P1020608How many times do you walk past doors, wondering what lies inside?

Sometimes they’re ajar, allowing a peek to interior worlds.

Sometimes, even ajar, we keep walking.

Mostly I do just that–keep walking, preoccupied with my own life. These are the stories about the times I stopped to think.

The first one for me was in Africa. I was young and only newly out of my protected bubble, where such problems were hidden from view. There was a burger joint in the capital that we would frequent, Hoggers, where cassette tapes (it was long ago) of an LA pop radio station played, complete with traffic and weather reports. It was like stepping into America. I stepped out one day, belly full, and came face to face with a man, nearly naked, who was eating trash from the pile–not even a bin, but an open pile–in the alley.

My heart broke. What happened to put him there? His eyes, desperate, confused, sad, haunt me decades later.

In my village in Africa, there was a crazy man. He would come after me mercilessly. He would follow me around, yelling at me in a mix of Swahili and English. He was crazy but he was completely bilingual. “Hey! Mzungu! You! White woman!” His legs looked like they had been broken and never set, so the tibiae were completely crooked. The rags he wore were filthy. He had only a few teeth, although he wasn’t much older than me (and this was very long ago). I was terrified of him. Nobody ever stepped in as he walked behind me, haranguing me. But I think everybody kept an eye on him. Yelling at me was one thing; after all, he was crazy. I was the outsider, the easy target. When I wasn’t around, he did it to somebody else. I am sure I would have been protected if he had tried to hurt me, which he never did. There was a careful equilibrium. In the absence of mental health care, he was given food and a margin of error for strange behavior. Sometimes I think it was a kinder system than in the West.P1070566A couple of years later. At a high school class reunion, somebody thought it would be funny to pick up Ron, the once-blond football player who looked a lot like Sean Penn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He had fallen into the rabbit hole of drugs, eventually scaring his mother to the point that he was kicked out and lived on the streets, collecting cans. I didn’t approve of his lifestyle choices but I didn’t think it was at all funny to haul him in for ridicule.

Later, but still many years ago, in New York. I was reading the paper and having a coffee at an outside table at the now-defunct Café Borgia II in Soho. I sensed somebody was standing by me, so I looked up, expecting to see the waitress. Instead there was a disheveled homeless man, and I had committed the cardinal error of making eye contact. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!!” he exclaimed.

I decided that earnest incompetence was my best recourse. “Sifahamu,” I said with a big smile and my hands turned up in the universal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ symbol for I don’t know, which is what I had said. I correctly wagered that he didn’t speak Swahili.

“You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he repeated, more slowly and loudly and enunciating every syllable, as one does with foreigners who don’t speak your language. “Sifahamu. Pole sana,” I told him. So sorry.

“Deutschland über alles!” he told me, and walked off, shaking his head as if he had rarely encountered such stupidity before.P1060259More recently, I was walking around the Saturday market, filling my colorfully striped caddy with healthy produce, and I noticed a man whose age and big beard reminded me of a relative back in the U.S. who for years self-medicated his psychological problems with unhelpful results. He was small, both in stature and build, and his winter coat seemed three sizes too big. He walked with his arms kind of hugging himself, as if to make himself even smaller, and to not touch anything. He looked a little too intensely at the food on display.

It took a minute for all this to register. It dawned on me that this man, who looked so much like my fragile loved one, was probably homeless. I looked for him, but he was gone. I toured the market, frantically trying to find him, but without luck. A few weeks later, I saw him again, in the same pathetic posture. I tapped his arm and looked him in the eye and handed him a €5 note. His eyes widened. He searched my face–is this a joke?–then immediately looked at the ground. “Merci,” he said. “Bonne journée,” I told him.

When I got to my car, I cried buckets.P1020590A couple of weeks ago, I was driving down one of the boulevards with my kid. It was cold and windy. A homeless man with a big dog was seated on a bench in front of the courthouse. At the corner, waiting for the light, was a different man, tall, very thin, wearing a big red-striped knit cap and a neatly belted green trench coat. He had a small backpack over one shoulder and one of those big reusable grocery bags in his other hand. He looked lost.

“Was he….?” I said. “I think so,” my kid answered. “We should go back,” I said. “What about the one with the dog?” Kid answered. I am afraid of dogs. I will cross the street to avoid one, even if it’s on a leash. I will go around the block if it isn’t. “They have dogs for company, because nobody talks to them….anyway, you can’t save everybody,” Kid said.

