“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.