Tuesday, August 21, 2012

That human moment

This morning, as I was walking up 5th I saw a cabbie backing away from the intersection, into the side street he was poking out of, while other cars were passing him to cross the avenue. At first I thought he was trying to park. The driver was an elderly white guy, Italian? Jewish? Eastern European? --we all start to look alike the longer we live here, I guess--leaning out the driver's window as he backed up. I could make out the tan, the schnozz, the big mop of white hair. The frailness of his frame, and something in his expression, his demeanor -- a hint of helpless frustration to the point of resignation -- this is how it's gonna be.

Behind him was a van-- I couldn't see the driver just then, the windshield seemed opaque in the morning light, but he honked as the cab got close, not loudly, just a tap, a little reminder beep, to let the old guy know there was something behind him.

The cab was actually hung up on the curb -- he'd taken the left onto 5th a little too tight and got his wheel caught at the edge of the wheelchair slope. Now he was seesawing back and forth to get off it.

This is what went through my mind -- he still has to drive a cab at 80-something? He's having trouble seeing,  is that why he shorted the turn? Wow, I'm not far behind him. That could be me, even now. It seemed so unfair that this elderly guy had to go through this decline spending 12 hours behind the wheel trying to make enough from fares and tips to get by. It was an unguarded moment for me, unusual in the city, I'm usually pretty closed off, just to get down the block.

Partly because I'm naturally an introvert, partly because most of the time, when people try to engage you on the street it's because they want something. It's not that I don't have empathetic feelings for the strangers I pass -- I do, but it's a kind of unspoken agreement that you keep this to yourself. It's ok to glance warmly, maybe even smile -- at kids especially, but not for long. There's a secret time span after which we all feel uncomfortable -- as much as if the looker had stepped too close, literally. A lot of New Yorkers employ this little move of the head. Smile and glance away, as if to say, you seem ok, but I'm not connecting.

When I was younger, the something they wanted-- usually men-- was to flirt with a younger woman. Or, the more constant want -- money, usually. Spare change, pick pocket, snatch chain, the feeble flow of money across these streets at times could break your heart with what it drives people to do. Whether it's sex or money, it can start with the simplest glance -- they read your wandering attention as weakness, and start burrowing. They'll make it seem like they want directions, or need help, or are trying to help you -- it's a whole subculture built for the unwary, out of the spare parts of real human interactions.

That van driver --  I looked back at the van. Now I could see him, a darker skinned guy, not young, maybe a decade or two behind the cabbie, and heavier, resting in the seat like he always sat just there, just that way. 65? 70? That put me right behind him a decade or so. Hard to tell sometimes, dark skin doesn't show the age so much, he could be closer to my age, or closer to the cabbie's.

Anyway as I glanced at him, he was already looking back at me, but not in the way men would usually look at me this long -- and I knew he'd seen what had just run across my face, like he'd read my mind. He had seen the pity (I hesitate to credit myself with compassion), the struggle to want to -- help somehow? -- the identification, and underneath all that, the sense of that chasm opening. And the look on his face told me he was thinking pretty much exactly what I was. We both smiled the same sad smile of recognition. Of all of it. For that moment we weren't a 50 something white lady and a 60 something brown man looking across a sidewalk at each other. We were two human beings, side by side, watching another human being edge slightly closer to whatever comes after all this.