A man leaves the courtroom between two policemen, crying like a baby. He's almost out the door and still begging.
“Your honor, I swear I'll never do it again!”
The judge isn't listening. He's already moved on to the next case. It's Mr. Happy's turn, accused of destroying the ticket
counter of a metro station by throwing a trash can through the plate glass window.
The attorney jumps right in.
“Mr. President, I ask you to take into account the fact that my client committed this unfortunate act at a time when no RATP employee was sitting behind the window. He therefore knew he would not injure anyone.”
“Surely, Counselor . . .”
What, already? Obviously, the judge has forgotten the attorney's name. He addresses the defendant.
“Over the last six years, you've spent more than five years in prison, and always for the same kind of vandalism. Can you explain to me why it is you start up again at every opportunity?
“Your honor, I don't have any family. Life's hard on the street . . .”
“So that's it . . . well, I'm sending you back to get pampered in jail . . . six months at the prison farm.”
He practically asks the defendant if that'll be enough. The guy's not just happy now, he's ecstatic.
The old guy who stole the wallet is relaxed. For me, it'll be eighteen months inside, with eight months suspension and immediate incarceration following the hearing. The sentencing only takes a few minutes. I had owned up to all the accusations. But the court doesn't try to find out anything else, and actually, there was probably nothing else to know.
Ten months inside, so not even a year. The sentence doesn't scare me. I'm almost relieved, like the homeless guy looking for a place to stay. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just dreaming of a
bed. And to disappear a little. To erase myself, at the least. There's always a mattress for me at Beaugrenelle, and clean sheets scented with lavender or rose, but I've barely set foot in my parents' home in months. Even if I don't show them respect, even if my attitude, on the contrary, shows that I don't care what they think, I still don't walk through their door at dawn, face battered, woozy from the blows given or received the night before. The moment when I pass out is the one when my father gets up. He drinks his coffee at the kitchen table and joylessly gets ready for another day at workâhe's old, tired. I've understood how indecent it is to dive into the sheets Amina irons for a long time now.
I can't stand it anymore. I've slept in commuter trains too many times. I'm wiped out. I want a blanket, hot meals. I want to watch
every Sunday night on TV. So, here it goes. I'm on my way to Fleury.
Welcome to the rest home.
The day starts gently with a news flash. At eight o'clock, a reporter rattles off that a train jumped the tracks in the Doubs region, with four minor injuries and passengers suffering from shock evacuated by rescue workers. Cock-a-doodle-doo. Alain Prost won the Grand Prix in Budapest, Hungary. The weekend weather: sunny skies and scattered clouds in the northeast with a chance of rain, seasonal temperatures. I slowly wake up, the news anchor gets replaced by a bad song from Jean-Jacques Goldman, but I'm not worried. During the course of the day, I'll get treated to
the summer hit, from what I understand, at least three or four times. At least that's what they're trying to make us think, anyway . . .
The locks fly open. I stretch and rub my neck, yawn wide enough to break my jaw. Won't be too long till coffee; I can hear the cart coming down the hallway. I hold out my bowl, grab my tray, head back to my bunk. It's a commercial break
on Cherie FM. A chorus of girls is excited because shoes are at 199 francs. According to them, “you'd have to be crazy to spend more.” How 'bout if I told them I have a ton of ways to not spend anything at all? I dunk my toast, the margarine dissolves and forms tiny yellow beads on the surface . . . Breakfast in bed, what more could you want? Some quiet, maybe. I turn the radio volume down as much as possibleâit's going to continue its serenade until lights out. It's impossible to shut it up completely. Liane Foly, Rock Voisine, and Johnny Hallyday are the worst kind of torture for the inmates of Fleury-MÃ©rogis. Like Chinese water torture. You could go nuts if it weren't possible to drown out the asthmatic meowing of MylÃ¨ne Farmer with the reassuring purr of the television. I'm rich, with more than twelve thousand francs when I got here, and you only need sixty per month to rent a AV set. I treat myself. We get all six channels including Canal+. Now it's time for teleshopping.
