There are plenty of things that make me feel uneasy; like running into old boyfriends that look better than they should, or selecting a cucumber next to a strange man in the produce section. But the one thing that takes me far beyond these temporary discomforts, is coming face-to-face with someone begging on a street corner. So much so, that I seem to have developed a standard practice of ducking behind my Honda Element’s unusually large blind-spot when approaching red lights.
I just can’t ignore these people no matter how hard I try. They are human beings. People I don’t know and don’t want to know, but in the hollow darkness of their eyes I always manage to see the face of one of my kids, or another loved one. That’s when it becomes real.
In those same moments, an entire script of this stranger’s life plays out before me. He comes into this world with a clean slate, entitled to love and care, and the encouragement that would one day allow him to own a successful little restaurant, or feel the joy of raising a beautiful son or daughter. He is born with the ability to change the world. But none of these possibilities seem to exist now.
I look past the filth on his hands that hold the standard cardboard plea for help and I see the face of an innocent, wide-eyed child. He is holding a crayon, about to draw something. I wonder if it will be a picture of himself as a pilot or a fireman, or something else that represents his dreams. Or will he draw a sad family wearing torn clothing and bruises, standing next to empty food bowls?
Then I visualize him in high school. Popular. Good-looking. Surrounded by successful peers, all with solid plans for a bright future. But perhaps not. Maybe his evenings were spent alone in his room fantasizing about unattainable girls or peers who would not accept him, or even just a simple, safe lifestyle.
Lastly, I see him just one short year ago, straightening his tie as he walks briskly down Wall Street. His briefcase is filled with well-prepared notes for a meeting that will determine his financial fate. If not, perhaps he was fighting for this country just months ago, while I drove comfortably in the vehicle I now use to shield myself from him.
A sickness arises in my stomach. I feel powerless and disgustingly supreme, all at the same time. I will see him here tomorrow, and the next day. I may even start to bond with him in a distant mental way. That would be even worse.
When I know he isn’t looking, I steal another fleeting glance, reinforcing my curiosity as to how clean he could possibly be under the layers of soiled clothing. That’s when I see the despair in his face and I feel it too. A short-lived image crosses my mind of me bringing him home, as I might after visiting an animal shelter, hoping to change a life and make it all better.
He approaches my car. Will I see him as my son, or as a stranger? I am doomed to face the intruder of my conscience. I must decide in an instant. A pang of guilt strikes me as I glance over to see if my doors are locked. I know he won’t try to get in. He is humble, and broken, and all of his belongings lay waiting on thinning grass at the side of the road. But I do it anyway, most times. Except for the time I rolled down the window and leaned out to hand him some lunch meat and an apple. He politely declined the apple, stating that he had no teeth to chew it.
If it were my child standing on a street corner, lost and disheartened, would someone else be doing exactly what I am doing? That’s when a tear comes to my eye. That is when the light turns green.