Ask, and ye shall receive…

“Excuse me, miss, I don’t want to disturb you,” he said.

His eyes were a wide blue, his cheeks covered with stubble.  A man in his mid thirties or forties.  Slovenly and of feeble carriage.  His voice neither deep nor high, but on the higher end; the kind you hear from whatever plane of mind you were in, drawing you into him and his world and his problems.

Because the line “I don’t want to disturb you” implies immediately that disturb you that person will.

Maybe there’s an irony here.  An irony I didn’t feel till now that I write these words.

His approach, his words, they pulled me from my head on that busy New York street.  On the curb, still moving, I turned my head at his words and took in his appearance, his tone, his words in a fleeting two seconds, and then, without pause, without a word, I kept walking.  I looked him straight in the eyes and then past him, like there was nothing to it.  Nothing to him.

And that disturbs me even now.

Life teaches you to act instinctively in a variety of circumstances.  One beggar, two, four, twenty, one hundred.  One fake limp, three, ten, a hundred.  One hoax, two, three, almost everyone.

And then the decision, reached without words and conscious thought, that almost no-one asking for money can be trusted, and that anyone asking for anything from a stranger is really asking for money.

And from there the dehumanization of one another. 

There on that blowsy Broadway corner, I took him in, computed his existence and without a word, without a blink—for reaction of any sort to a potential predator is a weakness—I discounted him as unworthy.  I fancied I could fathom his purpose from a second.  From one clause.  Unworthy of even the breath it would take to hear a second one.  Unworthy of engagement.  And I passed him without a break in stride.  (God, how dehumanizing!)

And then across the street from him I saw myself and was disturbed.

I resolved to write about him, but although I could think of nothing else on the way to work, once there I didn’t spend lunch writing.  Like that moment of actual need on the street, I found it easy to live in the rest of the day, and not in that question.

I guess there’s no truth but your own truth.  That’s the only one you can live honestly—that is, in harmony with your principles.

What I mean is—who knows about that man.  God forbid the man wanted help I could have provided and I shamed him by my treatment.  But you know what, it could have been.

Then again, maybe he’s just for some reason using others to fulfill his needs without due cause.  Due cause being he truly CAN’T get a job for a good reason.  Who knows, I don’t.  You don’t.

That morning on the street, I chose my interpretation.  I chose it.  Yes, he could have been anybody, and you know what, he was.  He was anybody, and I treated him like nobody, like I would any anonymous face.  But there is no anonymous face to the soul behind it.  An anonymous person doesn’t feel less, doesn’t feel less defaced, less degraded…

Yes, yes, I know, if he was just a cynic using public good will to satisfy a desire for drink or drugs or porn or god knows what, then my ignoring him just means someone else must give him the cash he wants.  I know.  He doesn’t see me as any more human than that, if that’s the case.  I know.

But I don’t, I don’t know.  I don’t know anything about him.  All I know is, a human being as I believe it is a special thing, and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.  And knowing that, it’s cheaper for me to take the second or minute out of my day and spend it engaging him—that most valuable of currencies, time—and then spend the twenty five cents he requests. 

As Polonius said, “To thine own self be true; and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”  Better I should be true to myself in my ignorance and hope than that I should treat a man more poorly than he deserves. 

For oh, I did not stop to let him disturb me, but it was I, in the end, who disturbed myself the entire day long.

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About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
This entry was posted in helping others, integrity, life, New York, urban instinct, whatnot and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Ask, and ye shall receive…

  1. Yarnspnr says:

    Ouch! An interesting autopsy of the experience, I must say. The one thing I didn’t notice in your recounting was the fear that you’ve set something in motion that will someday, oneday return to you in kind. From everything I’ve read here, I’m sure you will recognize when it happens – even if it’s in another life. You are feeling the unsettling experience of a missed opportunity. Given the choice of doing something positive or negative, you chose to do nothing at all. That’s always unsettling. It opens the mind to a million ‘what ifs’. At any rate, the experience is past. Rehashing it will only keep you in a purgatory of self-punishment, which neither relieve you nor end positively. Learn from your feelings and let it pass. Don’t make it a heavy weight you carry around for years. If a dog steps on a nail, it yelps, limps for a few feet, licks its paw, then walks off as if it never happened. We should learn from that.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Hey Yarnspnr!

