Illustration by Matthew Fox (@matteo_zorro).
The vast office in which the group of Black men find themselves is open-plan. No walls interrupt the space separating them from the glass cage emblazoned with the three letters—CEO—that mark the territory of the alpha male. A huge picture window generously affords a view over the rooftops of Paris. Forms are handed out, left, right, and center. Here, they are recruiting: recruiting security guards. Project-75 has just been granted several major security contracts for a variety of commercial properties in the Paris area. They have an urgent need for massive manpower. Word spread quickly through the African “community”: Congolese, Ivorian, Malians, Guineans, Beninese, Senegalese.
Everyone takes out the various papers required for the interview: the identity card, the traditional résumé, and the CQP, a kind of official permit to work in security. Here, it is portentously dubbed a diploma. Then there is the cover letter: “To Whom it May Concern,” “part of a dynamic team,” “a profession with excellent career prospects,” “in keeping with my skills and training,” “please be assured,” et cetera. In a place like this, the medieval circumlocutions and ass-kissing phrases of motivational letters become risible. After all, everyone in the room has a powerful motivation, though what it is may be very different depending upon which side of the glass one finds oneself on. For the alpha male in his glass cage, it is maximum turnover. Hiring as many people as possible is part of the means. For the Black procession outside, it is an escape from unemployment or a zero-hour contract by any means necessary. Security guard is one of those means. The training is absolutely minimal, employers are all too willing to overlook immigration status, the morphological profile is supposedly appropriate: Black men are heavyset, Black men are tall, Black men are strong, Black men are deferential, Black men are scary. It is impossible not to think of this jumble of noble-savage clichés that is atavistically lurking in the mind of every white man responsible for recruitment, and in the mind of every Black man who has come to use these clichés to his advantage. But that is not at issue this morning. No one cares. And, besides, there are Black men on the recruiting team. Everyone fills out his form with a modicum of diligence. Last name, first name, sex, date and place of birth, marital status, Social Security number: this will be the most demanding intellectual challenge of the morning. Even so, a few of the men glance at their neighbors’ forms. Someone coming out of a long period of unemployment lacks self-assurance.
After signing and initialing a few white pages blackened with esoteric phrases, every member of the group is given a bag containing a pair of black trousers, a black jacket, a black tie, a shirt that may be white or black, and a monthly work roster indicating the times and places of shifts. Those who already have experience in the profession know what lies in store in the coming days: spending all day standing in a shop, until the end of the month comes and they are paid. Paid to stand—and it is not as easy as it might seem. In order to survive in this job, to avoid lapsing into cozy idleness or, on the other hand, fatuous zeal and bitter aggression, requires either knowing how to empty your mind of every thought higher than instinct and spinal reflex or cultivating a very engrossing inner life. The incorrigible-cretin option is also highly prized. Each to his own method. Each to his own goals. Every man who comes into these offices unemployed leaves a security guard.
In the Ivorian community in France, the security guard is such a ubiquitous profession that it has spawned a terminology, one inflected with the colorful expressions of Nouchi, the popular slang of Abidjan.
Standing-Heavy: designates all professions that require the employee to remain standing in order to earn a pittance.
Zagoli: specifically refers to the security guard. Zagoli Golié was a famous goalkeeper with Les Éléphants, the national team of Côte d’Ivoire. Being a security guard is like being a goalie: you stand there watching everyone else play and, once in a while, you dive to catch the ball.
At the branch of Sephora on the Champs-Élysées, the security guard wears a black jacket, black trousers, black shirt, black tie. He works his shift with four other Men in Black and a supervisor who sits behind a bank of monitors surveying footage from the forty cameras bristling around the boutique. He has a walkie-talkie connected to a transparent earpiece. A swanky guard for a swanky avenue.
“Sephoraaa” or “Sephoooora”
This Sephora is one of the largest in the world. As people step inside, or sometimes simply as they’re walking past, they often shriek as though they’ve just spotted an old friend they are about to run to and embrace: “Sephoraaa!” (version française); “Oh my God! Sephoooora!” (English version).
The Sephora store is long and narrow, and the black-and-white-striped pillars are reminiscent of a basketball umpire. To the right, color-coded orange: Men’s Fragrances. To the left, color-coded pink: Women’s Fragrances. To the rear, color-coded green: Face and Body Care. This zone is nicknamed the Prairie, as much for its color as for the luxury Swiss skincare brand La Prairie, which sells the most expensive item in the store: a “caviar cream” that costs nine hundred euros for a hundred milliliters.
