“My parents are going to be worried!”
“On the contrary, we'll let them know. For tonight, at least, they'll know you're safe and sound.”
I get my sandwich delivered right to my new place of residence. I give twenty clams to a cop who looks at me sidewaysâhe's afraid of bad guys. He's going to do my shopping at the corner store. When I don't like his face, I rip him a new one.
“Hey, moron, I told you ketchup-mustard, no mayo! You can't even take an order! This department's seriously screwed with people like you!”
A drunk is sleeping off his wine in one corner of the cell,
and an old man is whining in the other. A voice comes from one of the neighboring offices.
“Can it, Sellou!”
“Uh, Officer, sir, your white guy didn't give me my change.”
So the voice, now bored, says:
“Rookie, give him his money back . . .”
The other mumbles that he wasn't planning to keep it. I enjoy my meal.
I always operate in the same neighborhood, so I always run into the same officers (more like the same officers run into me!). Over time, we get to know each other; we're almost close. Sometimes they warn me.
“Sellou, watch out, the clock's ticking . . . you know after your next birthday, we can put you away for good.”
I crack up. Not because I don't believe them: I do believe them, because they said so. But for one thing, I can't be afraid of something I don't know, and for another, I have every reason to think that prison isn't so bad. And you get out fast. I see it with the Mendy, those groups of Senegalese who like to have their fun with girls. They go down regularly for gang rape. They get six months, tops, come out a bit thicker around the waist, a fresh new haircut, then they get straight back to business, treat themselves to new, young meat. Only once, one of them got three years because he put the girl's eye out with a crowbar. What he did was really bad, but regardless, we know we'll see him again soon. So prison really doesn't scare me. If it were all that bad, the ones who'd already been there at least once would do anything not to go back. Frankly, I can enjoy my sandwich in peace; I don't see any reason to shake in my boots. Tomorrow I get out, warmer weather's on the way, the girls will
be wearing summer dresses, I'll be back on the prowl, nights out with the guys, sleepless nights between Orsay and Pontoise, Pontoise and Versailles, Versailles and Dourdan-la-FÃ´ret. I've got a nice little stash in my bank account. Almost twelve thousand francs. I have a place to crash in Marseille, another in Lyon, and another close to La Rochelle. I'm going to have a nice vacation. After that, we'll see. I'm not thinking any further ahead.
I didn't do my eighteenth birthday justice. It slipped my mind.
I was busy with other stuff, probably. But you can be sure the cops had circled the date on their calendar because when it arrived they didn't waste too much time in getting ahold of me. They came at me all at once, when I was least expecting it, even though I had no reason to run that day. I was just about to leave for vacation at the beach! My turn to look like a happy idiot: I didn't know that the tourist complaints that had been piling up for months could put me away for years. I really lived like a wild animal, without any notion of time passing. As long as I was a minor, I couldn't be judged for petty crimes, so they couldn't sentence me. As an adult, everything changed, and the things I did before turning eighteen, written in red on my file, didn't play in my favor. If I'd straightened up after April 25, 1989, my eighteenth birthday, they wouldn't have had anything on me. Completely oblivious, carelessâa happy idiotâI kept on doing what I'd always done, bad stuff, that is, and it didn't last long.
I was walking down the hall of the metro at TrocadÃ©ro, a wide and long hall where the wind blows in every season, making the caps on old guys' heads and silk scarves around ladies' necks flap around. I saw a couple coming toward me, both in jeans, him with a camera on a strap around his neck, her in a beige raincoat. I hesitated for a second: was that camera worth it? Nah, I'd already done well for the day, I could call it quits. Lucky for me. The couple was actually two undercover cops. When they got to where I was, I felt an arm slide under my elbow and a hand grab my wrist. In a flash, I was immobilized by four people (where did the other three come from?), forced down on my stomach, handcuffed, and lifted up just as fast, in this horizontal position, heading toward the exit. The whole thing only took a few seconds. A real kidnapping.
Gray concrete, smashed chewing gum, thin legs perched on stilettos, cinched pants resting on leather heels, worn-out tennis shoes topped with hairy calves, a used metro ticket, an old paper tissue, a Twix wrapper, cigarette butts by the dozens . . . now I understand why Superman never flies low. They finally stand me back up.
“I don't know you! Are you new? Why are you arresting me?”
I wait to hear the official reason for my presence in this pretty little police car, all nice and clean. I definitely don't offer up a reason to put me inside if they don't already have one.
“Assault and theft. We saw you yesterday; we even got nice pictures of you. And again this morning, by the way!”
“Oh! And where are we going?”
“You'll see when you get there.”
In fact, no, I don't see. I don't recognize this place. They must have built a phony precinct, like the phony betting parlor in
with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The same dirty walls, the same jaded civil servants typing up their reports on noisy typewriters, the same indifference toward the defendant . . . They set me down in a chair. The person who owns this office is out for the moment, but I'm told he'll be right back.
“No problem, I've got plenty of time . . .”
I don't worry any more than all the other times. I'll get out in a day or two at the latest. Whatever happens, I'll have had a new experience.