Pierre Bellemare wants me to call him. He's trying to sell me a waffle iron. I look around my cell, no need to get up.
Sorry, Pete buddy, but there's no more room for powdered sugar in my pantry
. It's full of cigarettes (for newcomers in need, because I don't smoke) and Pepitos (for snack time). When I need to go shopping, I give my prison ID number, which is the same as my account: 186 247 T. I'm debited directly at the source, with no sales tax, and no withholdings. I improve on the ordinary, but I really can't complain anyway: the day I got here, I was welcomed by Ahmed, a buddy from Beaugrenelle. Since he was about to get out, he gave me all the necessities: a sponge and Saint-Marc detergent, a small, rectangular mirror in a pink plastic frame, soap that doesn't dry your skin out, the
AV set for listening to CDs, headphones included, of course, and a thermos for keeping water cold or coffee hot.
My world has been reduced from limitless to a few square feet. I still breathe fine all the same. Mid-morning, a guard suggests I get some fresh air. It's not mandatory; I could stay and watch out for deals from the old mustachioed guy on the shopping channel. But no, I like to go outside. It's often a chance to do business. Being weaned off Gitanes can be cruel for the newly arrived smokers. With a little bit of luck, and if they happen to get a sympathetic cop monitoring their break, they might get through one or two, but they're still far from their usual daily dose. We spot the new guys easily: they're wearing the uniform that they got when they arrived; they still haven't had the time or the opportunity to send for their personal clothes. They stand in the secondhand-smoke clouds exhaled by older detainees and dive for the butts they toss with disdain. The negotiation can now begin.
“Hey, I'm Abdel. You want some smokes?”
“Ousmane. Yeah, I want some! What do you want in exchange?”
“Your jacket thereâthat a real Levi's?”
“It won't fit you, it's too big.”
“Don't you worry, I know what to do with it . . . four packs for your jacket.”
“Four! Abdel, my brother, you must take me for a jerk, man! It's worth at least thirty.”
“I can go up to six. Take it or leave it.”
“Six . . . I can make it for three days with six packs.”
“Take it or leave it.”
“OK, I'll take it . . .”
The transaction can't happen during the walk: against the rules. It'll be finalized later in the day by a tried-and-true system we call yoyo that's tolerated by the guards. Even detainees who aren't involved play along: for one thing, because it's a way to pass the time, and also because everyone needs something at some timeâI mean that not playing along means being excluded definitively from our little community. I knot a rag around the cigarettes, attach the bundle to a sheet, slip it through the window, and start to swing it from right to left. When it gains enough momentum, my neighbor can snag the bundle. Then he passes it to his cellmate,who does the same thing, and so on and so forth until the package makes it to the buyer. Then he attaches his jean jacket to the sheet and sends it back to me the same way. Sometimes the sheet gets torn or a clumsy prisoner drops it. If it lands in the barbed wire on the ground, it's lost forever and ever . . . To avoid this kind of thing, we always make sure we don't “room” too far away from our business partners.
Now it's lunchtime. Soon it'll be nap time. Tomorrow, visiting hours. My parents come to see me once a month. We don't say anything to each other.
“Are you okay, son? Are you getting by?”
“And the others, in your cell, they leave you alone?”
“I have a single. It's better for everybody . . . everything's fine, I swear, it's all good!”
We don't say anything to each other, but I'm not hiding anything from them: I lead a nice life at Fleury-MÃ©rogis. We're all the same here. We begged, we stole, knocked people around a little, we dealt, we ran, we tripped, we got caught. Nothing big.
Some brag that they're in for holdups. We don't believe them. The real bad guys live at Fresnes. A guy named BarthÃ©lÃ©my boasts about stealing diamonds from the Place VendÃ´me. Everybody laughs: we know he's in the slammer for swiping a sausage-and-fries sandwich out of the hands of some suit at La DÃ©fense. He was sentenced for “moral prejudice.”