When I first moved to New York City, I lived smack-dab in the center of midtown, under the shadow of the Empire State Building. I spent my days searching for a job and exploring my new city. One warm fall day, I dressed in a cute flowy skirt and went for a walk down Broadway. It felt very iconic, strolling down the avenue, passing shops and restaurants, seeing fashionable business-men and women. I boldly made eye contact with good-looking men as they walked by. Here in New York City of all places, these mysterious men regarded me with interest. I felt powerful, beautiful, and strong. How wonderful to be considered attractive by a stranger!
In the midst of this empowering experience, I passed a homeless man begging for money. I was already almost past him when my periphery caught sight of his disfigured face. It was deeply scared, as if by deep burns. I kept my pace, but paused upon reaching the end of the block. I couldn’t just walk by. The contrast between my airy pedestal and his experience of society struck me to a stop in that moment. so powerful in that moment. Here was a man who was probably used to being recoiled from, stared at, or pitied. Had he ever had the luxury of believing that a stranger found him desirable? Does he ever get asked “How are you?” in that bland ambivalent way we often talk to each other? Does he even have the dignity of apathy that is so common in this massive city? As I strutted on my airy pedestal, here was someone who would likely give anything just to be seen as normal.
I pulled some bills from my wallet and returned to him. The point was not to give him money, but to share some humanity. I handed him the money but didn’t release it until he met me eye-to-eye. I made no expression, no sympathy or kindness, just looked at him person to person. It felt right.
As I turned and walked away, I heard a voice call out: “what goes around comes around!” There was a man leaning on a parking meter who watched the entire interaction, and apparently wanted to compliment me for it. Ah! Again the bias! Even as I was attempting to align the imbalance between the scarred man and myself, I was still subject to the positive response that my persona offered me. I couldn’t even pull off a selfless act without being validated.
How much of who I am is based on how I look? How much of my confidence, competence, intelligence, and courage is derived from the encouragement I gain from being a reasonably attractive, reasonably dressed young white woman? I will never know. It is impossible to separate those parts of who I am that are my own and those parts that are driven by the constant feedback loop of other people’s perceptions.
I wanted to explain to that man watching me that he had missed the point. He took the wrong lesson away from the situation he witnessed. Or maybe he was right that “what goes around comes around,” but not in the way of karma or justice, but in the way of self-fulfilling prophecies based on external perception.
If that man hadn’t said anything, I probably would have left that space and forgotten about it completely, I probably would have flounced away and resumed my flirtation with the outside world. As it was, I continued down the sidewalk completely deflated. I wasn’t walking in the clouds anymore, I was crying. I cried for the helplessness of that man’s plight. I cried for my own. We are both locked in our bodies, perceiving our merit based on our appearance, shallow in our own ways. I didn’t earn my appearance, I don’t deserve it, but it is mine. I looked the same as I had only blocks before but I could no longer meet anyone’s gaze through my tear-filled eyes.
This is certainly an honest piece of introspection. We are broken, one and all, and to recognize it is powerful and humbling. Derision is one thing, anonymity is something else again, The phrase “the dignity of apathy,” says so much.