Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - The City of the Sun


 It is only with weeks of experience that the searcher into the under world of Paris life comes to any sense of real conditions, or discovers in what directions to look for the misery which seldom floats to the surface, and which even wears the face of content. That there are no slums, and that acute suffering is in the nature of things impossible, is the first conviction, and it remains in degree even when both misery and its lurking-places have become familiar sights. Paris itself, gay, bright, beautiful, beloved of every dweller within its walls, so dominates that shadows seem impossible, and as one watches the eager throng in boulevard or avenue, or the laughing, chattering groups before even the poorest café, other life than this sinks out of sight. The most meagrely paid needlewoman, the most overworked toiler in trades, indoors or out, seizes any stray moment for rest or small pleasures, and from a half-franc bottle of wine, or some pretence of lemonade or sugar water, extracts entertainment for half a dozen. The pressure in actual fact remains the same. Always behind in the shadow lurks starvation, and there is one street, now very nearly wiped out, known to its inhabitants still as “la rue où l’on ne meurt jamais”–the street where one never dies, since every soul therein finds their last bed in the hospital. This is the quartier Mouffetard, where bits of old Paris are still discernible, and where strange trades are in operation; industries which only a people so pinched and driven by sharp necessity could ever have invented.

The descent to these is a gradual one, and most often the women who are found in them have known more than one occupation, and have been, in the beginning at least, needlewomen of greater or less degree of skill. Depression of wages, which now are at the lowest limit of subsistence, drives them into experiments in other directions, and often failing sight or utter weariness of the monotonous employment is another cause. These form but a small proportion of such workers, who generally are a species of guild, a family having begun some small new industry and gradually drawn in others, till a body of workers in the same line is formed, strong enough to withstand any interlopers.

“What becomes of the women who are too old to sew, and who have never gained skill enough to earn more than a bare living?” I asked one day of a seamstress whose own skill was unquestioned, but who, even with this in her favor, averages only three francs a day.

“They do many things, madame. One who is my neighbor is now scrubber and cleaner, and is happily friends with a ‘concierge,’ who allows her to aid him. That is a difficulty for all who would do that work. It is that the ‘concierges,’ whether men or women, think that any pay from the ‘locataires’ must be for them; and so they will never tell the tenant of a woman who seeks work, but will say always, ‘It is I who can do it all. One cannot trust these from the outside.’ But for her, as I say, there is opportunity, and at last she has food, when as ‘couturière’ it was quite–yes, quite impossible. There was a child, an idiot–the child of her daughter who is dead, and from whom she refuses always to be separated, and she sews always on the sewing-machine, till sickness comes, and it is sold for rent and many things. She is proud. She has not wished to scrub and clean, but for such work is twenty-five centimes an hour, and often food that the tenant does not wish. At times they give her less, and in any case one calculates always the time and watches very closely, but for her, at least, is more money than for many years; sometimes even three francs, if a day has been good. But that is but seldom, and she must carry her own soap and brush, and pay for all.

“That is one way, and there is another that fills me with terror, madame, lest I, too, may one day find myself in it. It is last and worst of all for women, I think. It is when they wear ‘le cachemire d’osier.’ You do not know it, madame. It is the chiffonieress basket which she bears as a badge, and which she hangs at night, it may be, in the City of the Sun. Voila, madame. There are now two who are on their way. If madame has curiosity, it is easy to follow them.”

“But the City of the Sun? What is that? Do you mean Paris?”

“No, madame. It is a mockery like the ‘cachemire d’osier.’ You will see.”

It is in this following that the polished veneer which makes the outward Paris showed what may lie beneath. Certainly, no one who walks through the Avenue Victor Hugo, one of the twelve avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe, and including some of the gayest and most brilliant life of modern Paris, the creation of Napoleon III. and of Baron Haussman, would dream that hint of corruption could enter in. The ancient Rue de la Révolte has changed form and title, and the beautiful avenue is no dishonor to its present name. But far down there opens nearly imperceptibly a narrow alley almost subterranean, and it is through this alley that the two figures which had moved silently down the avenue passed and went on; the man solid and compact, as if well-fed, his face as he turned, however, giving the lie to such impression, but his keen alert eyes seeing every shade of difference in the merest scrap of calico or tufts of hair. For the woman, it was plain to see why the needle had been of small service, her wandering, undecided blue eyes passing over everything to which the man’s hook had not first directed her.

