WE SNUCK OFF to Nashville for a quick-turnaround trip, something I mentioned in my whirlwind-that-was-December post. A little thing happened there that’s hung in my head, tugged at my heart, that wants to get worked out and put away in a neat little reconciliation package. But try as I might I haven’t been able to make that happen. I’m wondering if writing about it here will help.
The morning was cold (it being December) and we’d gone for a brisk walk: Leslie, Jan, Bonnie and I. We were staying downtown so a couple of blocks and there we were on Broadway. We moved along, window shopping a little, stopping once to look at a dizzying array of boots. But mostly we just walked, getting our blood pumping, doing our best to keep our winter bodies warm.
There were a number of people on our route making their homes on the streets. Each was huddled, it being cold, it being early, still two or three spoke as we passed, asking low for money. There is nothing comfortable about this situation for the passersby and, I expect, for the asker. “Do not make eye contact,” is the thought that came to mind, “it’s better to not make eye contact.” And so I breezed past, as if he/she was not there. As if in my world, he/she did not exist.
(I will pause here briefly to state the point of this post is not a debate on the complicated plight of the homeless, nor on the protocol that is most helpful, or not. I hope you will forgive me that.)
Still I want to say I found it difficult to simply walk by. Not because of the ask or the money; personally I believe it is a better practice to financially support the organizations that are dedicated to providing meaningful help to people in such challenging situations. I’m talking about the practice of walking past without so much as a tiny bit of human-to-human acknowledgement. “Whatever circumstance has brought you to this,” I want my eyes to say, “you matter.”
I did not do it, though. I moved on by, my eyes looking another direction, feeling that type of contact was too much of a risk.
THREE BLOCKS LATER we came upon a couple of well healed young men who were clearly at work, taking a sidewalk survey or hawking a tour or promoting product or business. I watched them as they did their delightful best to get the attention of anyone within earshot, hoping for a stop, hoping for an audience that might result in a purchase. There was exactly zero chance any of us were interested in doing this, so as we got closer once again I turned my attention away meaning to sail past, meaning to Not Make Eye Contact. I did not want to extend an invitation, or–worse yet–agree to a closed deal before I even knew what I was buying.
Down went my head. Brisk moved my legs. Then I thought:
I will not act impervious. I will not walk past and ignore.
I raised my head, looked right to the eyes of the young man (which were quite beautiful, as it turns out) and offered a quick good morning. And I kept walking, as we all did.
It was as if lights flashed all around him. Ding, ding, ding, you could hear the universe say, and he moved fast to catch up, relentless in tracking us–and me in particular–with his offering.
I turned to him, even more curious now.
“I’m not interested in buying,” I said. “I was just curious what would happen if I made eye contact. They tell you not to, you know.”
The young man picked right up on this, saying, yes, what I want is your eye contact because that gives me an opening. Then he moved right on into his spiel.
“Don’t you think it’s a shame?” I said, as soon as I could break into his pitch. “Us being conditioned that way, I mean? Believing that in the world today, to make eye contact with a stranger is to offer some sort of unwritten contract.”
Again he used this to further his pitch.
I, myself, was getting on a roll. “I think it’s part of what’s wrong with our culture,” I went on. “We walk down sidewalks believing the best thing we can do–the responsible thing, in fact–is to ignore each other, to remain as detached and distant from strangers as possible.”
(He was not giving up.)
“Anyway,” I said. “I hope you have a nice day.”
“Are you sure I can’t interest you…” he said, and our group moved on.
LIKE I SAID, I keep thinking about this dilemma. It has lines that are black and white. It has lines that are gray. And it extends to most everyone on the street, people (just like me, or you) who are simply moving from Point A to Point B, who pass each other by without so much as a glance because it feels too risky, too invasive, too…what, exactly? I keep thinking about that young man–enterprising and determined as he was (which I do respect). I wonder. Is there a way? Can we look at each other, and see?
I don’t know. But I hope it’s something I will have the courage to test even in tiny, tiny ways. We are human, after all, each and every one of us. And at our core we all, I believe, long to be seen, and heard, and known.