Nasty Story

Nasty Story

Up and out early without a shave, and this is a nasty story, no better for being true. Made up, it might pass as an insight into power at street level or a fable of man against the system and fighting it to a standstill. But it’s not better, not even good. I just missed getting my brains beaten out by a cop.

Sundays I don’t shave. An inspiration visited me… I can’t remember how many years ago, but the inspiration set up housekeeping, and with only an exception now and then (usually the exception is a woman) I leave my face alone on Sunday. I get three benefits from not shaving. One, I don’t shave. Two, my face gets to recover from being scraped with a blade for six days in a row. Three, Monday morning I get the most wonderful shave of the week. Unshaven men who otherwise don’t look like alcolos get more notice, or provoke more alarm, now and then in Paris than in the States. The boulangère who has been seeing me for years every morning at six on the dot when I show up unkempt and unshaved still looks a bit startled if not truly frightened when I ask for my daily croissant. But really no one pays me any mind other than the occasional old-school biddies who, after all, have nothing much else to do.

Not that I would have shaved this morning, no matter what the day. Restless all night, I am antsy and itching from the moment my feet land on the floor. I put the coffee on while I wash my face, get dressed, take two sips of the coffee and bolt out the door. Two blocks away, a café is, astoundingly, almost open at ten minutes before six and I extract coffee and yesterday’s tartine from the unwilling barman who dryly notes that the croissants have not yet been delivered, which is another way of saying I must have been raised in a pigsty. I get the coffee to go—ah, the French who call a paper cup a cardboard goblet—stick a napkin in my back pocket, and dunk my bread and butter in the coffee as I pound along, pointing south at first, then bearing generally west by northwest.

The streets at six in the morning are empty except for an occasional forlorn bus and the street cleaners, drinking coffee and smoking, in no hurry to get to work. Paris is never an early-to-rise city, and on Sundays early seems to have something to do with getting ready to have lunch. That’s fine with me because I’m not here to look at anyone or anything, but to squeeze the restlessness out of my legs and bones and the roots of my hair. Once done with the coffee, half of it sloshed on my shoes, and the bread, whose crumbs I wear along the front of my black sweater, I pick up the pace. I’m all but running and it feels better and better as I half gallop along grand streets and undistinguished little ones, crossing four or five arrondissements as I make my fast and aimless way. As I pass the second ugliest church in Paris—and realize where I am—I turn up to my left and land, a few minutes later, in one of the prettiest parks I know, if weeping willows are pretty. Time to sit.

The best calculation I can make is I’ve covered about seven kilometres in a little over an hour. Sitting is good, and my legs aren’t begging me to get up and run and dance any longer. It feels good, even if I’m a little sweaty and my hair is sticking up at odd angles and, come to think of it, a little hungry. A croissant out of the oven today, if not within the last twenty minutes, would be nice, and off I go to see if there’s a bakery open on Sunday in this la-de-da neighborhood. It’s still early, there are practically no people walking along, and the narrow street I’ve turned in to isn’t promising except for one thing. There are a couple of people standing outside what looks like a store, so maybe something is open.

The two people turn out to be two men, and the store sells shoes and is closed. One of the men is a cop. The other is a drunk: his face needs a shave and his hair could use a comb or maybe a pitchfork. He and his clothes are equally dirty, his jacket covered with bits and pieces of his last meal, maybe after eating it. I’ve seen drunker people, but he’ll do. The cop is holding him by his left shoulder and keeping him—deliberately, no doubt about it—slightly off balance so that the drunk has to do the last thing he wants to do which is to reach toward the cop for help. But the cop knows this game—it’s a cop game, played everywhere—and keeps straightening then bending his arm. As he does this, the drunk’s disequilibrium changes for the worse or the slightly less bad. He’s at the cop’s mercy, and the cop is bent on humiliating him.

I’ve approached the cop from the back so he is surprised when I say Why are you doing that? I stay put, making the cop turn to me. “None of your business. This enculé is drunk. Look at him. C’est un foutu boulot de merde.” Yeah, he’s a mess, but he’s still a man. You’re trying to make him feel worse than he is already. He’s scared, il va salir sa couche, comme un bébé. And that’s the point: scare the old drunk, though he may not be that old, and make him feel as helpless as a baby in diapers… which he’s going to need.

The good news is that the cop is alone. French flics don’t like to fly solo, but tend to pair up. I think they get lonely. The bad news is that he has five centimetres and maybe ten kilos on me and about twenty years less. The bad news is more bad than the good news is good. But I started this and figure I might as well see what’s next. Arrest him, I say, take him in. You don’t have to bully him.

To look at me the cop has turned to his left with his right hand still on the drunk’s left shoulder and with his left he makes a fist at me. His turning lets the drunk stand just about upright and also stretches the cop out to his full wingspan. “Get the hell out of here, salaud. You’re interfering with the police. I can arrest you both. Casse-toi, pauvre con. You don’t look any better than him.” The hell you will. And I’m not drunk and helpless.

And that tears it for the cop. He turns completely toward me, letting go of the drunk without thinking what he is doing, I guess so he can use his right hand on me. But he stops. He’s having a “My ducats! My daughter!” moment. He really wants to bust the drunk and wants to punch me out and he can’t do both. Not at the same time. He reaches back toward the drunk.

Right, I tell him, take the easy one. He lets go, and the drunk—bless him—takes off like a scared cat, a bit awkward and lame, but he’s moving, right down the center of the street, hoping for a car to run interference for him. The cop looks after him, then back at me. I’m already backing up, making the cop’s decision a little more difficult with every step I take. He’ll never catch the drunk now—and big deal, he hauls in a drunk, bravo, a promotion.

He’s not so sure he can catch me either. If he did, so what? He might take a swing at me, but I’m smaller and not armed. It wouldn’t look good if I got hurt. Bring me into the station and guess what? I don’t know a word of French. I explain to the translator—they’d find someone—that I was congratulating the cop on keeping order in the public streets, mongsewer. I can make my French as bad as I want.

So, so. This is my version of our future history. Who knows what the cop’s might be. But not so different. He gets nothing from hauling either of us in, and both of us just seem a little out of reach. I turn and walk away as calmly as I can, considering my heart rate is about 175. If I could, I’d whistle, maybe some old Maurice Chevalier tune. I hear the cop yell merde and that’s the end.

For him. For me, not so sure. I stopped him from humiliating the drunk—good. But I also bullied him with a kind of situational ju-jitsu, made him think he couldn’t win, confused him, made him feel small—no good at all. And I risked getting busted up or just busted… for what? No idea. It’s not even eight o’clock. Long day.


© Joseph Lestrange

photo 1 by Jody Morris [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Flickr
photo 2 by Jean-François Gornet [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Flickr


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