In the perfume aisles, soft lighting is deployed to heighten the sense of smell. In the makeup aisles, harsh lighting is deployed to heighten the sense of vision. Everywhere, Muzak is deployed to heighten the sense of deafness.
The Shoe Carrier
A young Japanese man enters with a Prada bag slung over his shoulder and, in one hand, dangling from a carabiner, a plastic gadget on which hangs a pair of visibly worn sneakers: this is a Zpurs shoe carrier. The man is currently wearing a pair of blue sandals, and the security guard imagines him performing a quick-change when it starts to rain, shrieking “Banzai!” When we do not understand the Other, we invent it, usually with racist clichés.
The MIBs at Sephora communicate with one other via earpieces, tracking suspects or supposed shoplifters according to their morphotype using codes that conform to a numerical sequence with the formula J(n+1), in which n is an integer.
The security guard does not dare ask what call signs should be used for persons of mixed race. J4/5 mixed Black and Caucasian? J3/6 Arabo-Asian? J6/4 Black Asian… Given its high rate of interracial marriages, the security guard cannot help but think that in Brazil, his counterparts must have a much more complex formula.
The Emir’s Wife
Cloaked, from head to toe, in a black veil, her every step reveals a glimpse of a patent leather stiletto and an ankle encircled by the cuff of a pair of jeans that, one imagines, tightly hugs the rest of the leg. She is accompanied by a servant, an aide, and a bodyguard. They are easily recognizable. The servant, a young Filipina woman with a particularly pimply face, is carrying bags from every luxury emporium from the Place Vendôme to the Champs-Élysées. The aide, a rather effeminate Arab man, has the Woman in Black’s handbag tucked under his arm and holds her credit card conspicuously, between his index and middle fingers. The bodyguard is the man carrying three umbrellas who trails meekly after them.
An Arab couple. The husband wears a T-shirt printed with a map of the New York subway. The wife, in full veil, is wearing a grey boubou with sleeves stitched from fabric printed like a ten-dollar bill. Clearly visible on her left elbow is the motto of the United States of America: in God we trust.
The clothing-store axiom “A customer without a bag is a customer who will not shoplift” does not hold true at Sephora. This, ipso facto, relegates the axiom to the status of a mere theorem. At Sephora, underpants, bras, pockets, scarves, baseball caps, gloves, baby buggies—in fact, anything that can be worn on the human body or used to transport small human bodies—are susceptible to being used as a cache or as a means of concealing an item that has not made the requisite stop at the cash register.
MIB and WIB
At Sephora, the Men in Black are the security guards; the WIBs, the Women in Black, are those who wear the niqāb.
From time to time a WIB wearing the fullest veil slips a lipstick or an eyebrow pencil beneath her niqāb. The security guard is convinced he has caught a shoplifter red-handed, until he notices that, in her other hand, the WIB is holding a small mirror that also disappears beneath the veil.
The Hijab and the Hoodie
No one is allowed to enter Sephora wearing a hoodie with the hood up. But it is perfectly not forbidden to wear the hijab, or even a niqāb. What approach should the security guard take if he should see a young woman coming in wearing a hoodie over her burqa?
A white woman comes into the store carrying a bag on which is printed a large red colonial fez.
In French colonial Africa, the gardes-de-cercle were brutish, moronic Africans who were cruel and zealous in carrying out the orders of their white masters. In Bambara, the word floko means a little bag. The foreskin, which looks like a little bag at the end of the penis, is also called a floko. Metonymically, the word is used to refer to those who are uncircumcised. In countries where circumcision is often a rite of passage, an initiation into adulthood and personal and collective responsibility, being called uncircumcised is particularly insulting. Loathed by the people for their brutality, the gardes-de-cercle were nicknamed floko guards. Each wore a red fez.
For Whom the Metal Detector Tolls
The walk-through metal detector tolls when anyone enters or leaves with an item that has not been demagnetized. It signals only hypothetical guilt and, in 90 percent of cases, the item has been duly paid for. But it is striking to note that almost everyone heeds the command of the security gate. Hardly anyone is insubordinate. However, reactions differ according to culture or nationality:
This perfume exerts a powerful magnetic attraction on Arabic, Chinese, and Eastern European women. The boutique runs an informal daily sweepstakes for the buyers of Dior J’adore. Yesterday, the grand prize went to the United Arab Emirates, to a woman who had €1,399.76 worth of Dior J’adore in a shopping basket that came to a total of €3,456.85.
