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They say he was a judge. That’s what they say in the neighborhood, and for all I know he was. He has a big bushy beard, not much gray in it, a big booming voice, and big-bodied clothes that are not clean if not completely filthy. He panhandles, but you’d barely notice—never asking for money, simply wishing everyone bonjour, and letting it go there. Either you’re in the know and up to date with M. le juge or you’re not—and not is not cool in this neighborhood, the kind of place where everyone is au courant de tous les ragots all the time, even if the old boy never was a judge at all and rumors are just rumors. Most people give him money and more to the point talk with him at length.
He’s talkative, likes being talkative, and he engages people—if only because he is somehow engaging. He doesn’t care at all about how you are, the grandkids, the high price of Parisian apartments, avocadoes from Peru, or over-the-counter drugs. He talks about himself, following, sure enough it seems to me, the advice of teachers and editors to students and aspiring authors since we lived in caves—write about what you know—and what he knows is himself. If he does not write, he certainly talks: even before panhandling, talk is his stock, his trade, his profit and loss.
The judge has always been lucid, if not always easy to follow. His big voice carries across the street, but there is something in his throat—something that cannot be cleared by a little cough and swallow—that always makes him a little hard for me to follow, but after all I am not a born Parisian and he’s not a docent here to instruct me and hustle a modest tip. I pay up or not, he seems not to keep score, but I know I ought to listen if I am standing within a radius of a metre. If I get it, if you get it… well, the whole conjugation… then good for all of us. If not, not—not that he’d notice or care. Considering how dependent the judge is on anyone who happens to pass, his self-regard is truly amazing and probably about seventy percent of his charm—and that might be after subtracting the discount for his indifference to you and me, if anyone bothers with the arithmetic.
But times have changed for the judge, or perhaps the judge has changed. Or better yet, the judge has changed the times all by himself and single-handed. He had a place, near a small market which he seemed to find after a previous mendiant—utterly silent, unthanking, but equally indifferent to his benefactors or those who might have been—just stopped being there. Was there a competition? Did the judge drive the silent sitter away? I don’t know and wouldn’t. Be after the quiet man was gone, there was the judge, seated or standing, occasionally using a cane or a crutch, but there, garrulous, present. So it was, so he was. Not now.
The judge is there from time to time, but in a wheelchair. He has lost—or, would he say, he has given up?—his right leg from below the knee, and pushes himself along with his left leg, his arms being engaged with stuff, bags, bottles, food, god-knows-whats. As he leaves his post outside the market and turns into the street to the left, a route I’ve seen him take more times than anyone would bother counting or caring about, I come up behind, ask if he’d like a push, and give him one up the hill after he has announced he’d accept one with pleasure. Mannerly, pooh-poohing my what-goes-around-comes-around philosophy, believing me to be a fine fellow, one of nature’s noblemen, or just an aging cherub. The next day, he does not recognize me.
But the next day we are both out of context. It’s a flat-foot of a commonplace that certain people exist only in a certain place, terrain, hole in the wall. He stands out anywhere suggesting that context is a slim wisp of an idea after all, but I’m just another guy who passes him at the T-shaped intersection in front of the little market. Of course he stands out even more because he has acquired a candy-coat red and blue bicycle helmet which looks about four sizes too small and seems to balance lightly on his head as if it were about to spin around like a propeller beanie.
Today, however, he’s sitting out in front of one of the splendid—or over-priced—cafés on a grand boulevard when I first see him, then two hours later next to a famous shell-fish house that everyone will warn you away from. Simply there, bellowing, it seems to me. But his bellow is actually a hummed tune, kind of martial or patriotic sounding, no doubt ironic as two pissant cops write up a ticket for a couple of immigrant guys selling fruit on the busy corner in Montparnasse right in front of the judge. Perhaps in the old days the cops used to come into his courtroom with arch-criminals like these, and maybe he sent them up for a week or two or fined them or thundered at them and told them to go back where they came from (ah, those old days). And maybe he got plain sick of it and said, Enough, goodbye, let them sell their fruit or dope or sisters or dirty pictures since after all you’re buying, aren’t you, and why should I get in the way of commerce, enterprise, and the aspirations of immigrants?
Why not? Better to believe he took a stand—and is still taking it—than to say he’s just another old drunk, started drinking too much after his little German shepherd died, still drinks too much anyway, can’t hold it worth a damn, can’t hold a job either. Better to think, as I do, that he really wants to annoy the cops—it takes two of them to ticket the fruit-sellers?—so much that they will come and take him on. Yeah, I think he’d like that. Arrest him, sure enough, drunk in public, still a crime here in Paris—except outside expensive hotels and bars in the… well, in just about every Arrondissement with maybe an exception or two in the Twentieth and the outer edges of a few others where the buildings are concrete and too tall and their residents were born with suntans. He’d like that, M. le juge.
But the cops are too earnest writing up their summons. The louder the judge bellows, the more earnest they become with their paperwork—how long can it take?—and they less they appear to hear his noise. I think they’ll break his heart if they don’t do anything. I don’t know if he really wants to be busted, but I know he’d relish the confrontation. His amour propre needs it, needs it more than he needs another coin pressed into his hand, another drink, another push up the hill. But the cops are no use, none at all. I want to tell them to do something: Go up to him, roust him, don’t you bastards get it? Shake your fist, tell him to watch his ass, tell him to shut up. Don’t ignore the old coot. He’s a judge.
They get on their motorcycles, revving too loud, and tear out of there, high-tailing it as if they are afraid for their lives. I hope to hell they are and have bad dreams.
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