Monday nights I take a meditation class offered through the Buddhist Centre in Cape Town. After class, I walk the 45 minutes from the city center to the apartment where I’m staying in Sea Point. Along the way, I try to practice whatever message was taught that evening.
One Monday night my task was to try see everyone who passed me as persons, with no judgment as to what they looked like or what they might be doing or saying. To simply look at their faces and, in my head, say: “I see you.”
That’s easier said than done on my long walk home, especially when some nights I’m asked if I “want a lady,” or if I want a man “to make you happy,” or if want to score some dagga. Usually I’m a total failure at these kinds of meditation things, but on this particular night, I was in a zone.
I walked down Long Street “seeing” the characters that come out at night on this colorful strip of restaurants, bars and backpacker lodges. I cut over to the Fan Walk, a pedestrian walkway installed for the Soccer World Cup, crossed a pedestrian bridge above Buitengracht Street, made my way through De Waterkant, the gay village, and down to Main Road where I gently refused the illegal offers being presented to me.
Maybe this meditation thing was really beginning to work for me. I was relaxed and just flowing down Main Road, heading home, oblivious to everything except my mind silently greeting each person who passed with my evening’s mantra, “I see you.”
I didn’t, however, see the boy who appeared from nowhere and was suddenly tugging at my arm.
“Please, baas,” he said as he held onto my wrist with one hand and made the universal sign for being hungry by bringing his other hand to his mouth, “Five rand?”
Annoyed that my concentration had been disrupted on my first good night of implementing my meditative practices, I broke free from his grip, gave him a firm “No” and kept walking. That didn’t deter the young beggar who continued to follow me asking for money or food.
Clearly, this meditation thing was not working after all. As long as I didn’t actually interact with the people I was passing, I could “see them.” Once one of them attempted to engage with me, I became dismissive – acting as if this dirty, thin, barefoot boy at my side was invisible.
And then I saw him. I really saw him. Not like the exercise I had been practicing since leaving my meditation class. And I realized that I had seen him before. Almost every time I walk this section of Main Road in the evening he panhandles me for money, except it was later than I had ever seen him out before.
I kept walking, but for the first time I said more to this kid than just, “No.”
“Why are you out so late?” I began my questions.
“I’m hungry, baas.”
“Where are your parents?”
“My mother is dead. I don’t know where my father is.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m eight, baas.”
“Where do you stay?”
“Over there. In the park” he said pointing towards the new stadium that was built for the 2010 Soccer World Cup at a cost of $600 million.
“No, there are other kids. Sometimes older people, but it’s just kids.”
“Do you go to school?”
“No,” he said, with a look on his face like ‘I can’t believe you are asking such a stupid question.’
Coming up on our left was a convenience store that was still open.
“Come on,” I said to the boy, “I’ll buy you some food.”
I walked into the narrow entrance of the store with the boy slightly behind me. I was moving past the candy bars and chips to the back of the market where I hoped to find something a bit healthier when I heard the man behind the cash register pound his fist upon the counter and yell, “Get out of here, boy! I’ve told you before, don’t come in here!”
The outburst stopped me in my tracks. The boy was gone. I knew, however, he would be waiting for me on the street. As annoyed as I had been with the boy for breaking my concentration, I was now enraged by the storeowner’s behavior. I opened my mouth to say something to him but nothing came out. Instead, a thought popped into my head, “see him.” “See the man behind the cash register.”
I refuse to accept that this man, or any rational human being, truly does not care about homeless, hungry children. No doubt this man has children of his own and probably grandchildren who he dotes on. He has, however, probably just been worn down over the years by the endless needs in society that no one person can ever address. He couldn’t possibly be this callous. And really, how different was he from me? Every time I am asked for money on the streets of Cape Town I say no and keep walking. Like this shop owner, I have turned away hungry children. I might have not gotten angry and yelled as he just did, but the outcome was the same. I chose to not do anything.
My eyes met the man’s behind the cash register and a thought just appeared in my mind. I thought, not consciously and not judgmentally, “I do see you.”
At the back of the store I picked up a loaf brown bread and a bunch of bananas that would be overripe by morning. That wouldn’t matter. I expected the fruit would be devoured quickly. In the cooler I grabbed a jug of orange juice. The man behind the cash register could not have been nicer to me as I paid for the food.
The second I stepped out of the store the boy was at my side and no sooner had I given him the bread, bananas and juice, he was gone – running across the street to the park near the stadium.
In one interaction, late at night in a convenience store on Main Road, I had seen all of the ills of the world in a single exchange. A skinny, homeless, orphaned, eight-year-old boy had been chased from a store because he was begging for food. But I saw more than that.
I saw the boy. I saw the shop owner. And I saw myself.