Seven seconds, including the time needed to enter the pin: this is how long it takes the HSBC ATM on the Champs-Élysées to spit out twenty euros. It takes forty-three seconds for the Crédit Lyonnais on the rue Louis-Bonnet in Belleville to perform the same task. On the Champs-Élysées, money is quickly dispensed, and just as quickly expended. In poor neighborhoods, even cash machines are reluctant to hand over cash.
In the lingo of security guards, “to take a break” means to stand in for a colleague at another shop while he takes a break. In this way not only does he do a favor for his colleague, he notches up another hour’s overtime. This is also a way of discovering other shops.
Break at La Défense
At the Sephora outlet in La Défense, the head of security is an Ivorian of a certain age who goes by the nickname Éric-Coco. He is completely possessed by the spirit of Chanel.
“While I’m in the back, you keep an eye on the Chanel, especially the six-point-eight-ounce No. 5s.”
“People tend to steal the large No. 5. Oh, and the three-point-four-ounce Allure. I need you to stop them.”
“Okay, but what exactly are we talking about?”
“We’re talking about Chanel, for god’s sake! Chanel No. 5 and Allure de Chanel. Perfume. Premium perfume. Why do you think you’re here?”
Break in Levallois-Perret
In this Paris suburb with bourgeois delusions, the Sephora outlet is in the paved, pedestrianized town center, next to all the other brands that exude fake luxury and fake sophistication. The boutique is not very big, and all the departments are within eyeshot of the security guard, who does not even need to turn his head. Inside, the atmosphere is muted; staff and customers whisper, perhaps to avoid disturbing the sacred perfumes, perhaps to avoid altering their chemical composition with raised voices. In an outlet of this kind, shoplifting is rare.
Break in Vincennes
The shop in Vincennes stands right outside the castle. Back in the days when it was inhabited by a Louis the Umpteenth, body care and bathing were vanishingly rare.
The avenue des Champs-Élysées is teeming with plainclothes police officers. They always wear jackets, regardless of the season, and white earbuds, plugged into iPhones on which they livestream the mug shots of France’s most wanted. They are easily identifiable at five hundred paces but believe they are utterly invisible. As we say back in Assinie: “Everyone can see a swimmer’s back, except the swimmer.”
So pleased were young Tunisians by the Jasmine Revolution they had launched in their own country and by the overthrow of the dictator Ben Ali that battalions of them took the Mediterranean by storm and found themselves in France. With little education and a limited grasp of the language of Jamel Debbouze, left to their own devices, they spend their days in Paris much as they did in the ghettos of Sousse or Tunis: between idleness and petty theft. For them, the height of elegance and fashion is to dress like the young people from the French banlieues. But they have neither the swagger nor the lingo and, as a result, are easily recognizable.
Security guards have dubbed them the revolutionaries.
“Heads up, three revolutionaries prowling around the Good Dye Young stand!”
“Revolutionary uprising in Bath and Body.”
“Man the barricades, the revolutionary in the red baseball cap has a Sauvage body spray in his underpants.”
A “revolutionary” has been seen in the act of shoplifting. Until he leaves the shop, he cannot be searched or considered a thief. But if he jettisons the fragrances whose packages he exenterated, he must pay for them. There follows a surreal low-speed chase in which security guard and shoplifter calmly wander around the shop side by side. After almost half an hour of this preposterous game, the revolutionary cracks and loudly and intelligibly demands his own arrest. Down his trousers, two bottles shaped like clenched fists: Diesel, Only the Brave.
All of the sales assistants at Sephora are awarded performance-related bonuses from the products they represent. All of them have developed techniques for luring customers in and persuading them to buy one perfume rather than another. Most simply spray the passing customer with perfume or hand out presoaked scent strips while babbling a few words.
But one of the male sales assistants has become famous for his technique, which involves interspersing his praise for the perfume with carefully disguised slogans from the 1968 student protests. A week ago, he was proclaiming the glories of Bleu de Chanel:
Beneath the paving stones, the beach …
Bleu de Chanel.
A fragrance that is beguiling, bewitching, bewildering.
Allow yourself to be beguiled by the sensual notes of musk, bewitched by bright notes of bergamot.
A breath of amber wreathed in a cloak of castoreum.
Beneath the paving stones, the beach …
Next week, he will be working the Givenchy concession. His spiel will begin, “Be realistic, demand the impossible …”
Esprit de Corps
Still standing: the trait of the security guard.
