Thursday, October 18, 2012


For a first time visitor to Paris, the list of "must sees" can be quite daunting. There are literally hundreds of attractions to absorb and a person could spend several years just taking it all in. When our family first visited in 1970, there were a number of highlights that we wanted to see. Along with Notre Dame Cathedral, The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and Château de Versailles, high on our list was a visit to Musée du Louvre. The Louvre, as it is often referred to, exhibits sculptures, objets d'art, paintings, drawings and archaeological finds. It is the world's most visited museum, averaging 15,000 visitors per day, 65 percent of whom are foreign tourists.

In recent years, with the attention that Dan Brown has brought the Louvre with his books Angels and Demons and the DaVinci Code, there has been a renewed interest, with tourists coming from all over the globe to explore the massive museum. Containing more than 380,000 objects and displays and 35,000 works of art in eight curatorial departments, the museum boasts in its collection Leonardo Da Vinci's, Mona Lisa, probably the singly most recognizable painting in history. Works by Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and countless others grace the walls along with displays of sculpture, historical artifacts and antiquities.

In an effort to take in as much of the Louvre as humanly possible in one day, that particular July morning found our family up bright and early and down at the museum when the doors opened. We were accompanied by Dad and Mom's college friends, Rusty and Norma Young. The Youngs were the most gracious of hosts and drove us to Paris from their home in the French city of Lyon.

As we stood in line along with thousands of people, we observed what seemed to be a homeless man sitting on a bucket. Dark glasses covered his eyes. Wearing his tattered trench coat, rumpled fedora and thread bare shoes, he held in his filthy blackened hands a small wicker basket. A few coins lay on the bottom giving us the impression that his efforts were not being very well rewarded, at least on that particular morning. Both Dad and Mom, seeing the need, began to dig around for a few coins that they could place into the basket. Just as they were about to toss in the coins, Rusty stepped in front of them, motioning them to wait. Gathering us all into a huddle, he told us a story, which we could hardly believe.

As Rusty explained, it turned out that the poor homeless fellow was neither poor nor homeless. In fact he lived in a beautiful chateau on the outskirts of Paris, in an upscale neighborhood. Early every morning, before the crowds began to gather, he would have his driver drop him off in front of the Museum. Dressed in normal business attire, the only odd thing to the casual observer would have been that he was carrying a 5 gallon metal bucket. Ducking in to a public restroom, the man would get his "costume" and his wicker basket out of the bucket. Putting his good clothes into the bucket, he would blacken his hands and face, don his sunglasses and hat and venture out into the highest traffic area in the square.

Evidently this fellow had been paying close attention in Business 101 when the lecture was given on location, location, location. With thousands of people streaming by on a daily basis, his chances of getting donations were very high. What no one knew was that there was a slot in the top of the bucket and as the day progressed, he would continually transfer his "winnings" from the basket into the bucket, leaving only a few coins to give the appearance of his meager takings. At the end of his "work" day, he would disappear back into the restroom, change out of his costume and reappear on the street to await the long black limousine. This would all be repeated the next day, and the next.

Rusty informed us that this had been going on for years and had obviously proven extremely profitable. A sharp eyed reporter had started putting the pieces together and had written an article for the city paper, bringing the story to light. Because of the tremendous turnover of visitors, very few would ever encounter this man more than once in a trip to Paris. As he wasn't actually doing anything technically illegal, his scam carried on. As W.C. Fields said, "A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money" In this case, he was right!

I have often reflected on this experience. Should we stop giving to the man or woman on the street corner?  Should we walk on by pretending they don't exist? Of course not. 99% of these folks really need our help. And at the end of the day, it is not our position to judge. We do what our hearts know to be right. We are called to be compassionate. Will we get fooled on occassion? Absolutely!

That day I learned an important lesson, one that I have not always remembered and that is; Everything is not always as it appears.

© 2012 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.

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