He was comfortable, seemed comfortable, there on his bed. Observing him, it was hard to believe a bed that hard, so open, could be comfortable. If he wasn’t relaxed it didn’t show. He wasn’t the first I’d see there, but he was the first to leave such a lasting impression on me.
What struck me most wasn’t his bed… his bed was the rock hard concrete outside the entrance, just under the sign that said “The Market”. There he was just barely sheltered from the elements, if they chose to be nice. I suppose that spot could have offered some small comfort, but it was a challenge imagining the elements being nice to that degree. But as I strolled into the market for the fruits and vegetables that would make my day happy, I saw him, glanced him, really. He took the whole of my peripheral vision and even at first glance my mind told me something was “wrong” with the picture he created. I couldn’t quite place it then. It was one of those experiences where the brain gives and “error” message but you aren’t quite sure why. So in between feeling the mangoes’ firmness and smelling the citrusy sweetness of the Antigua blacks I resolved to move him from periphery to “front and centre” when I passed him again on the way to the car. And I did. I took him in with a longer than planned stare, allowed my eyes to record the complete sight of him so that my brain could more brightly illuminate the “error” but no such luck! Still remained stuck in confusion.
Driving away, still searching for the “it”, it came to me! The thing that caused my mind to say “huh?”, the source of the “error” message. It was so simple it was easy not to notice at first glance but there it was, as out of place, it seemed to me, as the sun is at 2am, and it triggered a self interrogation and mental challenge that, to this day, I’m grateful for. The source of the error message was a book! The sight of him on that calm, warm, late Sunday morning was of a vagrant lying of his back on a piece of torn cardboard box barely enough “bed” for half his frame, clothes dirty and tattered, feet bare and hard as barren earth not on speaking terms with the rain, reading, absolutely engrossed in, a book.
When I realized that his reading a book triggered the “huh?” in my mind, I had to have a word with me. That logical me that sometimes talks (internally) without feeling declared it singular indeed that a vagrant would be reading and, as she always does when the logical side needs shutting up, the intuitive side countered with a calm “And why not? Don’t you like to read? So why shouldn’t he?!”. Well, truth be told, the argument was over then and there but logical me hates to go down without a fight and kept coming back with a series of “buts” that reeked of ignorance and one-story stereotype. “But he’s a vagrant!” said logical me; “So because he has no fixed abode he can’t read?!?!”, countered intuitive me. “But I’ve never seen a vagrant with a book, reading no less, before!”; “You’ve also never seen a meteor shower yet you don’t doubt that it happens, nor question its happening”. “But vagrants are either drug addicts or crazy! Begging money and cursing you when you don’t give… aren’t they?”; “You would pass such sweeping condemnation on a whole group of people knowing nothing of their peculiar circumstance and call yourself intelligent?! And even if there is truth in that blanket view, neither the choices they’ve made nor their present condition negate their ability or desire to READ!”. “But… but… but, I’ve never seen a vagrant reading before!”.
“But you have seen a man reading… many, many times before, at home, in schools, at the library, in church, at workshops, on TV, even in your own mind! And that’s what you’ve just seen… a man, reading. The only reason you’re shocked is because he doesn’t fit your preconceived notion of what a man, reading, looks like. The man you saw isn’t the “error” message here booboo, its YOU! If you can’t see beyond the label, the stereotype, the ignorance of your useless “superior” education, then you won’t see his humanity. You won’t see him as a person who feels like you feel and hurts like you hurt and loves like you love. You won’t see what I saw… a man, reading a book”. And with that, logical me, was silenced.
Since that day, months ago, I haven’t been able to see people the same way… haven’t been able to look at anyone, poor or rich, female or male, “intelligent” or “ignorant”, famous or unknown, without asking myself “what do you see?”. Sometimes we’re so clouded by our preconceived notions (that are often not based on fact or reality) that we become blinded to the human-ness of the people around us. I don’t know who that man is or what his circumstances are (never saw him again) but he taught me well that day and, for that, I’m grateful…and humbled.