There was a torn piece of brown corrugated cardboard propped up, clearly intended to be seen. I couldn’t read what was on it, but I was pretty sure what would be there: a short plea for help scrawled with a faltering ballpoint pen in pathetic spidery writing, the message ending “SVP.”
S’il vous plaît.
Please help this man sitting in his makeshift home. Please help this man in his castle constructed from cardboard, wide stackable trays that are usually employed to transport food into stores, and weatherproofed with trash bags and old plastic sheets. Please help this man, sitting upright and wrapped in a blanket.
Please help this man, begging outside an apartment block on a residential street in Paris.
Please help this man, begging at night when every other beggar has left the streets.
Please help this man, sitting in the constant low-level drizzling rain. The constant drizzle that seemed to have been falling without pause since I woke up at 6 AM.
I looked closer. Beggars were a common sight on Paris streets. They usually chose to beg on the busy walkways, placing themselves so that you had to walk around them, or outside a store to highlight the contrast with your spending. Often they had an animal—usually a dog, but sometimes a cat—and occasionally when you saw them trying to sleep at night, you would see a child, maybe seven or eight years old, next to them.
Paris, the City of Light.
Paris, the center of the enlightenment.
Looking toward the homeless guy made me aware that there was more cash in my pocket than I was comfortable carrying. Usually, I wouldn’t carry more than I was happy to lose—maybe 100 or 200 euros. I wouldn’t want to lose that much, but if I did, it wouldn’t be anything that I would remember after the second drink.
But now, I had at least 4,000 euros. It had started as 5,000 euros—ten bills of €500—but I had paid a few people, bought a few drinks, and offered some thanks. And, of course, I left 200 euros to cover the window. I wasn’t sure how much I had paid in total—it wasn’t that I needed to keep receipts—but since I’d broken two bills into smaller denominations, I knew I still had at least 4,000 euros, and now I was becoming aware of the risk of carrying that much cash.
The beggar’s home was set against the outside wall of the apartment complex. A brutal, white, 1950s modernist concrete block, surrounded by a low white concrete wall with its concrete having been formed into geometric patterns. The low wall was then topped with a steel bar fence with triangular spikes running along the top at about eight feet high. In the dark and the rain, modernist Paris of the 1950s now had the feel of a totalitarian regime offering featureless housing to cheerful workers.
I didn’t like the block—this was partly a personal preference that villages should be horizontal, not vertical, and partly a dislike of central planning—but that was my taste. And my taste had nothing to do with the question rattling around my head: How does a nineteen-year-old afford to live here?
This was Belleville. It was kind of downtrodden, but definitely not the worst part of Paris. Precisely where it lay on the socioeconomic spectrum was irrelevant—the fact remained, renting an apartment in Belleville would cost money, more than the average teenager could afford. Especially if the teenager was still in college, as this guy was.
If you gave me some sob story and said a kid was housed out in the banilieue—the sprawling human warehousing estates outside the city—then I might be able to accept that a teen could have an apartment. But here? In Belleville?
And why Belleville? Maybe he was a fan of Chinese food—I had passed a lot of Chinese restaurants as I walked up the hill. But to me, Belleville has always been the sort of place that people leave, and leave fast. Edith Piaf was famous for leaving and then regretting nothing. She only permanently returned to the 20th arrondissement to be buried. She didn’t even return to die; someone had to take her dead body there to make her return.
I lost sight of the beggar as I turned the corner, following the side return of the caged compound. I was sure that the guy was making a call—or at least sure that he pulled out a phone.
I wasn’t used to the idea of beggars having phones. I understood the necessity: If you’re going to function in any way as a part of mainstream society, then you need to communicate. If you’re going to apply for a job, then you need to be contactable. So I get that beggars have phones.
But phones need to be charged.
Most people charge their phones while they sleep. Or rather, I charge my phone while I sleep, and most people I know do similar, so I presume this is not wildly outrageous behavior. But if you’re a beggar on the street at midnight, then when do you charge your phone? Shouldn’t you be back at a hostel, or whatever, having a wash, getting some warm food, and letting your phone charge?
Around the corner, the brutal white frontage of the block gave way to an irregular surface. It was still flat, but sections came out to a different depth, giving some form of privacy between the apartments, and the windows were supplemented by narrow balconies, suggesting that the inhabitants of these hutches might be able to stand in the fresh air without leaving home.
Where the wall at the front was knee-height with the steel fence on top, this section of the wall was above my head and stepped higher still. As the wall got higher, the steel fence remained at its same height until wall reached the height of the fence, when the fence stopped. Set into the wall under the highest section were windows with security bars fashioned from the same bars that made the fence. The lights behind the windows were off, removing any hint as to what happened inside.
After about thirty yards, there was the entrance to what was probably an underground parking lot. I paused—pondering—it was one way I could get in. But then I’d have to work my way through to the kid’s apartment. And I didn’t want to be in an enclosed space where I’d never been before.
