This morning, with eyes fixed straight ahead, I made for my usual breakfast haunt. At a quid a pop, I´m unsure whether it´s the omlette or the novelty of the price that I truly enjoy.
Before I drift off on some meandering shaggy-dog story, let me just come to the point.
Just as I was entering the taceria, I was stopped dead; jolted out of trivial contemplation and faced with a hard, implacable reality.
An emaciated old man with naught but stumps below his waist was dragging himself through the gutter under the wrought-iron surveillance of a traffic policeman. "Any slower and I´ll give you a ticket", his gaze suggested.
This kind of thing eats me up. Not in the traditional puupy with three legs "awww" kind of way. Not in a haughty tourist shouldn´t-someone-help-him-he´s-someone-else´s-problem-this-wouldn´t-happen-in-palm-beach kind of way either.
No; it´s more in the sense that it questions my cynicism. Now isn´t that a conundrum.
Over years of travelling and life in general, my psyche has fortified itself against appeals to my emotional side. While I give conscientiously to organised charity, i continuously blank appeals for charity on the street.
Edinburgh did that to me. Like the time when my first year flatmates and I had saved up our spare cash all month to give to this "poor guy" at the end of our street, only to witness him buzzing lighter fluid and cracking a bottle over the head of a passer by a week or so later. Or the time when a girl I was seeing refused to understand my lateness in meeting her because i had stopped to help an old man with a hospital tag on his wrist, who had pissed himself in the middle of Lothian Road. She told me it wasn´t my problem.
The Big Issue is something I can buy without hesitation, as I am able to see the the channels clearly. Even if the vendor does piss the cash against the wall (unlikely given that he/she is motivated enough to get up and sell it in the first place), the rest still goes to keeping the magazine alive.
In Mexico, it´s not so clear. It is, instead, hard as hell to cower behind defensive walls when you see a man dragging his way through the gutter. No social net to catch him. Family, perhaps, but it is no easy life that etches those welts on his chopping-board face. sun newspaper (I refuse the right to capital letters, your honour) headlines such as "beggars rake in a grand a week" melt away like sugarcubes; yet the residue is bitter.
He once had hopes and dreams. Maybe, stifled away in some ethereal shade of Orcus, he still does. The look in his eyes is one, for which any actor would give Solomons Gold to posess for but one frame. This look, that communicates the trial and pathos of life in one quintessential molecule of time, and cuts straight to our common humanity.
My defenses quickly regroup. Shaken, and unable to watch, I enter the restaurant; reaching for my pen instead of my wallet. My story is unstructured and bleary-eyed, but isn´t that the true nature of free thought?
I didn´t stop, I didn´t help. What could I have done? A few meaningless pesos? A cliched sentiment in broken Spanish? Such words would drown in the torrents raging inside him; his eyes told me that much and more besides.
But something did happen here. My defenses weakened. All my innocent compassion, hemmed in by brick after brick of disappointment and negative conditioning, saw a glimpse of light.
I´ve delayed my intentions to become more involved for too long. In one flex of my jaw muscle, my resolve is strengthened, as I silently bid him thanks for the charity he gave me.