After pilgrimaging solo along France’s le chemin St. Jacques—rarely certain where or even if I’d find a bed for the night—I finally returned to Paris to fly home. On my last, late-October night in the residential 19th arrondissement, I stepped out for a pre-dinner walk to explore the locks over the Canal St. Martin nearby. Circa 1870, the canal inspired impressionist Alfred Sisley to capture canal life in a series of celebrated oils. In 1936, Cabaret singer Édith Piaf, aka: La Môme, sang about St. Martin’s Canal in one of her first hits, “Les mômes de la cloche.” And in the 2001 film Amélie, the main character, Amélie Poulain, enjoys skipping stones through the canal’s locks, even as she tries to change the lives of others for the better while struggling with her own isolation.
En route to the canal, I passed two women wearing hooded black coats who stood motionless, like statues or performance artists, on a shaded street corner opposite the Jaurès Metro. One’s masked hood covered almost all of her face. The other’s pale, gaunt face was mostly eye-accessible. Out of the corner of my eye, it appeared that a heap of backpacks stood next to them. I wondered, had their bus gotten lost and stranded them? Did the backpacks they guarded belong to children who still rode the meandering bus?
On my return from the canal, I saw the two hooded women hadn’t budged. Perhaps they really were statues. I maintained my stride, but turned and looked at them directly for the first time. My eyes locked with those of the woman with the gaunt face. When I reached my hotel room, her face stayed with me. The Affligem Blonde I’d pined for all day as I roamed Paris’s streets in a semi-dehydrated state would have to wait. I had to go back to make a connection, if only to find out why they were there at dusk guarding a heap of backpacks.
In the preceding months, the knitting that bound everything I called “me” together had ripped and I’d fast unraveled. I told people I was going on a pilgrimage to engage in a prolonged act of contemplation. I’d walk the greenest, most celebrated of the four pathways across France that feed into Spain’s road to Santiago de Compostella: le chemin vers Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, aka the GR65. Remarkably, people bought that. Secretly, I planned to lose myself and maybe not even come back. Granting her blessing, my wife implored, “Just go, but please come back.” I needed to create space, make tracks, and re-learn how to breathe. Soon after the Fall Equinox, I flew via Paris to Toulouse en route to the GR65.
Along the trail, most pilgrims could have been mistaken for homeless. Many of us lived on the fly, carried our entire lives and immediate possessions on our backs, and had little or no idea where we’d spend the night. Like many pilgrims, I refused to make reservations because I couldn’t predict how far I’d want or be able to walk from day to day. Millions before me made no reservations and accepted “come what may” so, so would I, Que sera sera!
There were some close calls, largely because most Gites had shuttered for the season by mid-October. The few still open were brimming full and reluctantly turned the overage away. One night, as a last resort, I nearly slept in a 17th century, doorless, stone-and-clay shepherd’s shelter; on another, in an alley with a stray German shepherd who’d adopted me and become my fast companion. Earlier that day, she’d saved me from the horns of a charging cow by counter-charging the cow. Unwisely, I tended to continue walking long past sunset with no notion of where I’d settle down for the night. At the comical extreme, I’d spent one restless night cocooned in bubble wrap on the kitchen floor of a priest’s house.
As I approached, the two women didn’t flinch. The one with the gaunt face had removed her hood, revealing a fuller face and a clear complexion with none of the signs of excessive sun exposure usually observed in homeless street people. The second woman, olive-complected, still wore a masked hood that revealed only her eyes, nose, and hair-lined upper lip. What I’d mistaken for a pile of backpacks was a mammoth shopping cart stuffed with small suitcases, carry-ons, backpacks, and multiple water bottles varying in fullness. I saw no scraps of food, no shopping or trash bags, no collection cup, plate, bowl, or box, no sign to explain who they were and why they were there. Instead of sitting on a step or portable chair, or sitting or lying on the ground, they stood upright like sentries. Neither reached out or made entreaties to passersby. In short, nothing whatsoever suggested they were homeless.