Plus, there were easier ways to get in.
I could hang around near the front gate—which offered access to those who knew the code—and follow through when someone arrived or left.
Or simplest of all, I could climb the wall. There was a brown metal box—sturdy and locked—against the side wall. It had a utility company look about it: Maybe it was owned by the electricity company, maybe it belonged to the phone company. Whatever the case, it was a four-foot platform from which I could use the steel fence to pull myself up onto the wall and jump over.
I landed softly in a kids’ playground in the corner of the compound.
Immediately it felt different. Warmer. Enclosed. And yet somehow sterile. I checked the time—three minutes past midnight. That meant I’d been awake for eighteen hours and three minutes, and on the move for all of those eighteen hours and three minutes, except for the time it took me to shave and throw on some clothes: the jeans I wore yesterday, a clean shirt, a pair of sneakers, and my leather jacket.
But now the day was coming to an end. I had finally arrived at the home of Pierre-Louis Dubois. Now it was simple: Get inside the block, find the right apartment, knock on the door, when the guy answered check that he was indeed Pierre-Louis Dubois, and leave.
With the knowledge of where the kid was, I could report back to Tolomush Okeyev, the diplomat who had hired me, tomorrow morning.
I looked around—the compound was empty. A few lights still blazed from apartment windows, and a few indistinct sounds echoed. I was aware of heavier breathing—my breathing—from the exertion of walking briskly up the hill and then vaulting over the wall. I took a few deep breaths, waiting for my heart to slow, then started following the path around the blocks.
The entrance to the block—like the front gate, which I had chosen to ignore—required an access code to be entered into the keypad placed to the right of the aluminum-framed glass door.
As I contemplated whether to kick the glass or look for another access—perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the parking lot—I heard footsteps. A couple, maybe in their twenties—her younger than him. I ducked into the shadows across from the door and waited. The man looked hard at the keypad and slowly tapped four digits. There was a metallic click, and he reached across to open the door, following the woman.
I counted to three, listening as the stay of the closing door squealed, then ran forward, grabbing the door before it finally closed. The woman turned back. Her face, framed in dirty blond, frizzy hair, showed a look of shock, maybe agitation.
“Evening,” I said. I was just another resident, right? I wasn’t a threat. She smiled nervously as the man said, “Hi.” He had the sound of someone trying to sound confident. The movement of his eyes as they searched around the white-walled lobby—desperately looking for a way out—gave him away. The two showed the discomforted body language of two people who didn’t want to be together. Two people who would probably start arguing the moment their front door closed. Two people embarrassed to be seen in this way, resenting the stranger who was intruding into their argument, which was brewing like a storm on the horizon.
The elevator pinged. Her face involuntarily twitched. I smiled, “It’s alright. I’m taking the stairs—it’s only one floor.” Her whole body seemed to relax in her overly large green jacket.
And it was half true: I was going to use the stairs, but I didn’t know how many floors it was. The truth was I didn’t want to be stuck in a steel cage, if only for a few moments, with a couple who seemed to be embarrassed to be seen in public. But more importantly, I didn’t want these two to remember me as the guy who didn’t know where he was going.
I turned into the stairs, walking slowly until the elevator doors closed, when I stopped. As I heard the elevator start to move, I returned to the lobby and watched the floor count—looking for where the couple got out. Looking for the floor I should avoid if I could, if I wanted the small lie I had just told to hold up.
The count stopped at the fourth floor. I waited, watching. It didn’t start again.
I took the stairs up to the first floor and cautiously stepped into the corridor outside the apartments. Like the lobby, the plaster walls had been covered in white emulsion, but the cement-colored tiles of the lobby floor had been replaced by a thin piece of cement colored carpet. Unlike the lobby, facing onto the corridor were doors—all painted with white gloss paint, the only personalization the numbering on the door. Some numbers were steel, some acrylic, some looked like a kid’s design, and others seemed to be carved slate.
I checked the U-shaped corridor from one end to the other. Six front doors, one garbage chute, and several panels covering the pipes and cables for the services.
None of the front doors belonged to Pierre-Louis Dubois.
The second floor mirrored the first. The only noticeable differences were in the choice of metal, acrylic, slate, and kid designs to identify each apartment, and a different set of numbers. Where on the first floor, the six apartments were denoted by numbers beginning with 1, on the second floor the numbers began with 2. The apartment I was looking for began with a 4, so I returned to the stairs.
As I ascended from the second floor to the third, there was a sound. Loud. Slightly muffled. Yet unmistakable. I froze—looking up and when I saw nothing, looking down. It was difficult to be certain about the position other than to guess that the shot came from above.
When I had entered the block, it felt like the building had a low background hum. The noise of people—televisions and radios, water running, talking.
Now the block was silent.