Parallel Universes

Today, while enjoying a double espresso in the cold morning outside the coffee shop by the back door of the Zen Center, standing at a table, this crippled homeless man was seen out of the corner of the eye asking people for money on the street. He wasn’t having much success. I gave him a long look, and our eyes met. I wanted that. I smiled weakly, and he limped over.

I had only brought a 10-Euro bill downstairs for the coffee, so, there were only coins in my pocket — the change from the coffee. I reached into my pocket, scooped it all up, and put it in his hand. If I could spend a few euros so easily on a double espresso to enjoy in the early-morning cool while dictating replies to emails through my phone, he could better use whatever is left over for food — and I would still be in a moral deficit. It was a total no-brainer.

He accepted the money, and checked the amount in his open palm. Then, he pointed to my half-finished espresso, and motioned the cup figuratively to his lips. Reflexively, I motioned him towards the open door of the coffee shop, like, “It’s in there.“ Despite perhaps a faint letting go of some minor attachment, some coins, clearly it was not possible to be completely unattached.

After depositing the coins in his pocket, he extended his hand weakly toward me. The skin was rough and chipped, dirt around his nails and in the cracks of his fingers on parched skin. It looked like the hand of someone who had just come from fixing bicycles or working in the garden. But he was crippled, leaning on a stick, one of his feet turned sharply in, and it was anyway way too early in the morning for bicycle repair – – these hands had not become that way from fixing bicycles or working in any garden. 

Shaking his hand warmly, and holding for a few seconds longer, I regarded deeply the sadness and defeat in his eyes. What parallel universes we live in – – a “begging monk” stands drinking espresso doing temple office work on his phone, and a handicapped man begging for food is passed over by well-to-do people busy with getting on with getting to work and going out for coffee.

He glanced at the iPhone, parked and idling in my other hand, waiting for its customary attention. I think he looked at it mournfully. 

But maybe that’s over-reading something – – perhaps I was just perceiving my own shamefulness, this symbol of my inattentiveness and my station, which has become so necessary for coordinating the multi-country effort to “save all beings from suffering.” It would certainly require him many many many weeks of begging to obtain such a thing, and only if he forswore using the accumulated coinage for food during that entire period!

He motioned to the phone and made a picture-taking gesture with his fingers. Perhaps as if to say, “Remember me. Please, let them SEE me.” I didn’t know what he meant, or if that’s really what he meant.

Then, he ambled slowly back to his customary spot, moving with great difficulty over his curled-up foot. Turning around on his spot, he resumed extending his baseball cap out for other donations. People continued passing right in front of them, not a single one of them even acknowledging his being there. I had done this, too, many more times than it is good to remember, in many more cities.

His eyes met mine again. He looked at my phone. He nodded his head down with intention, to my phone-relationship, it seemed, as if to send a signal. I got it then.

“Remember me. Please, let them SEE me.“

I clicked a photo, and he smiled a wan, done smile.

The parallel universes we inhabit. A “begging monk” stands drinking espresso doing temple office work on his phone, and a handicapped man begging for food is passed over by well-to-do people busy with getting on with getting to work and going out for coffee. 

The remaining half of my double espresso was by now cold. It felt eerie in the mouth.

“Remember me.”

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