Three pitiful girls have ended up here, in this class of degenerates. At least one of them will find herself in the position, more than once, and under more than just one of them . . . I have my faults, but that kind of violence isn't one of them. Thanks, guys, but no thanks. I play elsewhere, and at other games.
We were restless at Beaugrenelle towers. The stores were start
ing to get seriously equipped in anticipation of our visits: motion detectors, more sophisticated antitheft devices, security cameras, personnel trained to be on the lookout for certain kinds of customers . . . In less than two years, the security had increased so much in stores that we could no longer steal from the source. We either had to give up on the hooded sweatshirts that suited us so well or else go get them somewhere else . . . directly from the wearers, the kids from the rich neighborhoods. The reasoning doesn't lack logic or cynicism, I can admit it now. At the time, I didn't register anything. Once again, I was absolutely incapable of putting myself in another person's shoes. I didn't try; that didn't even occur to me. If anyone had asked me about the suffering of the adolescent who just got mugged, I would have just laughed. Because nothing was serious to me and nothing was serious to the others, especially not the white kids born with silver spoons in their mouths.
Starting in junior high, parents stopped walking their children to the school entrance. As soon as they left their apartment door, the kids became easy prey. We'd see one, all decked out, and we'd be on him in twos or threes, surrounding him on the sidewalk and walking in the same direction as though we were going to school together, as friends. Other people passed us and didn't notice anything strange. I think they even must have thought they were witness to something remarkable:
So this little communicant is friendly with two Arabs! This boy from a good family has the strength of heart not to reject these boys hardened by a life that's obviously very unstable . . .
They didn't hear the conversation going on between us.
“Your shoes, what number?”
“You mean what size? Why do you want to know?”
“Forty, perfect! Exactly what I need. Give them to me.”
“Well, no, I'm not going to go to school in socks, for God's sake!”
“I have a cutter in my pocket. You wouldn't want to stain your nice blue sweater with nasty little red drops, would you? Sit down here!”
I'd point to a bench, a step, the entrance to a store not yet open.
“Go on, undo the laces, and make it fast!”
I'd slide the Nikes into my bag and leave with Yacine, who, wearing a size 42, had a harder time dressing himself by way of the little junior high schoolers.
Sometimes we did use the cutter. But on the jacket, just on the surface, never on skin. We sometimes had to hit. With our fists and feet. That's when the guy didn't give up easy. We thought that was a really stupid reaction. For a pair of shoes, seriously . . . I got caught a few times. Spent an hour or two down at the station and went home just like nothing had happened. The police in France are far from being as terrible as they are in the movies. I never got the yellow pages thrown in my face, not even a tiny slap. They don't hit kids in France; it just isn't done. There was no hitting at Belkacem and Amina's, either. I remember the screams from certain neighbors: those of the son howling from pain when the father whipped his back, of the mother screaming for her son's torture session to be over. I remember Mouloud, Kofi, SÃ©kou, they got their fair share. You couldn't slap them too hard on the shoulder for days after and you definitely couldn't bring it up, couldn't say that you'd heard and understood what went on. Nothing happened. By the way, nothing ever changed. Life before the whip was just like life after the whip. Mouloud, Kofi, and SÃ©kou still kept their spots down at the entrance or on the slab, and they still ran as fast.
I take precautions. I get far away from the XVth. Line 10 to Charles-Michel, change at OdÃ©on, and then get off at ChÃ¢telet-Les-Halles. It's a melting pot here. Blacks and Arabs, mostly. Some of them think they're American. They stuff themselves with hamburgers to have the same build as breakdancers. You
can hear them coming a mile away, ghetto blasters booming on their shoulders. A baseball cap slapped on their head, but turned backward, and they wear pants as big as they can find. They set down the blaster, turn the volume up, and start to move. They put on their show and the volume covers the sound of negotiations.