Both women turned to me but neither cracked a smile or spoke a word. When I said “Bonjour,” they reciprocated in unison. I asked if they spoke English, expecting “no” or dead silence. Instead, the younger one said, “Not so well, but I understand it, and I can speak it.” Up close, the unhooded one looked around 30; the masked one, around 60. The younger’s partially-open coat revealed multiple layers beneath the outer one. The masked one’s coat resembled monk’s robes, but I guessed she wore multiple layers too.
I said, “I saw you standing here, when I went out and came back, as if you protected something. I wondered, why are you here so late? Why do you just stand here?”
The younger spoke to the older in French. I assume she repeated my question. The older answered in French before the younger said, “I would like to introduce you to my mother. We are poor and homeless because circumstances we never imagined resulted in our losing everything we own except for what you see in this shopping cart. Feel free to ask questions, as you wish.”
The routine we crafted was that I’d asked the daughter a question, she’d confer with her mother, and eventually the daughter would answer me. Occasionally, the two seemed to argue over the meaning of a question, how to respond, or whether to dismiss my question. Now and then, the daughter sternly warned me, “You used a word in your question that carries a different meaning in French than you probably intend. Would you like to rephrase your question?”
As the conversation gathered momentum, the daughter increasingly answered without conferring with her mother, or pointedly asked me, “Is that really the question you want to ask?”
After biting my tongue as long as I could, I asked, “What caused your being thrown onto on the street?”
The daughter answered, “Do you want a social answer or an individual answer?”
I said, “Whichever, both if you like.”
The daughter began to offer a social explanation, but interrupted herself: “You don’t need to know the answer to appreciate the circumstances that resulted in our living on the street.”
I said, “You’re homeless now. You live on the street. But you’re obviously university educated, both of you. You haven’t been poor all your lives. You’ve known life’s comforts.”
The daughter said, “That’s true, we both attended university. We had a roof over our heads. We enjoyed many of life’s comforts. Until we lost everything, we had no understanding of what being poor felt like. Now, the street is our bedroom.”
As we spoke, they gradually stood at ease. Eventually, they began passing cigarettes back and forth with an insistence that belied the almost austere sense of control they’d shown earlier. Occasionally, one snatched a cigarette away from the other like a child saying, “No, it’s mine.” I rationalized that a cigarette’s stinging warmth—on their fingertips, on their lips, in their mouths, and in their lungs—buffered them momentarily from the rapidly dropping temperature. I noticed the daughter’s fingers were heavily stained by nicotine; grit was crammed under her fingernails, into her cuticles, and under callouses. The monk’s robes covered the mother’s hands, but my guess was they looked about the same.
I couldn’t resist saying, “Smoking is expensive and one of the worst things for your health.”
Without consulting her mother, the daughter responded, “But this is all we do: we don’t use drugs; we don’t even smoke cannabis.”
After 45 minutes, I tried handing the daughter a 10 Euro note. Without touching it, the daughter conferred with her mother, then said, “We’re glad to talk with you. You don’t have to pay us to talk with us.” After refusing my 10 Euro note, the daughter took a three-quarters full liter water bottle from the mammoth grocery basket, took a long sip, and passed it to her mother.
Initially, I’d kept my eyes on the daughter, waiting for what she’d have to say next, ignoring the back-and-forth between mother and daughter as they formulated a response. I didn’t even look at the mother during these negotiations. I suspect the mother, likewise, only attended to her daughter. But gradually, mother and I began to focus on whoever happened to be speaking. She and I came to look almost exclusively at each other while listening to the daughter’s voice in the background. I came to understand the mother better once she adjusted the mask attached to her hood so I could see her lips fully. The daughter’s role evolved into supplementing or confirming what the mother and I had already come to understand.
The energy balance also shifted and they began to fire questions at me. Gradually, they were asking me more questions than I asked them.
At one point, the daughter asked, “What kind of work do you do?”
I said, “Research on the health and well-being of children.”
She asked, “You mean medical research?”
I said, “No, more about health behaviors that increase likelihood of illness or death, either now or in the future, like unprotected sex, or carrying weapons, or using tobacco.”
She asked, “Where do you look for your inspiration, what books or where else?”
