I went to a local coffee shop/bakery this morning with a friend. Standing in line by the glassed-in pastry counter, I was aware that the little old man behind me…unshaven, knit stocking cap pulled low on his head, long, shapeless brown overcoat…was making circular motions with one hand in front of the glass pastry case, saying “strawberry shortcake!” “Cinnamon buns!” I assumed he was talking to someone, but then saw he was alone.
“Soup,” he said. “Soup, soup, soup. I’ll have soup.”
I didn’t fully turn to look at him, but couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t talking to me. I didn’t want to say anything unless I was sure. When I got to the cashier, whom I know, I commented that he was lucky to be working inside, because it was cold outside.
“Yes, cold,” the little man said. I still didn’t know if he was talking to me, and felt like perhaps I should have said something to acknowledge him. But I didn’t.
When we sat down, the little man took a table near us, with his bowl of soup and the crust of French bread that comes with it. Head down, he ate quietly and quickly, not removing his coat. A few minutes later he got up to leave and, as he passed our table, he paused. Neither my friend Gary nor I said anything or even looked up at him. He moved on, and Gary, who was facing the front of the shop, said he paused at each table as he passed it.
I at first assumed that the man was one of the far-too-many sadly dysfunctional people who flow along the city’s streets like twigs and leaves and Styrofoam cups float along a swollen creek; the invisible people no one sees, or pretend they don’t see. He may well have been. But it suddenly struck me that perhaps he was simply hoping someone might say hello to him, or somehow acknowledge his existence, and I was literally overcome with sadness and guilt that I, too, had totally ignored him.
When I told Gary how I felt, he said, logically, that to engage people whose looks and/or behavior strike a jarring note in the orchestra of our daily life was to risk…something: awkwardness? An unpleasant confrontation? The fact is that we simply do not know how to react to people who stand out as being uncomfortably different from ourselves and those we are used to having around us.
So rather than risk discomforting and embarrassing ourselves, we pretend they don’t exist. We tell ourselves, often with complete justification, that the panhandlers we see on the street could get a job if they wanted one, or that if we give them any money, they’ll just spend it on booze or cigarettes or drugs, and probably nine times out of ten, we are right. But what of the tenth person; the one who really does need our help. How can we tell the difference?
I have nothing but contempt for those who impose on others out of laziness or a desire to get something for nothing, or who deliberately try to take advantage of people’s goodness, or will do nothing to help themselves. They should be ashamed of themselves, but of course are not. And they deprive those who really need a little kindness or assistance of either.
I don’t know anything about the little old man in the coffee shop, or what his story might be, or if he was talking to himself or perhaps to me in hopes that I might say something to him and make him feel as though he were visible. But I am nevertheless truly and deeply ashamed of myself.
Why does this sort of thing bother me so? And why am I so relentlessly unforgiving of myself for not being who I think I should be? And the next time I encounter a similar situation, will I react any differently? I would like to think so, but, sadly, I doubt it.
Dorien’s latest book, “Caesar’s Fall,” the third book in his Elliott Smith Mystery series, has just been released and is now available in or on order from any bookstore or online bookseller. He invites you to visit his website to learn more about it and his other books. http://www.doriengrey.com