Paying Attention


I didn’t ask Lucas for his story. But, he told me.

Walking through the city, I have a habit of making eye contact with strangers. Sometimes it’s people watching, but most times it’s for safety. It’s a trick that an embassy security officer taught me. Most people considering robbing someone on the street target individuals who aren’t paying attention. Thus, passively and unthreateningly making eye contact shows someone that I see them; and I see that they see me–pick on someone less prepared, pal.

Anyway, for a brief moment I made eye contact with Lucas just to show him that I was paying attention.

I think that this is why he stopped me.

“Hey, man, excuse me.”

Lucas shrugged and struggled to explain that he needed help. He didn’t say what kind of help so I asked him, “Like financially?”

“Yeah, I mean whatever you can do,” he replied. He explained that he needed a bus ticket to a place I didn’t recognize. He could see the confusion in my face, so he changed his mind, “Or CVS–if you can just get me something from CVS.”

I agreed, and we crossed Jackson together. He mentioned that it was his 47th birthday. I congratulated him, and shared that my birthday was also coming up that week.

“How much you gon’ make this year?” When the answer was 24, he laughed an amused, knowing laugh–the kind of laugh a grandparent makes when a child complains about a bad day.

“Man, when I was that age … I thought I knew it. I thought I knew everything.” He glanced over to me, and added, “I didn’t!” He laughed again.

“But, now I know it’s all about people. It’s just all about people … You smoke?”

I said ‘no,’ and he nodded his head happily, “Well, don’t start. You don’t smoke, then don’t smoke.” He pulled his bottom lip away from his mouth to reveal a blackened, empty space. The implication was that cigarettes–and maybe something worse–had taken a lot from him.

Then, Lucas asked me if I believed in God. He said that he talks to a lot of people, and many of them don’t nowadays. This saddens him deeply.

When we got to CVS, he asked for help in any form I could give. “But, I am down 38 dollars,” he added as an afterthought.

A few minutes later, I found Lucas outside sitting against a brick wall. His eyes were closed, his head cast down almost into his lap. I talked to him one last time, squeezed his hand, and said goodbye. I couldn’t help but wonder how often it is that people walking through the city make eye contact with Lucas and show him that they are paying attention.

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