DECEMBER 28, 2010 11:59PM

Train to Florence

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They drag on cigarettes and look blasé as they wait for the train on the platform.  One has spiked hair, the other broad shoulders.   I do not find them interesting, but they are people so I give them faintly more recognition than the concrete wall against which they lean.  Then one catches me staring, large circles like an owl that lock mine - curious, if not accusing.  I look away shielded by the tinted haze of the window and busy myself at my computer.  The chance meeting of eyes runs voltage, stirring my core, rousing me. The potential to be seen by a stranger, to have a temporary glimpse of me, snatched from my guard.  I did not care about the man on the platform any more than the green frogs on my lily pad printed dress. I did not care where he had been or where he was going or what he thought of me, except that I was not prepared to be perceived, or at least know that I had been perceived. He had the random fortune to fall into my line of view - a prop on a stage for the onlooker, until those eyes - those round pockets of consciousness - met mine and the inanimate human became my audience.

It is a similar thing with the concierge this evening in the hotel lobby. I request a decaf cappuccino in broken Italian.  Recognizing him as the waiter from breakfast, I make a mental note, despite its insignificance, that he must have night duty - although now instead of waiter, he doubles as desk clerk and bartender. I barely look in his eyes. So quickly do I turn away, I cannot remember what he is wearing.  Maybe a wilted white shirt.  Maybe a red handkerchief in his breast pocket.  The snapshot is missing at this juncture of interaction, the instant of perception.  Here, the eyelids of my mind drape across my pupils like a fingerprint on the lens.  As I scramble for an image to feed my brain, I must fill in the blanks with assumptions. 

The impulse to avoid wins against propriety and my neck cranes free from the concierge as I wait for my cappuccino and strain behind me for a glimpse at what I might have missed in the prior moments. I turn nearly 180 degrees towards the automatic door.  Noticing nothing, my eyes rotate another ninety degrees to an 18th century looking room of musty armchairs and palatial ceilings with a decade old computer atop a small wooden table.  The room is labeled “The Internet Corner”. The room is empty, as is the lobby, and my escape route from having to make conversation ends abruptly as I am served my cafe.  I am pulled back to face the onslaught of interaction that does not happen.  I sip, wipe the froth from my lips in the stillness of silence, and when there is nothing left in my cup, I place it neatly in its saucer and head for the elevator.   

This morning the gal at breakfast wore a pretty t-shirt, tight against her breasts.  She was thin and young and her body seemed to glide to and fro, apron folded about her flat stomach, deftly refilling crackers and hard boiled eggs and coffee cups.  Our eyes scanned each other, in indifferent awareness, like animals in a cage.  I sat at a table beside my husband and son, as we busily attended to our physical desires.  Pouring coffee, spreading butter, sipping, crunching.  My son slathers peanut butter on his cracker, and I make a mental note that it is good he is eating.  Casually, I glance about me.  There are several couples at other tables and they too, seem to coexist in the silent dance.  Do they notice me?  I sit up straight and organize my messy table by placing the wrappers from the crackers in the empty container inscribed in Italian and translated into English, “Please keep your table neat”. I speak softly, chew with my mouth closed, I look down so as not to stare and as a result, I numb my senses to the point that I am existing in the space without being in the room.

So by now I have been through several cities.  Venice, Florence, the hills of Tuscany, Rome, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  In the bus station in Jerusalem, I parade with my Prada purse turned backwards so that the glistening logo is concealed beneath my armpit.  We pass beggars, chanting “Tzedakah, Tzedakah” offering a blessing should you answer their pleas with money.  In the fleeting moment in which I race by and try to look past them, I take pause to assess nationality. I see head coverings and kippot, and I wonder if they are merely costumes to gain sympathy.   In this country, I have no way to discern enemy from friend. I cannot tell whether lurking behind rows of stained teeth and pockets of missing ones are individuals who smiled at news of suicide bombers, or at the very least cheered the “martyrs” of their towns.  I do not know which human life smothered in wretchedness to believe or whether to look at all?  All at once I think, “Which vagabond is truly in need? Which one is part of some scam?” “There lies the frankfurter stand to my left.”  “Oh, look at the salty hot pretzels hanging in the glass case!  Those are never kosher on the streets of New York!”   “Should I buy some freshly baked pastries?  I might be hungry on the bus!”  “For which beggar should I stop?  In which cup shall I toss a shekel?  How did the old man selling trinkets on a red velvet tray end up here in the bus station?  He must be somebody’s father, grandfather or son?”  The aroma of hot pizza floats like a flying carpet above whirling voices chattering and blenders mixing frozen fruit shakes.   I think, “Is this homeless man who mutters part of the army of mentally ill who roam the public for lack of services?”  “The mounds of candy in that shop look so pretty!”  “Where do these misfits of society sleep?  Do they have shelters in Israel?”  And so it goes, until after 15 minutes of wandering this circus of sadness and joy the bus station fades to white noise.

