Everyone in Paris had a favorite chicken man. Mine was Bouba, a Senegalese giant who worked the chicken business inside the meat market near our apartment. He was black as night and wore a matching shirt with white pinstripes. Each time I passed, I yelled out a greeting and he always waved and smiled.
Every day started the same with Bouba skewering a line of chickens from tail to neck and placing them over the rotisserie. In the bottom of the cooking contraption, he poured a bushel of potatoes mixed with garlic, tomatoes, and onions. The chicken fat dripped down onto the potatoes as they all cooked together. “That looks so unhealthy,” I told Pat. “We’ll take a container,” I said to Bouba.
At noon, the chickens twirled a pale yellow. By mid afternoon, a row of golden brown birds would be lined up for sale in the display case and a new set of pasty white recruits would spin on the stick. As work let out, a queue formed at the counter. By evening, every last one was sold. I could talk to Bouba in snatches, as he was very focused on customer service and never would make anyone wait while we kibitzed.
Over the course of weeks, I pieced together fragments of Bouba’s life. He had been born and raised in Senegal where he attended university and ultimately became a teacher. Times in Senegal were hard though, and eventually he moved to Paris. “I have to start from the beginning here because they do not recognized my degree. But that’s OK,” he quickly assured me, “I have no problems working my way up and paying my dues.”
When I bought other cuts of meat from the butcher, he would yell for Bouba to come over to translate his French directions on how to cook my purchases. When Bouba finished, the butcher smiled and give me a thumbs up, yet for me, Bouba’s role as translator only underscored the inequities in the system.
One day, I walked down the Rue Mouffetard–the market street made famous by Hemingway–with a friend. When we passed the meat market, my friend pointed to a nondescript, older Frenchman and said, “There is the best chicken man in Paris.”
“Him? Are you crazy?” I replied. I told my friend about Bouba and his education and his willingness to work hard. Next to this man, Bouba was majestic.
Then one day in early July, Bouba left the chicken shop. I assumed he returned to Senegal for his vacation, but four weeks later, he had not returned. Maybe he received a better job that leveraged his education. In his place, a scrawny French kid cooked the chickens. He was a boy who didn’t yet shave and swam inside the black and white uniform which seemed several sizes too large.
We never bought another chicken. The truth was, I only bought them as an excuse to talk to Bouba. I could have asked the cashier where he went, but I prefer not to know. I elect to pretend he received a job offer commensurate with his education. No matter what happened, one truth is indisputable; Paris has lost one fine chicken man.
Categories: A year in Paris