Posted by judes at 10:00 AM
I must have been eight years old. Maybe nine...
When you look back on your life, there's a thin line between eight and nine. Moreso than other years, it seems. You don't realise this when you're nine because you're too busy celebrating the fact that you're not eight anymore. So maybe the line isn't as thin as I think it is. If a nine year old is aware of it, it must be pretty obvious.
It was the summer. that much I'm sure of. I remember the heat. I remember the green of the trees as my mom's Rambler followed the winding road that led to Mic Mac Mall. It was a 10 minute drive and when I look back on it now, it seems ridiculous that we did it so often. I suspect that the ice shelves breaking in the Arctic as I write this are a direct result of those 10 minute drives in a hulking boat of a car.
My mother was doing groceries and she decided to leave me in the car. It was the 70s. You could do things like that with impunity. In the romanticised absurdist version of this memory that runs in my head, I recall looking out on the ocean of Ramblers, Chevrettes and Pintos and seeing at least 20 other kids sitting in locked cars as the Nova Scotian sun beat down on the Mic Mac parking lot. (Wouldn't the Mi'kmaq be proud?) I like to think that 30-odd years later, these imaginary kids are all secretly wishing they could be as "irresponsible" as our parents were.
I had a pencil and a paper (my mother knew this would distract me) and I was drawing clouds. This was a phase I went through and to be honest, I think I should take it up again. The windows were rolled up, but I heard a noise from not too far away, so I looked up from the paper clouds.
There was a blind man. He had a beard, a fedora-type hat and a white cane. I swear to God. It was like a blind person had jumped out of a New Yorker cartoon and decided to wander around in the Mic Mac Mall parking lot.
Just beside the New Yorker cartoon blind man, there was a woman heading to her car with a shopping cart. There weren't any kids in her car. That, I remember. He approached her and held out his hand as he said something that I couldn't hear because, as I mentioned, the windows were rolled up . Being the inquisitive (ok... nosy) little punk that I was, I rolled down the window. By hand. That's how you used to roll down windows, in case you're reading this and you're twenty. She shook her head and mumbled something as she walked past him without even really looking at whatever it was he had in his hand.
With hindsight, I don't know why I did what I did next. I don't know why I do most of the things I do, but maybe I did when I was eight (or nine). "Excuse me?", I called out. "Sir?"
The New Yorker cartoon blind man cocked his head and followed my voice. He came up to the burgundy Rambler that he had no way of identifying as a burgundy Rambler.
"Yes? Hello?", he said.
"Hi. What do you have in your hand?", I asked. So much for that whole "Don't talk to strangers" pep talk. He showed me. It was a pile of cards. Not playing cards. He wasn't a blind magician. Well... Maybe he was, but I can't pronounce myself on those matters. No, they were ASL cards that explained how to sign the alphabet. He asked if I wanted to buy one for a dollar. I was eight (or nine) years old, sitting in a car in a parking lot. I didn't have any money. I explained this to him and he walked away. I felt his disappointment. I think I even saw it in the way he walked.
As he got closer to the mall... Another woman, another shopping cart, another attempt. She brushed him off as easily as the first woman had and pushed her cart to her oversized car.
And that's when I started to cry.
When I say "cry", that's exactly what I mean. These weren't eight (or nine) year-old sniffles. It was full fledged bawling. I felt this profound sadness that I had never experienced before. A complete stranger's misery (OK, Maybe I'm reading into a bit. Maybe he wasn't miserable) had triggered something and seeing the complete indifference that he had to confront on a regular basis was more than I could handle. It was the first time that I remember thinking "The world just isn't fair" and it opened up a strange door that, over the next 32 (or 31) years, has lead to that exact same emotional response whenever I am confronted with that particular feeling.
My mother came back a few minutes later. I was still crying. She looked worried... I still remember the look on her face as she asked me what was wrong. The problem then(and , yes... The problem now) is that I didn't have an answer. I couldn't explain these emotions. This "feeling". I still can't, most of the time.
I'm remembering this story and thinking about these things after having read Kelly Pentland (aka @mmesurly)'s wonderful (and much more concise) blog post On Sincerity http://mmesurly.tumblr.com/post/32324661060/on-sincerity.
It's hard sometimes. There are people (and I hope you are one of them) who just feel things so deeply and so completely that asking them to find what's wrong is next to impossible. When this happens to me, when I feel exposed... raw, even... it terrifies me. It terrifies me to see that we can be so close to people we don't know and to things we don't understand that an ASL card can trigger such a deep emotional response. It terrifies me, but as Mrs Pentland says: "the alternative is scarier."
So, as the strapping young men in Journey once said, "Be good to yourself".