Paris’ street-sweeping heroes

Photography often lands me in strange positions. Such was the case when I slithered on my belly along Paris’ Seine river to frame this shot.

So engrossed was I in my task that I barely registered the sound of the street-sweeping vehicle approaching from behind, nor did I notice it stopping.

“Is everything all right, madame?” I saw the man’s boots first, then his uniform, and finally his masked faced. I felt a bit stupid as I stood up and explained that I was suffering for my art taking a photo.

He sometimes took photos too, he said, pulling out his phone. He flipped through shots he had taken while running an 850-kilometer (528-mile) race last year to raise funds for displaced children. “I came in third in my age group,” he beamed. “Wait. Let me show you …” There he was, standing on the winners’ podium. “And this is me, in my new suit, meeting President [François] Hollande!”

He told me he hadn’t always been a runner. He removed his mask and pointed to his right cheek. “See this scar? I used to be a firefighter. When I was in my 20s I responded to a commercial fire on the rue de Rivoli. We didn’t know there were gas canisters in the basement. They exploded, and I was severely burned.” He pulled back his cap to show me his scarred scalp. “I started running as part of my therapy,” he said.

“But even so, you used it to benefit others,” I said. “You’re quite a humanitarian — a real hero!” He simply shrugged and asked whether I would take his photo in front of Notre Dame.

It wasn’t until after Roger and I parted ways that two thoughts struck me: First, the fact that a seemingly humble job often belies the richness of a man’s life. And second, that even as a street-sweeper Roger was still serving his fellow citizens.

The next day I got up even earlier and glimpsed how the quays along the Seine would look, if not for Roger and his colleagues.

It enraged me that the partiers could not be bothered to use the empty garbage bin that was literally two feet away.

Seeing the sweepers swerve to clear the piles of trash at least solved a mystery that had long haunted me, though: “What are those strange trails of water on the quays?” Until now I’d imagined roving packs of giant drunken snails.

Although it’s too late to personally thank Roger for his work, here is my ode of gratitude to the multitude of women and men who get up long before dawn …

… to give the rest of us a pristine view of Paris.

And here’s one final pro tip for you: If you hear street-sweepers in Paris, follow them! They are wonderful people, and the water-slicked sidewalks they leave behind offer some equally wonderful reflections.

Text and images © Heather Munro.