Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Man in the Mall

When you give a party, invite the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind…Luke 14:13

I just happened to be on that side of town. I was waiting for a contractor to cut checks and needed to kill some time, so I went to the mall for lunch. This particular mall was my old stomping grounds during high school. Dave and I almost wore a path in the terrazzo floor during our senior year of high school. We had driver’s licenses and wheels. We went there nearly every evening and mostly we watched people. Mostly girls, actually. But people in general too.

I got a sandwich at the deli and sat down in the mall to watch the people. I saw him again. He was sitting on the edge of one of the red brick planters, like always. He had one arm crossed, resting his useless hand in his lap, the hand that swung on his bony arm like a knot at the end of a rope at his side when he walked. With his index finger of his other hand he traced “figure eights” in the dirt of the planter, like always.
I would swear he wore the same black rimmed glasses with dirty lenses as thick as Fig Newtons. He still wore light blue denim bell bottoms, even though they had been “out” for years, and tennis shoes prematurely worn on one side from his shuffle-walk. His back had become even more hunched on the side of his good arm. When he looked up to watch the passers-by (he always had to tilt his head way back to look up because his body was hunched forward and his glasses had slid down his nose) his head would list to one side and rest on his hump, and his mouth would hang open. I watched him watch people walk by, just as I had seen him do every time I had been to that mall, just as I had seen him do for the first time nearly twenty years before.

Twenty years. I imagined him for twenty years (maybe more, that is only the time I knew of) going to the mall every day for eight or ten hours, shuffling, sitting, then shuffle some more, then sit a while longer.
I wondered what he thought about while shuffling, sitting, staring for all those years. I wondered what he was capable of thinking about.

I wondered if he was ever jealous of the “whole” people. I wondered if he was ever angered at his ugliness, or if he perceived that he was “ugly”, that he didn’t fit in with our culture’s love affair with beauty.

I wondered if he ever wanted children to buy toys for, or a wife to watch try on a new dress, or if he had a wife and children maybe before some calamity struck him and them down.

I wondered if he ever stifled the urge to risk saying hello (I’d never heard him speak) to one of the shoppers, a pretty woman, a toddling child who would wander over to him and stare at him like a strange mannequin, a blue haired widow, a man in a wheelchair. Did he ever want to speak just to hear someone speak back to him, even if to insult him.

I wondered if he ever left the mall feeling lonlier than when he arrived, and if so, how much more loneliness upon loneliness could a human being bear after twenty years.

I wondered if God, in His mercy, had short circuited whatever part of his heart and mind that would allow him to know he was different and so alone.

I wondered too about all the people that passed him every day, if they even see him, if they consider who he might be, or what it is that is going on inside him. I wondered if any of them thank God, their stars, their karma or even blind luck for not being like him.

I wondered what would happen if God in His mercy made each person who passed him to be like him for one day, letting them live in the twisted wreck of flesh he occupied, letting them feel his accumulated feelings. I wondered how life in the mall would change, how life beyond the mall would change.

I wondered how many people who have passed him in twenty years were Christians. I wondered how many of them have seen him, maybe many times like I had. I wondered how many of them had made any attempt to see if he was hurting, to find out if his heart was broken or if he lived in desperation or in anger at our God. I wondered how many of them know what Jesus said about compassion, the last being first, the outcast being welcomed in, the gospel being preached to the poor in pocket and spirit. I wondered why, if some seventy five percent of our nation claims to be Christian and even more to be “spiritual”, not one of the hundred or more people that passed him by during that hour ever stopped to talk to him, somehow acknowledge his existence, much less even make eye contact with him.

I finished my ruminations. I finished my sandwich. And as I left to go pick up my check, I wondered why I too did not.


Hannah said...

This really touched me because I am guilty of the same thing. After being indifferent towards people such as the man you mentioned I am so ashamed because I know that I am commanded to love everyone, no matter their condition. Wait, no, because of their condition, which we ultimately all share-that of a fallen human in need of mercy, love and compassion.

Today, on the bus there was a homeless man who was so sweet and was telling me stories about his life, and all the time I was trying (and praying) to have love and compassion for him. But we have to struggle for in order to attain it (which is true for all good things). I guess we all just have to pray that God will help us love eachother, for without God there is no love.

Danielle Cuthberta said...

Thanks for these thoughts, s-p. (I always appreciate your forwards to Thom, too.)

I used to find myself "befriended" by homeless folk as I sat, teenaged and people-watching near B&N, on the planters formerly outside Madison Square Garden. Some would mumble incoherently, some scream at me... some would talk, spicing coherence with enough daftness to make me nervous... all were pungent. I wasn't a practicing Christian then, though had been "trained up" as such... and I always seemed to draw such folk whenever I would sit and people-watch in Manhattan. And ill at ease though I was, I felt awkward, rude, walking away from them... A self-centered teen, I would roll my eyes and think, "why me?!" I can't remember conversing with any of them; I would simply listen until they moved on. I never would have approached any of them on my own, but in a weird way, am thankful they sought me out. Those encounters provided much fodder for thought to this day, and I often conjecture whether homeless individuals are "tests" of our compassion and sincerity.