Do we simply turn our heads and look the other way ... while the world turns?
— Elvis Presley
For some reason, the juxtaposition struck me. All around was new ... new construction, new businesses, new attractions.
And walking on the adjacent sidewalk, somehow oblivious it seemed to all the new around them, was what appeared to be a family right out of the Depression-era South. I’ve never been accused of being a fashion plate, but this little group of four — a 30s-ish woman and kids, two boys and a girl, who looked to be in the 6 to maybe 12 age range, wore clothes that made hand-me-downs look designer chic.
The smallest of the kids — the girl — was whining, about what it wasn’t clear. But it didn’t appear to matter. Neither the lady nor the boys paid her much attention. They were all carrying plastic bags that appeared to hold clothing, and there was an aura of perhaps indifference that surrounded them.
I have a tendency to create in my mind backstories for people I randomly come across, figuring this person here is an internet geek who plays videogames maybe 10-11 hours a day, that one over there a businessman whose many businesses never quite took off.
I saw the group on the sidewalk that day as a down-on-its-luck family that either caught a ride with someone they know or rode in on a Greyhound to the end of the line — the line being the extent of their cash — and now were plopped in the middle of a strange place with no idea what to do next or where to go.
They looked around as if everything they saw was new, foreign, and I imagined the two boys questioning their mother: “What are we going to do now?” “Where are we going?”
And, I imagined, the fear coming off this woman was palpable. It was her poor choices, she thought, that had them in a strange place with no hope and no prospects. And not that she ever cared very much or listened to her nagging parents after she turned 13 and knew everything a “woman” needed to know about life, but the one trait of theirs that she seemed to pick up by osmosis was this idea that you take care of your own.
I watched this little group as they kind of wandered about, watched them as they slowly made their way outside my field of vision. Even when they’d gone, though, they stayed on my mind. I wondered if they’d come here to meet someone specific or if this is just another place where they landed. I wondered if they had a destination.
I imagined them walking — the little girl whining all the more — toward one of the several homeless shelters in the community. I imagined a car — perhaps driven by a distant relative who lives nearby and who also adheres to that old “blood’s thicker than water” ethos — coming to pick them up. Perhaps this was their new beginning, not some dot on the map where they ended up.
Then I started feeling the guilt of not having spoken to them, of not having at least asked if I might help. It was, I knew, my own upbringing of being kind to others warring with the reality that is modern-day America, modern-day Albany. In the end, the side of me that reads and writes too many stories about horrible crimes, about bad people in this place we’ve chosen as our home, won out and I did nothing. And now I wonder if this little group that I imagined as a struggling family is OK.
I wonder if they’re warm and dry tonight as they sleep. I wonder if they went to bed hungry, if some of the more streetwise tried to con them or strong-arm them out of their belongings or if someone violently took their stuff.
And all of this wondering makes me wonder why, in the richest, most prosperous land in the history of the world, we have so many people just like this little group in our communities. I wonder how people who have so much can ignore those who have so little, can go out and spend money like it’s their God-given right while others with so little covet just the scraps that they discard without a thought.
I tell myself — and I know it’s a lame attempt to soothe my own conscience — that it’s all I can do to keep my own head above water, that I’m in no position nor circumstance to save anyone. But, damn it, I didn’t even try. And that’s what I’ll be thinking about in my comfortable, dry bed tonight when I lay down. And it’s what I’ll be thinking about tomorrow when I have my first meal of the day.
I know most of us don’t have the capacity to save the world. But don’t we at least have the decency to lend a helping hand? Thankfully, I suppose, for the majority of us, that’s not something we even think about as we live our full and comfortable — and empty — lives.