Fifteen minutes into our conversation, Blue Sweat Pants said, “This is the drug coach.” By that time I was aware.
This is a true story.
I did something unusual on Wednesday evening – I decided to make the long trek down the station sidewalk to sit in the front car of the train back to Chateau Thierry for my last night with Jerome and Katrin. Usually, I just jumped in one of the rear cars which park nearest to the gate at Gare de l’Est. After all, why walk all the way to the front when there are perfectly comfortable coaches right there at the back? But, this was my last time on this train, so, Why not? I thought.
I stepped into my chosen coach and climbed into the upper deck to take one of the single seats with lots of leg room. I took out my headphones, leaned against the window, and settled in to people watch before taking off for the hour long train ride home.
The people whom I saw making their way all the way up to my car were… interesting. This was not my normal commuter crowd. The first guy who entered my train was impeccably dressed, but his clothing looked like something Johnny Depp would wear in a Tim Burton movie. He was wearing a white dress shirt that looked like it had been made in the 1920s, and the wrists of the shirt were studded with onyxed cufflinks. He tucked his shirt into silver, pin-stripped dress pants that were so shiny there might have been real silver woven into the fabric. Where his trousers ended rested two patent leather shoes whose blackness was rivaled only by the jet of his goatee and long, slicked back hair. He sat in the corner of the train across the aisle just to my left. I tried not to stare.
Shortly, other people began to arrive. They were all kids my age and younger, and their dress was uniform in its eccentricity and dishevelment. While my initial traveling companion was stoic and refined, these new passengers were rambunctious and apparently one argument with their housemates away from homelessness. None of them sat with the Mr. Pin-Stripes, but they each acknowledged him with a nod of their heads in his direction as they passed to sit in the seats directly behind me. Realizing something was going on, I tried to be as invisible as possible.
During this invasion, every once and a while, a business person like the ones I was accustomed to riding with in the rear cars would enter the car, look up into the upper birth where I was sitting, make a face of disgust, and then go sit on the bottom birth. Strange, I thought. Then, just as the train was hissing and humming in preparation to take off, a final young man entered the train, hopped up the steps to say hello to Mr. Pin-Stripes, and the bounded back down to the lower level to use the restroom. A moment later as the train was beginning to move, the young man came back and sat in the seat directly on the other side of the aisle nearest me. He was wearing a brand new looking New York Yankees cap, blue sweat pants, and a brown stained off-white t-shirt. I pretended to be asleep.
As the train began to leave the station, I remembered that for the past two weeks I had wanted to take a few pictures out of my window of the graffiti that lines the tracks all throughout the station. I love graffiti, and there were some interesting paintings on the walls of the buildings abutting the station. Trying as hard as possible to not draw attention to myself, I took out my camera and tried to snap a few pictures.
Blue Sweat Pants caught me in the act. He tried to get my attention by saying something I couldn’t understand in French. I took out my earphone and told him I didn’t speak French, trying as hard as possible to be polite and yet slightly off-putting, hoping he’d leave me alone.
He didn’t leave me alone. Apparently, he was thrilled that I only spoke English as this proved a perfect opportunity to practice what little English he knew. (Realize, I may represent him in the following exchange as speaking in one word sentences consisting almost entirely of nouns, because that’s how our conversation happened, but his ability to speak English far out distances my ability to speak French.)
“You. Which one?” he said pointing out the window.
“Oh, I like lots of them,” I said.
“No. You. Which one?” he said again while miming using a can of spray paint in the air.
“Ah! None of them are mine,” I said, “I just like them.”
He smiled. “Me,” he said tapping his chest with his open palm, “Artist.”
“You did some of those? Which ones?”
He waved his hands in the air and shook his head then gestured in disgust at the graffiti that lined the tracks. He moved his jacket off the seat beside him and took a small canvas out of a yellow shopping bag. “Me. Artist,” he explained.
“Oh!” I said understanding, “That’s great!”
“You like?” he said motioning again to the graffiti.
“Yeah. I like… street art?” I said hoping he’d understand the reference.
“I did,” he said motioning again outside, “Police. Dogs.” He pulled his hand down over his face turning his smile into a frown. He mimed using a spray paint can again and then running away. “Too fast. Danger.”
“Yeah. I always wonder how people get out there to do that. And sometimes they get so high. It amazes me.”
“My friend, Jacques – big. Many.” He made a face that communicated seriousness and respect. He thought for a moment. “Monster,” he said puffing out his chest and sitting up straight.
I nodded. “You do that?” I asked pointing outside.
He made a face of disgust, pointed to his canvas, and said, “Better. Safer.”
We sat silently for a moment. I looked back out the window at the passing graffiti imagining what it must be like to paint as fast as you can and then run from dogs, you head still light from the spray paint fumes, jumping over walls and sliding through fences in the middle of the night.
“You? Where from?”
I turned back to him. “Caifornia. L.A.” I answered.
“Live here?” he asked.
“No. Just for a short time. Studying. You? From here?”
He nodded, thought for a moment, then said, “Projectionist,” miming a hand crank camera and putting film on a wheel.
“Hmm,” I said, “I review movies. That’s my job – film critic.”
“Ummm… No. I write,” I said typing in mid air.
“Film… paint… graffiti… rapper.”
