I sit by the window in a beautiful, upscale restaurant having Sunday morning coffee with my beloved Sunday New York Times. I’m by the large window only partly for the light, but also because I’ve always liked seeing a city wake up and its streets begin to fill. I’m only 18 inches from a sidewalk, protected by air conditioning—ubiquitous in this bustling southern city—from the growing heat by thick glass. For whatever reason, my clearest memories of such participant/observer quietness are of Geneva, then on the square in Appenzell, a small Swiss village. But on this occasion a figure across cross the street caught my eye: a man still asleep on a bench.
I live in a classy condominium with an 18th floor view of Atlanta, have a perfectly functioning car in the garage, a wife who loves me, the unearned advantage of being Caucasian, comfortable retirement from a successful career, good health, and the opportunity to watch and ponder. Funny thing about glass and its ability to separate comfort from discomfort, but in this case to enable me to recognize a scene without experiencing it. I assume the man on the bench has none of those things, so I find myself wishing that at least he is enjoying his sleep and hoping that tonight once again he is fortunate enough to find a better-than-average bench.
Happily, this window on a world that isn’t mine coddles me, enables me to view poverty so that it remains an idea rather than an unrelenting pain. But even recognition is disconcerting, even though I know all the moral and economics arguments for why I am here and he is there. This could as easily be an essay about those arguments, but that is not where my musing has taken me this morning. It has assaulted my usual skill of overlooking such men with a practiced internal voice that reminds me that “the poor will always be with us.” Once we’ve been able to excuse a condition as a universal condition, we can get started on ignoring it.
Have I ever had no bed to sleep on? Yes, but I had a friend’s car to sleep in. Have I ever had no money for a meal? Yes, but it was a very temporary embarrassment. Have I ever had no hope for things to get better? Yes, passingly. Have I ever felt completely excluded and powerless to become somebody? Yes, many times. Have I ever seen other people walking past me as it I don’t exist? Yes, and they may have simply been like me now. I worked hard and kept at it, grew past those pains, didn’t I?
However, such ridiculous comparisons serve pointlessly to preach, “Hey, fellow, get over it. I, too, have been where you are.” Moreover, I can blunt my empathy with the mantra, “If you’d just applied yourself, stayed in school, kept your jobs, you might have been on the cool side of the glass.” It seems odd that even for a moment my moralizing doesn’t also blame him for not having chosen better or more economically secure parents (white or Asian ones while he’s at it), better schools, and a community without prejudice.
But as it always does, my studied ability to retreat from troubled humanity—that means, I fear, most of it–comes to my aid. I order some more coffee and go back to my Times. Isn’t it a beautiful morning!
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