, people in trouble who have no other choice.
The reasoning of why we decide to give money to one person and not another often seems random, having less to do with how talented or destitute the person is, but more with the inner psychology of the particular moment we’re in as we sit there.
Most of us can’t afford to give to everyone, but once in a while, no matter how down on our luck, we can certainly give to someone. Only time will tell if one day we might not be beggars ourselves. Should we feel guilty then when we don’t give? Should we be outraged when someone is obviously just hustling? If we are listening at all, these are thoughts that may occur each time the paper cup or tattered hat is passed.
Until the one armed man playing the flute walks by, holding his money pouch with the same hand, and having to stop playing every time somebody gives him a coin—BECAUSE HE ONLY HAS ONE HAND— and then you think, “okay I’m broke, but Jesus, I’m going to Hell if I don’t give this poor guy something.”
Like the beauty and colors of the buildings, Paris breeds a striking but less than boundless variety. The musicians in the Metros here are almost exclusively accordion players, joined by the occasional saxophone, hammer harp, or brass horn, all playing the same few songs. In the square below my apartment, an accordion player does the same continuous rendition of “Strangers in the Night.” “They’re not strangers anymore!” my roommate and I desperately joke, as he strikes up the tune again—the same man playing the same song all day, every day and every night.
In the connecting tunnels between trains, it is most often a familiar repertoire of French classics that echo through the passageways and stairwells, but there is also a bizarre homage to American music, an America from the 80’s that is, or years further ago still. Rushing with the stream to the next platform, some man can undoubtedly be heard playing a song like, “Lady in Red,” “Autumn Leaves,” Sinatra’s “My Way,” or George Michael’s “I don’t Ever Wanna Dance Again.”
In the way that Venice does its best to keep every shop front overflowing with pasta, every bridge peopled with busty opera singers and gondoliers in striped shirts, street musicians in Paris uphold the same dream of being here. They provide the seemingly spontaneous soundtrack of what tourists have come here for.
People go to New York for all the noise and excitement and perhaps the possibility of becoming someone; they go to Paris to be entrenched in beauty and taste the romantic life. The façade of the fantasy is real, but like anywhere else, the strings behind it are much more illusive. The hills of Monmartre are indeed resounding with violins, accordions, and harmonicas, all cranking out familiar tunes of Edith Piaf and songs from Amelie.
So the question is, do we owe them something for completing the dream? Do we pay them only when they’re good musicians or play music that we like? Do we do it for compassion, or for the sake of the romantic life? Is it shame or nobility that belongs to the maddening hustle of being toothless, smiling, and broke, knowing that one in a crowd might give you a centime, as you caricaturize yourself or give a true performance, playing the same songs day in and day out. As kitschy or played out as it may be, the music does often augment the moments as we wander through town.
There are a million reasons why people play and beg in the streets or on the train, there are a million reasons we may or may not give them money. But occasionally there is someone who does it for their own sake, to sing a song, no matter who is listening…. whether they are given something for it or not…
The African man began singing on the last train. He sat ceremoniously, in a long colored dress and bare sandaled feet, a man out of time with the winter of the old world. Clusters of black coats and pale skin huddled around him, a person dislocated from a place we must imagine, calling out with the shrill windpipes of secret creatures lost inside, like a tropical bird suddenly released from the forest.
He balanced himself on the edge of the bench and turned towards the others in the back, feet spread apart and hands in motion, playing a drum that wasn’t there, smiling with the creases of words in another language.
His hat was just a small unbrimmed shape attached to his head like a bottle cap, his long tunic and loose pants patterned with colors that could light the way through the dark. On this late night train full of grey fading people, the African man was a vibrant sight, one we see copies of in our travels through town.
The singer’s companion was dressed in the same exotic uniform, but carried an alligator briefcase and wore snakeskin boots and a leather jacket. Clearly this was the man’s protector, sheathing himself in the language of the West. The Africans of Paris come in pure form, having strayed only so far from the lands of their origins. They speak a collage of red velvet patois, skin impenetrable black, eyes deep and yellow at the edges.
As he continued to sing, the other passengers looked on or turned away. The woman across from him buried herself in a newspaper, the drole look of French disdain stamped on her face for eternity. The man in the trench coat coughed and straightened his collar.
It was only the young couple by the door who chimed in with his singing, drunk and in love—the sorts that continue dancing long after everyone else has left, ridiculously so, to music only they can hear. They clapped and stomped their feet with him. They fell upon each other trying to keep up. And when the song was over they gave the man a few coins.
It was then that it occurred to the quiet stranger sitting in the corner, that perhaps the man hadn’t suddenly burst into spontaneous song. He wasn’t singing because the night was over, or to pass the time. It wasn’t because he was happy, or hungry, or alone.
Or perhaps the white lovers had only misunderstood. Theirs’ was a world where it wasn’t enough to be strangers that suddenly turn friendly for a train ride…to bridge a long gap between two very different kinds. The coins broke that alliance, but left everyone happy.
The train shuttled on into the night, picking up passengers from every direction. Some stood in the shadows leaning against poles, others sat in the light, dazed by the sudden glimpse of their own reflections in the dark windows.
As the doors opened and closed to empty platforms, and late-night riders nodded off with fatigue, the last train car lit up with music, bright and incomprehensible, the final throbbing part of a blind glowworm’s tail.
Photo: The Stranger Music Blog