Once I cried to a Rabbi in his study.  It was almost 10 years ago that I sat facing him and questioned whether punishment awaited me for each needy person I failed to help in my lifetime.  I had just returned from a beautiful evening in New York City.  My husband and I had traveled 90 miles to dine at a restaurant for my friend’s birthday.  That evening glistens as I recall the table for four in the candlelit atrium.  I can still taste the delicious eggplant napoleon I ordered for the appetizer.   The end of the meal culminated with a good laugh when the waiters crooned happy birthday calling her by the wrong name.  In all the evening would have been a perfect “good time”, but for a momentary blight. As we had gaily approached the restaurant, a homeless man outstretched his arm to me.  Filth covered him in the patina of city pavement. It was winter and we were rushing.  Did I shield myself with my shoulder the way I often do, when feeling accosted?   Or did I fumble with the crease in my wallet so as to quickly and wordlessly slide out a dollar?  I do remember that as I passed the unsightly man, my heart froze.  I felt a surge of compassion/revulsion but I swallowed hard, tossed my head and went on with my night - only to worry for the decade that ensued if every human I had ever turned away from was in fact the prophet Elijah in disguise.

I never did get an answer from the Rabbi to whom I cried. He did not tell me what happens when you die or whether punishment awaits he who buys sneakers made in China.  The Rabbi never absolved me, as I knew he couldn’t, but those tears were the beginning of a long rain. A cyclone of guilt caught me in its embrace, suspending me in an onslaught of despair and spitting me out in the desolation of life’s contradictions.  After a decade of this, you’d think I’d know how to navigate a bus station in Jerusalem without asking questions that bring me so close to the edge of life.  But that is where truth lies - in the minefield.

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The end of your essay is brilliant, and I have had those same thoughts so many timess. The question that dogs me is how to live in the world. How do you live in a way that is sensitive and responsive to the suffering of others without becoming so overwhelmed by it that you fall apart? We are taught that we must not turn away from suffering, but on the other hand, if you give all of yourself to heal suffering then there will be nothing left of you, either for yourself or for anyone else. These questions remain unanswered but good for you for putting into to writing the internal dilemmas that people face every day.
I loved this essay - it is so beautifully written - you can feel the angst that you experience through the words - and it reminds me of the fact that we all experience that angst all the time, but just as we push aside the stranger asking for money, we push aside that angst because there is no good, easy answer..... But certainly alot to think about - Thanks for your writing and for making me think....
Well written. Good questions. You never know when someone asking you for money is on the level.

The Rabbi, of course, couldn't answer your question. The ultimate punishment for any of us might be the pangs that made you cry in the first place. It's possible that, if there really is an afterlife (which in Judaism isn't really addressed in detail because we don't pay a whole lot of attention to it - for us life is the Main Event rather than functioning as Death Prep like it does in many other religions), we remember very well what we did and didn't do in life and feel those same pangs for a long time without having the ability to rectify them. In that case, it may be irrelevant whether we just passed Eliyahu or not. I don't know. Sometimes I give, sometimes I don't, I'm not particularly generous that way and I get the same pangs I'd imagine you do. Oh well, it could be worse: We could be Pangless. A less painful alternative but not one I'd want.

Sorry about the late night musings. There's no real validity to them.
Such a thinking piece and it really gets to the emotional core. I've often struggled and been tortured with these feelings as well, and the only thing I've come up with is not to worry about if the person is legitimately a beggar or not. When I take that out of the equation I feel more free to just do what I can.
Wow, this deserved much more attention I think!