In “River Secret,” a man called Baptiste plays his music setup at the entrance to the Tuileries Garden in Paris. He’s fictional, but a real-life one-man band plays there as well. I see him almost every day when I jog across the footbridge over the Seine to the park entrance. The melancholy wail of his saxophone echoes off the ceiling of the concrete passageway leading to the garden. Tourists stop and listen, and drop a few coins in his upturned hat.
But do they know who he is? Where he comes from? Where he sleeps at night?
Paris is filled with people like that man. Invisible people who struggle to get by. You don’t see them sipping tiny cups of coffee in the brightly lit cafés around Saint-Germain des Près, perusing designer stores on the Rue Saint- Honoré or strolling along the Champs- Elysées. You don’t hear them complain. They don’t seek revenge for the cards fate has dealt them.
I’ve come across a lot of Parisians like that in my 15 years here.
They include Piotr, the homeless guy who works the corner of the Rue de Sèze and the Boulevard des Capucines. I give him an apple on my way to work. Or Véronique, a manicurist who labors over fingers and toes 10 hours a day — so much for the 35-hour workweek. Or Farida, age 45, who’s never held a computer mouse or typed on a keyboard. She comes to a community center in Le Blanc Mesnil, a grim apartment-block suburb in the north, to learn technology skills in hopes she can get a job.
These folks have little to do with the place I call Woody Allen’s Paris: a beacon of monuments and museums bathed in golden light, devoid of crowds and traffic jams and filled with beautifully dressed French people who speak perfect English. Travel articles as well give the impression that my adopted city is populated by residents who do little but slip into small art galleries in the Marais of a rainy afternoon, or suck up duck confit with carrots at an outdoor café on the Rue Mouffetard.
You can do that when you visit Paris, and I hope you come here often. Make a point of stopping by the Tuileries entrance by the river and see the musician. He’s not invisible. He has a name. It’s Bernard. Drop a few coins in his hat. That’s his best revenge.
Check out “River Secret” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.
Anne Swardson is an editor-at-large with Bloomberg News in Paris and a former European economic correspondent for the Washington Post. “River Secret” is her first published work of fiction. She is also the author of an unpublished mystery novel. Like “River Secret,” it is set in Paris, where Swardson has lived with her husband and two children for fifteen years.