The judge comes to see us. She's a short, round woman with a soft voice, very motherly. She sort of talks to me like I'm ten years old, but without treating me like a retard. She seems to want to help me. She sums up the situation without laying on the drama. That's a first . . .
“You don't seem to like school too much, Abdel Yamine, right?”
“Not too much, nope.”
“I understand that, you're not the only one, you know . . . But you like to be out at night? They told me you saw something pretty bad at Les Halles, someone got killed right in front of you.”
“So, do you think it's good for a young man of sixteen to find himself in that kind of situation?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Abdel Yamine, we're going to see each other again in three weeks. Between now and then, I'd like you to think about what you'd like to do. Maybe where you'd like to live. That way, we can talk about it and see what we can do. OK?”
To my parents:
“Mrs. Sellou, Mr. Sellou, let me remind you that this boy
is your responsibility until he's legally adult, which is eighteen in France. Until then, you must guarantee his safety, from himself included. A child isn't a burden, he's a dependent, and when you become parents you have to accept that. Do you understand what I'm explaining to you?”
Yes, this time they get it. Not all of it, but they get it. In the street, after spending three hours in the criminal investigation unit with shoulders slumped and eyes misted over, my father gets up the courage to speak.
“Did you hear that, Abdel? The lady said we're responsible for you, so you're going to behave yourself now!”
I also heard the word “burden.” I look at this poor man who's hooked up to wires for thirty years. As we cross over the Seine by way of the Pont Neufâwhere I have some memoriesâI think my life's a whole lot more interesting than his. Suddenly my mother raises her eyes to look at me; they're all wet with tears.
“Abdel, they killed someone in front of you!”
“It was nothing, Maman. It was like an accident or like a movie that I could have seen on TV. I was there, but I wasn't part of it, it wasn't me. It didn't do anything to me.”
Neither did their sermons.
The End of Innocence
I took advantage of my parents' weakness and didn't see any
thing wrong with it. At six, seven years max, I had said good-bye to childhood and the sailboats in the Tuileries to take a one-way trip to the state of wild independence. I watched, took stock of humanity. I saw that it was just like it is with animals: there's one dominator for many dominated. I figured that with a little bit of the survival instinct and intelligence, you could make a place for yourself.
I didn't realize that Belkacem and Amina were watching over me, in their own way. Whatever you might say about it, they accepted their role with what little they had, and I accepted them. And I called them Papa, Maman.
“Papa, buy me a new comic book.”
“Maman, pass me the salt.”
I asked them for what I wanted by giving them orders. I didn't know it was supposed to happen any differently. They obviously didn't know it either, since they didn't correct me.
Again, they didn't have the instructions. They thought that loving parents let their kids do anything. They didn't know that you sometimes had to forbid them things and that it was for their own good. They didn't have a good handle on the rules of proper society, the kind that require politeness all the time and emphasize the importance of behaving at the dinner table. They weren't going to teach me these rules, or ask me to respect them.
I came home many an evening with punishment homework. My mother watched me copying tens, hundreds of lines:
I must be quiet and stay seated during class. I must not hit my classmates during recess. I must not throw my metal ruler at the teacher
. I'd clear off a corner of the kitchen table, spread out my papers, and start my writing marathon. Maman, who was making dinner next to me, might dry her hands on her apron, come up behind me, put her hand on my shoulder, and look at my chicken scrawl piling up on the paper.
“That's a lot of homework, huh, Abdel? That's good!”
She could barely read French.
So she didn't read the comments at the bottom of my report card. “Difficult child who only thinks about fighting,” “Attends class as though he's a visitor . . . when he attends,” “Child in total rejection of the educational system.”
She also didn't read the summons from the teachers, the school director, later the junior high principal, the vocational school director. To all of them, I said:
“My parents work. They don't have time.”
I forged my father's signature.
Even now, I'm sure that only parents who know the
French school system and have actually gone through it attend the meetings and appointments for their kids. You have to know how school works and accept the way it works to be a part of it. And most of all, you have to want it. Why would Amina want something she didn't even know existed? For her, the roles were clear: Her husband worked and brought home the money. She did the cleaning, cooking, and laundry. School took care of our education. She didn't consider her son's character, which couldn't tolerate any kind of rule. She didn't know me.