Last Saturday, I was walking back to my car after the market and there was the same man, on the same corner. As he passed me, I touched his arm and said, “Excusez-moi,” handing him €5. A paltry sum, I know, but at the moment we are counting every centime as digital disruption decimates my business. Still, we live in a house and have enough to eat.

I had taken him in as he approached: he had on a polar fleece jacket, zipped up high under the trench coat. It was smartly belted again, but I could see it was old and worn. His shopping bag held some strange articles–I spotted one of those plastic drainers for dishes to drip–but very neatly arranged. Everything about him indicated a huge effort, but one that was failing catastrophically.

I looked him in the eye as he started to talk. What came out of his mouth was pure gibberish. He clearly struggled to speak. What had happened to him? Something in his brain short-circuited? And perhaps he didn’t have family to get him the help that France generously provides but that, all the same, requires a fair amount of bureaucracy, this being France? I would never know because conversation was impossible.

He went on for quite a while, and I looked at him and listened, thinking it was probably rare for him to be acknowledged as a member of the human race. Finally, I excused myself. I thought of pointing to my watch, but the juxtaposition of his state and my FitBit seemed too much. I have a watch that tracks my steps because otherwise I sit too much and eat too much. And I was standing in front of a man with no place to sit or to sleep, who doesn’t know what he will eat. I just bid him good day, and crossed the street as the light changed.P1060155Some years ago, my kid announced in franglais, “We are really pourri-gâté”–literally spoiled rotten. Yes, we are. In the 1980s, there was a trend about bootstrapping and responsibility, and it seems to be back, bigger and meaner, ignoring that some people never had bootstraps to begin with; for others, the bootstraps disintegrated for reasons that might or might not be their own fault.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and, while we didn’t do a dinner, gratitude was on my mind. I am grateful for my family–not just my nuclear family but the whole extended clan of cousins and my close friends I count as family. I am grateful for good health. I am grateful for such a full belly that I have to make an effort to exercise. I am grateful I won the birth lottery. I am grateful to live in France, where even though there are homeless, the system seems kinder.

There are many problems in the world, and you might prioritize something else. But on Black Friday, before you click to buy something you or your gift recipient don’t really need, see whether you can also do something for someone in need.

It is with dripping irony that doors illustrate a post about people who have none.

46 thoughts on “What Lies Inside

  1. Very thought provoking. I’m not sure where Black Friday comes from and I don’t think it’s been a thing here in Australia really until just now. But even then, as I’m mostly off the consumerist bandwagon, I’m not sure if it only exists in this country as on on-line thing or physical shops get involved. It has arrived mysteriously and is inexplicable to me why it should be colliding with the American Thanksgiving which, as I always understood it, had nothing to do with Christmas consumerism. As a concept, I don’t understand why it has a place in our modern and increasingly “aware” society.

    I’ve not travelled in Africa or India but I’ve glimpsed favelas in Brazil and slums in SE Asia so not had the first hand confronting experiences you’ve had in Africa. But we live in a very diverse neighbourhood with a mix of the affluent, well-educated, young singles, old-age pensioners, drug addicted, mentally ill, homeless (quite often one and the same), you name it. There are health and charitable services for the drug users/homeless/mentally ill here which also attracts those from outer-lying areas to take advantage of this, so every day we rub shoulders with those who’ve slipped through the cracks of society. As this is an incredibly expensive city to live in with a housing affordability crisis, it often only takes a marriage breakup or a job loss to occur and the slippery slope to homelessness becomes irresistible.

    As your kid says, we can’t look after everyone as individuals and, like you watching those centimes, to give always and continually is not realistic. From time to time, though, someone a bit lost or bewildered or trying really hard to stay away from the troubled crowd in the midst of all this will get a discreet $50 note pressed into their hand from us. Most often it’s received with a shocked look but always so gratefully received. We’ve had criticism from strangers who may have witnessed this, saying they’ll just spend it on drugs or something along those lines, but you have to take a chance that it may actually get someone a night or two in a bed somewhere and some food, or even a train ticket, or any of the myriad things that we take for granted that enable us to be of the privileged class for whom getting by is something we don’t have to wish for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it is ironic that the non-consumerist American holiday is followed by a day of consumer maximalism. Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, so many people take Friday off, and usually schools are also closed. This unofficial holiday without a theme turned into the first official day of Christmas season, the moment when it was no longer gauche to put up your tree and when you would start shopping in earnest. The timing, late in the year, and the tendency for big shopping led to the day after Thanksgiving being point when retailers would go from losses–being in the red–to profit–being in the black. Hence, Black Friday.
      You are much more generous with your contributions than I. A warm bed is much better than a cold sandwich. But either is better than neither.