Esprit de Corpse
Still standing: the fate of the security guard.
The floppy chestnut fringe, the flawless side parting, the perfectly ironed blue-gray shirt, the immaculate black trousers that fall over neatly polished shoes—all these make him look like a British prime minister in mufti. Yet there is something incongruous in this portrait of the ideal brother-in-law. It is unusual to have a backpack and a shoulder bag when dressed as though you are about to give a PowerPoint presentation to an urban-planning consultancy. His nonchalant air as he stands next to the Dior concession is a little “hammy.” A filmmaker’s term. This man is “iffy.” A security guard’s term. But no one has seen him do anything suspicious. Confirmation comes over the headset: “J5 in a tie at the Dior concession—nothing to report.” The Dior concession is the first the customer encounters when he enters the store, or the last as he leaves it. Will the man venture farther into the store or leave straightaway? With his sidelong looks and his squinting, it is the security guard who now looks “shifty.” A thief’s term. The man does not move. He enters into a conversation with one of the salesgirls. The security guard cannot hear a word of what is being said. The salesgirl smiles. Apparently, the man is pleasant company.
On this early summer evening, the store is thronged with customers, making it impossible to focus on one man. A large group enters. Their accents are Slavic. Poles? Russians? Czechs? Their shoes are covered with a fine but visible layer of white dust. They have clearly been to the Louvre and amassed this layer of dust walking through the Tuileries Gardens. It is the most direct route from the Louvre to the Champs-Élysées, and most tourists stroll all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. The branch of McDonald’s next to Sephora is where they stop off after this marathon. The staff at Mickey D’s call them the palefoots.
A palefoot woman approaches the security guard. She is accompanied by a sullen child clutching a balloon shaped like a smiling Mickey Mouse on the end of a plastic stick. She wants to know where to find the Métro. The security guard points. The gaping maw of George V Métro station is fifty yards up the street. Glancing over the woman’s shoulder, the security guard sees the man with the floppy fringe. He is creeping out of the store, hugging the far wall. Their eyes meet. In both of their minds, a penny drops. The man is quick off the starting blocks, sprinting down the avenue. The security guard is slower to react. The long hours spent standing have left his joints stiff. Whoever the thief is, he now has a ten-yard head start. He glances over his shoulder and sees that the security guard is running after him. There are no shouts, no screams.
The Champs-Élysées is crowded. The thief zigs, the security guard zags. At the thirty-meter mark, the security guard’s biomechanics grind into gear. Glancing over his shoulder again, the thief notices. In a feat of remarkable dexterity, he manages to disentangle the bag slung over his shoulder without breaking his stride, and tosses it behind him. Jettisoned ballast, a votive offering, or both. But the security guard keeps going. He had anticipated this maneuver; he hurdles the bag before it even hits the polished granite slabs of the pavement. The thief continues to zig, the security guard to zag, faster and faster. The thief’s necktie flutters behind him, hovering parallel to the ground in the headwind. The security guard’s tie does likewise. A few more meters and the thief will be within his grasp. Suddenly, the traffic light ahead turns red, and, familiar with the highway code, he stops. But this is merely a coincidence. In the mind of the security guard, another red light flashes. What is he thinking running after this man? What if he’s armed and dangerous? What great moral imperative is satisfied by pursuing a perfume thief? This is probably how you contract floko guard syndrome. The colonial guard with his white truncheon, his inane grin, and his fez… red. Red means stop. The thief vanishes into the crowd. The security guard retraces his steps. In the jettisoned shoulder bag, he finds three bottles of perfume: Elixir Pour Homme by Azzaro, Diesel’s Fuel for Life, Allure by Dior.
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.
GauZ’ is the pen-name of Armand Patrick Gbaka-Brédé, born in Ivory Coast in 1971. His first novel, Debout-Payé, was awarded the Prix des libraires Gibert Joseph and chosen as best debut novel of the year by the magazine Lire. Debout-Payé, translated as Standing Heavy, will be published by MacLehose Press in May 2022. GauZ’s most recent novel, Camarade Papa, won the 2019 Prix Éthiophile.
Frank Wynne is an Irish literary translator. He has translated numerous French and Hispanic authors including Michel Houellebecq, Javier Cercas, and Virginie Despentes. His translations have been awarded the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and he has twice been awarded both the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán. He has edited two major anthologies, Found in Translation: 100 0f the Finest Short Stories Ever Translated (2018) and QUEER: LGBT Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday (2021).
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