The People I Don’t Meet When I’m Walking Down the Street

I strapped my 9 month old son to my chest using our ergo, and headed to the shop.  It was open, thankfully.  I was the only customer in the store, and walked up to the friendly clerk, who seemed very sharp, not to mention helpful.  My Michigan ID started a conversation about how he should really visit Detroit, and we bantered a bit as he processed the various registration steps for the store and for Western Union. He mentioned how much more cheerful I seemed than most people, that most people visited him on bad days, and took out frustrations on him – for fees, for life, etc.  I admitted I too was brought in by a bad event, though not my own; I felt pleased, that he had said something that spoke to my character in a way I could take pride in. At that moment he asked about my son on my chest.

“How old’s the baby?” he asked.

“A little over 9 months”, I replied.

“He’s very cute – I have three myself.”

“Awesome – how old?”

“4, 2, and 2 weeks.”

“2 weeks! And you’re already back to work?  That’s rough, man. Must be tough for their Mom holding down the fort solo.”

He paused for a second – his face said he was now stuck explaining something he didn’t want to. “My Mom’s watching them – their Mom’s passed away.”

“I’m sorry – did I hear you right? Their Mom’s passed? But your daughter’s two weeks old?”

His voice didn’t crack, though it did emote in a somber sort of way as he looked at the computer screen. “Yeah. It was in childbirth.”

I was at a loss for words, and stumbled to respond.  “I’m so sorry.  I can only imagine… no, that’s wrong. I can’t imagine.”

“Yeah.  I wish I could have took time off, but I gotta work, now more than ever.”

“And besides, all losses are bad.  We all have pain”, he added.

“That’s true.  All losses are bad.  But even in that category, some are worse.”

His eyes said he agreed, but that it was a thought that didn’t get him anywhere useful. There was a line of 4 customers behind me now, and one started wondering – loudly – what the holdup was.  The newly widowed father of 3 moved back to the paperwork, and completed the transaction in another minute or so.  I stood in silence, trying to imagine how I would feel if I were in his position, having just lost the mother of my children and needing to process checks and wire transfers while remaining cheerful, in addition to coherent.  I have to confess I failed; I literally could not imagine such a thing, as if I was trying to imagine how I might feel after catching a fish with my teeth, or immediately after giving birth, or after winning the World Series.

I didn’t say any of this, of course.  Instead I said what the situation demanded – “Thank you.”

“No problem”, he replied.  “Here’s the toll free hotline, I’ll be working until 7PM if there’s any trouble, and again, thanks for being such a nice customer.  Really good chatting with you – have a great day.”

I felt something like shame and sympathy but, despite my efforts, not quite empathy.  “You too, man – be well.  And take care of yourself. Really.”

As I walked out I looked at the people in line.  Not one could be described as cheerful.  Tired, resigned, seemed more appropriate adjectives.  Perhaps it was temporary, they were unhappy that at 8AM on Memorial Day they were at a check cashing place; but it seemed, at least at that moment through my eyes, deeper than that.

I was struck by three things as I walked away:

1) Most immediately, the terrible tragedy that this man has suffered, and what it says about our nation that he has no time to grieve.  There are many people in the world who have much less than he does in a material sense; but there are very, very, very few who would be expected, or compelled, to do work in the immediate wake of such a tragedy.

2) Second, that this is my neighborhood; the streets I walk every day. I literally never see the people who were in that line, or others who remind me of them.  When I was a kid I learned from Sesame Street that “the people in your neighborhood” are “the people that you meet / when you’re walking down the street / each day.”  I always thought that meant “all the people who are on the street”.  But I realize that maybe the song is smarter than I am.  On closer read the lyrics aren’t that the people who are on the street are the people in your neighborhood.  We can share a street but not be people in each other’s neighborhood if we never meet.

My neighborhood doesn’t include the lives of the people in that shop, and theirs don’t include me.  We may walk the same streets, but we are not the people who meet when we’re walking down the street, even when it’s the same street at the same time.  There is my world, of ergo carriers and coffee shops.  And there’s theirs, of check cashing lines and exorbitant fees and needing to be cheerful at work after their wife dies in childbirth and they still can’t take a day off.

I’ve spent the past few years as a fellow in Harvard’s Inequality and Social Policy program.   I think about the poor in the abstract frequently, and know the research on intergenerational mobility and the power of place and the role of scarcity in decision making etc.   But I rarely see any of this in my privileged cloister.  Cloister isn’t right – as we overlap in space, just not in the realities we – or at least I – see.

3) My third thought was how silly it was of me to feel pleased at his earlier compliment; what in the first instance had caused me to swell with pride in the second instance made me deeply embarrassed at myself.  I felt like the proverbial kid with all the advantages being proud at succeeding at an exam relative to a peer who had had very few.  I thought immediately of an old David Foster Wallace graduation speech, where he describes how while our default setting is to ignore the internal life of others, we can live more fully if we consider it (I include my favorite bit of the speech below). Great that I was friendly; I also quite likely have the easiest life of anyone he’s going to interact with today, and possibly this week.  And without my choice of phrase and the conversation it prompted, I never would have known; my life would have been lived in blissful, self-serving ignorance of the truth.

I soon will be moving; and I hope in my new home I manage to ensure that all, or at least many more, of the people who walk down the street are part of my neighborhood.

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David Foster Wallace: “If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

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