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Some of his Particular Characteristics
Volume III: Marius; Book I: Paris Studied in its Atom; Chapter II: Some of his Particular Characteristics
The gamin—the street Arab—of Paris is the dwarf of the giant.
Let us not exaggerate, this cherub of the gutter sometimes has a shirt, but, in that case, he owns but one; he sometimes has shoes, but then they have no soles; he sometimes has a lodging, and he loves it, for he finds his mother there; but he prefers the street, because there he finds liberty. He has his own games, his own bits of mischief, whose foundation consists of hatred for the bourgeois; his peculiar metaphors: to be dead is to eat dandelions by the root; his own occupations, calling hackney-coaches, letting down carriage-steps, establishing means of transit between the two sides of a street in heavy rains, which he calls making the bridge of arts, crying discourses pronounced by the authorities in favor of the French people, cleaning out the cracks in the pavement; he has his own coinage, which is composed of all the little morsels of worked copper which are found on the public streets. This curious money, which receives the name of loques—rags—has an invariable and well-regulated currency in this little Bohemia of children.
Lastly, he has his own fauna, which he observes attentively in the corners; the lady-bird, the death’s-head plant-louse, the daddy-long-legs, “the devil,” a black insect, which menaces by twisting about its tail armed with two horns. He has his fabulous monster, which has scales under its belly, but is not a lizard, which has pustules on its back, but is not a toad, which inhabits the nooks of old lime-kilns and wells that have run dry, which is black, hairy, sticky, which crawls sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, which has no cry, but which has a look, and is so terrible that no one has ever beheld it; he calls this monster “the deaf thing.” The search for these “deaf things” among the stones is a joy of formidable nature. Another pleasure consists in suddenly prying up a paving-stone, and taking a look at the wood-lice. Each region of Paris is celebrated for the interesting treasures which are to be found there. There are ear-wigs in the timber-yards of the Ursulines, there are millepeds in the Pantheon, there are tadpoles in the ditches of the Champs-de-Mars.
As far as sayings are concerned, this child has as many of them as Talleyrand. He is no less cynical, but he is more honest. He is endowed with a certain indescribable, unexpected joviality; he upsets the composure of the shopkeeper with his wild laughter. He ranges boldly from high comedy to farce.
A funeral passes by. Among those who accompany the dead there is a doctor. “Hey there!” shouts some street Arab, “how long has it been customary for doctors to carry home their own work?”
Another is in a crowd. A grave man, adorned with spectacles and trinkets, turns round indignantly: “You good-for-nothing, you have seized my wife’s waist!”—“I, sir? Search me!”