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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

The Interface

Due to some unfortunate circumstances (and my imperfect time management), I was unable to conduct any interviews for today’s article. However, I would like to share an experience of my own that is relevant to the purpose of this column — that is, to encourage interconnections between different types of people, to combat the tunnel vision that often becomes the student’s routine and to remind everyone (including myself, of course) that we live among diverse and complex subgroups that often go unnoticed or ignored in our daily lives. So, here’s the story.

I’m from the rural suburbia of southeast Pennsylvania, where neighbors don’t know each other’s names and the only opportunities to interact with total strangers are trips to the grocery store. It is a quaint area, but a bit stuffy.

I spent my summer working in Denver, Colo. Thrown into a mix of hundreds of thousands of people, the opportunities I had to connect with strangers increased exponentially in Denver. I would pass hundreds of people each day riding the bus, taking the tram or walking the streets (as it goes in cities).

However, most of these encounters happened in silence. In fact, most of them didn’t involve eye contact at all. With a few exceptions, everyone in transit existed in their own microcosms, eyes glued to their shoes and cellphones glued to their ears. My encounters with these Denverites weren’t encounters at all, really. I found this surprising and perhaps a little annoying, but not upsetting.

What upset me was the way passers-by treated homeless individuals. Everyday, dozens of haggard men and women line the sidewalk of the city’s main street. Some held signs, asking for money or help of some sort. Some just sat there, watching the flow of pedestrian traffic. Even though these individuals were a part of the Denver community by the simple fact of their presence, they were unacknowledged. Despite their suffering and humiliation, they were scorned. The homeless were invisible to the hundreds of people who passed them each day (there were probably some exceptions, but I did not witness any myself).

The abuse inflicted upon the homeless of Denver is not physical or verbal. It is an even graver abuse: the dehumanization that results from being completely ignored and forgotten.

At the beginning of my time in Denver, I found myself reacting to homeless individuals like most everyone else. I would avert my eyes or quicken my pace. I’m not quite sure why. Was I afraid they would hurt me? Was I embarrassed of my relatively privileged life? Whatever the reason, this shameful gut reaction horrified me.

I was walking back home from work one day when a red light stopped me at a busy intersection. There was a man lying on a mattress of flattened cardboard boxes near the curb two or three feet away from me. He did not seem sick or drunk or dangerous. I stood there for a minute, waiting for the light to change, never saying a word to the man but wanting to. I felt paralyzed.

When the light turned green, I crossed the road. On the other side, I saw the man. He was still lying there and people continued to pass him without a glance, as if there was nothing bizarre or sad about a man taking his afternoon nap on the curb of one of the busiest intersections in the city.

I stood on the other side of the street for several minutes, feeling the various consequences of my decision to say nothing to the man. I did not go back across the street. However, I decided I would henceforth try to disregard the barrier of fear and discomfort that was preventing me from connecting with individuals such as the napping man.

This conscious choice led me to meet Anthony Neighbors, 55, a Vietnam war veteran who was shot and stabbed while saving 21 of his fellow soldiers during a battle, and his brother Ben, 76, who liked to dance and do pushups to street musicians’ music. Anthony, a deep bass in the gospel choir of his church, led me in a few verses of “Lean on Me.”

By choosing to disregard the paralyzing fear and discomfort I felt one night when considering sitting on a bench next to a grizzled, mustachioed man, I met Clement Rogers, hitchhiker extraordinaire. His stories of hitching across America inspired a bit of wanderlust in my own mind.

Another night, I passed by a man holding a sign upon which was written: “Traveling, anything helps.” Turning back, I asked him where he traveling. We talked for two hours, during which he told both funny and heartbreaking stories and gave me many bits of advice (“Women just need you to talk to, to support them. They don’t want you to solve their problems for them”).

It can be difficult to reach out to someone who seems so different. It can even be difficult to say hello to someone who doesn’t seem so different from you at all (when was the last time you looked into the eyes of a stranger you were passing on campus and greeted them?). However, it is worth it to do so. Of course, sometimes we need to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. But when you can, reach out. Everyone has a story that is worth hearing.