Custody of the eyes
Written by: Michelle Francl-Donnay
I spotted him a block off, a bubble of space surrounding him on the crowded sidewalk as the on-their-way-to-work crowd gave sea room to his awkward, rolling gait. His oversized black sneakers gaping open, nearly engulfed by his coat and clutching his cane like a staff, the young man painfully made his way along Chestnut Street. No one would meet his eyes.
Pedestrians in a city practice an unsympathetic custody of the eyes. Do not acknowledge with even the flick of an eye what — who — stands on corners, crouches over steam vents or sits plastered against the walls of buildings. Do not accord the pleas for food or for money a space in your conversation, not even for a single beat. It’s safer, they say. So we walk with eyes locked straight ahead, doggedly intent on our conversations.
I’m on sabbatical leave from my teaching job this semester, doing research at an archive in the city, traveling several days a week from my sedate 1950s neighborhood in the suburbs into Philadelphia. A leave is a gift of almost unimaginable luxury, time to be spent lavishly on a project of one’s own choosing, to gaze at new horizons and grapple with new and perhaps challenging ideas.
I spend my days in a sumptuous and silent 19th century reading room, soft carpets scattered about the polished hardwood floors, and a magnificent gallery of paintings on the mezzanine above my head, served by a staff of librarians who at my merest whisper, bring me whatever materials I desire. Whatever I hunger for — books, consultation with learned colleagues, a cup of tea — is there. There is almost no need to ask; in stark contrast to the sidewalk outside, people are attending.
Two summers ago, on my way to this same archive, I crossed Market at 7th and slid between the line at the food cart and the walls of the Free Library. The woman was heaped on the walkway to the library. Her green aluminum cane made a sharp contrast to the sun washed red brick of the entryway. She slumped over her belongings, asleep, exhausted already by the heat that had just begun to rise. Her lined face, pink with heat, was turned to passersby. She looked like my mother, shifting restlessly in pain.
I stood there for a fleeting moment. I wanted to reach out and hold her. I wanted to bring her to a cool, safe space to sleep. I wanted to ask what she needed. I wanted to help. And yet…I did none of these things. I walked on down 7th, headed to a cool, dry archive where a librarian would bring me the books I desired, without my lifting more than a finger.
We issue lists of grave sins, delicta graviora. We wrangle over translations, theological nuances and liturgical praxis. We worry whether we are sufficiently reverent with the body of Christ when we receive in the hand, and all the while the body of Christ lies crumpled and abandoned on the sidewalk. And I walk past, averting my eyes.
“And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” challenged John Chrysostom sixteen centuries ago. How can you continue to walk through the city, pretending not to see, failing to recognize what is before you? It’s not just new perspectives in science I seek on this sabbatical. What about His homelessness? I chose to work in the city on this leave, not just because the materials I needed were here, but because I wanted to look at this horizon, to struggle with my response to these challenging questions. To face what I had walked away from two summers previously.
Inside the library, I continue to map out the threads of challenging conversations in chemistry. On the sidewalk outside the library, I’m grappling with challenging conversations as well. I hear John Chrysostom’s voice in my ear, “is this not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” and try not to look away, try to attend to the person of Christ in “distressing disguise”.
When I met the eyes of the young man on the sidewalk this week, he stopped in front of me and asked in a gentle voice, “Do you have anything to eat?” “Let me help.” I dug into my purse and pulled out one of the envelopes I now keep handy and handed it to him. It’s a card for a cafe and take-out place down the block with enough on it for breakfast and lunch and a cup of coffee. He thanked me and with not even a hint of rancor remarked, “No one ever looks at me, you know. I didn’t think you’d stop, and I’m so hungry, I haven’t eaten in a day.” I wished him a good morning, and turned to go up the marble steps to the library.
It’s a start in overcoming my alienation. Next time, I’ll remember to ask his name.
Photo is from dgphilli. Used under a Creative Commons license.