Everyone's doing their business without worrying about others; I blend into the crowd. I inhale a sandwich, unload a Lacoste jacket, a pair of Westons, nothing bad: drugs are sold somewhere else, out of my sight. That's not my thing, except when it's to sell to the golden boys from the XVIth district looking to spice up their parties. I sell them dried peppers. It doesn't resemble pot at all, in odor or in color. They don't seem to notice; they fork over the cash. I shape a piece of maple bark and make a perfectly presentable bar of hash. I just have to rub it with the real thing, for color and smell, and roll it all up in some newspaper. At the Fontaine des Innocents, a white kid in a blazer shows up.
“You have any, you have any?”
“And you, you have the cash?”
And the transaction is made just like that; the kid doesn't waste any time. I imagine his expression when he opens the package. He'll take out the rolling papers and the tobacco he's stuffed under his mattress; he'll try to crumble the stuff up to roll a joint, and lose some skin in the process.
It's good shit, right, Bernard? Are you kidding, it's bark!
Parties, or “zulu parties,” as we call them, go on in basements. We're all friends, no matter what our ethnic origins are. And because we're friends, we don't really know each other. I know first names, or nicknames, of every person that passes
through, like they know mine: Lil' Abdel. That's as far as it goes. I don't know their last names; they've never heard the name Sellou. They call me little because of my size, not my age, fifteen. There are a lot of younger ones here than me, and some really clueless girls. They get off on the danger they sense; they like getting looks from the boysâalready strong like men, but they're going to regret it. I watch this little world from close up, but I'm not really a part of it. One night I'm with some punks, outside; another night, it's raining, I do my business in the shelter of underground passages.
“Hey, Lil' Abdel! Got a lead for you tonight. Some girl from Henri IV is having a party at her house, by Ranelagh. Her parents aren't home, you know what I mean?”
At these things, we show up, play nice at the party, until one of us gives the signal that it's time to go. Then we clean the place out. At the very least there's always a brand-new video player to swipe. I disconnect the wires, carefully, and roll them up with skill. The little mistress of the house is horrified.
What are my new friends doing? They were so nice just five minutes ago! How could I have known? Those bad guys!
She locks herself in her room. My friends crack up to see me walking down the street, business as usual, carrying a television that weighs as much as I do.
“Lil' Abdel, you're the best!”
You know it . . . tonight we're hanging out at the Place CarrÃ©, which isn't very well named since it's kind of round, not
square. Suddenly things heat up between two guys over on the
other side, against the wall. Everybody watches from a distance; nobody gets close. You don't stick your nose in other people's business. Ever. They start to fight. It's the usual.
What's not so usual is the blood spurting out of one guy's neck. And not so usual, the white rice that's coming out of the throat on the dead guy, black. Dead, for sure.
We clear out in a split second like a flock of pigeons taking off. I didn't see the blade that cut into his flesh; it must have been big and solid, and the hand holding it very strong. And determined. That's the reason I never touch hard drugs, whether to take or to sell. That kind of business can go too far. It's funny: me, who's never doubted myself, me who steals without thinking twice, I know I'd never kill someone over money.
The cops will be here any minute. I run as far as possible. All the witnesses from the scene have scattered around the city and its underground. I saw the dead guy's head hanging heavily to his shoulder, almost cut clean off. But no, I didn't see anything.
People died in my neighborhood, too, from loneliness and
despair, just like they died in the city. They killed themselves, most of them by jumping out of windows. Every time it was a big event. There were hundreds of us in the little Beaugrenelle project, nearly a thousand, and we all knew each other. There was something sensational about one of us suddenly passing away. The old folks who usually stayed cooped up in their apartments came out onto the landing to talk to the neighbors. But in reality, they didn't really say anything to each other. Some just wanted to be seen, show everybody else that they had compassion for poor Mr. Benboudaoud who finally lost it. Others tried to be clever by explaining the reason for the suicide, which they alone understood, of course.
“He couldn't stand living alone anymore, Youssef, he'd been so depressed ever since his wife's death, when was that already?”
“It's been five years, but you've got it wrong, it's not because of his wife that he killed himself.”
Silence, suspense, drum roll, the other waits silently for the big finale.
“He killed himself because of his mail.”
“Oh really? So what was in his mail this morning?”
“Didn't you notice he was holding on to a letter when he hit the ground?”