By Abe Villarreal
In the busy streets of a metropolitan downtown, people are coming and going quickly. No one has time to stop and take a moment for a hello or a goodbye. The only things that seem to be without motion are buildings. There’s a need to get somewhere quickly. No time to waste.
It’s at least what I experienced seeing recently on a trip to Atlanta, Georgia. The humidity of the South, mixed with the diversity of a community rich in lively music and savory food, all made it for a memorable few days in the Peach State.
I had oxtails for the first time. They were good, and so were the fried green tomatoes.
A stroll through noisy downtown streets, people passed me on both sides. I walked slowly to take notice of every detail. The name of streets and the historic markers, they say a lot about a community. As I made my way by a public park, a man came up to me asking me to stop and listen. He looked like a homeless person asking for money.
What he didn’t do at first was ask for money. He asked me just to stop and pay attention. Clearly frustrated, he was tired of being ignored and expressed his anger at how everyone just passes him by without wanting to hear a word he says.
So, I stopped and listened. He told me his story and then asked for money. In my mind, I began to roll my eyes. Of course, he wanted money. Why else would he stop me? I told him that I didn’t have cash on me and then I went on my way.
The following evening I was making my way through a different neighborhood, taking in the sights and sounds all around me. Big cities are filled with layers of noises. A tall, thin, older man called my attention as I started to walk across an intersection. I told him I had to keep going. You don’t get too much time before the light changes.
And then I remembered my experience from the night before, so I said hello and told him to follow me through the crosswalk. When we found ourselves on the next block, he couldn’t stop saying thank you.
I didn’t understand why since I hadn’t given him anything. He was thanking me for acknowledging him at all. What I didn’t want to do was to make him feel like he didn’t matter, so I stopped walking, turned his way, and paid attention.
He told me that he had AIDS and gone blind in one eye. He did have a greyed-out eye and was thin to the bone. He was just released from a hospital and had to make his way back home on the bus. A church down the street helped him with the bus arrangements, but he needed $14.50 for the fare.
Rather than just give him the money, I asked him about the church and his disease. He started crying. He had never had the opportunity to explain his story for more than a fleeting moment. I didn’t have $14.50 in cash, just $7.00 to share.
I asked his name and shook his hand. He went on his way and I went on mine. I’ll never know if his story was true, but what he did tell me, through his emotions and angst, was that everyone just wants to be acknowledged.
It must be really depressing to live a life where you are completely ignored by everyone in the community that circumstance has destined for you to reside.
A request for a few bucks by a desperate stranger can often be a veiled request for acknowledgment by a person who society has chosen to ignore.
Acknowledgment can be the first step in building relations and solving problems. It won’t cost you anything.
Abe Villarreal writes about life and culture in southern New Mexico. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.