A man with no shoes
Writer: Lee Lian Kong
Published: Fri, 25 May 2012
He didn’t have shoes on. A pair of rubber soles with the top part of what used to be a shoe, hanging by a thread or two, hardly count as shoes. On them were his feet, his black feet covered white, only possible through the harshness of the cold, chapping away at skin. I could not take my eyes off them. For three months, I’ve only seen smooth feet, covered in proper shoes or the eye-rolling hipster Toms. Feet and shoes that belonged to the haves.
I’m guessing this plastic train seat was his bed for tonight, or has been for many nights. His hands were clasped but the same white marred his big, clumsy hands. His clothes were a homeless mismatch. Torn, old, dirty. Those feet …
No one would sit near him. Granted there were other seats available, away from him, preferably. The train rumbled on under this city called New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of. Hush-hush, my iPhone deftly concealed, snap, I Instagrammed this man. Shame came over me immediately. Who am I to use a man’s suffering to add to my stupid collection of vintage-fied photos on my middle class iPhone app?
“The other side of capitalism,” said Vanessa, my traveling companion and who later grew to be a close friend, from Venezuela. The anti-Chavez, proudly middle class, fire-breathing capitalist Vanessa was not exempt for this scene.
We had just returned from the Empire State Building, running through Fifth Avenue, thrilled from our view from the 86th floor of that famous landmark. Had we seen an architectural marvel or the product of years of marketing gimmicks? The audio guide which spoke proudly of the millions of dollars involved in the building of the Empire State building, played like a sinister soundtrack to my sight of the homeless man in front of me now.
Was he the rule or the exception? We have placed a black man in the White House built by black slaves but have we taken the blacks off the streets? Was he the man Vanessa and I were so afraid of being mugged from just a while ago? In the capital of this developed nation glorified by so many, we beat ourselves up for not arming ourselves up with small pistols and pepper sprays, you know, those type that would fit just nicely into a woman’s handbag. And he had the mugger’s look : unrefined, smelly, black, scary. In a different light, in the subway, seeing his “shoes” and feet, we now offer him our sympathy. We probably want to give him a meal, find him a job, offer some money. And later put this in our resume as our philantrophic kindness. Our sympathy was handed down vertically, from our comfortable enclave above to him in the pits below.
I looked around to see if others were looking at him or at me looking at him. None were. A desensitized mass of commuters? Oh, but I caught a guilty peek from a man just to my right. Were they desensitized or just really good at hiding their uncouth busybody-ish behavior? Was the ability to feel something for your fellow man no longer a virtue but now an unsophisticated vice?
The train stopped at 157th Street. It was our stop. We stepped off the subway and walked back to our hostel. The homeless man is forgotten. Until I used him again for my own selfish reasons to write an overdue column.