Wednesday, January 26, 2011

conversations with strangers mama told me not to talk to

there are always interesting people out in harvard square, asking for money.  some share special talents with passersby; others wear brightly colored vests and give speeches about saving children or the environment; many feign homelessness while others actually have no home.

walking from winthrop house into the square, i see people like this all the time.  during the day there's always at least one man standing outside of CVS, shaking a paper cup so the coins inside make music.  occasionally i'll contribute the change i just received from my latest quest for (un)necessary items.  regardless of whether i open my wallet to those keeping watch by the door, i always try to speak to them if they ask me for money, to tell them "Sorry, I don't have anything today" or maybe just "Take care."  A friend of mine once told me that ignoring these people,  homeless or not, is akin to treating them as less than human.  because of this i've tried to avoid that silent cruelty by saying at least a few words as i pass.  when i do this, the people will sometimes respond, as if they're grateful for that brief exchange.

today, i was on my way to buy books for a class.  i passed by a man sitting on a crate outside 7-11, asking people to spare a quarter.  when i walked by him, i apologized for not having any change, as i usually do.

what happened next was interesting.  with the heartwarming honesty of a child, he said, "Have a nice day.  Cheer up, everything will be fine."  i'm not sure if i was frowning as i spoke to him, or if anything about my disposition at that moment implied a need for encouragement, and from a total stranger at that.  in any case, the words were said.  and i thought to myself, "this man is sitting out here in the cold, begging for change and getting ignored by most of the people he sees.  and yet he tells me that everything is going to be all right."  in that moment i almost felt that i should repay his kindness somehow...but i didn't know how.  for some reason a couple of quarters out of my wallet didn't seem like the right thing to give him in return.

if i ever see him outside 7-11 again (and i probably will, though i may not remember his face too well), maybe i should have a real conversation with him.  it's nothing compared to a blanket to drape around his shoulders, but it could probably keep him warm for a while.

1 comment:

  1. I was about nine or ten when I first remember seeing a homeless person. I was in Toluca, Mexico. I was used to seeing poverty but never someone homeless. I felt so saddened by the harsh truth of this world. I was at that age when I was just starting to realize how this world operated.
    It was even more difficult seeing homeless children.

    The second time I went back to Mexico I wasn't emotionally shocked. I noticed that my aunt and the other locals didn't even notice. They were invisible people.

    I think there is somewhat of a truth to what your friend says. Unfortunately I too have become numb to the homeless. I wish there was a way to end suffering. But the reality is there isn't. It is impossible to spend your time righting all the wrongs of this world. I just hope that I can change at least someones life for the better before I leave this world.

    Take care