Nobody really knew me, except maybe my brother, who was afraid of everything. I used him sometimes, for little jobs that didn't require any courage. Other than that, we barely talked to each other. When he was deported, in 1986, it made no difference to me. I looked down on him a little: he got himself kicked out of the only country he'd ever known over administrative paperwork. You had to be pretty dumb . . . I hung out with pals from the projects. I say pals because we weren't friends. What's a friend good for? Talking to? I didn't have anything to say because nothing got to me. I didn't need anybody.
At home, I didn't open the letters from Algeria. The people who wrote them didn't interest me. They weren't part of my world anymore, and couldn't even remember their faces: they never came to France and we never went there. My parentsâBelkacem and Aminaâwere simple people, but not stupid. They knew we lived better in Paris than in Algiers; they weren't nostalgic about
their hometown. They never piled the mattresses on top of the station wagon for the big summer migration. I had three sisters and a brother on the other side of the Mediterranean. They didn't exist for me any more than I did for them. We were strangers to each other. In fact, I was a stranger to the entire world, free as the wind, uncontrollable and uncontrolled.
Actually, this judge- for-kids thing isn't bad. Since I don't get my
money from the government anymore, she gives me a little allowance. Enough to buy me a kebab and fries and pay for my transportation. Every three weeks, I go to her office and she hands me my envelope. If I show up with shoes that are borderline too small for my growing feet, she adds a few bills. She hasn't figured out that the nicer she is, the more I ask for. And it works! At the worst, she gives me a speech.
“Abdel Yamine, you're not stealing anything, right?”
“Oh no, ma'am!”
“That sweatshirt looks brand-new. It's nice, by the way!”
“My father bought it for me. He works, he can afford it!”
“I know your father is a hardworking man, Abdel Yamine . . . but you, have you found any training?”
“Well what do you do with your days then? I see that
you're wearing a track jacket and you like athletic shoes. Do you play any sports?”
“Yeah. Kind of.”
I'm running. I'm always running. I run as fast as I can to get away from the cops who're chasing me from TrocadÃ©ro all the way to the Bois de Boulogne. I sleep in trains in the suburbs, but I don't sleep much. Once or twice a week, I get a room at a Formule 1 hotel so I can take a shower. I only wear new clothes. I leave them behind when I want to change.
Tourists rush to the foot of the Eiffel Tower to take photos of themselves. They stand right on the axis with TrocadÃ©ro, click-clack-Kodak, the memory's made and the camera almost put away in the bag: these Americans don't really take care of their toys. They hold their cameras negligently, dangling from their hands, they're loaded down with raincoats, water bottles, bags they wear on shoulder straps that get in the way of their walking. I give a demonstration to the younger kids looking to get into this line of work. I provide their training. I get closer, hands in my pockets, with the innocent, blissful look of a guy taking in the view and, suddenly, as quick as a cobra, I snatch the camera and take off toward the east. I cross the TrocadÃ©ro gardens, head down the boulevard Delessert, then the rue de Passy, and disappear into La Muette metro station. By the time the American realizes what's happened and tells the police, I'm back in the neighborhood and the merchandise has already been offloaded. The field is well organized and its headquarters is the Ãtienne Marcel metro station. There you can always find a taker for a video recorder, a Walkman, a watch, a pair
of Ray-Ban sunglasses. I don't bother with wallets; they're not effective enough: since credit cards showed up, people almost never keep cash on them, so it's not worth it. With technological devices, I easily guarantee myself a nice return. And what's more, no labor costs.
The guys that hang around TrocadÃ©ro have no common sense. Or they haven't picked a side yet: thieves versus honest people. They're the sons of storekeepers, middle managers, teachers, working-class people, these idiots who only skip classes one day out of two, who are looking for a thrill, but not really sure they want to find it. They're willing to take risks for me, small, brown-eyed, nothing special. They think I'm cool, they're lonely, they'd want to slum it a little, but since they weren't lucky enough to grow up in the projects like me, they don't know the ways to work that we all learn at the foot of our buildings. They act like puppies who run back with the stick their masters threw and pant with their tongues hanging out hoping for a piece of sugar. If necessary, they hit for me. They give me the merchandise that they aren't capable of offloading anyway. They barely expect a thank-you and they don't get a cut. I feel bad for them. I think they're really nice.
Once, twice, twenty times I get taken in. It's always the same
dance. Handcuffs and a more or less lengthy custody. Today I receive the honor for peeing on a statue of some Marshal Foch on his faithful steed, like Lucky Luke on Jolly Jumper.
“Degradation of public property. In the cell! See you tomorrow.”