      No, I’m not afraid of karma. The greatest impact I think a good or bad deed has is on the person doing it, by the very act of it. Each action builds habit. A good one, good habits. A healthy one, a healthy habit. Thoughtlessness entrenches itself, just as generosity does itself, too.

      That’s not to say that things don’t ripple. I believe they do that too. Yup.

      I’m not one to stress over a moment. But learn from it I will. 🙂

  2. Yarnspnr says:

    Cool, Traveler. Karma isn’t something to worry about. It’s not something we can manipulate. It’s like that little voice that whispers in our ear at times. You’re a fairly together young lady. You’ve got life and you’re living it. That’s what counts!

  3. Kasia says:

    And then there’s me. I had a lot of fruit left over one day (don’t ask) and none of my mates wanted any of it, so I decided to give it to the beggar who usually sat outside the Tesco Metro (a small supermarket). She was very grateful. I left with a feeling of goodwill towards all men and women.
    Until the next day. I saw her get up from her pile of dirty blankets, wearing brand new Nikes, walk over to someone in a car and drive away… Hmmm…. I thought to myself, ‘There could be a thousand and one ways to interpret that…Was a mug?! Was she just earning money off of unsuspecting people like me?’ Possibly. However, it only cost me some fruit, which I couldn’t eat by myself (too many apples – don’t ask), but somehow the experience felt a little cheapened.
    Ok, that’s my little addition to your blog and now I can say: how are you? 🙂 When will your first draft be ready? :)x

    • sputnitsa says:

      I know! That’s exactly the quandary. But then again… Yep. City life.

      By the way, Kasia, what books do you read?

      And in answer to your questions–AWESOME. 🙂 How are you?? And my first draft, hmmmmm………………………. 🙂 Hard to say while on a first book. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Would love to be at that next juncture, ready to edit and tighten and strengthen and tone and enhance and whatnot. But one step at a time. 🙂

      • Kasia says:

        Hello! Soz for the late reply… Moving flats is draining me and Arthur of our essence… Plus there are some little (when I say little, I mean BIG) issues that are cropping up since the previous owner left. Hence! We are not yet IN the flat though we are moving our crap across. Yes. You read that correctly. Crap. It is simply amazing the assorted junk (another person’s treasure, yeah, yeah, whatever!) one can amass over two years of living in a confined space. Now I realise why it was so confined… Hmm. Something to be said of those minimalists.
        About your book: keep going! I am so excited about it – I can’t wait to read it when it finally lands on bookshops’ shelves across the world. 🙂
        Now. Which books do I read? Well. I am rather naughty here, because I have a rather large assortment! My favourtie genre to while away the time on the Tube is crime thrillers, murder mysteries – hence, Agatha Christie is a firm favourite. I must say that there is a penchant for Michael Jecks too – murder mysteries set during medieval times. Also, I am trying to read up more on Poland’s turbulent 20th century history, so Norman Davies is currently on my shelf – I have only started his books, because usually they require a lot more brain power than I have at 11:00 at night… I’m still enjoying them though! I also LOVE books about languages e.g. Mother Tongue: The English Language by Bill Bryson (just love ‘as rare as rocking horse s**t.’ Teehee!), and there are various other language books e.g. French, Polish and Japanese textbooks and dictionaries simply litter my shelves. Languages fascinate me!
        Anyhoo… Forgive the rambling, I am exhausted. Roll on Friday where I have taken a day off to strain my muscles lifting crap.
        A bientot ma cherie, and keep smiling – so that people will wonder what you’ve been up to – always good to provide a little mystery, n’est pas? 😉

  4. hope101 says:

    I wish I had some wise words to give you. Only know that I, too, find this to be a difficult decision to make. I’ve had to give myself permission to judge each person as they arrive and make the best instinctive decision I can at the time and let it go after that. Oh – and we donate a significant amount of money with each of my husband’s paycheque to social agencies that might help those in genuine need. Sometimes that feels like enough; other times, inadequate. I just never know which one until I’m there.

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