Dust in the wind

True stories about real people…

Time passes by. Tick-tack! tick-tack! at a constant pace – universally accepted from ancient days. Nothing really changed in the way we measure time; and yet, nothing is the same in the way we feel it.

As years go by it seems like the speed of time increases exponentially; days become weeks, and then months in a blink of an eye, and before you can take few deep breaths, you realize that you left behind years for which you almost can’t give account.

Everything is moving faster than 30 or 40 years ago, everybody – you included – is in a hurry. People don’t have time anymore to meet face to face; they use cell phones and social networks; nobody writes letters anymore – at most, few cryptic words in an e-mail.

We are busy, we always have things to do, places to go and we meet so many people that is hard to cope with the avalanche of faces that floods our existence. Occasionally we stop for a few minutes, exchange a couple of pleasantries without being really interested in what others have to say and then we hurry back to our business.

Ever since I was a teenager I volunteered for different NGO’s, even if in my country that was at first more than a blurry concept. As things began to settle down, I’ve started to have more and more contact with this area, but it wasn’t until 3 years ago when I’ve decided that this was what I wanted to do for a living – to be truthful, when I’ve decided that I’m finally up for it.

I work in an NGO that provides social services; it’s a job not for the faint of heart, you need to be able to commit yourself completely; you need to overcome the urge to quit and run, and keep trying your best.

I meet many people from both sides of the “barricade”: those in need and those who could make a difference. There are so many new faces everyday that sometimes at night, if asked, I can’t remember their names.

Those of you who work in social services know that each and every day on the job is a constant rush, is a swirl of things to do and fix, of problems to solve, so that your head keeps spinning long after your working hours are over.

There are (unfortunately) many people in need that come by the office, and most of the time all I can offer them is a few words of encouragement and support. The resources are scarce and there is nothing more I can do. We live in an imperfect world, filled with injustice and wrongs and no matter how much willingness and desire we might have, sometimes our hands are tied behind our backs and the-change-for-the-better is still too far away.

For newcomers in this line of work, the first thing that hits them (and hits them hard) is when they realize that they can do nothing more than give a few words of comfort and in return they get this look filled with gratitude and hope… It’s frustrating, infuriating, it’s making you feel guilty, unworthy, the scum of the earth – because you didn’t really do anything more than speak a few well-chosen words and smile, at most give a heart-felt hug!

I did no better. Still don’t. Except now I understand why this happens. The people who need you are painfully aware that most of the time there isn’t much anyone can really do, and are content with very little: those few words and your smile.

Like I said, I did no better. The only thing is that – unlike many other newcomers – I was familiar with this type of reaction in a strange kind of way. I’ve had that eerie uncomfortable feeling before, and it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen that look – but where? When?

Many years ago, a lifetime ago, I was myself a child (sic!). And I went to school. The kids came from different social layers and from different neighborhoods. There was this girl in our generation – a year older than the rest of us – and she was quiet and kept to herself. If someone would talk to her, she would answer very politely, with a warm smile; if not – she would just observe us. Not many of our classmates would talk to her; mostly they ignored her.

I’ve always been a friendly child, always disregarding social labeling (now more than ever). From time to time I would go and talk to this girl, but not very much. I didn’t do it because I felt pity nor did I felt bored – I was completely ignoring the fact that all other kids avoided her – just felt like talking to her. Nothing more, nothing less.

Although we lived in the same neighborhood, we didn’t interact much outside school either. We occasionally encountered on the street, exchanged a few words, and sometimes I talked to her mom.

Her mom – what a beautiful woman… When I met her I understood whose smile the girl inherited; her mom was a Creole beauty, “piel morena”, with wide tender eyes – and she always smiled. Always. She had a silent, anonymous beauty, though nothing of a grand lady. She had a presence that, once you became aware of it, you couldn’t forget.

Years passed quickly by and we all went to high school – and lost contact. Still met the girl and sometimes her mom when buying groceries, but rarely – usually when I walked by the Bodega they had. I used to stop for a few minutes to talk to them. They always asked me with a real, almost vivid interest how was I doing, how was school, any new paintings or exhibitions – but never asked me to come in. I asked the girl once how was she doing, how was high school – but she looked down and said that she didn’t went to any; she had to stay home to help the family with the Bodega and raise her little brother. I never asked her after that anything but the usual common “stupidities” (have you heard the latest song…).

Now, when I say Bodega, imagine exactly this: a cheap-alcohol smelling filthy place, filled with dirty workers, all over 40 – rough men, uneducated brutes hardened by all the hard work and the countless years lived in fear and scarcity during communism – that came each afternoon and drank their wages (and their minds) before going home. And the patron of all this was the girl’s father – a  scrawny short fellow, bowlegged and a crossed-eyes evil gaze.

More years passed by and I moved away to stay with my grandmother. Whenever I was visiting my parents, however rarely, I always stopped to see my former colleague. I was about 16 then and for the first time I became aware of the way she glanced at me. I didn’t understand it and made me uncomfortable; she seemed to absorb every word I was saying, even more vividly than before.

I finished high school and went to college. I visited the neighborhood even more rarely, mostly in the evening, and so I didn’t see the girl anymore. Ever.

Today, looking back, I understand that look more than I wish. Somewhere deep within me I always knew that the family Bodega was offering much more to its customers than cheap alcohol. Everybody in the neighborhood knew, including the police, but nobody did anything about it – too much uncertainty after the Revolution; bribe was an easier way to make money; and what you don’t “know” (more accurately – “admit”) cannot hurt you (your conscience, that is).

Somehow, over the years our little meaningless chats became more than a habit; I was quite enjoying them. Their interest felt genuine, their smile sincere – both the mother and daughter were very nice to me. Although everybody else was avoiding them, either by simply ignoring them or by glancing with poorly hidden despise, I had no problem talking to them – I never really cared about what other people do or say.

The girl and her mom always gave me a look in which now I’m able to recognize their gratefulness for me not judging them, for me being completely blind to what might others say about the fact that I was willingly associating with prostitutes (because that’s what they were, although they were always dressed in dark, more than decent clothes – not at all the usual Hollywood cliche). Somehow I think the mother was trying to protect me in her own way by not inviting me in (I was just a naive child most of the time and I became aware of what they were really doing for a living at a more mature age).

It’s safe to assume that the look in the girl’s eyes was something she couldn’t control and, at some point, the mere curiosity became a way of feeding her own deep, unspoken (not even to herself) wishes. For the few minutes I was telling her about my life, she stopped being herself – she was somebody else. I’m only guessing here and it may sound far-fetched to you, but I’m pretty sure I’m not so far off the truth…

I don’t feel guilty for her fate – I am fully aware there was nothing I could do to help her; life is unfair (at least according to our own rules) and we can’t make right all the wrongs in the world.

I do regret however the fact that I was so eager to move along, to do things, to meet more and more people, to escape my own inner cage, that I never returned in the neighborhood to try to find her.

I never say her name not to protect her identity, but because I don’t remember it. I’ve simply just forgot it; but not the look in her eyes.

It’s a bitter feeling that, yet I do not wish to forget it. I want to keep it close to me, so that whenever I exchange pleasantries with someone, no matter the hurry I’m in, I would always remember to closely look into their eyes…