By Tom Gordon
The photograph accompanying this article requires some explanation. The setting is the south side of Railroad Park, and the two individuals walking side by side toward the park pavilion had not been together until a few minutes before I shot the picture.
The younger of the two, on the right, was using a walker due to an injury he sustained to his left leg in a car accident. The older man on his left was carrying a tray holding two cups containing what looked like soft-serve vanilla ice cream topped with Oreo sprinkles. The tray belonged to the younger man. He went by the initials KJ, and he had parked near the western end of the park and had been seeking, with some difficulty, to hold onto the tray, steer his walker, and get to the pavilion.
The older guy obviously had noticed KJ’s difficulty and had sought to help him. I admired that gesture, but I also knew that had I chosen to do so, I could have been there in his place. After all, I had seen KJ arrive, made brief eye contact with him, then watched as he began his awkward advance down the brick sidewalk to the pavilion. But instead of helping, I chose to park my butt on an embankment near a streambed, keen on getting a close-up photo of a perching goldfinch or a feeding grackle. Taken in and of itself, I could say my lack of responsiveness was no big thing. After all, another person stepped in to help.
But the episode still lingers in my mind, partly because I think it was an opportunity for me to exercise a power that we all have the chance to exercise just about every day—the power of the human gesture, the power to acknowledge another person in a positive way, to make any human transaction more than just a brief passage involving minimal eye contact and a cursory greeting.
I deliberately use the word power here, because I think many of us, myself included, often feel that whether the issue is our domestic politics, the international scene, and of course, the weather, we seem powerless to affect positive change. Yes, there are countless exceptions to this assertion, and a Habitat For Humanity building project that I was part of a few weeks back in north Roebuck would be one example. Still, most of us don’t always have the time to take on big-picture projects.
But we do have time for each other.
More than 30 years ago, I lived in the west African city of Dakar, Senegal. During my time there, I made Senegalese friends, ate fish and rice dinners in their homes, and developed a taste for the strongly sugared shot glasses of hot tea that usually followed a meal. My everyday life also involved an up-close and personal look at some of the other realities of Senegalese life. There were men who crawled around the city with knee pads on noodle legs, others with hands that reminded me of door jambs because they bore no fingers, blind youths who would put hands on each other’s shoulders and then convoy to a mosque on the Muslim Sabbath to gather outside and ask for alms.
A blind or hobbled beggar was almost always on whatever bus I rode to get around Dakar, and each beggar had a distinctive sales pitch. One would chant, another would sing, another snapped his fingers. No beggar ever left a bus empty-handed, and when one exited the vehicle, another was usually waiting at the next stop to take his place.
Seeing the generosity in a hard-pressed country like Senegal made an impression on me, but so did a gesture my mother made long ago in Macon, Georgia. I was about 7 years old and I was with her in the Colonial grocery store on a Saturday, when lots of homemakers were doing their weekly shopping. As I recall, all the checkout lines were backed up, and the absence of bar codes made the checkout process slower than it is today. Anyhow, when Mom arrived to check out her purchases, she exchanged greetings with the cashier, a lady about her age who I imagine had been on her feet most of the day. And then, after a moment or two, Mom said something else.
“You know,” she told the cashier, “you’re very pretty.”
This was not quite the same thing as giving some money to a blind man in Africa, but I believe it had power nonetheless, and I think it had that power because Mom did not have to say it, and I’ll bet the cashier had not heard it that day until Mom said it.
It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I like to think that I have followed Mom’s example in how I live now. But I was not following her example when I failed to help KJ with his tray, and I made a point to apologize to him after he had taken a seat under the Railroad Park pavilion and the man who had helped him had gone on his way. His response? An acceptance of an offered handshake, a smile, some words that it was no big deal, and then, three other words: “You’re all right.”
Thanks, KJ. I needed that.