Through the narrow way the pair passed into a sombre court, closed at the end by a door of wood with rusty latch, which creaks and objects as one seeks to lift it. Once within, and the door closed, the place has no reminder of the Paris just without. On the contrary, it might be a bit from the beggars’ quarter in a village of Syria or Palestine, for here is only a line of flat-roofed huts, the walls whitewashed, the floors level with the soil, and the sun of the warm spring day pouring down upon sleeping dogs, and heaps of refuse alternating with piles of rags, in the midst of which work two or three women, silent at present, and barely looking up as the new comers lay down their burdens. A fat yet acrid odor rises about these huts, drawn out from the rags by the afternoon heat; yet, repulsive as it is, there is more sense of cleanliness about it than in the hideous basements where the same trade is plied in London or New York. There is a space here not yet occupied by buildings. The line of huts faces the south; a fence encloses them; and so silent and alone seems the spot that it is easy to understand why it bears its own individual name, and to the colony of chiffoniers who dwell here has long been known as the City of the Sun. Doors stand open freely; honesty is a tradition of this profession; and the police know that these delvers in dust heaps will bring to them any precious object found therein, and that he who should remove the slightest article from one of these dwellings would be banished ignominiously and deprived of all rights of association.

These huts are all alike; two rooms, the larger reserved for the bed, the smaller for kitchen, and in both rags of every variety. In the corner is a heap chiefly of silk, wool, and linen. This is the pile from which rent is to come, and every precious bit goes to it, since rent here is paid in advance,–three francs a week for the hut alone, and twenty francs a month if a scrap of court is added in which the rags can be sorted. On a fixed day the proprietor appears, and, if the sum is not ready, simply carries off the door and windows, and expels the unlucky tenant with no further formality. How the stipulated amount is scraped together, only the half-starved chiffoniers know, since prices have fallen so that the hundred kilogrammes (about two hundred pounds) of rags, which, before the war, sold for eighty francs, to-day bring precisely eight.

“In a good day, madame,” said the woman, “we can earn three francs. We are always together, I and my man, and we never cease. But the dead season comes, that is, the summer, when Paris is in the country or at the sea; then we can earn never more than two francs, and often not more than thirty sous, when they clean the streets so much, and so carry away everything that little is left for us. It is five years that I have followed my man, and he is born to it, and works always, but the time is changed. There is no more a living in this, or in anything we can do. I have gone hungry when it is the sewing that I do, and I go hungry now, but I am not alone. It is so for all of us, and we care not if only the children are fed. They are not, and it is because of them that we suffer. See, madame, this is the child of my niece, who came with me here, and has also her man, but never has any one of them eaten to the full, even of crusts, which often are in what we gather.”

The child ran toward her,–a girl three or four years old, wearing a pair of women’s shoes ten times too large, and the remainder of a chemise. Other clothing had not been attempted, or was not considered necessary, and the child looked up with hollow eyes and a face pinched and sharpened by want, while the swollen belly of the meagre little figure showed how wretched had been the supply they called food. All day these children fare as they can, since all day the parents must range the streets collecting their harvest; but fortunately for such future as they can know, these little savages, fighting together like wild animals, have within the last twenty years been gradually gathered into free schools, the work beginning with a devoted woman, who, having seen the City of the Sun, never rested till a school was opened for its children. All effort, however, was quite fruitless, till an old chiffonier, also once a seamstress, united with her, and persuaded the mothers that they must prepare their children, or, at least, not prevent them from going. At present the school stands as one of the wisest philanthropies of Paris, but neither this, nor any other attempt to better conditions, alters the fact that twelve and fourteen hours of labor have for sole result from thirty to forty sous a day, and that this sum represents the earnings of the average women-workers of Paris, the better class of trades and occupations being no less limited in possibilities.

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