  2. Spoiled rotten to be in a lovely area of Paris picking up a few groceries. The young man in front of us carefully counted out his small change to the clerk for his litre bottle of iced tea. Non, she said you are .10 short. He just stepped aside recounting his change. I asked the clerk to add his bottle to our items, paid, and handed him the bottle. He stared down at the floor, mumbled merci, and off he went. We can all do small things to make a difference in someone’s life. There but for the grace of god…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was typing a response on my phone and stopped to receive new guests…just put 2 and 2 together!!
      Yes, small kindnesses make the world a sweeter place. I have received many–especially when I would hitchhike in Africa. I had to monitor national exams in the next big town, a trip of 30 minutes by car but 1.5 hours by public transport. I hitchhiked home and was picked up by some missionaries who were living in the big town. They took me in for the week of the exams so I wouldn’t have to commute. I slept in a colonial style twin bed and ate popcorn balls with their kids while we watched videos of “Little House on the Prairie.” Years later, I had a good job and was traveling in Jordan. Some young med students were in my group and I saw them counting their change to see if they could enter a sight that wasn’t included in the tour price. I paid their way, and told them others had done it for me, and that when they were well-paid doctors they should remember this day and do it for someone else. Pay it forward.


  3. Good read today. I have always given money or bought food for the homeless. You don’t know why they are homeless because who knows what can happen next in your life. People have told me that I’m crazy for giving because they might have more than me??….oh well, it will not effect me because I gave with a giving heart and always will! BETTER TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On the one hand, I prefer to give to charities, who can make the money go farther. €5 can buy a couple of meals of groceries or it can buy a single sandwich. But on the street, groceries are useless, because you need to be able to cook. Anyway, at some point their lives went off the rails, coulda shoulda woulda the reason why doesn’t make time turn back for a redo. The pain is here and now and a little money can bring some comfort.


  4. Agree with the sentiments of solidarity expressed here, even though I think we have different views on the digital side of business. I am sorry to hear your livelihood is threatened by this and hope that some of the kindness you show comes back to you. We are indeed fortunate in France and must never forget that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a very thought provoking post. There are poor and disadvantaged in every country of the world. It is sad, but true. However, if each of us would make the effort to reach out and do something to help in our own back yard, then I think it would make a vast difference globally. And, even though there are some who won’t be helped, it should not stand in the way of our efforts.

    I once gave my humble lunch to a woman who asked for money to buy something to eat. I didn’t have money so I gave her something to eat… Before I had even left the parking lot I saw her open the bag, look inside, and then toss it into the nearest trashcan. I spent a very hungry afternoon at work that day feeling angry that she threw away my food. That was over thirty years ago. I still help when and how I can.

    Thank you for being part of the solution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What an odd reaction by that woman. But some of the people in need have other problems, psychological ones. And then there are the people who just fell over the tipping point between getting by and not–because of divorce, job loss, or some stroke of bad luck that was beyond their means to bounce back.


  6. I love this. Right now, I’m in a suburb that is so bubbled. I’ll be back to the city soon where things are more mixed. I’ve seen fortunes reverse in my own life, both for good and for bad, and try to stay mindful and compassionate. Thank you for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s astounding how many homeless people work. They are even more hidden because if you see them walking down the street you can’t even tell they’re living out of a car or something.


    1. There’s some documentation that some are in fact people with mental illness, who just can’t deal with the hoops they must jump through to get help (no rap on those hoops either, which aim to thwart fraud). Others have had a bad streak—lost a job, got divorced and can’t afford to rent a place alone, a huge medical bill—and they are actually still working. How it can be possible to work full-time and not make a living wage is a shameful aspect of today’s economy and a problem for policy makers.


