Sometimes the invisible ones come out of the shadowy spaces to which they’ve been assigned by those who walk in the light.
I was driving out of the parking lot of a big shopping plaza, and a homeless man was standing at the corner on my right. I looked to my left to see if the road was clear. The need to look left served another purpose – it saved me from making eye contact with the man. I wasn’t planning to give him any change, and not giving it to him made me feel guilty (regardless of my lack of information about his particular situation). He stood there, an alien, marginal being, and cars kept passing by, drivers looking everywhere but in the man’s eyes, as if scared of the homelessness “disease”.
As if looking at him could somehow contaminate them.
In every society people have a set of ideas about the clean and the dirty. This varies from place to place although certain ideas seem to be universal. We frown at the things practiced by others – for instance, the Indian caste system – but fail recognize our own behavioral and thought patterns here, at home, when we come across those who do not fit into our quite rigid concepts of “normal”. We, Westerners, the inhabitants of the “civilized,” first-world country, have our own untouchables.
I understand. We fear the different, the unknown. We don’t know what to expect from those who live on the margins of our own familiar, comfortable world because they don’t live by the same rules. When you are a marginal being, your behavior may change along with the changes in your mode of existence, your perception of reality, your physical health, your value system, and your identity.
One day I had a very unpleasant experience with a homeless man. I was walking down the street, and he was walking toward me, talking to himself. He was a dark-skinned, tall man in his late forties. When we approached one another, he threw out his hand and hit me in the head, mumbling something about “bitches”. The stroke wasn’t hard enough to hurt me really bad, the damage was mostly psychological. I was so shocked that it didn’t cross my mind to call the police.
Are all homeless men (and women) aggressive? Are they all alcoholics, drug addicts, schizophrenics? No, of course not. But they do live in a marginal space of existence which more “fitting” members of our society fear to explore. And why would they? Very often the first inclination of a “normal” human being is to separate from the marginal one, to increase the distance between one another, to avoid all contact whatsoever. It’s safer that way, and there’s no need to think much. Just don’t look and keep driving.
The homeless man at the exit of the parking lot held a cardboard sign in his hands. I thought it would say something like “hungry” or “disabled vet”, I wasn’t really interested in knowing… But he wrote his sign in huge, dark letters that practically screamed at me. The sign said,
SMILE, GODDAM’IT !
I smiled. I gave him a huge, genuine smile. I wanted to laugh at myself when I imagined how I looked to him – a thirty-year-old woman with a dead-serious, grim expression on a tired face driving out of the shopping plaza. How did I really look? Exhausted, sad, pressured, irritated, unhappy? I avoided looking at him, but he did look at me. The “no looking” game is one-sided, you see. The homeless are invisible to us. We look away or through them because seeing them makes us feel uncomfortable, but they don’t seem to have a problem watching us.
Smile, God damn it.
People in their cars, tired after work, worried about bills, kids, husbands, wives, tomorrow, and who knows what else. Tired after standing in line in WalMart, not looking at another human being in the corner because he is not really one of them. He is alien. Almost nonhuman.
Some people might feel offended reading this post. “We? No, never! We don’t judge the homeless, we see them as human beings, we give them change, we even talk to them!!” Well, maybe some people do. But the majority doesn’t. The majority avoids looking at them because they are a threat to what is perceived as normal.
I don’t blame people for not feeling comfortable looking at other people. I am just pondering on the subject of perception of reality.
Have you ever wondered how the world looks to a homeless man?
We know how the homeless look to us. Have you ever wondered about how we look to them?
I’d never really talked to a homeless person until about a couple of months ago. I met a homeless guy named Henry. Henry is probably in his fifties, he has a black Labrador named Sweet and a bicycle (although I saw him without the bicycle about a week ago, maybe he doesn’t have it anymore). He asked me to use my cell phone when I was passing by, so I lent to him. He called his brother or sister, I can’t recall now. He said he loved them. He smelled like a drunk. He had skull rings on his fingers, and a heavy silver chain on his chest. I saw him a couple more times after that. My daughter played with his dog.
He called me “sister.” He stopped being invisible when my daughter played with his dog and we talked about simple things. As we talked, all the other people on the street became invisible to me for a brief period of time when I stood next to him. And I probably became “the weird one” to those others. After all, who in their right mind would stand next to the stinky homeless drunk and let her toddler play with his dog?
What are your experiences with the homeless?
Do they scare you? Do you feel comfortable looking into their eyes?
Do you perceive the gap between your world and theirs?
Hello. I am a writer and a researcher. Here I will post my articles on various topics in anthropology and perhaps some more personal essays in which I will address cultural and social issues that call my attention.
If you feel that any of the information presented in these articles is incorrect, outdated, biased, or "wrong" in any other way, please feel free to let me know.