The homeless man I offered a shrimp salad to berated me for “giving stale food that might make people sick”. He wouldn’t let me speak. “Do you know what is salmonella? It is dangerous! You got to be careful. You will make people ill!” In his frenzied attack, my interjections were drowned out on the busy sidewalk.
His words stung but the sun was finally out on that cool spring morning and I told myself to keep on moving. A few steps later, I turned around to tell him “I am a scientist and I know what salmonella is. This is not food that has gone bad – if you had only let me finish you’d know that too.”
I was walking around Châtelet, on my beat for “Serve the City Paris”, a NGO that helps distribute leftover food from a café in Paris to those in need. The sun probably made my brown skin look less like a shrimp, and more the colour of a caramel macchiato.
This one time, my pride was hurt. Was it the feeling of my well-meaning intention not being received with gratitude? If he was a drunk and disheveled homeless person, would I have forgiven him quicker? I cannot say. Would he have asked those questions if I didn’t speak French with my non-native accent? Would he have taken that belligerent, mistrusting tone had I not looked different to him: less caramel, more vanilla?
The despair I felt was compounded.
The wound of being seen as ‘different’ was not new. The day before, an old short white woman in the doorway to my friend’s building complex accosted me with unwarranted suspicion.
“Where are you going?” she admonished. “This is a residential area. No publicity here.”
I told her bluntly, “Why do you assume I’m dropping unwanted flyers or leaflets?” She only glared back in silence. “Is it because I don’t seem like I could live here? Not everyone who has darker skin is a miscreant,” I told her firmly. “Anyway, my friend is going to buzz me in, she lives here. I’m just going to wait here.” She stood silent, shocked. But I was tired of ignoring the rampant ignorance of intolerant people.
Attempting a hasty retreat, she offered a feeble response, “Hmm, well, I saw your backpack so I assumed you’re here for putting ads in the mailboxes”.
I raised my voice, as she huddled away, to remind her: “That’s not very nice of you. You should think what you say to people and what you presume.” Of course, she didn’t stop or turn back. She didn’t care. She was comfortable in her cozy arrogance to judge me.
After that scorned shrimp incident, I still had food left to hand out.
Chin up, and move on.
I brushed away the salmonella insinuation and tried to find other homeless people on the streets.
Unexpectedly, a man with skin darker than mine, probably in his late forties, approached me and said in French:
“Hello, I see you have a tote bag with the local artwork from my country, Senegal. May I ask where you got it?” He had a calm, smiling face. I slowed down my pace so he could keep up with me.
“It’s actually from India,” I said. “That is Warli artwork, it’s a form of tribal painting from Maharashtra, my state.” Then, I thought I disappointed him by saying “I got this bag in India.”
“Maybe you could get one for me too?” he said gently. There was no measure of imposition in his words. Only familiarity, nostalgia and an ache for what he had left behind.
“I wish I could tell you where, but I don’t know if you will find one in Paris. Like I said, I got it in India.”
He nodded, all the while walking confidently by my side. “ Yes,” he said, “but maybe you’ll go back to India one day and get another one. And then, like today, our paths will cross again in a happy coincidence.”
I smiled back, adding “Why not?”
Grinning with the warmth of a Senegalese sun, he said, “Good day. It was nice talking to you.” Just as he had appeared out of nowhere, he walked away into the buzz of Paris.
I thought about his words. What he had meant was “Your bag with its spindly stick figures, painted in red on the canvas-white, remind me of home. Or what was once home. Maybe you think of home too? Thank you for sharing your past with me.”
That was the kernel of a moment’s connection across oceans and centuries. Fleeting yet universal.
On my way home, I gladly parted with the last two sandwiches in my bag. On that sidewalk in Paris, the bleak morning sun had never felt warmer.