Saturday, 21 June 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Dilip

Dilip's Ship-shape Laundrette

In 1981, sick and tired of doing a mix of badly paid work and collecting the dole, I impulsively got up
in the middle of the night and set off hitchhiking to Paris. I had no more than five pounds in my pocket. But I'd done this before – something always came up. A farmer would offer me a day's work. In Paris I might earn a few francs and a meal by washing-up in a cafe. Good fortune began in the early hours. Cadging a lift from a lorry driver at a local service station I discovered he was heading for the port of Dover. Not only did I get a free ride all the way to Paris, I got a meal on the ferry as a driver's mate. By late afternoon I was walking along the banks of The River Seine.

Tired from a night without sleep, I lay down against a willow tree in front of a big hotel for an early
evening snooze. But no sooner had I dropped off than I was awoken by an angry doorman in a uniform and a peaked hat.
"No no Monsieur, pas ici!" he said, waving me away like a stray dog.
He looked serious so I picked up my backpack and moved on as requested. Wandering through the busy streets around St Denis, I smelled fresh bread. Hungry, I spotted the bakery and went in to buy a loaf of bread, but I was taken aback by the prices. Had they anything cheaper, I asked? The woman looked me up and down as if I were a tramp, which I suppose in some ways I was. Crossly she put a rather charred loaf into a bag and slapped it in my hand, refusing any payment. Her charity, however, did not extend to returning my smile. "Putain!" she muttered, nodding towards the door. Paris seemed a hard place.

I trudged the streets for what seemed an age until my feet ached. Finally at the steps of a large church (Abbey de St Denis) I sat myself down to eat the loaf. It was here I met Dilip, a small, slightly built Indian man from Kerala. We immediately hit it off after he offered me half his pat of runny camembert in exchange for half my bread. He spoke English better than he spoke French, he told me.
"Where do you sleep?" he asked, bluntly.
"Oh, I dunno, I always find somewhere," I told him.
"Hah! Good luck my friend," he laughed. Paris is different. There are many night sleepers, but the police are hard. They move you. You don't sleep more than one hour in a night. I remember."
Dilip looked sad, sitting there shaking his head. It was plain to see that this man had endured a hard life.

"If you go to the centre, try St Lazare Station," he said, getting up to go. "You must hide inside when they lock the gates at 1am. But be careful, bad people with knives will try to rob you. Stick with a group. There are hundreds."

Jumping a free tram south, I got off around Pigalle and headed west, requesting directions for St Lazare. Eventually after several wild goose chases I found the station. There were already plenty of pitiful looking groups of people hanging around with cardboard bedrolls and blankets. They were mostly young, tired and dirty. Some looked positively ill. Drugs, drink, sleep deprivation and the filth of the gutters had ravaged them. I mustn't ever end up like them, I told myself.

By 1am there were indeed about two hundred of us making a vague effort to hide in the shadows of the arches in the outer station foyer, where the taxis and the touts usually waited in the day. In the darkness I heard the gates being slid across with a terrifying crash. There was a period of silence which lasted all of two minutes, after which people came out of their holes like rats on a wooden cargo ship, all eager to grab the best spots to doss down. Scuffles erupted and threats rung out in the dark, but eventually people settled down. Here and there a glow emerged from the dark as dog-ends began to be lit and drawn desperately upon. I had not long drifted into sleep when I was poked roughly in the ribs and asked for my passport by a policeman – or so I thought. No sooner had I opened my backpack to find my passport than he grabbed at it.

"Where is the money, Anglais – whiskey?" I saw his black teeth and dirty fingernails. This was no policeman.
"I have no money," I shouted, "you can look! I was robbed last night in a park, that's why I'm sleeping here."

"Hey conard, laiser l'etranger," someone nearby shouted. Others called out too. I saw their eyes sparkling.
Snatching the remains of my loaf of bread, the man strolled off. This was not a place where vagrancy was tolerated, he called to me, grinning. There was no point going to the police, he added. But inside the cage there were no police, I thought. That was the downside of course. Picking up my bedroll I shifted myself towards the group who seemed to have protected me.
"Merci," I muttered.
"Les rat sont dangerous ici, mon ami," a woman muttered. "Dorme bien."

Every night hundreds of rough sleepers used to risk confinement behind 
the locked gates of St Lazare Station with thieves and cut-throats

Having managed to survive the night without being robbed again, eaten by rats or arrested, I wandered back north-east, rode another tram and found myself a quiet corner by the abbey where I had met Dilip the evening before. I felt drawn to this area. I suppose I had hoped I might see him there, or maybe it was just that meeting a friendly soul here had given the place a positive aura. I pulled out my copy of Orwell's Down and Out In Paris and London and began to read. Intentional or not, it was only about half an hour before Dilip appeared and sat down beside me. He read my face.
"Gare St Lazar is not good sir, I told you that."
"You were right," I replied. "Like something from Les Miserables!"
Dilip laughed, although I suspect he did not know the book. His shiny gold front tooth told me Dilip was not a pauper by Indian standards. I had been wondering about his background.
"So what brought you to Paris then Dilip?" I asked.

Dilip sighed deeply and related to me a long tale of how he had lived in a small village with a wife and five children in the Kerala hills. He and his wife had worked on a tea plantation and his wife took in washing, but their life was meagre. He wanted his children to be educated. Three years ago a French tourist in Kerala had told him he would pay him to run his laundrette in Paris. The money he offered him had seemed like a fortune. Dilip had used their savings and borrowed to pay for the flight, a passport and a visitor's visa. The man honoured his offer but Dilip had soon discovered that on the amount he earned he could send only a little home after paying for food and a room. He worked long hours until late at night and had to resort to sleeping rough after the laundrette closed. Eventually he got sick. He had asked his boss for more money but he became angry and threatened to turn him over to the immigration authorities. Life was still hard now but things had improved. His eldest son had passed his exams to go to university, he told me proudly, and one day he might be able to pay for his wife to visit him here.
Could he not go home to see the whole family, I asked?

