View from Rue Saint-Georges

Middle-Class Mea Culpa

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Stéphane Demolombe/Flickr

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

January 4, 2017


 

The other day, at the Gare St.-Lazare trying to get a passport photo for a visa application, I approached one of those Photomaton machines, its curtain drawn closed, two mud-splattered boots visible beneath. I waited a minute for whoever was inside to finish, but when I realized there had been no flash and no photos were being printed, I pulled back the curtain. I was in a rush for my appointment, slightly irritated at the inconvenience and expected to find a homeless man and to have to explain that I needed to borrow the machine for a moment. Instead, I encountered a man seemingly of African descent and roughly my age, perhaps younger, rocking himself back and forth and sucking his thumb as if in a trance—as certain a demonstration of post-traumatic stress disorder as I’ve ever witnessed. This was not a vagrant, I realized, but very likely a refugee—one of the (mostly) young men who arrived in Paris at the end of 2016, after the destruction of “the jungle” in Calais, where they’d been camped out, risking their lives in the hopes of crossing into England. I spoke to him in French and then English, gently asking him if he would please allow me to use the machine—amazed at myself as I heard my own voice articulate these words. He stared straight ahead as if in a stupor, rocking himself and sucking his thumb. I would have to force him out. I turned away and found another photo booth, so that I could make my rendezvous at the Russian visa processing center and with luck get my visa—the end of a laborious process involving forms and various negligible fees, which offended my privileged American expectation of coming and going as I pleased anywhere in the world.

It was only on my 20-minute walk home from the eighth back into the ninth arrondissement, and past at least five Roma families begging on mattresses in the wet streets, that I realized the extent of my callousness—perhaps even monstrosity—in the train station earlier. The sheer level of insensitivity modern urban life demands of us as we go about our own tenuous middle-class pursuits is something I do not ever want to get used to, though I fear it is already too late.


Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

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