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Get together and make things better by working together.
–Theme song of one of my favorite childhood shows.
An interesting thing happened to me last week. I dropped by my favorite Goodwill after work(the one on the Ave. It’s a gem.). I picked out a few things to try on and then went over to the fitting rooms, which are always full. I stood behind an old man and whipped out my phone to check my email. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man in front of me start slightly, as if to move out of line. I sensed that the thing keeping him from moving might be me(though there was plenty of room to get through), so I budged over to one side to make more room, with an automatic “sorry”, my eyes still on my screen. Now, in my experience, most people normally exchange sorrys when squeezing past each other. Instead of being apologetic, though, he gave a low grunt/growl and shuffled past. That was fine. I don’t get too flustered when people aren’t perfectly polite. What was NOT okay was what happened after. He took about ten steps away, into the household items aisle, and started grumbling, his voice getting louder and louder. mumblegrumble…why don’t you…mumble…phone…grumble…sorry…mumble…sure you are…YOU STUPID B****!
I froze and blinked in shock. He was hidden in the aisle, out of view. He was obviously talking about me…but why? Why was he so angry? And why didn’t he say it to my face? Wait, would I have wanted that? I thought for a moment about confronting him, asking what I had done to offend him. No, I didn’t want that. I decided that any person whose emotions were so volatile could potentially be dangerous. Although I prefer to resolve issues with others, I also prefer to not have knives in my body. I would be happy to avoid him and end my shopping trip without another sighting.
No such luck. A few minutes later, he shuffled back to the fitting area, this time to make small talk with the fitting room assistant. I got a better look at him. His face was wrinkled and aged, with distinctive patchy growths. His hair was straggly, his clothes dirty. He held an blanket folded over one arm. He raised that arm, gesturing to the blanket. “I’m gonna buy this one. Yeah, gonna keep me real warm. Yup, this one.” I was surprised at his cordial behavior, especially just after his fuming rant. I noted that his voice tilted in a slightly off, dreamy way. He slowly walked away. I was slightly annoyed.
I let it go, though. I tried to toss it out of my thoughts. It sort of worked…until I left the store. Immediately after making the turn onto the Ave, I noticed him sitting on the sidewalk, back against the wall. I slowed down my walk, deliberating. How would he react? I went for it. In my most casual, cheerful voice, I chirped, “Have a nice day!”, tipping my head in his direction. Without hesitation, he looked up with a toothy grin and responded, “You too! Thanks! Have a great weekend!” No hint of a scowl or any of the previous ill will. And not an ounce of recognition. I determined that he might be a little off.
Funny thing is, since that encounter, I’ve had many more…or perhaps I’ve just noticed more. Do you remember the man I mentioned last week? The one who likes to sell Real Change in front of the Rite Aid on 3rd? The next day, he wasn’t there. So maybe I’m not that oblivious to the presence of others. But over the next week, I did notice that he was there about half of the days. I hadn’t noticed any homeless man before that week.
Today, I went downtown during my lunch break. I made the mistake of keeping my work jacket on, resulting in being stopped multiple times by fundraisers for charity organizations. I tell you, those people are PERSISTENT. The first person, a male my age, tried to sign me up to sponsor an Ecuadorian child for $25 a month until I explained that I was a college student currently doing an unpaid internship and had no steady source of income(I also tried to let him down easily by telling him I already had a charity of choice that I donate to–The Red Cross. No dice. Why not two charities, was his argument). He looked at me incredulously, asked me where I went to school, then let me go. I stepped up my pace, hoping to get back to the office on time, and was surprised when a second charity group approached me. The two men, both in their 20’s, were relentless, but I eventually got away after what seemed like 10 minutes.
There were at least four kinds of people on the street at that time: me–the apparently approachable young professional, the charity fundraisers, the many serious-looking business people, and the homeless men sitting on the street. I noticed the latter two, but didn’t notice the fundraisers until I was approached.
They had picked me out of the crowd. For them, I was the target audience. I, on the other hand, noticed the men on the street playing traditional Asian instruments and guitar and singing original songs.
I have no doubt that after today, I will be more aware of fundraisers when I’m walking down the street. I will notice them, and I will also notice the homeless people. Every personal encounter, it seems, makes me more aware of the presence of a particular group. I wonder how long this effect will last.
Who do you notice? Or more importantly, who do you not notice?
Open up your eyes, open up your ears.