Another Look

July 31, 2013
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As human beings, it is innate nature to want to avoid unfamiliar encounters. In the past, compliance with this attitude has led to myriad forms of injustice, intolerance being one case. However, by going against my disinclination to speak with a homeless man, I was able to gain a new respect for human beings.

I met Jose on a drizzling, winter day in late December. The piercing cold that seeped through my jacket convinced me that while I was on Skid Row to spend time with the homeless, I would be much happier curled up in bed with a steaming mug of cocoa in my hand. Although I was surrounded by plenty of homeless people that I could talk to, I felt so foreign and uncomfortable that I had no idea where to go or what to do. Self-conscious of my awkward position in the center of the parking lot, I was relieved when I spotted my friend’s familiar face from across the lot.

“Hey, Priscilla!” I shouted.

“Oh, hey Rosie!” she called out, waving me over.

As I approached my friend, I noticed that she was with a homeless man. I took a seat beside her, and she introduced me to Jose, a Hispanic man in his mid-thirties. Jose’s face had a raw, red color from overexposure to the winter weather, and his oval glasses were murky with dirt and grime. I was fully aware before coming to Skid Row that a homeless person would not be in his cleanliest state, but I found it difficult to sit in close proximity to him, nonetheless. Jose started to tell us about his family, while I tried not to stare at his thin, grey jacket that was soiled with dirt.

“I just thank God my wife and my son are not on the streets like me. But the bad part is, I can’t see my son a lot.” Jose began.

“How old is your son? Do you miss him?” asked Priscilla.

“My son is about nine, I think,” answered Jose. “Yes, I miss him so much. I feel bad too, I never know when I’ll see him next, and I can’t watch him grow up.”

Priscilla and I both gave Jose sympathetic nods, and he proceeded.

“He always says, ‘Papa, when are you coming home?’ and I don’t know what to tell him. My wife, she kicked me out because I didn’t have enough money. She won’t let me see him no more.”

Jose’s squinty eyes shrank even smaller as he fought to hold back the tears that the longing for his son evoked. Despite that I was a stranger who had nothing to do with Jose’s life, my eyes couldn’t seem to keep themselves dry, either.

On the bus ride back home, Jose’s teary confession played itself over again in my mind. I felt ashamed for being so prejudiced against someone who merely had a different background from mine. I internally scolded myself for telling my younger peers that “there is more to a person than meets the eye,” while I myself carried the same prejudice. I realized that my initial perception of Jose had been clouded by his disarrayed appearance begrimed from biting, unsheltered nights. Instead of viewing Jose as an actual person more than capable of having complex emotion and interesting insight, I had automatically stripped him of his story and placed him into a neat box titled “homeless man.” I had seen him while refusing to see him.

I realized that regardless of age, ethnicity, social class, and financial situation, all people are essentially the same; we have the equal ability to experience pain from longing, just as we have the same ability to reap joy from love. Mary Catherine Bateson, a writer and culture anthropologist, once said that “insight … refers to the depth of understanding that comes by setting experiences, yours and mine, familiar and exotic, new and old, side by side, learning by letting them speak to one another.” I can see that insight and a new regard for people is exactly what I gained from my humbling experience with Jose.

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