Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's a Tramp's Life

Now that summer is in full swing, the down and outs residing under the arches close to my apartment are in their element. A sheltered suntrap, this particular strip of sidewalk is, evidently, one of the premier spots in town for picking up a tan. I can only imagine how difficult it is to procure a square of pavement; it seems to be run by some kind of cartel that allows only the crème de la crème of Niçois homeless to pass out there.

Riding my bike past the arches with my boss Tommy the other day, we rounded the corner and came across a bunch of residents congregating behind the Notre Dame church. They were sitting on moth-eaten armchairs and upturned crates, kicking back in the early evening sun, drinking vin straight from the bottle and listening to tunes on the radio. One was donning a sombrero. ‘Bloody hell,’ Tommy shouted as we peddled by, ‘on the Riviera even tramps have civilized soirees.’ He wasn’t wrong: it looked more sophisticated than any party I’d been to for a while. ‘I’m tempted to gatecrash,’ I said, ‘one of them was fit.’ Tommy laughed, ‘Maybe you should go back, ask if he comes here often.’ I looked over my shoulder and seriously considered turning around.

Is it really so wrong to fancy the homeless? Or has something gone slightly askew? Either way, I noted with concern that most people at the street party looked better than me. Tommy told me not to worry: he regularly saw this crowd rummaging through the refuse sacks dropped off by benevolent jetsetters outside Nice’s premier charity shop. They were actually kitted out in some of the best second hand gear in the world. ‘You’re telling me that I’ve been buying clothing already discarded by prostitutes, squatters and junkies?’ I wailed. This was a new low. ‘In all fairness,’ Tommy said, trying to make me feel better, ‘their life isn’t that great.’ To illustrate, he told me about a tramp in his neighbourhood who lingers over the freshly baked pain au chocolate in the corner shop every morning. Tommy said that it was painful to watch the guy looking between the bottles of cheap wine and fresh pastries, weighing up which one he should spend his money on. ‘Of course,’ Tommy concluded, ‘the wine always wins.’ I related to this man's dilemma but deemed it better to say no more, Tommy being my boss and all.

The next day B came into Nice to pick me up. ‘I’m parking the Lambo in front of Notre Dame,’ he shouted down the phone, ‘you know the spot where all the old hobos sleep.’ ‘Hang on B, isn’t that a little thoughtless?’ I interjected. ‘I’m not sure they’ll appreciate you rocking up in your expensive car. Sort of rubs it in.’ ‘Hey,’ B said, clearly offended, ‘I like the homeless. I actually befriended a tramp once. I was hanging out with him for days. He was a great guy.’ To prove his affiliation with street dwellers, B then pressed money into the palm of a man who knocked on the car window when we were stopped at the traffic lights. It suddenly occurred to me that B might see me as a kind of tramp too; that could explain why he was so good to me.

Going to Cannes on the Friday morning I was forced to harness my own inner samaritan as I watched a homeless guy stumble onto the bus and wobble over to the seat next to mine. You could see the mixture of relief and pity etched on the face of the woman sat in front of me. Of course, the stench was horrendous but I reminded myself that the poor man probably didn’t have access to a hot shower. He rocked in his seat and talked to himself; occasionally one of his scrawny limbs would fly into the air without warning. At 10am, half way into the two-hour journey, he opened his beer and the froth spurted everywhere. I had a doctor’s appointment. He was going to think that I had a drinking problem. I considered moving to another seat but then I remembered my benevolent B and decided against it; this guy had probably experienced enough rejection in his life.

I was about to get off at the next stop, hide behind a tree and wait for the following bus, when the man stood up. He gave me a nod, or possibly it was the tick. I fought the impulse to hold my nose and managed a smile. I then watched as he fell from the vehicle and sloped off towards the beach, a towel over his shoulder and a beer in his hand. Living on the streets in the Riviera, really wasn’t such a tough life. If you could just get a coveted spot under the archway then you'd really made the big time. I wondered what I'd have to do to get on the list.

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