August 3, 2012:
There’s just a few old men in the dining room at 7AM. They glare at me briefly then return to a slow chatter. Morning-faced individuals occasionally trudge into the room, heading straight for a huge commercial coffee maker then quickly disappearing out the door again. About the only thing in common with American and European coffee culture is the coffee bean. Americans generally take huge weak quantities while the Europeans like heart attack shots. The gigantic coffee machine here weighs probably 200 pounds and makes one cup at at a time.
I approach the beast with an ordinary cup. “That wrong size”, someone says, instead handing me what appears to be a doll house cup. The person continues to assist, placing two tablespoons of coffee into a heavy steel filter that screws into the machine. The machine shakes the countertops, humming with a loud electric buzz as the tiny cup fills with black sludge.
One of the old men here is Frank, the facility’s assistant manager. “Did somebody tell you to come here?”, he asks in well-pronounced English.
“Yes, I went to the downtown office yesterday and they told me to come here and ask if I can stay until Tuesday, then they’ll try to find room for me at one of the agency’s other facilities.”
“We have people like you coming here everyday. I don’t think we can help you. There’s no room. You’ll have to talk to the chief Ervan when he gets here at 8 o’clock, but I don’t think there’s anything he can do for you. It’s not legal for us to have people sleeping on the floors.”
I recognize the name Ervan from the first email that lead me on this trail, a shot in the dark address obtained with the Google search, “Paris homeless shelter”. Hearing the name Ervan again is a truly lucky break considering that this agency has many facilities such as this all over the city. He’ll surely remember me, and leaving me on the floor four days shouldn’t be such a big deal.
Ervan arrives with a kitten in a backpack that he found on the way to work and plans on keeping. He’s the spitting image of a California pot farmer I worked for last summer. Even the mannerisms and expressions are strikingly similar. We sit at a huge antique desk in a cluttered office.
“Yes, but you will definitely have to leave on Tuesday morning”, he agrees with no resistance, “and it would be nice if you can help us out till then. Frank will get you started”.
Frank has become more friendly as he shows me around the compound, a series of old warehouse buildings spread out among two city blocks. This is one of many similar facilities all over the world that are all part of the same international agency, each of which supports itself on a thrift shop/goodwill model. The general public donates unwanted items and the agency resells them.
“At just this facility alone we have about one million euros in sales per year. We don’t take any money at all from the government.”, Frank explains.
The incoming items are sorted then placed in first, second and third-class sales floors. Some of the first class items appear as priceless ancient relics, and some of the third class appears to be total junk. Items are moved down in class if they don’t sell, and eventually given away to other agencies.
I help Frank load two box trucks with furniture then am assigned to work with a nice British/Guyana man named Gary in second-class furniture sales. This is in the main part of the compound where new donations are constantly arriving, and sold or unwanted items are constantly being loaded. It’s a nearly perpetual traffic jam of cars, trucks and pedestrians. There are about a dozen different sales areas, each having their own separate entrances and service desks.
There’s little to do today in second class furniture except for shaking people’s hands and saying hello, which the French love to do. Located right in the middle of the compound, people constantly pass by on their way to other places. Gary has worked here a long time so knows many of the customers. I’m standing next to him and almost everybody shakes my hand after his, literally a hundred handshakes and “bonjours” over the course of the next few hours. Occasionally we stop shaking hands to dismantle and load a sold piece of furniture.
Arriving donations are sorted into rolling carts. Other workers occasionally ask me to roll full carts to their destinations, and at the destinations other workers often complain that they have too many arriving carts. Twice I’m asked to take a cart back to the person who gave it me. There seems to be a cart war going on between two workers in particular, one of which seems to be using me to get at the other.
Most workers return to the dining room for the hour-long lunch break, all enjoying as many second helpings as they want but still not exhausting the supply. The sales areas close at 5:30 and then there’s another equally huge meal at 7PM. My sleeping area has changed, now a gym/conference room on the third floor. I’m told to pick a mattress from among the ones for sale, which I carry back to the living quarters balanced atop my head. Frank gives me a bag containing clean towels, sheets and pillow cases.
The gym/conference room carpet contains a round stain of about 20 feet wide thanks to a severe leak in a skylight. Most of the exercise equipment is covered in dirt and only partially assembled. Extra parts lie on the stained floor among pieces of the ceiling. But at this time it’s luxury in my eyes, with a wonderful night breeze flowing between the room’s two balconies.
There’s a roommate. He’s a friendly but somber middle-aged Polish man fighting severe alcoholism. The top of his nose is flat and crooked but he’s not otherwise obviously damaged. He had his own room in the building for along time before getting kicked out, and is now in the process of trying to work his way back in. He speaks a little bit of English, having worked in at least five European countries.
“I drink too much. No good. You must help me.”, he says several times.
August 4th, 2012:
The dining room is locked overnight then reopened early in the mornings for bread and coffee.Work officially starts at 7:30 but many don’t arrive till after 8. Unable to locate my second-class furniture coworker from yesterday, I instead help out a jovial man named Bamba in the “bric-a-brack” section. This sales area mostly consists of kitchenwares and small decor. As far as the number of incoming donations goes, bric-a-brack gets a constant flood. A dozen people could work in here and still fail to keep everything organized, but this morning there’s just Bamba and me.
