It rained all morning, and the streets of Paris were dotted with umbrellas. My wife was taking a class at a French cooking school on Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, which skirts the Right Bank of the Seine across from Île Saint-Louis. Meanwhile, I hid in the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore on Rue de la Bûcherie on the Left Bank across the water from Cathédrale Notre-Dame.
I waited out the storm.
By early afternoon, the rain moved on to greener French pastures. The sunshine graced us with its presence. I walked back to the Right Bank, gathered my wife along Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, and we crossed the Seine together at Pont Marie, stepping back onto Île Saint-Louis.
There was a homeless man along Rue de Deux Ponts, hunched against the side of the building. He wore a gray stocking cap and an oversized brown coat.
At his feet was a beautiful American Shorthair cat, which he kept on the end of a leather leash. It looked almost cheerful as it studied the hordes of passersby.
My wife is a sucker for cats. So am I. “Give the man some change,” my wife said, nudging me.
I was way ahead of her. I dug into my pocket, pulled out a handful of coins, and dropped three Euro into his cup.
“Merci! Merci!” the homeless man said cheerfully.
The American Shorthair, friendly and curious, walked the extent of its leash and rubbed against my leg. I stooped to stroke the cat’s head. Eager to practice my French skills, I said: “J’ai six chats!”
“Six chats?” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” I said, forgetting to say oui. “Six.”
“Oh! You are American!” he cried. His English was perfect. “I’ve been to America!”
“When was that?” my wife asked.
“Fifteen years ago,” he said. “Let me tell you about it.”
He proceeded to share the tale of his trip to America. It was late in the 1990s, and he had been doing well at the time, and when he saved a little money, he bought a plane ticket from the City of Lights to the City of Angels. Once in Los Angeles, he bought a bus ticket to New York and traveled across the country, stopping at various small towns, wandering about to meet the locals.
“I like to do it this way,” he said, “because I like to get to know the people.”
A few years after his return to Paris, the economy in France took a sharp downturn. He found himself without a job, then without a home and living on the street.
He did not tell us how he came to know his beautiful American Shorthair cat. He was too busy cursing the government.
“The left wing in this country,” he said. “They are worse than the right wing. The right wing is bad, but at least they do not lie to us. The left promise to take care of us, but they only take care of people who do not need to be taken care of.”
“His name was Helios, after the sun god.”
“How do you and Helios stay warm at night?” I asked.
“We do not,” he said. “This mayor, I voted for him. But we have an election coming up, and I will remember these last two years. Look, my friend,” he continued. “I do not ask that they put me up in Versailles. I only ask that I have a room where I can keep Helios safe and dry.”
We talked for some time. He picked up Helios, put the cat on his shoulder, and turned so that I could take a picture. He then put Helios on the ground and put his foot on the end of the leash so Helios could not get away. He stood that way and continued to talk. Many tourists walked past, some of them spying the cat and being so moved that they dropped change into the homeless man’s cup.
I too put another two Euro in his cup as well.
“No, no, no,” the homeless man said. “You need your money for souvenirs!”
“We’re fine,” my wife said. “You and Helios need to eat.”
Just then, two young American girls (I could tell by their accents), maybe 17 or 18 approached us from the direction of Notre-Dame. They bounced about as if they fancied themselves modern-day Disney princesses, talking as only teenage American girls talk, blathering nonstop about their European misadventures. They flipped their hair. They frowned haughtily, as if they were the first two Americans to visit Paris.
They passed my wife, then they passed me and the homeless man. And then one of them saw Helios the cat.
At once, the taller American princess stopped. She looked at the cat.
She hissed at it.
She made a sudden kicking motion, her fancy designer boot coming within inches of the cat’s face.
And then she laughed.
My wife and I overheard her friend saying in that crisp and somewhat nasal American accent that all teenage girls have: “Yeah, I know … I feel the same way about cats!”
For the rest of the afternoon, I burned inside. It was the old rage, the one that used to come out at inopportune times when I was young and still drinking. I focused this rage at all entitled American princesses, flitting about the streets of Paris with tiny gamine noses thrust to the heavens.
It did not bother me that these two princesses saw the homeless man and looked the other way. That much I understood. Truth be told, I have done the same. I am so beleaguered by the numbers of homeless that I have built up a scatoma, filtering them out of my perception. My inability to save even one of them, let alone all, is palpable. I am not averse to giving them money, but even that seems like an exercise in futility:
Oh, you’re cold and don’t have a place to stay or any food? I have a couple dollars here … that should fix you up.