“I won't explain the processâyou know it!” says an inspector sitting down heavily across from me.
“Well, yeah, you always . . .”
“From now on, you're in police custody. I'll question you and take your deposition. Then I'll send it to the prosecutor, who'll decide whether or not you'll face charges. You probably realize it's more than likely.”
Attentively, I watch the couple from the metro walking between the desks. He still has his camera around his neck; she's taken off her raincoat. They don't pay any attention to me. They've moved on to something else, another rascal, another miserable case.
French citizens, tourists, brave people, sleep in peace. The police are working to ensure your security.
From the police station, I was transferred to the Palais de Justice.
The prosecutor was waiting for me. Our meeting went down really fast.
“I see in your file that you were seen on Tuesday and Wednesday on the TrocadÃ©ro esplanade committing several misdemeanors with various tourists: you stole a video camera, a camera, two Walkmen, you committed assault and battery on two men trying to resist you . . . Do you admit to these charges?
“Do you agree to go before the court immediately, with the assistance of a court-appointed attorney?”
He says to the two officers waiting by the door: “Thank you, gentlemen, you can take him down to holding.”
The holding cell is in the basement of the Palais de Justice. The light stays on around the clock. They took my watch and shoved me into a cell, and from there, I lost all notion of time.
It didn't seem long or short to me; I wasn't impatient or anxious. The French government kindly offered me a piece of bread, a serving of Camembert, an orange, some cookies, and a bottle of water. My stomach could stand a diet like this. I thought,
Whatever happens, I'll always have food and water
Anyway, I'm not controlling things anymore
. I dozed on my bunk, the third one, just under the ceiling. Strangely, I had everything I needed.
The sounds I'm hearing aren't familiar. Some cry, scream, slam their fists on their cell door: addicts going through withdrawal. You'd think we were in an asylum. The show going on here could make you laugh.
There are two Arabs there, one small and wiry, the other big and fat. The first paces back and forth in the tiny cell, talking to the second, sitting patiently on the bottom bed. The Laurel and Hardy of petty crime.
“This is bad! This is bad! My wife, my sons, they never worked. What're they gonna do without me? If I go down for months, in jail, they won't eat!”
The fat one laughs, but he's a nice guy and tries to reassure the other.
“Come on, don't worry . . . if your wife has to work, then she'll do it! Your kids, same thing! And when you get back home, you'll find your bank account fuller than it is today, you know!”
“Oh, I don't know, I don't know!”
“Why are you here anyway?”
“For a wallet . . .”
Now I can't help bursting out in laughter. I'm eighteen and already into big crime compared to this guy who could easily be my father. I don't say anything. I don't want to make enemies, even weak ones, but I think it's pathetic to get thrown inside, at fifty-five plus, for stealing a wallet. And he's freaking out, too! It's already unbelievable that he's here for so little, but it's insane that he's making himself sick over it. And I can't imagine the French justice system would spend one franc of its tiny budget to sentence a loser like him. Clearly, he's not putting the country in danger, and if prison has the power of dissuasion, it'll definitely work on this type of guy.
We'll find out pretty fast: the door opens and they come to get us for an immediate court appearance. All three of us are going before a judge, but so are a dozen other defendants who join us in the hallway. We climb the stairs together to the courtroom.
I've never been to the theater in my entire life, but I saw plays on television when I was little. “Set design by Roger Harth and costumes by Donald Cardwell . . .” Well, here we are, and I'm ready to do some improv. The staging seems pretty well done, the roles given out judiciously. There's the one who's sobbing to soften up the judges. The one trying to look sorry, as you might at confession, or at least that's what I imagine. The one cringing in pain, or pretending anyway, even if nobody's interested. There's the nonchalant guy, lips pursed, whistling softly between his teeth. Then there's the happiest kid in the class, to the point where you wonder if he isn't a complete idiotâhe's thrilled to be here! Then finally, there's me, hands in pockets, stretched out on my bench, pretending to be asleep for the first several acts. With my eyes half-closed, I watch, scrutinize, savor.
I'm filling in the blanks for my inventory of humanity, but I still come to the same conclusion: there are a lot of dominated, a few dominants, and the judges obviously belong to the second group. They're sweating in their black robes, they sigh with each new case, they barely look up to see the defendant coming forward, they yawn during the defense attorney's little speech (to call this pleading a case is an insult to the attorneys I sincerely admire and respect). The head of the court declares the sentence and slams his gavel down on the table.
He must want to wrap things up fast. I look at him and wonder if it was worth it studying all those years just to end up here, in a dusty courtroom, sitting in an uncomfortable chair, teaching lessons to pre-retirement-age Mohammeds who steal wallets. By the way, what kind of studies do you have to do to get here? The young elite from the XVIth are always talking about “doing law at Assas,” a public university. But what is law, exactly? The law, my law, is whatever I decide for myself. I'm eighteen years and a few weeks old, I go around wearing a Lacoste jacket, I pick up girls easily at the parties I crash, I steal one of their daddies' Volvos, go eat seafood in Normandy, leave the car on the side of the road when the gas runs out and hitch back to Paris. I haven't learned anything yet.