Sunday, January 2, 2011

Creative Income Earners

Like virtually every city we’ve lived in or visited, Paris has a variety of creative income earners. These range from passive to active and fall into several categories, each with preferred locations for their work.  It's a group of people that I sometimes find disturbing, but almost always interesting.

First, there are your basic mendicants. We saw both men and women involved in this activity, usually on the streets or in areas where tourists tend to congregate. Interestingly, the men tended to be passive, just sitting on the sidewalk or on a doorstep with a paper cup in front of them, hoping that passersby would drop in a few coins. I couldn’t help but thinking that this must be a cold line of work at this particular time of the year! I got cold just looking at them! And I wondered, considering the prices of things in Paris, how they could make enough money to even eat with this activity. One enterprising fellow just around the corner from our apartment, however, positioned himself in what I thought was a rather strategic location: right beside a bank machine :) On more than one occasion, I saw people put something into his cup after withdrawing money from the machine. Smart guy!

Another creative fellow worked in the area around Notre Dame Cathedral. He was an older man who sat with two cute puppies in his arms. The animals, of course, attracted the attention of the tourists, and occasionally brought in money too. In fact, several people wanted to take pictures of him and an offering appeared to be the price of the photo. I discovered this when I attempted to take a better picture of him than I’d already managed to get when he wasn't looking. He pointed a big black umbrella in my direction and opened it just at the moment that the shutter clicked :)

Prior to Christmas, I also saw passive women mendicants along the Champs Elysées. Unlike the men, these appeared to be exclusively immigrants rather than a mixture of immigrants and local people, though I must admit I was just guessing from appearance. Sitting or kneeling in the middle of the wide sidewalk area, often with hands folded as if in prayer, they waited for passersby to place an offering in the paper cup in front of them. With a chilly wind whistling down the avenue, I found myself again wondering how they could stand the cold for any sustained period of time!

Some women, however, were active. These were invariably in areas frequented by tourists and approached people asking if they spoke English. If the reply was affirmative, they whipped out a card in English saying that they needed money for one thing or another. I never watched long enough to see if they had cards in other languages in their inventory, but suspect they must have.

Another group of mendicants frequented the subway trains. We only encountered one woman doing this. She was a young lady who claimed to be a student trying to finish her studies. She announced that she had a part-time job, but that this was insufficient to meet her needs. If you couldn’t give money, restaurant or store coupons were also welcomed.

However, most of the subway income earners were men. Their stories were virtually always identical and made me wonder if they belonged to a group who sponsored this kind of activity, provided basic training, and then required its members to pay a fee or a regular part of their income for the right to work on a given subway line! Each man invariably had three children and a wife that he needed to house and feed. He would work his way from car to car, beginning his speech after the train got going again by first of all apologizing for disturbing people and then laying out his situation. Following his speech, he’d walk down the aisle with a paper cup in hand, looking for handouts. I rarely saw anyone give anything to these folks. Fortunately these men were not aggressive, simply moving on unless someone extended a hand with a coin in it.

And then there were our favourites: the entertainers! These worked almost exclusively on the subway, perhaps because it was warmer there. I only saw one act that took place outside, a group of young men doing dance and acrobatic moves to music on the Champs Elysées. On the subway, we heard a singer, a violin player, and a trio of which two members played accordions and the third a saxophone. Let me tell you, these guys were good! I wasn’t the only one who plunked a few Euros into their cups.

And the moral of this story? While it’s possible to earn a living doing nothing if you approach it strategically (like the guy at the bank machine), you’re more likely to be successful if you can offer something people want (like a photo of an old guy with two cute puppies) or something they appreciate (like the entertainers). Food for thought, anyway :)

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