A dropped coin

He who does not see God in the next person he meets need look no further.”

— Gandhi

I seem to be treading near the horizon between this material world and other ones a lot lately. A strange thing happened today as I was threading my way among the citizens and denizens of this dubious outpost of civilization. I was walking east along Pike Street in that dodgy section between Second and Third. I find it difficult to remain spiritually open in this particular quarter, as there always seems to be the potential for mayhem, perhaps an argument or even a shooting. It was here that police many years ago encircled a troubled black man who’d been brandishing a scimitar and finally knocked him to the pavement with water from a fire-hose.

So I always experience a temptation to harden myself as I pass through there, and the hardening changes not only my posture and my gait but I’m sure my face as well. I’m aware that even when I think I’m smiling bigly, like for pictures, I’m really only smiling a little, and that when I’m not smiling I actually look like I’m scowling. And maybe I am. Being aware of this unfortunate aspect of my visage, I make an effort as I stroll around to open myself up — not to ask for trouble, and not because I think I’m a superhero, but because I need that for my own soul. I am trying to become the kind of person I might admire, and I often know such persons by the fact that they are open and friendly and smiling. So I practice it when I think about it.

Years ago, even the people with clipboards asking for a moment of my time for a worthy cause made me fold up and wish I could disappear — I hated them. I still inwardly cringe every time I see one ahead of me on the sidewalk, or waiting for me at the other side of the crosswalk like someone guarding the far end of a rope bridge, but these days I am able to smile broadly as I approach them. I don’t necessarily shake the hand they proffer (the line “I’d shake your hand but I don’t want to” from The New Adventures of Old Christine always comes to mind), but I always say hi and I don’t feel trapped, and that’s because my outlook toward people has changed toward the positive over recent years.

But that balance between the self-preservation instinct and spiritual openness is difficult to maintain in the wacky parts of town. So it seems now somehow fitting or predestined or ironic (or something) that I saw a young woman in a thick coat and the big soft boots of the current fashion approaching me earnestly at an angle across the sidewalk. Her diagonal trajectory caused people behind her and in front of her to adjust their own bearings suddenly, though she didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Excuse me!” she said quickly.

I stopped and raised my eye-brows, trying to look open, even though I felt very much closed and protective of myself. My collar was up against the cold and my hands were in my coat pockets and because I had forgotten to smile purposefully I probably looked irritated.

Her right eye wandered a little and was slightly closed. She held some coins pinched in the fingers of both her hands and was clacking them together. She seemed to be waiting for me to answer, but I had not yet fully opened myself. My stopping and regarding someone is my signal that they have a short moment to engage my empathy, but I don’t waste words on the street. I waited for her to state her business. She seemed confused that I didn’t speak.

“You’re beautiful,” she blurted. She said this in a quick slur, barely moving her lips, so that I wasn’t even sure that that’s what she said. She clicked the coins, looked away slightly. I suddenly understood that she was completely overwhelmed by the world, and had no idea how to go about getting what she needed from anyone.

I leaned forward then, hoping to assure her that she could at least continue, could make her request. I expected she was going to ask for money, and I regretted that I didn’t have a dollar ready. I sometimes keep a dollar loose in my pocket so that I don’t have to fish out my wallet out on the sidewalk when the spirit moves me to give. But she didn’t ask for money.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I just wanted to see if you’d stop,” she reported, again in a kind of tight-lipped slur. She shifted position on her feet and looking away again. “You’re beautiful.”

I have an idea of about how beautiful I am on the typical scale of Western civ for my age category. This didn’t seem to be about that. The phrase repeated sounded strange, as if she were not saying it of me, but more as a hope for herself, a hope that it may be true of herself and that someone would say it to her. It sounded like something she said often, like a phrase she worried over.

“Well…thanks,” I said. I wanted to say “You’re beautiful too,” which was just the truth. But I was so taken aback that I only managed to add, “You too”, a lame non-sentence, a fragment without verb or object.

If she heard me it had no visible effect on her. Her attention seemed to be drifting, or rather, she didn’t seem to know what to do with my own attention now that she had it. I smiled as broadly as I dared then, and feeling suddenly vulnerable I turned away and proceeded in the direction I’d been going. I thought of how we desire to be told these truths by the people who matter to us — our parents and partners and friends — and how, failing that, a person might seek that connection and affirmation anywhere, anonymously even, and how even in a relatively open moment I was not able to receive such a gift without fear and confusion. It was a pretty simple idea she communicated, a clear statement, and yet I wasn’t able to fully return the blessing just then, just there, and it sent me tumbling down the sidewalk wondering what could possibly be wrong with her.

I heard a coin drop and when I looked back she was chasing it. It seemed to be rolling away from her, just beyond her reach as she followed after it.


9 Responses to “A dropped coin”

  1. 1 Jana November 29, 2011 at 18:06

    Brilliant post. She may or may not be aware that she made an impact on your day. But she probably hasn’t a clue that she’s made an impact on the people reading about her here.

    Thank you for the reminder to notice humankind in all its uniqueness.

  2. 2 Mom November 29, 2011 at 22:35

    I thibnk it was a divine appointment, one that caused your reaction and your blog, and like Jana said she has made an impact on the people reading about her here and now. As the good Book says, “…some people entertain angels unaware…(that they have done so).
    Consider yourself a blessed man indeed.

  3. 3 Jeni November 30, 2011 at 09:25

    I hadn’t thought about the reasons why one closes up in that environment but I sure know what you mean. I appreciate your active attention to changing that in yourself. As always, you challenge me with your acceptance of others, even though, and maybe perhaps because you have struggled so much with that. You’re beautiful, Matthew 🙂

    • 4 Matt November 30, 2011 at 09:56

      @Jana – Thanks, and well said.
      @Mom – I do consider myself blessed, for many reasons but expecially when an inexplicable blessing seems to come out of nowhere. And angels — maybe they is and maybe they ain’t, but since you can’t prove they’re not, they might as well be.
      @Jeni – I don’t know what to say except thank you for all that (and much more, over the last half century).

  4. 5 Angela November 30, 2011 at 13:05

    One of the many reasons I love you, my beautiful husband.

  5. 6 aplscruf November 30, 2011 at 14:58

    Beautifully said, Matt.

    We’re heading to Pike Place Market on Saturday. I’ll be sure to make a conscious effort to smile a little more.

  6. 7 Matt November 30, 2011 at 16:32

    @Angela – Thanks. Your assessment of my pulchritude represents outlier data that cannot be explained rationally nor supported by available field research — but I’ll take it. xo
    @aplscruf – Thank you. The extra smiling may get you a slightly bigger piroshky. (Maybe not, too, but you’ll feel better.)

    I have to share a spam comment that came today. I get tons every week and delete them but this one I keep laughing about:
    “This is pointless, why am I even reading it and not enjoying gulrotkake lavkarbo? I should learn to spend my time better.”

  7. 8 Kip November 30, 2011 at 19:07

    I find that this post is MUCH better than gulrotkake lavkarbo, and consider the reading of said post time well spent. I find I do the same thing when in the situations you mention, and I really have an aversion to the Clip Board People. I know they are doing something I could never do, and respect them for it, but I just don’t want to talk to them. I cannot image having that what happened to you happen to me, but I am glad it happened.

    • 9 Matt December 1, 2011 at 11:00

      Kip, thanks for mentioning what I forgot to mention, that the Clipboard People are doing courageous, honorable work on behalf of other humans, sometimes on behalf of jaded souls like me who don’t like to sign petitions on the street. Another reason to smile at them, even if I keep my hands in my pockets.

      I predict that before the next Blue Moon, you will receive a blessing from a stranger.

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