Recently, while I was waiting on a crowded Métro platform at Saint Lazare, a bum walked up to me. He didn't ask me for money. He asked me what I was reading.
"Qu'est-ce que tu lis de beau?" he asked good-naturedly. My nose had been buried in Molière's L'Avare, and I was too startled to do anything more than tip the spine of the book back so that he could read the cover.
"Ah, Molière! L'Avare! A very good choice," he continued. I noticed that he had thick-rimmed glasses that gave him an almost intellectual look, despite his wild hair, unkept clothes, and the boozy stink of his breath. Must be some frustrated writer who followed his muse to the corner bistro a few too many times, I figured. He didn't have much to say about the play, though, and I was almost disappointed that he didn't quote me at least a few lines.
"Listen," he said to me urgently, "I have no money. I have nothing to read. Why don't you give me your book?"
I had been trying desperately to finish reading it before my husband took me to see the play the following evening. From experience, I knew that either subtitles or reading beforehand was essential to my comprehension of anything more complicated than the evening news or a soap opera. I'd calculated I could just finish by the end of my morning commute the next day, so I wasn't about to make a generous gesture. Besides, the book and the tickets to see the play were part of my Valentine's Day present.
"I'm sorry, but I have to finish reading it by tomorrow, I'm going to go see the play," I told him, hoping it'd be enough to make him go away.
"Je n'y comprends rien," he exclaimed, the all-too-familiar "I don't understand anything," as much for the people around us who were starting to pay attention to the whole scene as for myself. I repeated myself, loudly, very conscious of my American accent but also eager to make myself understood.
"I can't give it to you. I need to read it for tomo--" Before I could finish, he grabbed hold of the book and tried to pry it from my hands, explaining again that he had no money, and nothing to read.
I pulled it back and he finally gave up and walked away, but not before looking intensely at me and then suddenly, and quite quickly and unexpectedly, stroking my hair with one hand. I hadn't time to pull away, but in the second that he reached out I managed to notice his filthy fingernails.
He wandered away muttering to himself, and tried to stroke another woman's head as he passed.
"Are you okay?" asked someone who was nearby observing everything.
"Yeah, I think so. That was... bizarre. Why me? All these people... why me?" I giggled, as I always do when I'm nervous. I couldn't think of anything more intelligent to say. The train arrived, and I had more than a little trouble getting back into my reading on the rest of my trip home.
Still, the first time I've been panhandled for a book, and I hadn't even a good comeback. L'exception culturelle, indeed.