We sort through unopened donation boxes left over from yesterday, one of which contains a quite spectacular rock formation, probably from a deep mine. The tables nearest to the front of the room are cleared for the most interesting new arrivals such as the rock. Yesterday’s interesting arrivals get moved on to ordinary shelves.
The customer count in this cluttered room becomes absolutely oppressive by 9AM. The lanes between the tables are narrow, and much at that little floor space is blocked with half-empty boxes and random loose items. Customers reblock the pathways almost as quickly as I clear them. Just the simple act of a worker touching an item draws attention to it. When I slide a box under a table then somebody instantly slides it back out, thinking I might have put something new and good inside.
Ervan approaches me mid-morning, “I’m sending you to do some travel today”. I follow him out of the compound to a van in the parking lot, having no idea what he’s talking about. There’s another passenger in the front seat, my new coworker for the day, a young Polish man who speaks more English than French. Ervan tells me a bit more about the organization, “There’s a website in English. You can read a little bit more so you don’t think you’ve joined Al-Queda or something.”
We arrive to an apartment complex 30 minutes later. One of the agency’s delivery trucks sits partially unloaded with furniture. Ervan immediately begins yelling at two of his workers behind the truck, finger pointed at their noses. The men had apparently called him a short time ago to say this delivery is impossible, resulting in my travel here.
The first piece of furniture is the worst, a full-width hardwood wardrobe that must be carried to the 4th floor. Four people participate in the move although there’s really only room for two. The wardrobe barely makes the turns in the staircase, with one of the four movers always mashed against a wall or railing Who’s smashed depends on which way we’re turning at any one moment. This particular piece of furniture would be easier for two people moving really slowly with lots of breaks, but we continue with four just because we are four.
Ervan departs with the original two movers, apparently either reassigning or firing them. The moving truck’s driver remains, a volunteer who does not live at the compound. He’s a professional gardener named John, middle-aged, decent English. The young Polish man is my fellow mover for the day. Our truckload of three immediately seems a good match. We finish up this first delivery by taking apart the existing furniture and carrying up the pieces. The items would have been too long to fit any other way, impossible.
Lunch comes from another one of the agency’s compounds nearby. It’s very much like the one I’m living at except there are goats and chickens here. This is also where we load the rest of the day’s deliveries into the truck, six more stops.
The GPS freaks out on the first two stops, quite far out of the city, resulting in a combined delay of nearly two hours. A delivery customer tries to give us shots of whiskey and another offers a full dinner, but there’s no time. The movers we replaced were already running late for the day, now we’re really late, and all the expecting customers must get the merchandise they’ve been told to wait at home for.
Nothing ever fits in an elevator and the temperature is quite hot, were exhausted and there’s nothing to drink. Every time the driver wants to stop for water there’s some problem blocking the roadway or he misses the turns. For hours we work thirsty. As burly as this delivery work is, it’s preferable due to the customers’ tendency to tip, which is very unlikely for anyone working the sales floors.
We don’t finish our last delivery till after 6PM. Somebody invites me to go out into the city afterwards. He’s young but has already spent many years in prison for a series of high-value residential burglaries. His biggest heist was a million-dollar painting, sold it to a collector for a few hundred dollars because he didn’t learn its true value till later.
The evening starts with some innocent “gangsters” in the park. The first thing they ask me, “Are you Cripps or Bloods?” They’re fascinated with American gang culture, seemingly unaware how real the violence is. The youngest of them dreams of becoming a rapper in Chicago, singing us something he wrote. I have a feeling he’d be begging for a return to Paris if he ever actually spent a night on the south side of the Windy City. A guy pushing a baby stroller struts up to our park bench, an Atlanta Braves hat over long dreadlocks. A skinny reggae singer is mostly silent.
We hop the metro station turnstile and board a train to Châtelet-Les Halles, world’s largest underground station. Three-quarters of a million travelers pass through here every weekday. We transfer on to downtown, arriving just after a heavy rain shower. I’m trying to talk the burglar into finding a way to enter the famous Paris catacombs, hundreds of miles of ancient tunnels that contain the bones of some six million people. He says he’s been down there before to the infamous illegal parties, but he’s not able to find a way in tonight.
August 5th, 2012:
My small backpack is stuck in the furniture sales area where I’d hidden it under a desk yesterday, not knowing I wouldn’t return from the furniture deliveries till after closing time. The store is closed Sundays and Mondays, there’s nobody here with a key today. Finally after lunch I get tired of waiting and climb a telephone pole onto a roof, then slide down a gate to retrieve the bag. My entry is made in an alleyway so nobody notices.
It rains all day and the ceiling in my room starts dripping. A piece of the drywall falls off into the bucket I’ve placed to catch the water. The Polish roommate tells of his fascination with a famous magician, whom he calls a “mentalist”. He attempts some tricks on me but they mostly fail. “I’m tired”, he explains, “they not work when tired.”