“Cool,” I said.
“Where you go? Meaux?” he asked indicating the first stop on the line to Chateau Theirry where I was staying with Jerome and Katrin.
“No. Further out. Very far,” I answered trying to avoid telling him exactly where I was headed. I make it a point to not tell strange people exactly where I live. Maybe I watched one too many Saturday morning specials as a kid that made me not trust strangers.
“This is the drug coach,” he said, using his most complete English in our entire conversation. That was, of course, by that point in the conversation, the one piece of information I did not need. Once the train began to move, one by one, the other young people on the train walked back to Mr. Pin-Stripes, palmed him what I assume was a small amount of money, and received from him small plastic bags containing either white powder or finely chopped green leaves. I don’t think they were using the heroin on the train, but they were certainly making use of the marijuana. The air was quickly inundated with the sharpness of the Marlboro Man and the sweetness of Mary Jane in direct disagreement with the “No Smoking” signs posted conspicuously around the cabin. My conversation partner offered me a cigarette. I declined.
He lit his cigarette and then pulled his palm down over his face again revealing a frown. “Police,” he said then pointed to the opaque black bar above his head, “Camera,” then he rolled his eyes and smiled indicating no one in my car was the least bit worried about getting caught today. Strangely, his nonchalance was comforting.
“You work in Paris?” I asked.
“No. Work? No. People. Old people. Work,” and he mimed the frowning face again, “Me. 32. Other people. My age. Work,” and he mimed the frowning face again. “Me. No work. Eat. Drink. Laugh. Friends,” and smiling broadly and gesturing around the car, “Smoke. Me. Happy,” he said passing his palm up over his face and smiling. “Me. No home. No bills. Just,” he motioned to his person, “Me.”
I smiled and nodded. “I see. I understand,” I said.
We settled into a moment of silence again. I tried to fight off the encroaching contact high and tried to think of something else to ask him. He took long drags off his cigarette.
“You have book? Graffiti?” he asked suddenly.
“No,” I answered, “I don’t have a book.”
“You. Go. Store. Buy book.”
“Gare de l’Est,” he said holding up his hand and facing the palm toward me and pointing to an imaginary spot on an imaginary map. “Go here,” he explained drawing a line downward and then to the left. “Many books. Small books. Big books. You buy.”
“I’ll check it out,” I said.
“You know ‘Momo?’” he asked.
He mimed using a spray paint can once again. “He. Paris. London. Tokyo. Spain. America. He. Monster.”
“Momo,” I said. “How do you spell that?”
He wrote the name in the air, “M. O. M. O.”
“I’ll look him up,” I said.
Our train began to slow to pull into the station at Meaux. He gathered his things. “You. Here? Again?”
“No. Sorry. This is my last time.”
“Ah,” he said nodding and, extending his hand toward me, said a French name I couldn’t understand.
“Good to meet you,” I said shaking his hand.
“Your name?” he asked.
I’m ashamed of this now. I was ashamed the moment I said it, but I guess because I was still a little afraid, I lied. “John,” I said.
“John. Good to meet you,” he said.
The train pulled into the station, the automatic doors opened, my homeless reformed graffiti artist conversation partner, Mr. Pin-Stripes the drug dealer, and all his customers exited, and I was left alone in the lingering cloud of the drug coach to process what had just happened.
I often think that I have no point of connection with inner city drug culture. I’m white, middle class, well educated, and clean. My heart breaks for those people caught up in the hopelessness of drug addiction, but I question whether or not God can use me in any way in that context.
I also love street art, and the culture that produces graffiti and street art is drug culture. There’s a connection there that I’m just beginning to explore and dream about. It’s one of the many things on my mind as I wander the streets of Paris thinking and praying. My conversation with Blue Sweat Pants was stunted by language, but nevertheless, we talked for half an hour about art and life. I can’t help but think there might be something there in that intersection of art and drugs worth pursuing, something that God might want to do, something I could be a part of.
In street art, I see the spirit of the Gospel. The best street art is subversive, shocking, and exists to change the way people look at their world. The powers that be reject it and, when it’s done daringly enough, prosecute the practitioners. I may not agree with Blue Sweat Pants’ refusal to work, but I do agree with his sentiment that there is more to life than having a job. Living for money just puts a frown on your face. There is more to live for. Now, the More I know (Christ) is so much better than food, drink, and drugs, but at least Blue Sweat Pants sees the futility of the common pursuits of the world. That’s a good first step. Maybe with more time to develop a relationship, I could one day tell him about Christ.
When I look at the life of Christ, I don’t see the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel. I see the corner of Main and Broadway, the walls that line the train tracks, and the park bench. Jesus is street art – surprising, challenging, and always just a little bit illegal. Jesus is an illicit substance, better than drugs and just as frowned upon by the authorities but offering hope that lasts longer than the best high.
Gene Kelly Was Here
These blog posts were all written in the summer of 2011. They chronicle my time in Paris completing an internship as part of my studies at Fuller Seminary. I worked at an art gallery run by missionary-artists ministering to other Parisian artists and got to know the missionary-artists working there.
I am including them here for you to read because I think they work well together as a series. I wrote them as a kind of narrative collage about what it means to be a practicing artist whose first commitment is to Christ and who seeks to share the love of Christ with other artists.