But the horror of the great cities all over the world, including the world of 19th century London where Dickens set Bleak House, is the horror of the dispossessed. Earlier today, as I was sitting at an outdoor Thai restaurant, enjoying the breeze and the good food, a woman I’d noticed earlier came swiftly across the parking lot. I’d noticed her because even in that motley crowd, she moved with distinction and had the look of an exiled queen: a rake thin, long body, clothed in a striking black dress that left one shoulder bare, moving with determination, as though she was alone on a stage.
And here she was again, striding with the same purposefulness toward the garbage can that served the outside dinners at the restaurant.
She took the lid off with a sureness that meant she had done it often before, plunged both hands in, and drew out an open carry-out container with the remains of a meal in it. As she walked away, with the same oblivious purpose, she began at once to shovel the food into her mouth. And yet her gesture was somehow elegant, as though eating from a discarded take-out box full of the remains of a Thai dinner was a ritual rather than the result of acute need.
She was extremely thin.
No one seated on the porch of the restaurant saw her although she was only a few feet away.
The piercing shame I felt was not, strangely, for this desperate woman in one of the richest cities on the planet. It was the shame I imagined feeling if I’d jumped up, stopped her with a word, and bought her a dinner of her own.
We live in blindness and for blindness and perhaps one of our cursed gifts, as human beings, is that we just don’t see. If we saw, and did nothing, as I did nothing, we might have to admit to a dereliction of duty, the simple duty to be kind.
Better to see nothing, eat well, and leave.
Or, as I heard a large man in the airport opining, “Buy ‘em all a one-way tickets to Hawaii. They won’t freeze to death there.”