Coffee Grinders



Coffee Grinders[1]

This is what they call the Criminal Court nowadays at the Palace of Justice: the jurisdiction that crushes, that “grinds”, in the blink of an eye, without stopping, in a continual, monotonous movement, the honor and future of the poor.

Whoever comes out of here—except for the very rare acquittals—comes out scarred not on their shoulders but on their criminal record with the mark of suspect. Sometimes just minor offenses, often insignificant in the eyes of philosophers, but mortifying to honest people. In small towns or in the countryside, the man “who has a record” is treated like a pariah and has to starve to death or suffer the most humiliating exploitation.

I know farmers who pretend to be philanthropists and hire only ex-convicts—they cost less! An unblemished citizen who is out of work with a family to feed and happens to knock at these doors and offer his services will be ruthlessly booted out. Because although he is poor, he would have the right to normal pay and could argue over lower wages or accept it only temporarily to go and find work elsewhere. Whereas the others!   They are forced to accept whatever is offered, under any and all conditions: being down and out they can be shaped and worked at will since they have only one choice: submission or death.

Or they might hide their past and manage to get hired. Then, denounced by some friend or recognized by someone from the trial or from prison or maybe wagging their tongue too much some Sunday night at the bar, they are fired on the spot, ruthlessly. The master draws his gun if yesterday’s servant makes a move to come back; the lady of the house, like a frightened hen, gathers the children around her; the maid throws his bag into the dirt and gives it a snide little kick.

He is lower than the dog who comes running up to rub against the man’s leg, the man who never beat him and sometimes gave him scraps of bread. But he is an animal…

Go on, bum, pick up your sack and get back on the road where no one trusts you, Ashaverus[2] of poverty and labor! One day here and one day there, you will find work to earn your living—but calm, steady work is not for you.

When you pass by, the girls will run back inside and lock the doors, the men will look upon you with hostility, the police will threaten… Being the stranger you will be the enemy! For ten leagues around not a single millstone will burn, not a single coin will disappear, not a single chicken will wander off from the henhouse without them blaming you. You will be lucky if no crime gets committed because without proof, without evidence, just by the look of things, Pandora will slap her suede-gloved hand on your ragged collar.

And it will be like this ALWAYS—until the day your carcass, with no more breath in it, rolls into some ditch. Unless you become too exhausted and take off your belt to escape, hanging it from some branch and slipping it around your neck… and take refuge in eternity!


But what did this being do to deserve such a destiny? Often nothing—or very little.

Just as the whole fruit is contained in the pip and the whole tree in the seed, so all of existence is contained in its origin, in its unconscious and innocent beginnings. I emphasize this last adjective on purpose because even though the Church has determined maturity to start at seven years of age for the ideal notion of good and evil and the psychological conception of free will, nevertheless we know very well that for social relations, regarding rights and civil duties, we have to triple the age at least. He whom the law does not recognize as fit to vote, get married and be a soldier, has he not yet fully developed his intellect or physical abilities? He could not, therefore, take full responsibility… so why does the independence of a minor only apply to the penal colony and the scaffold?

The current social system creates wild beasts against whom it then has to protect the weak. There are, I admit, 18-year old scoundrels who are hopelessly rotten and whom I wouldn’t trust with a mutt off the street! But they are almost always marked, like an original stain, either by being abandoned by their parents or by being sentenced too heavily for some minor offense. At their first mistake their life falls apart and runs into the gutter.

The terrible thing is that the blasé judges don’t see any malice here. Since the duty of the magistrate is to pass sentence, they pass sentences—very naturally, like an olive tree gives its olives and the medlar tree its medlars. They fulfill an artificial function with the ingenuity of a plant or a bush, very astonished that anyone could dispute their authority… and necessity! They are plainspoken and sincere—they are honorably wicked.


More than one of them will jump out of his chair at the sound of these two words so strangely coupled, which I write without anger, without passion, without the slightest hatred; but as an observer who has to pinch herself sometimes in certain courtrooms to make sure that she is really witnessing such a spectacle, that she isn’t the victim of some antiquated nightmare as comical as it is cruel, some vision crawling back from the bygone days of Sesostris or Confucius[3]

This implacable law that they appeal to; these articles of the Penal Code, mumbled out like Our Fathers in an incomprehensible blabber; these men either robed in black or robed in red; these guards with their golden tassels; and these prisoners with gray or brown faces, the color of the earth or of manure, escaped from the slave chains whose fate is decided in the blink of an eye—maybe ten grains of sand through the bottleneck—all this, yes, falls under archeology more than history, dream more than reality, the past more than the present!

A great curiosity, mocking some and pitying others, a profound amazement… that is all that this machinery, this ceremonial, the very principle of which they are the accessory, inspires in the attentive thinker!

And this is confirmed nowhere as much as in the court of misdemeanors. In serious crimes the thought of the victims, of their spilled blood and the suffering they endured, troubles the listener’s indifference. A little primitive savagery, of Talion and Lynch[4], makes the blood boil. Humanity, in showing its least noble aspect, awakens in the heart of the onlooker.

Here in the “Coffee Grinder” it is completely different. No fury, no frenzy makes their souls quiver. Reason is not impassioned either for or against. The battle instinct lies dormant. We see higher and farther. And the stakes, although they seem less important to superficial people, look far more important to me—like some trivial death next to life!

For, the blade of justice falls as the first sentencing for these hardly guilty opens onto the desolate horizon where they will be penned up forever. The death of a leper leaves me indifferent, sometimes relieved—what fills me with anguish is the moment of contagion, the instant when a healthy being gets the sickness. Now, the hotbed of the epidemic is the Correctional Court. To punish a man for having no bread, for having no home, for holding out his hand, is an abominable act! Just like for some childish thing, swiping some fruit or talking back to a police officer, it is a terrible thing to stigmatize indelibly the future of an adolescent.

They sentence them in a hurry, files flipped through, cases flippantly recited. And other judges, afterwards, armed with this sentence make it the basis for even stricter sentences…

Oh how right Banville[5] was: “For the poor everything is grief and misery!”


[1] From En Marche, 1896.

[2] The Wandering Jew.

[3] Sesostris ancient king of Egypt in the second millennium BCE and Confucius (551-479 BCE) the famous Chinese philosopher.

[4] The Lex Talionis and the Lynch Law, i.e. an eye for an eye and hang ‘em high.

[5] Théodore de Banville (1823-1891), French writer.


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