When I first met Samir, he was washing the windows of the small tailor shop on Avenue de Versailles around the corner from our apartment. He was going about his work happily, but when he noticed me walking by, he put down his squeegee, came over and shook my hand, greeting me with a broad smile.
He was wearing new jeans, blue deck shoes and a red jacket. His long dread lock extensions were pulled together in the back in a loose pony tail, and although his attire was “clean and decent” as my mother would say, my New Yorker street instincts shot up a wall of caution. Despite his neat appearance, he looked like a panhandler and was too friendly to strangers. But it’s difficult to refuse an outstretched hand. I returned his “Bon-Jour,” and he returned to his work. Several weeks went by before I realized that Samir was, in fact, my neighbor.
Autolib is a company that used to rent electric cars in Paris. Their charging stations are still scattered around the city. A few of these locations have small, glass-sided Quonset huts that contain terminals where customers registered with their service.
Unlike most Parisian street furniture, these structures are ugly and intrusive. The glass sides are filthy and the aluminum roofs that arch to the ground are invariably covered in grime and bird droppings. Samir lives in one of these huts on the next block over from us. It has been his residence for over 4 years.
Samir fascinates me. I try not to intrude on his privacy but can’t help but look into his dwelling when he is not there. The 6 ft by 8 ft place is always tidy. On either end there is a small counter and he has various domestic items on top of and next to these structures. Leaning in the corner is a mop, broom and bucket. There is also a small plastic bottle of cleaning detergent and a container of air freshener.
Sometimes on the counter there are magazines propped up against the side. Recently I saw a glossy magazine in Arabic and a travel magazine in French. Usually, there are several sealed packages of dates stacked neatly and a small basket with unpackaged dates.
Wedged between the glass wall and the counter are large flattened cardboard boxes that he sleeps on at night. In the winter, Samir assembles a series of small boxes that can hold his weight and then places the larger flat cardboard on top of them so that he is lifted off the ground. He warms himself with a sleeping bag and two thick blankets and has rigged a small space heater to the electricity in the hut.
If I pass by during the day, he is often sitting on the floor, his back propped against the glass wall, his legs outstretched, reading from the Koran that he holds in his hands. Other times, he is prostrate on a small rug. Sometimes he chants prayers out loud.
When I moved from St. Louis to New York fifty years ago I remember the shock of seeing someone sleeping in a doorway or panhandling at a subway entrance. I’m ashamed to think of how quickly I accepted this as normal until the day came when I no longer even noticed these people. In this respect, Parisians are different. In my neighborhood at least, the neighbors are generally kind to the homeless. Everyone in the quarter is familiar with the regulars, and surprisingly, to this New Yorker at least, they often stop to chat.
Samir is well known in the neighborhood and more than tolerated. At the end of the work day, he often stands in his doorway greeting people as they pass, usually shaking the men’s hands. It is not unusual to see a well-dressed man on his way home from the office standing and chatting with him. He offers them dates from the basket on the shelf. He will offer you one too, if you happen to walk by.
Samir doesn’t panhandle. I have no idea how he supports himself, but I don’t think you would call him a clochard. My friend Victoria once offered him food and he said, “No, thank you.” Fifty yards down from his place is the neighborhood supermarket Carrefour, and on occasion I have seen him helping someone home from there with their groceries. I have also observed him walking behind a woman who is pushing a baby carriage. He is holding a small child’s hand as he escorts the family to their apartment building. Perhaps these people pay him for his assistance.
Samir shops for cashews and dates in Carrefour and at times stands at the entrance and hands out dates to the customers as they enter or leave. Once I witnessed two young boys wave him over to the window as he walked by on the sidewalk outside. They pressed several trading cards of football players to the glass and he examined them with obvious pleasure. He exchanged delighted smiles with the boys, waved and was on his way.
On the corner beyond the supermarket is a public toilet, one of many that were installed in Paris to replace the pissoirs. The concrete shell contains hidden machinery, illuminated status buttons and a door that automatically slides open and shut. Inside are a small stainless-steel sink and toilet with no obvious way to flush or drain the bowl. If you use it, you have to trust that the engineers have achieved the basic sanitary requirements of emptying a toilet bowl in some innovative way. When you exit, the door shuts, and a mysterious cleaning cycle with audible swishing and sloshing sounds takes place until a green light signals that the toilette is again ready for use.
Most mornings Samir walks with a towel draped over his arm down the street to the corner for his morning ablutions.
I don’t know his real name and have never said more than “Bon-jour” to him, but whenever he sees me, he flashes a big smile and walks over to shake hands. He has crossed streets through traffic to greet me and to offer me falafel or dates if he is returning from the ethnic markets on the other side of the Seine in the 15th arrondissement.
In warm weather, he stands on the Pont Mirabeau tossing pieces of falafel into the air for the sea gulls to catch. He derives particular delight in throwing the bread as high as possible so the birds snatch it at eye level. He laughs heartily when they do.
Last summer, I passed his house and noticed that the glass on the front had been shattered and lay in tiny shards on the sidewalk. The next time I went by, the broken glass had been removed and a large nylon construction cloth had been hung up to cover the opening where the window was missing. I can easily imagine a neighbor helping him to do that. As winter approached, sundry pieces of cardboard and insulation were added to the makeshift barrier. The overall effect was shabby but practical. Nevertheless, the inside was clean and tidy as usual.
Inexplicably as time has passed, Samir seems to have grown smaller and younger. He moves with a lighter gait although he never was slow or halting. He has taken to wearing a Red & White Keffiyeh and walking with a tall cane like an Arab shepherd. His jeans are always clean, and he wears them with three-inch cuffs above his blue dockers. The smiles, “Bon-jour’s,” “As Salam Alaykom’s” and handshakes continue unabated.
In December I was passing his home and was horrified to see workmen wearing hardhats demolishing it with jackhammers. Autolib has been out of business for a while, and I could imagine some neighbors in this bourgeois quarter being unhappy with the eyesore the Quonset hut had become. But still. As I passed, the workers were removing the last bits of metal and glass and preparing the ground to be paved over. Several neighbors walked by casting worried glances at the work site.
What had become of Samir? Anything that I could conjure up about his wear-a-bouts filled me with dread for this smiling, happy man. Had he been taken away to a shelter? Shipped off to a camp somewhere? Deported? Perhaps he has moved into the small colony of homeless people that has set up camp under the Pont Grenelle.
I am happy to report that Samir has reappeared on the streets. However, now as this urban nomad walks about with his shepherd’s staff, he carries several large nylon shopping bags which contain, I assume, his most important possessions. I wonder what he had been able to take with him before the workers began their demolition. What were his valuables and essentials?
In May, I saw him sitting on his usual bench overlooking the Seine. He is wearing his Keffiyeh, red jacket and blue shoes. Several bags are at his feet and his staff is leaning on the bench next to him. He is chanting something from the Koran, peaceful as ever. I want to ask him where he lives now and how he is doing, but my poor French can’t navigate such a conversation with this complete stranger.
I start across the Pont Mirabeau, but stop and turn to regard this extraordinary man, sitting quietly with his head bowed over his holy book. And I’m glad that his calm, prayerful presence continues to bless the quarter.