Degrees of Poverty: Lille, France

I’ve seen far too many beggars and pickpockets in Lille today, so I assume the worst when I spot Farah being accosted by the old man. He’s wearing a shabby black overcoat and disrepute clings to him like a bad aura. Clutching our train tickets I hurry back to the bikes where she waits. She’s trying in vain to understand the stranger’s persistent requests, a wary expression on her face.

The man turns at my approach. I’m presented with a 70-year-old face, wrinkled and drawn, a puckered mouth framing very bad teeth. The creases are refuted though by surprisingly sharp eyes, their lively expression only beginning to show age’s watery timestamp. Addressing me in French, he gestures toward a candy vending machine nearby. Would we be so kind as to help him get some Menthos from it? He can’t understand these contraptions.

Seeing our expressions, he hastens to press some coins into our hands, assuring us that he isn’t asking for money. I feel a pang of guilt at my hasty conclusion and turn to the machine. Mission successful, he unrolls the silver foil in a long, thin spiral and pops out a mint. Then two more, which he offers to each of us in thanks for our help. Now I feel like a heel. Accepting the mint, I try to make up for my earlier suspicion and introduce the two of us. Our companion’s face transforms into a picture of delighted good humour when I ask him about himself. Eyes intent on our faces to ensure that we really are listening, he launches into a stream of consciousness.

Momo sleeps in a cut-rate apartment about 8 km from Lille. His neighbors are druggies and prostitutes for the most part, but they don’t bother him because he gave that type of life up long ago. He was once a well-off commercant, but ‘bad luck’ struck him once too often. Bad luck? I ask him what happened. He lost his money to a business failure, his friends to his poverty, his wife and 29-year-old son to the afterlife. His reply is simple and direct, with an acceptance that only the elderly can summon. He has gotten over becoming upset about the past, he says. Regrets will not return those things. He doesn’t need much anymore to make him content, satisfied to live out his time leading a simple life.

We are interrupted by a young man in his mid-twenties, who calls out a greeting to Momo as he runs past to catch his train. Momo smiles and raises his hand in return. Who was that? Momo can’t tell me, he doesn’t know the boy’s name. All he knows is that he is a regular commuter with whom he’s had passing conversations. Momo is a fixture with them, the regulars. Every morning he takes the train to the station. Then the last train back, late in the evening. He spends his day wandering the stone and marble halls of that echoing building in the company of strangers. They rush through with their heads bowed, a flurry of commuters, tourists, teenagers, families with children in tow, while Momo shuffles quietly from one corner to another, occasionally popping a Menthos.

He watches and absorbs the stir of life at the train station. He becomes a part of it for a time, until he heads home for the night. Sometimes someone stops, pausing long enough to listen to an old man ramble while they wait for their ticket.

I hate to interrupt him, but it’s time for us to catch our own train. Farah and I exchange thoughtful looks as we roll the bikes out of the main hall. I glance back before we round a corner. Momo is watching us leave and he grins his toothy grin at me. He pries out another Menthos before his face is lost in the throng.

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