"Once I try to leave sir," said Dilip, "I will be imprisoned for visa violation and then deported. No, I cannot leave sir. Not for many years."

It seemed like a life sentence in prison to someone like me. Born with an insatiable wanderlust, the idea of such a restriction on my life seemed unendurable.

"So where do you live now?" I asked. "You're not still sleeping rough?"

"No no sir," said Dilip, smiling, "much better now." Dilip stood up from his crouching position. "Come sir, you must eat breakfast."

Lifting the heavy metal shutters and unlocking the door to the laundrette, Dilip entered and beckoned
me to follow him inside. It was tiny – one of those long narrow laundrettes with machines down one side and just enough room for a line of plastic chairs opposite, where people sat and stared mundanely at their washing turning in the drum. Dilip pulled the shutter back down. It was still only 7am. At the back of the shop he sat down on a short bench and pulled up a plastic washing basket as a small makeshift table. Opening his satchel, he took out a paper bag and produced two large fresh croissant. Not wanting to take from a man so financially constrained in life, I tried to refuse.

"I don't pay for these sir," he laughed. "Lady at the bakery gives me food in exchange for washing overalls. Later she will come with sandwiches and coffee. Eat!"

Starving hungry, I did as I was told. They were excellent croissant.
"Now sir you will see," said Dilip. "I don't show a single soul where I live, but I know I can trust you."

Rising to his feet, Dilip took a small metal handle from his pocket, inserted the end into a hole in the wooden panelling above us and turned. Getting up from the bench, I stood back to see what he was doing. Carefully Dilip lifted the hinged panel and wedged it open with a wooden strut that folded down from behind. There was a smell of incense. Dilip stretched inside the dark space and I heard a switch flick. What I saw in the light of a dim bulb astonished me. In the centre of a space about 2m wide, 1m deep and 1m high, lay a thin mattress with clean sheets, a pillow and a blanket. All around, the crumbling plastered walls were draped with velvet curtains and pictures of India. Souvenirs from shrines, a dried garland of flowers. As my eyes became accustomed to the light I could see a small makeshift shelf of books, a French dictionary, a bodged electrical socket, a transistor radio and a small kettle. A string bag hung at one corner, seeming to contain spare clothes. This was minimalist living in the extreme.

Dilip's walls were covered with mementoes of his life in Kerala

"I make it sir," said Dilip, glowing with pride. He seemed delighted by my incredulity. "Yes indeed sir, one day a pipe man must come to repair the water pipe and I was seeing the space. I was thinking, well in India plenty people live in a slum house so small. It is warm and dry here and nobody can see inside when the shutters are closed. I could live here secretly, I was telling myself. Yes yes, so over the space of some weeks I was gradually collecting materials for my new house. Finally it has become a cherished home sir, as you can no doubt see."

I stood staring into the tiny niche, still incredulous. Cherished it clearly was. There was even a red lacy lampshade over the bulb and a hand painted card saying Home Sweet Home. A few bottles of water and some tins of food were lined up along the back wall.

"You can climb inside sir," said Dilip excitedly. "It is very safe and I am cleaning it every day. Please go inside!"

I did as Dilip asked. Lying there on the bed, looking out at Dilip in the shop I could see how special this must feel to Dilip. In fact after a night among the underworld people in St Lazare station it felt like luxury to me too. But more than that, the simplicity of it all was attractive to me. So little to worry about; nothing to pay for; warmth in winter from the tumble-driers; a sink in the corner and located in the centre of Paris; who needed anything more really? There was even the convenience of a public phone on the wall by the front door.

"I think you like it, Mr Mark sir?" grinned Dilip.

"It's wonderful, Dilip," I replied. "Beautiful in fact. Yes I really like it."

Dilip wobbled his head from side to side and smiled the smile of a man who is so rarely flattered for what he has achieved. It seemed such a big thing to him that I liked it. He actually cried.

"Sir, I want to ask you something," said Dilip, wiping his eyes. I nodded, happy to do anything I could for this charming man. "Sir, I have never taken a holiday. Only to Eiffel tower by bus. You see I would like to go to visit my wife's cousin in Nancy, sir. Maybe two nights. My boss Monsieur Maurice, he goes away for every weekends sir. I have checked many times to be certain. I am thinking maybe you would like to stay here sir. I can instruct you about the work, it's very easy. Mainly to empty the coins and take to the bank. Monsieur Maurice, he does not worry so long as the money comes in and all is ship-shape sir."

Over the next few days I slept on a cardboard box with a blanket in the Laundrette. Dilip was a meticulous worker, I discovered, and he instructed me well. He certainly kept things ship-shape alright! Monsieur Maurice, a busy accountant, had inherited the place and never seemed to visit. Once or twice a month was Dilip's estimate. Sometimes he called up on the public phone, Dilip said and often just slipped an envelope with his wages through the letterbox.
Finally Friday came. Dilip packed his satchel with some clean clothes and a wash-bag, gave me a few last minute reminders, thanked me, wished me a pleasant weekend and then slipped away. There was something in his smile as he glanced back.

The Busy Streets of St Denis, Paris

I really did enjoy the first few days in Dilip's Parisian micro-pied a terre, but I am at heart a nomad. A different kind of person, perhaps an older man, would probably have been happy staying there indefinitely. I often wonder about Dilip and where he is now.  

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, plus his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. Click a link or enter the author's name / book title into your internet search box:

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