Rushing to a business lunch near the Château de Vincennes station, I experienced the most fascinating scene yet on the Paris metro. As it happens occasionally – a beggar walked in my wagon and started asking for money right away. It was a woman, 5 ft 2 tall, old, tired, mumbling at light speed the reasons why we had to give her money. The train was going fast, the deafening noise of the wagon speeding up on the rails didn’t make it easy to hear her hushed voice. I turned my head to the right and to the left: no one cared.
“S’il vous plait mister and ma’am… need money… food… kids… cigarette…”
People sighed, shaked their heads, shrugged, kept hitting the button “next” on their ipod. For them, it all had an air of déjà vu.
(One of my closest friends once recounted me that she thought a beggar was asking cigarettes to feed her kids and she was horrified. It took me 10 minutes to explain to her that it was two separate requests even though they were asked just a couple seconds apart. I can still remember that conversation today. It was what you call a long day.)
The old lady then proceeded to push her hand in the face of all the seated travelers and, unsuccessful at grabbing people’s attention (and money), left the train as she entered – in a storm yet unnoticed.
The following minute, this guy walked in and it changed everything.
He was a beggar too. Tall (6 ft 1), slender, with a 3-day beard. For a while, he simply hanged on a bar and looked around him. It made some people feel uncomfortable. Then he leaned against the doors of the wagon, opened his mouth and said in a deep voice that caught everyone’s off guard:
“My name is Vincent.
I am from Cassis, a small town in the south of France.
It’s only been a couple days that I live in Paris and I’m feeling ashamed to have to stand here in front of you and ask you for money. I have no shelter and would just like to be able to eat, even if it’s just a soup, tonight.
Thank you for paying attention to me and sorry if I have caused any inconvenience”.
When he stopped talking, I could see everyone smiling as they were looking in their bags to grab the 1 or 2 euro coin to slip into his hand.
I remained in awe. This guy was brilliant.
First, he walked in the wagon, looking like he was minding his own business. He didn’t walk in like a storm, expecting everyone to empty their purse for him within seconds, like the old lady did.
Then he established eye contact with most of the people in the wagon. He waited for people to look back before speaking up. The old lady couldn’t care less whether people were paying attention or not, she just repeated a speech with zero emotion.
Finally, he delivered a story. A story that any Parisian in that wagon could relate to:
- He said his name: Vincent. Now, he was no longer just an other beggar in the metro. He had a name. He was someone’s son. It could have been our cousin, our brother. He had a story. He mattered.
- It’s just been a couple days that he lives in Paris. Oh boy – can a Parisian symphatize! As Parisians, we have all been there. Paris is the type of city that you love but never really feel like you belong to. It takes weeks if not years to feel at home here and during that process, you can feel lost in such a big city.
- He came from a small town in the south of France. Can I give him a high five? Parisians are hardly born that way. You usually end up here after a quest for love, for a job or other. He was one of us.
- He was ashamed to ask us for money. That line was brilliant. Psychologically, it was exactly how he connected to our emotions and removed our ability to think rationally about the situation.
- Firstly because hearing someone say they are ashamed makes you want to reach out to them and tell them – there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You feel for them.
- Secondly, and more importantly, because no one wants to hear that someone is putting himself or herself in a position of weakness in front of them. It’s incredibly uncomfortable. So you want to do what it takes to make that person feel empowered before they disappear, to balance the situation (I believe to this date that it was one of his key lines).
- He was homeless and just wanted to eat something no matter how insignificant for us – just something. He wasn’t asking for cigarettes or seeking sympathy for supposed kids. He just wanted to eat in order to survive.
- He thanked us for paying attention to him and apologized for interrupting our journey. He was polite. He had manners. He didn’t walk out upset or looked careless because some travelers didn’t pay attention to him. He was grateful for those who did and sorry for those he annoyed.That was admirable.
I wouldn’t be surprised that he got €20 in hand when he left the wagon.
And the most surprising? It all happened in under 3 minutes.
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