At first her question stunned me, but then I confessed, “I like your question, but I have to admit most of my research is funded by the government, so very little ever seems inspired.”
She asked, “What is your academic field?”
I said, “Psychology.”
Turning the tables, I asked, “What were your academic fields?”
She answered, “Knowing our academic fields won’t help you understand our circumstances.”
After pausing, she asked, “Are you Christian?”
I said “Yes, of a sort, but I believe, if god exists, the divine resides in you and me. Religion should give us peace and hope, rather than cause disputes and wars. Do you two have a religion?”
She said, “No, we don’t believe in god and we place no value on religion.”
Several times, I asked where they generally slept at night and where they planned to spend the night that fast approached.
Her answer was, “We often sleep on the street, and we probably will tonight, but we don’t know yet. We’ll see.”
I asked, “Do you usually stay in the same part of the city?”
She said “No, we keep moving around with no real plan.”
I asked, “Are there social service agencies that help provide shelter for the homeless?”
She said, “I don’t know, maybe, but whatever they do doesn’t address the underlying situation. People who are homeless stay homeless. They’re stuck.”
I asked, “How will you get out of this situation? It’s cold and it’s going to be getting colder.”
She said, “Maybe we won’t.”
I took money out of my pockets once or twice more, and again they silently shook me off, as if I’d rudely interrupted a private conversation.
Now and then, they passed a cigarette or water bottle back and forth.
After I made a remark about homelessness in America, they both opened their eyes wide, as if stunned. After they spoke to each other in French, the daughter said, “We had no idea you were American. You surprise us. I thought there were no homeless in America.”
I said, “To the contrary; America has homeless people everywhere.”
She retorted, “But Rudy Guiliani said, ‘there are no homeless in New York.’”
I said, “Rudy Guiliani hasn’t been mayor of New York for a long time. And, when he said there were no homeless in New York, there were over 40,000. He wanted to make the homeless disappear. To him, they were a scourge on his city. He tried to force people out of homelessness by depriving them of services as if by punishing them, people would finally see the light and do something constructive to remedy their situation. As if it were that simple.”
She asked, “In America, are most of the homeless in New York?”
I answered, “Not at all. They’re everywhere, especially in cities. When they have a choice, they migrate to places where nights aren’t too cold. They flock to states in the West that have temperate climates. I’ve been to Portland, Oregon, where there are lots of services for the homeless, even little houses to live in. The problem is, the economy there tanked after the economic collapse, so it’s hard for people to find jobs and stop being homeless.”
The daughter said, “That’s what I’m saying. We once had a good life. We graduated from universities. But, we lost everything except what you see. Even if we could find jobs, how can we find our way out? How do we ever get back the life we had, or any kind of life?”
Inevitably, we gravitated back to, “How do you think you will . . . .?” to which the response was always, “Maybe we won’t.”
After a pause, the daughter asked, “People stop and talk with us because they have a need. What is your need?”
Without hesitation, I said, “I’ve been away from home traveling by myself for a month. I wanted to make a connection with other human beings. I felt like talking.”
Mother and daughter shook their heads. The daughter, shaking her hands too, said, “You walked by us twice. What ate at you to make you come back? What made you stop? Why did you want to talk with us?”
I said, “I saw your face.”
Mother and daughter had an animated exchange, either because they couldn’t figure out what “I saw your face” meant, or because they wanted to hear me articulate more explicitly why I came back and stayed. She could’ve asked, “What do you mean by you saw my face?” or “What did my face say to you that brought you back here?” but she didn’t.
Instead, she asked, “From talking with people, they stop to talk with us because they have a need of their own. What need in you brought you back and kept you here?”
I said, “I came back to find out what you were doing here, why you were guarding a tower of backpacks. It made no sense. I stayed because I could feel your not knowing where you’d spend the night and your ‘Maybe we won’t.’”
Still puzzled, she asked, “What did you feel?”
