In 2001, after the collapse of the World Trade Centre, I decided to drive around the United States of America for 30 days in December. I tried to encourage some of my American friends to join me, but fear had them firmly in its grip. Some were fearful that the US was under full-on attack, whilst others – particularly a good friend from New York – was horrified that I was planning to drive through the South, and the “South” in this case wasn’t Florida.
I did it anyway. I have no problem with my own company, and my journey started in New York, and then I drove south, passing through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee before finding myself in Louisiana, in the somewhat fabled city of New Orleans.
Obviously every state has a story, but the tale I want to tell took place took place December 23rd, my last night in New Orleans, after I’d eaten dinner and watched some jazz. Although it was dark, I took to the streets for a final wander around the French Quarter before turning in for the night.
Leaving the French Quarter
I’d been walking for around 15 minutes, and had strayed away from the bright lights and busy streets of the city in the direction of Marigny when a man started walking purposefully towards me. He was tall, in his 40s, and very clearly homeless, or at the very least, someone who spent a lot of time on the streets.
I’d like to pretend that I felt no concern, but that would be a lie. Growing up in South Africa I was surrounded by warnings about “white women who were assaulted by black men” (my skin colour can be described as “white”, although it’s pink in the sun, blue in the cold, grey when I’m sick – really, I’m just another South African rainbow). So the fact that I was white and female and alone, and the street person was black and male and both older and physically larger than me, set off a few warning signs.
And of course, as a woman, I was well aware of the conflicted stories that the press reported about women who were raped late at night when out on the streets. You’ve heard the dialogue, I’m sure: “Obviously there is no excuse for rape. But… but if a woman walks through a park at night in a mini-skirt… Well, she probably had it coming…” I wasn’t walking around in a mini-skirt but a pair of jeans, but I was a woman, and it was late, and I had strayed from the “safe” tourist areas, and maybe I had it coming.
I was, however, nothing but polite, in spite of my discomfort and I quashed my instinct to walk quickly back to the bright lights of the tourist streets. When the man fell into step beside me, I simply greeted him in the way that I’d learned whilst staying in Atlanta for a few days with a friend – a quick, “Good evening, sir.”
What was I expecting? In retrospect, not much. A request for money, or help – it was, after all, two days before Christmas, the supposed time of goodwill to all men. I knew to be cautious, but I don’t think I was paralysed with fear, certainly not enough to walk away.
What did happen was that the man responded with an equally polite reply, that I seem to recall “Ma’am” (quite bizarre given that I was only a few years out of school, but that’s what it was), and we struck up a conversation.
He asked me where I came from and was a bit taken aback that I was South African and we talked about the country, the people, the political problems, the black-and-white situation for a few blocks. Then I asked him about himself, and he told me his story – finishing school after a few false starts, starting a family too early, work going wrong, his partner kicking him out, living on the streets for a week then a year, moving from place to place in the warm weather and finding a place to keep warm when the air chilled. We discussed the black-and-white situation in the US, spoke about what he’d like to do if he could get off the streets and after a fairly intense conversation with minimal small-talk, I told him that I wanted to head back.
A gift for all seasons
As I did, I wanted to leave him with something. It was, after all, the Christmas season, and I felt bad just leaving him in the street. So I fumbled in my handbag for $20 and handed it to him rather inelegantly (I’ve never learned the secret of handing over a note with panache, I fear).
He gently pushed my hand away and told me he didn’t need it. I tried to insist – a good lunch on Christmas eve, perhaps? Instead, he told me something that I’ve never forgotten.
“It’s been a long time since someone looked me in the eye and greeted me like a human being. Most people turn away – it’s as if I don’t exist. It’s been an even longer time since I had a real conversation with a stranger who didn’t treat me as if they were doing me a favour. I needed that more than I need money.” *
*All said with a wonderful accent and sentence structure that I’m unable to reproduce.
And with that, we shook hands, and I took a right turn to take me back towards the French Quarter and the CBD, and he disappeared into the night.
I don’t remember his name, although I am certain we exchanged names (it’s what I do), and I don’t remember the minute details of our discussion or his life story, but I do remember walking away trying to imagine what it would feel like to be unable to simply make eye contact and smile, or to have an interesting conversation with a stranger because of how I looked or because of the way I was judged.
I am not a regular giver of money to street people – I have my days when I do, and days when I don’t, with no rationale reason as to why I choose one approach over the other at any given time. But since my conversation in New Orleans, I make a point of making eye contact with street people, even when it’s uncomfortable. I nod my head in greeting if it’s loud, or say hello and smile. Sometimes I stop and exchange a sentence or two, just as I would with someone in the queue in a shop or at a bus stop.
Perhaps it’s not always what people want. Perhaps sometimes all they really do want is money or a handout. But sometimes all I can offer is a little bit of humanity, the second-long eye contact that affirms that the person on the street is not invisible and is a human being with a history and a future.
And sometimes, as I’ve learned repeatedly over the years, that’s enough.