The Dalai Lama once said, “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
I get it, little American princesses. I get that even though your prime purpose, as well as mine, is to help others, sometimes the task seems so great that you don’t even feel duty-bound to drop a bit of change in someone’s cup. You just walk on by like the rest of us.
What I don’t get is your intentional ignorance of the second part of the Dalai Lama’s statement. The Hindus have a word for it: ahimsa. Non-harming. The Hippocratic oath.
If you can’t help someone, at least don’t hurt him.
Think on that, American princesses. It’s one thing to ignore the homeless man in his plight. It is quite another to make a deliberate gesture of aggression, even violence, towards his blameless feline friend.
So you don’t like cats? Well, guess what? I don’t like entitled little American princesses. Do you see me growling and waving my feet or fists in your face?
This was the first level of my quiet rage. It was focused like a laser-sight on two snooty teenage girls who had taken time out of their busy day of entitlement to torment a blameless cat.
And then my rage turned … and the laser-sight was focused on my own heart.
It is true that I have turned a blind eye to those less fortunate for far too long.
I talk a good game about wanting to do something of value, wanting to help others. At the same time, I become so overwhelmed by the number of people in need that I don’t know where to start.
As such, I often don’t do anything.
It took a cat, a beautiful American Shorthair cat, to get me to stop and share alms with a homeless man. In the stopping, I got to hear the man’s tale. That is what he really wanted, wasn’t it? Someone to listen to his story. That’s all any of us want. We all have stories. We want the opportunity to have our stories be heard. Why do you think so many people “aspire” to be writers?
I did one good deed that day, and yet I am disgusted with myself.
I am disgusted by the way I fill my pregame speech with maxims and quotes from various sources, proudly espousing about all the good I intend to do … but then I never take that good intention to the field. Yes, the homeless situation is devastating, but instead of kicking my own ass because I can’t fix the whole thing, I could at least try to live by my favorite quote from The Constant Gardener: “No, we can’t save them all, but we can save this one!”
The fact is, I can’t save even one.
I can give him alms, and I can listen to his story … but is that enough? It would be enough if everyone would do it, but not everyone does. I’m not saying that I am, in the words of French rap artist Iron Sy, “un militant devant la foule,” but sometimes that drop-in-the-bucket change I put in a poor man’s cup makes me think of Liam Neeson’s lament at the end of Schindler’s List: “Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people.”
Five Euro did not break me on this trip. I could have given more.
The second time I put money in the man’s cup, he tried to fight me. “You have given me enough!” he said. “You have to buy souvenirs!”
No, sir, I have not given you enough. That night, as a fresh storm rolled in, I was sleeping in a warm (albeit uncomfortable) bed, and you were huddled with your cat on the street.
I have not given you enough. I could never give you enough.
My self-directed rage then came full circle, took on a different melody. It was a song of unrequited justice, of a hot dish of revenge that I was too cowardly to serve.
I raged at myself for not calling those two arrogant girls to the carpet. I raged at myself simply for wishing that I had done so. Something about the emotions of the moment had so besieged me that all I could think about was lashing out.
I wanted these American princesses, these little Molly Ringwold wanna-bes, to know how pathetic they were.
In having that rage, I myself devolved, and I became the one who was pathetic.
How ridiculous is it that I should want to get in anyone’s face? They’re just spoiled little girls, privileged children unaccustomed to the realities of the world. Their wake-up call will come soon enough, and it will not be sweet but tragic.
And yet … goddamn them.
If they could not do any good in that moment, they did not need to do any harm. I know the boot did not connect with Helios’ head (there would have been real trouble if that had happened), but there was a foul, at least in my eyes. The fact that anyone would even think about kicking a homeless man’s cat, just because it is a cat, well … I felt my inner Chuck Norris start to stir.
It was just a moment in time, a drop in the bucket in the vast course of human history. The old Matt, the slouching, angry drunk, would have done something right then and probably gotten in a lot of trouble for it.
But then, the old Matt would have never gone to Paris.
In the end, the American princesses forgot about the cat.
I, on the other hand, chose to carry those girls for the remains of the day. What is that line from that Buddhist tale: "I left the girl by the river. Why do you still carry her?" I preach a good game, but I had no ahimsa. The Hippocratic oath is right and proper here:
First do no harm … especially to yourself.