Chiffonnier: a term used for someone who makes a living by rummaging through refuse in the streets to collect material for salvage.
He’s a sloucher, head frozen in a downward tilt, gaze upturned: black pupils that terrify and entrance all at once. His dirty sweater is two sizes too big for him. Even though he’s thin, there’s a hint of strength that’s dormant, like he used to be strong once and in some recess of his personage, still is. He has to be.
I open the door and walk inside. An attendant checks my backpack. You can’t bring water here. A sharp right after the entrance and then another at the first corridor. The hallway is gleaming. The lights are soft, inviting visitors to lower their voices. But the room where I usually find him has changed. Other faces peer at me beneath the LED lights. Absent is the stony visage, the dirty beard and hands.
“Where is he?” I ask an attendant who’s standing nearby.
“He’s being restored… he won’t be back for another year,” she replies.
But I’ve come all this way to see him. In fact, I’ve seen him before, just a few weeks before actually, wandering in an alleyway in the afternoon sun. Only then it was a brief encounter. I didn’t get to look at him for as long as I wanted.
“It takes a long time,” she continues, seeing my disappointment. “They have to go inch by inch. Like this one…” She motions to a Friar ensconced in the shadows of a far wall. The candle in his knobby fingers seems to flicker. “They took an x-ray of him. Turns out… there’s a really ornate scene just behind him that you can’t see… inside of him even.”
The Friar seems to shudder.
A hundred and fifty-three years after Manet painted the Ragpicker, his subject is walking the streets— the flesh and blood embodiment of love and neglect (the love that brought him into the world… the neglect that carries him through it). He lugs a large cloth bag that’s filled with all sorts of things hidden from the observer. Is it a poor man’s version of Yogi the Bear’s picnic basket, filled with food? Or maybe a bottomless well like Mary Poppin’s carpet bag. Most likely, it’s extra clothes, scraps… rags. All that he possesses in the world. Wild-eyed and handsome, he holds on to it. He is Unknown.
Who will restore him?