I see you.
But it makes me uncomfortable to see you.
I never know where to look when I pull up, especially when I’m the first car in line at the light, and your presence is three feet from my window. If I look, will you expect me to give you two dollars for a paper? Do you want me to acknowledge you, even if I am not going to help you? Or is it better for me to just ignore you, stare straight ahead, willing the light to change quickly?
Often I don’t have cash with me, but if I do, there is usually an excuse: I haven’t given the kids their allowance yet, or I really want to use my last dollar to get a Coke from the machine at school this morning.
I feel ashamed, I do. I know I have more and I should give and I am being selfish.
One day I buy your paper. I roll my window down and hold my bills out the window for you. “Thank you,” you say in a baritone voice. For a split second, our eyes meet, and I note that yours are blue. But because of my discomfort, because of the underlying anxiety of the situation, we both quickly avert our eyes. There is an inequality here, an exchange that might feel like one thing to me but something else to you. Do I truly care about you, or am I just assuaging my guilt for ignoring you so often? You offer me a product for my money, so it is not just charity, but is it enough to blur the lines that are drawn to separate us?
You step back onto the curb, and I roll my window up, retreating back into the safety of my mini-van, replacing the barrier between us that collapsed for just a moment.
Your white hair and wrinkled face make me wonder how you got here. Where is your family? What is your story?
But the light changes and I have to move on. I forget about your story. Soon I am at work, your newspaper left behind on the passenger’s seat. Later I will most likely trash it along with the Starbucks coffee cups and granola bar wrappers littering my van floor.
But the next day, you are there again, your sad face waiting for me at the intersection, the fall wind whipping your hair, your brown boots muddy and faded. You won’t let me forget about you. You walk up and down the median, holding out your paper, advertising your need, etching yourself in a certain place in society.
And I feel uncomfortable again, squirming against the expectation that I must have this and I must have that, and all the haves and have nots are just to divide us.
Maybe this is where change starts, right at the moment when I stop beside you and am aware of how close we are to each other. Right when I am acutely aware of my own cognitive dissonance. In a moment when economy and class and belief seem to press in so hard on us, can I let them go and simply see you as a person?
Today, I look at you and smile and nod.
And that is all I can do. Today.
Learn more about The Contributor, Nashville’s street newspaper providing support for homeless and formerly homeless individuals, HERE. They are always looking for donors, which may be a way you can help. (Note: This post was not endorsed by and is not connected to The Contributor. Thoughts are my own.)