  7. This is your best post! It was insightful and gracious, and if it didn’t push all the right buttons so that we let go of our purse strings to help someone less fortunate, then the problem lies with us. Thank you. xoxox, Brenda

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes to all of what you say. As nearly as I can tell, Black Friday is a fairly recent invention of marketing types. I make a point of not buying anything on that day, in part because I hate the entire crass Christmas frenzy of buy-buy-buy.
    Saw a news story earlier today highlighting the numbers of US workers who are employed but still homeless because they don’t make enough to pay rent. And the vast numbers of mentally fragile on the streets can be traced to Reagan, whose administration shut down programs that helped them. Increased compassion is much needed in the world now, perhaps more than ever before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Black Friday has been around for decades. It just lacked the name. The day after Thanksgiving has long kicked off the Christmas consumer season. (“It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown” from 1974 makes fun of it.) “Black Friday” refers to the day retailers shift from being in the red to being in the black. Somehow that more recently got twisted up into crazy marketing and all the hype we see today.
      The NYT had a story about a family living in a van: two jobs, three kids, no home.


  9. As always Catherine, you have found just the right words to articulate an important topic. Like you, Scotty and I regularly give cash to homeless people. We’ll also stop and chat as well as opening our wallets because we believe the human interaction is important too. But your words have made me wonder what more I can do – thank you for the timely reminder that with great privilege comes great responsibility xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I could say I do it regularly, but I don’t. It’s easy to be judgy about how someone might spend the money–perhaps not on food but on alcohol or drugs. But now I see that isn’t hedonism but self-medication.


  10. Have NEVER SHOPPED Black Friday and NEVER WILL…………
    THIS was so POIGNANT I did not want it to end!A BEAUTIFUL PIECE……..send to the New York TIMES or HUFFINGTON POST!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Every time I visit here I am treated to the beauty of your photos and beautiful writing. Your thoughtfulness, kindness, and your adventures offer not only the opportunity for your readers to see the beauty of the world but to stop, and to think. I leave here thinking of you and your lessons long after I have read the posts.

    Lately I have seen so many more homeless people in our area, it makes me want to cry when I see them sitting in the cold. I never carry cash and I am always scrambling around the car to find change or something to give them and no matter how small the amount they always thank me and smile.

    Have a great day my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there are many we don’t see, who are living in cars or shelters and working. But I feel like those people will get things together–at least I hope so. The ones who really kill me are the ones who could never be employed because of mental illness, and who will not escape from homelessness because they just don’t have the wherewithal.
      As Hubert Humphrey said (and I never met him but I knew and respected his son): The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.


  12. Thank you for sharing your kind and penetrating observations of humanity. To be a good passenger on this Earth, we need to recognize that we are sharing the ride. Humility, kindness, truth, respect, and forbearance are still cherished virtues:) Celebrating the Spirit of the Season all year round, Shari

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hello!

    Thankyou for your considered and thought provoking comments. Small kindnesses can change everything.

    Regarding your previous post, we have traveled the world and lived in China in the 90’s and never had any difficulties until we were in Barcelona in the late 90s and my bag was grabbed. I hung on as, like you, I had the families necessities in it and wouldn’t let go. He eventually gave up and melted away. I looked up and could see a number of guests watching this all unfold through the hotel windqw, No-one helped. It has effected my feelings about ever returning to Spain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t let one bad person ruin all of Spain for you! Just learn from the experience (which could happen anywhere, even at home) and keep your valuables where they can’t be grabbed. If somebody takes your bag that’s holding a water bottle, tissues, a map and pens, then so what.


  14. Last Friday – Black Friday, as it happened – I was in Birmingham with my daughter. It was very very cold. A young girl was sitting on the pavement, begging, homeless. She was somebody’s daughter…so we went and asked if she would like a coffee. We bought a large coffee with sugar and a piece of cake. On a cold day, a simple and helpful thing to do. Not the first time I have done this either. It cost us just a few pounds. Surrounded by crazy spenders and shops bulging with goods it really highlighted the desperate plight of some people. I’m not there to judge – how do I know what brought her to the pavement? – but everybody needs a hot drink and a piece of cake on a cold and lonely day. Like you say, you can’t save everybody but you can pretty much always help somebody.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, each person, even dirty, stinking ones, was once someone’s beloved baby. A little kindness must be very welcome in a life that has gone off the rails to such an extent.


  15. What a beautiful post. I’m so glad I scrolled back to read it. Isn’t it so very heartbreaking.. that in this day and age of abundance of just about everything.. there are still so very many homeless people in this world. How lucky you are to at least live where their treatment is a little more -kind-. This year due to the miserable mess that is our political climate and the great divide in the US, I have stepped up my efforts to help others, to spread cheer where I can, partly to soothe my own soul, and also to fight the darkness out there, shed some light.

    Liked by 1 person

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