Sao Paulo, Brazil
I stopped at the red light, and she quickly came to me, stooping against the open window, her thin little arm reaching into my car, a small hand in a shell-like fashion, waiting for me to drop in a coin. I looked startled, I suppose. She was just a child, a child with a sweet long face, a scrawny child with dirty, ragged clothes, a hungry child.
Can you spare some change? I need to buy food for my brother, she said, pointing to the sidewalk, where a woman sat at the curb with a baby on her lap. She looked desolate because that's what hunger does to you, it takes away your strength, but, even worse, it steals your hope. Sir, just a few coins, we really need milk for the baby.
I looked into her eyes, her young yet weary eyes, her lonely and meaningful eyes, and wondered what she was thinking. I thought about how many times she followed the same ritual, how many cars she approached and how often she got turned down, and whatever kind of insults she had to endure to make it through the day. I wondered what would become of her, and of the baby swaddled in filthy pieces of fabric just across the street. I felt responsible for them, and I don't know exactly why.
I gave her two reais, which amount to about one dollar. She thanked me and smiled, looking accomplished, almost happy. She waved to the woman at the sidewalk, the bills fluttering in the wind as her arms flailed in satisfaction. She had hair flowing in her mouth now, but she didn't seem to care. I thought, for a moment, that everything would be all right for her, for the hungry baby who needed milk, and for the battered mother.
The light turned green, and somebody behind me promptly honked. The little girl was now giving the money to the woman at the curb, who quickly hid it inside her bra. For an instant, they looked like a regular family having some time out, catching some sun. For a moment, I pictured the baby on a fancy stroller, and the mother in a black dress, walking down 5th avenue in Manhattan with a tiny black purse dangling from her right elbow, and the little girl sporting a pink dotted dress, her hair in one long braid sliding down her back.
The driver behind me honked again, and I stepped on the gas, following the three of them through my rear view mirror. What is it that makes this world so full of contrasts, Jane? What is it that separates the reality of that family sitting at the curb from the New York fantasy I imagined for them? It would be easy to say it's just money. It would be even easier to call it luck, or the lack thereof, and it would be stupid to downplay it by saying that, This is just the way things are supposed to be.
I wonder if that family believes in God. I wonder if they have time to believe, and, more to the point, if faith would have some, if any, impact to minimize the hunger, the humiliation of having to peddle for change from drivers-by.
Maria tells me she prefers not to think about it because it is too painful to imagine that family, and those shelter-less kids growing up on the streets, and there's nothing that she can do to change the situation. And that's what many of us do over here. We pretend, we relinquish the responsibility of the problem, and delegate the arduous job of finding a solution to someone else, like the government, or the church, or, as they call it here, the authorities in charge.
And we move on, filling our days with our own problems, blaming our misfortunes on the guy sitting in the next cubicle, and cursing the crashed computer, or the server that was down, or the client, who is too dumb to understand the web, or the advertisers, who curb our creativity.
In the end, I guess there's nothing wrong with that picture, except for the fact that by thinking too much about ourselves we fail to remember who we really are.