I said, “When I walked in the mountains, nearly every day, I had no idea where I’d spend the night. Sometimes, I got in trouble because lodgings closed for the season, or I arrived too late. Also, long ago, when I was 24, still at university, I had no place to live for a while, no money, and almost no possessions because I’d been robbed, twice. So I slept every night in the forest. It was September, so I didn’t suffer. But, this year, I’ve known the desperate feeling when you think the bottom’s falling out. I came to France because I felt—I was afraid—I was about to lose everything, but in a different way.”
The daughter asked, “Are you’re saying, you can feel what it’s like to have lost everything and have no idea how to rise above these conditions?”
I answered, “No, I can’t appreciate what it means to have lost everything, to live out of a shopping cart, to have no idea every day where you’ll find shelter and when or if you’ll begin to find a way out. Perhaps I can begin to understand ‘maybe we won’t’ because in recent months, when I was frightened and depressed, I saw no way out, but now, I’ve begun to see a little daylight. Finally, I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I can.’”
We’d spoken for nearly two hours. Long ago, day had morphed into night, and Indian summer had surrendered to autumn. The two women must’ve felt cozy warm in their heavy coats and multiple layers, but I shivered. “I wish we had a fire!” I said out loud, meaning to say it to myself.
The daughter said, “We need to move out of this place because it gets dangerous during the night, especially for women.”
When I asked where they’d sleep, I got the standard “We’ll see” response.
I told them my first name, and asked them theirs, but the daughter declined, saying “Our names don’t matter.”
I said the daughter was about my own daughter’s age and the mother was about mine. Looking straight into my eyes, the mother smiled for the first time—widely, lips shut—and answered, “Que ce détail reste toujours mystérieuse.” The daughter translated this as, “Let that detail remain forever mysterious,” but the mother’s smile said it all. No translation was needed.
My heart said I should give them my hotel room at The Libertel and fend for myself. However, the hotel’s reception clerk guarded the lobby’s entry doors like the mythical dog Cerberus, as if the outer world represented Hades, and the souls of the damned were trying to sneak in. These two wouldn’t pass muster.
I reached out as if to take hold of the daughter’s right hand and she reached out with hers. As I took her hand, I stuffed a 20 Euro note into it, closed her hand and held it shut until she stopped trying to open it. I looked her in the eyes and she looked back into mine, silently. I turned to face the mother and back toward the daughter. Finally, the mother spoke and the daughter translated, but again, none was needed. “We accept your money and we thank you. We will use it to buy food.”
The daughter dropped an empty liter water bottle back into the mammoth shopping cart. Together mother and daughter began pushing their cart across Avenue Secretan. “Bon Nuit” were the last words we exchanged.
On my flight home the next morning, I toyed with the question: who were they, really? Were they truly who and what they represented, a mother and daughter on hard times? Perhaps, instead, was the older woman a university professor and her alleged daughter actually a doctoral student out conducting dissertation research? Or were they were political activists out to play on the public’s compassion for the plight of the homeless? Or were they media celebrities or film makers conducting investigative research?
Why did I even doubt who they claimed to be? Precisely because they didn’t look, or behave, or talk like any other homeless people I’ve ever met. They didn’t ask for money; to the contrary, they did their best to refuse my money. What they wanted instead was to engage passersby, even a stray American like me, in conversation about homelessness. The upshot was: it can happen to you and, if it does, don’t bet on finding the exit door. If one assumes all university-educated homeless women in Paris speak and act like existential philosophers, there was nothing whatsoever odd about how they spoke, thought, behaved, and drew me in.
In the end, whoever they were, all that matters is the question they asked, the one that ended with, “What is your need?”
After retiring in early 2015 from a career in public health research, Jim Ross dove back into creative pursuits in hope of resuscitating his long-neglected right brain. Since then, he’s published over 20 pieces of nonfiction and over 80 photos in 25 journals, including 1966, Cactus Heart, Cargo Literary, Friends Journal, Lunch Ticket, Gravel, Chicago’s MAKE Literary Magazine, Memory House, Pif Magazine, Riverbabble, and Sheephead Review. Forthcoming: Apeiron Review, Entropy, and Palooka. New grandparents of twins, he and his wife split their time between Maryland and West Virginia.