Friday, December 14, 2007

When No One Is Listening

When I go out around my way at night, to the store or the gas station, more often than not I get approached by someone asking for money for some reason or another. “Ay breh, I don’t mean no disrespect, but I just got out of the hospital and I need some help to get this prescription. Can you help a brother out?” “Excuse me brotherman, I don’t mean to step to you like this breh, but I’m hungry, can you help me out with a dollar so I can get me something to eat?” “Sir, you look like a righteous black man, so I ain’even gonna lie to you, I just got out of jail and I need some money to get on the bus. Can you spare a dollar or something to help me out?"

I realized recently that this happens so much that I am becoming blind to the men on the other side of these questions. I am failing to look at them and see them as men, but rather I see them as obstacles to my getting gas or milk or dental floss. I realized that with each encounter my increasing insensitivity is a reduction in my own humanity. Typically, if I have money in my pocket I would give it to them and if not I would say so. I often do not give it much more thought than that.

Last night another brother stepped to me while I was out buying some aloe for a mark on my face. As I pulled into the parking lot I saw him in my rear view mirror quickly limping up to my door. I got out quickly so I would be out of the car and standing up by the time he reached me.

Excuse me breh, I don’t mean you no harm. I’m just hungry. Can you help me out with some change, please?

He was a young black man, he looked like a teenager. His clothes were filthy, he smelled bad and he only had on one shoe. The other foot was broken and in a cast which he had covered with a sock. Rather than the usual – keep walking you’re a nuisance posture – we were standing still and face to face. Before I could answer, he said he had been hit by a car and broke his ankle. He proceeded to pull up his pant leg and show me the top of the cast and the skin on his leg that looked infected and awful. I asked him how old he was and he said that he is 21. I asked him why he was out there like this.

Where are your people?

I ain’ got nobody. My Mama died and I never knew my father and I ain’ got nobody else.

He was speaking softly by now and he opened his jacket and pulled up the sleeve of his t-shirt and showed me a crude tattoo on his arm of a picture of his mother. Underneath the picture of her face was a picture of the prayerful hands together with R.I.P. and the dates of her life. I asked him where he sleeps and he said in an abandoned house somewhere on the other side of the park. I gave him the name and address of a church that is nearby that has a system for helping people.

Thanks breh, cause I need some help, with my foot and to get me some food, I’m hungry. I just need some help youknowwhatimean.

I hear you blood, but make sure you go to the church. Those folks can really help you.

I gave him the money I had. He took it, looked at me and then grabbed me. He put his head on my shoulder and hugged me hard for a long time. I could feel him breathing and shaking. When he let go and faced me he was crying.

He extended his hand to me and said his name is Charles. He said that its rough “to be out here and don’ nobody want to listen you.” Then he promptly hobbled off.

I sat back down in the car for a moment to hold back my own tears and collect myself. I felt ashamed that I had stopped seeing these brothers as men; that I had stopped listening.



acousins said...

Thanks for this post Kamau. Sometimes I wonder, and worry, if I may develop a callous on my heart as I - more and more every week - ignore the face connected to the hand or the sign that juts out from the periphery. I tell myself that I am just really tired of being asked, then I realize that my tiredness cannot compare to the tiredness these people feel, barely surviving on the street.

esk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
esk said...

i guess i have lost my humanity. i cannot remember the last time i stopped to listen. even when i give money i rarely look into the brother's eyes. is it shame? but i liked your story and will try to remember it the next time i, ... wait tomorrow.

Jeff Forbes said...

That was powerful. Thank you.

Hill Rat said...

Kamau - I read this the other day and took it to heart. I gave an older brother a dollar today after leaving the drug store, I took about five steps on my way and I came back to the man. I told him that I wanted something for my money, a minute of conversation. So as we chatted on the sidewalk, I found out that he was from Atlanta and worked construction. I inquired if he looked for work at the new stadium site and he told me that he had had a heart attack on the job and wasn't really capable of working. At this point I had to break out and continue my day, but I told him that I would be back and I will; hopefully with a name, number, or an address where he can get some help.

Thanks for reminding me that all those unfortunate souls we see on the streets are people and giving me a reason to listen to at least one of them.