Trente-cinq ans avec la pègre
[37 years with the underworld]
Les Éditions de France, 1938
(translated by Stephen Trussel)
MY START AS A POLICEMAN
The Police Station of the Chapelle district was, for a beginner, a battlefield sown with ambushes, the job at once heavy and delicate. At that time La Chapelle did not have a flattering reputation. No doubt the large majority of the population was hard-working and honest, but a goodly core of cut-throats, ex-cons and pimps had taken refuge there. Wasn't there an avenue in the district nicknamed the "Boulevard of the Crime" and a street called "the Devil's Pasture"? If I could handle myself credibly, I would get excellent training, but my inexperience could also result in failures capable of destroying my career. I was not lacking in boldness, but the Secretary quickly sought to moderate it. With a dogmatic tone, he had informed me, condescendingly, that the one "screw-up" to avoid, was false arrest. To hear him talk, such a blunder unfailingly brought dismissal. One can guess that such a recommendation, falling from his lips so miserly and imperative, would be for me a guide, a light, a beacon. Well did I try to follow his warning, which haunted me.
But alas, I didn't avoid the pitfall, and I learned, to my expense, that it's sometimes better to let well enough alone.
One Sunday afternoon, around five o'clock, I was alone in the station when a patrolman brought in an individual who had just stolen a pair of shoes from a shop window.
I received the declaration of the agent and that of the thief. But the plaintiff had not bothered to appear I believe he probably felt that his time was worth more than his seven-franc-fifty shoes. The "Boss" and the Secretary wouldn't return until the following morning. Should I detain the offender, or give him his freedom?
At that time, I didn't yet know certain rules of law. With the victim not coming forward to complain, no civil action could be put into force, and I had not learned that public action, of which for the moment I was the repository, could be applied in its stead. In my opinion, it was not necessary to appear more royalist than the king... and then, the fear of a false arrest obsessed me. Finally, I was kind-hearted, and for the first offender that was brought before me, I wanted to show my indulgence. And so, before leaving the station, I set my thief at liberty. Happy with an outcome that, I hoped, would satisfy everyone, I had my dinner and went off to sleep with the feeling of duty accomplished and difficulty avoided.
The following morning I was prepared to give my account of the events of the previous evening to the Secretary, when my namesake, M. Guillaume, Officer of the Peace of the 18th precinct, entered suddenly, and immediately went into Secretary's office, closing the door behind him. I heard shouting, and, listening more carefully, discerned certain expressions like "he is an idiot, a dunce... what a fool!" etc.
Indeed, I was lulled by the arrival of the boss, who greeted me with a small friendly gesture, as usual. In a short while he invited me into his office. What a welcome awaited me! The Commissioner, the Secretary and the Officer of Peace were there. There was immediately a deluge of imprecations. All those agreeable expressions which I had previously noted designated my modest self, and all those pleasant qualifiers were destined to baptize me. In vain I tried to present my defense, asserting my fear of committing a false arrest, but I had only the fury of my three judges unleashed all over again. I confess that I had never in my life been so ... garlanded. It drove me mad! I exited, head low and without word, because the least word would have provoked a new avalanche of invective.
Fortunately, my three "executioners" had recourse to a collective tranquilizer an aperitif allowed them to digest the incident and the storm passed without too much damage to my administrative future.
I resolved to take my revenge and awaited the opportunity...