Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Spare Cents

Standing tall and very still on a staircase platform underground, her sign read “SPARE CENTS. I AM NOT PERFECT.”

My hurried steps slowed down slightly as I took in her plea, written horizontally on a lined page of a spiral-bound notebook. Every day I pass countless people on the street, in the subway stations or on the subways themselves, singing their hearts out, playing an instrument, or just rattling their paper cup – all for some spare change. The less talented ones carry large wordy signs explaining their plights, much too long for rushing commuters to read through it all. Some have signs with only the words “PLEASE HELP” written on them. Usually in capital letters, their messages shout loudly at us, while the authors themselves sit or stand in silence. Still others forego the sign entirely and simply rely on their tattered clothing to speak for them. But this woman’s sign was different.

Like a subliminal message seeping into my brain, I couldn’t dismiss it like all the others. My conscience quickly caught the play on words. She wasn’t just asking me to spare some cents. She was asking me to spare some sense.

This woman could see right through me. I’ve grown numb to her sorry situation, and those of every homeless person in New York City. I have become senseless. I might as well be an inanimate object for all I’ve done to help them, which is nothing.

Most of the time, I keep my eyes averted. Looking them in the eye would acknowledge their existence. Constant reminders that life isn’t fair, their presence can sometimes exasperate me. I want to blame them for being there, when their only offense is having burst the egocentric bubble in which I live. “How could you let yourself get to this point?” I accuse them silently. And by doing this, I am able to turn my head and keep going, quickly sweeping that lingering guilt under my mental rug. But her defensiveness shocked me, and prevented me from executing my default response.

Clearly, her choice of words was no accident.

She chose not to speak in generalities. “NOBODY’S PERFECT” would have worked just fine. Instead, she made it personal, and in a trick gun maneuver, she took my pointed finger and turned it right back at me:

SPARE CENTS. I AM NOT PERFECT. (Don’t think this couldn’t happen to you. Just because you walk on by with your shiny black briefcase and your spit-polished shoes, and I’m standing here in my thread-bare cardigan and worn-out sneakers, doesn’t make you better than me. I’ve made some wrong choices, but you have, too. Bad things have happened to me, like they can happen to anyone. So don’t judge me just yet, because the only difference between you and me is that I’m here, and you’re there.)

Her original message was brief, but it was enough. With just six words, she slapped my face and turned it in the direction of my fears. I couldn’t even try to defend myself. I knew I deserved it.

The sharp sting of her words stayed with me as I continued to walk up the stairs and into the street, where I eventually encountered another homeless person. I read his sign (HELP. NEED MONEY FOR FOOD) as I walked by. “I want to believe you,” I said to myself.

A familiar voice echoed in my head. “It’s best if you don’t give them any money because most of them will just use it to buy more drugs and liquor. You won’t really be helping them.” My mother trained me from an early age not to trust these people.

“But how can you be sure?” I now asked my mother, and myself, in my head. “And isn’t it worth it, to spare some cents, just in case their story really is true?”

I think it is.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Father

I won’t deny that I used to be daddy’s little girl. I loved to play with him, accompany him on his errands, go with him to the ice cream store for a special treat. He usually gave me what I wanted, at least until I reached my teenage years. That’s when all of his Yes’s turned to No’s.

As the head of the family, my father’s word has always been final. He manages to silence a room with his resounding “No” which seems to echo off the walls. My father seldom raises his voice, so when he does, we listen.

It took me a long time to realize that my father is the more reasonable parent. Unlike my mother, he doesn’t let his emotions get in the way of his decisions. He’s willing to hear you out, but it takes a mighty solid argument to change his mind. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been able to accomplish this feat.

Disciplined, a man of routine, he wakes up every morning at 6:30am, showers, and is out the door by 8 ‘o’ clock on the dot. He eats his lunch at exactly noon, and his dinner must be on the table by 6pm every night, with the television set to the news channel.

He lives by these self-imposed rules that are set in stone, and this method works for him, but his rigidity inhibits him in other ways. For instance, he is allowed to take up to three weeks of vacation a year. For whatever reason, he has chosen his vacation time to be either the last three weeks of July, or the first three weeks of August, or some combination of the two. If some type of long-distance event were to come up during any other time of the year, you can be sure he will not be in attendance. Planning a long weekend is not a possibility. In fact, part of the reason I didn’t have a destination wedding was because I knew he wouldn’t come if it wasn’t during one of those three weeks in the summer, and we wanted to get married in the spring.

Despite his quirks, I can never complain about him not being a constant presence in my life. I cannot say that his patience is never-ending, but I can say he is the most responsible person I’ve ever met. I was never in need of anything. There was always food on the table, always a place to call home. He fulfilled his duty as a father, his label switching from playmate to provider as I got older. Even now, our relationship consists of greetings, questions asked and answered, and occasional disclosures about my daily life. Our silences are never uncomfortable. That’s just the way it is with us.

Ever since I moved out over a year ago, his role as provider doesn’t apply anymore. Our relationship is about to change yet again.