AUTHOR'S NOTE: Before I go on, I should
specify that this article is written in American English, in other words
"bum" = homeless person. Perhaps one day I will write an
article in British English called "What Bothers Me About the
Bum", but for the moment that is beyond the scope of my discussion.
This issue: What Bothers Me About the Bums
I happen to live across the street from
a place where homeless winos hang out. This doesn't bother me.
There's a group of four or five of them who hang out on the corner every day of
the week, rain or shine, just standing around, talking, panhandling passers-by,
talking, drinking cheap wine and talking. Especially talking. I
have never in my life heard such a loquacious group -- they are constantly in
the midst of a heated debate, often apparently about to come to blows, and most
of the day their conversation continues unabated at high volume, echoing
throughout my apartment. This doesn't bother me.
The fact that they have chosen to throw their lives away on indolence and to substitute alcohol dependency for personal hygiene doesn't bother me either. It doesn't even bother me when they urinate against the wall of my building. What bothers me is this: What can they possibly have to talk about all day long? Their conversation flows non-stop for some ten hours every day, seven days a week, and yet these are guys who don't see the newspapers, don't watch television, never read a book, never go to a movie -- in essence, they have no input whatsoever. So what is there to discuss? I've tried eavesdropping, but since this is France and they are winos, they speak slurred wino French, and I seem to have dropped out of French class before we got to that unit. But I imagine that one of their conversations must run something like this:
Bum No.1: Hi , how you doin'?
Bum No.2: Not bad, how you doin'?
OK. What'd you do yesterday?
Yesterday? I stood around here all day talking to you.
Really? What'd I say?
You said we should get together more often.
I did? Why would I say that? We already hang out on this same corner ten hours a day every single day of the week.
I dunno. I think you said it because you remembered something I said that you thought was funny. Maybe that was it.
What was it?
What was what?
The funny thing you said?
How should I know? You were telling me about it.
Oh yeah. But I wonder what it was?
So do I.
I asked you first.
No you didn't -- you didn't ask me anything, you just said 'I wonder what it was.' That's not a question, it's a statement.
It was not a statement. What I said was 'I wonder what it was?' Question mark, rising inflection -- a question.
So what was it?
What you were talking about.
Just now. About before.
I dunno. (Pause) So what did you do yesterday?
Wait a minute -- am I Bum No.1 or Bum No.2?
I can't tell you. With all this dialogue back and forth I couldn't keep track, and, being a wino, I'm too indolent to go back and figure it out. What difference does it make anyway?
I think it's funnier if I'm Bum No.1.
You're such a judge of what's funny.
You know, I hate it when you're reading dialogue and neither character is identified and they go back and forth and you forget who's saying what to whom.
We're almost out of wine.
Sometimes one character talks for more than a paragraph and then you think it's the other person talking and you get it all confused.
We're out of wine.
On the other hand, when they keep printing 'he said,' 'she said' on every line, I usually just skip over it. But at least it helps you keep things straight.
Me: Wait a minute -- I thought you guys never read books?
Bum No.1: And I thought you couldn't understand what we say?
Bum No.2: You call those questions?
Passer-by: What's the matter, can't think of an ending?
Me: Well, as a matter of fact, no.
Bum No.2: Hey, how about you have the rich guy that everybody envies because he has everything you could possibly want go home one night and commit suicide?
Me: Been done.
Bum No.1: How about 'Reader, I married him'?
Me: I don't think so.
Bum No.2: 'Curtain'?
Me: This isn't a play.
Bum No.2: 'Blackout'?
Me: What did I just say?
Passer-by: Why don't you do what pop musicians do when they can't think of an ending, and just fade out?
Bum No.1: Good idea.
Bum No.2: Yeah that's pretty much the way our conversations usually end anyway.
Me: Great -- how do I do that in print?
Passer-by: You know, you just keep repeating one line over and over,
dropping out a little with each repetition until finally there's nothing left.
Passer-by: You kno , you
jus keep repeat ng on line o er an ov r,
droppin out a li t e wit ea h repeti on til final y there not ing lef .
Passer-by: Yo kno
, ou jus k ep repe t ng on li e o
e an ov r,
d oppi ou a li t e it ea h rep ti on ti i al y t re not in ef .
o k o , o us
k re e t g o
d pi o a i it a h r p on t i l y r no n e
e o i
d p o a t h p n l r o e
p p l e