The Prince and the Pauper

True stories about real people…

     When you deign to look at them, the image is as disgusting as it gets – torn clothing, visible layers of dirt gathered over God-knows how much time, hollow cheeks with unhealthy complexion. If, by any chance, you get too close to them, the smell gives you a pure physical reaction of nausea, and you can’t find quickly enough a way to distance yourself. If you lived long enough in the city, you develop a sort of internal radar that detects them even before you can actually see them – and you avoid them with contempt, revulsion, disgust and some other epithets along the line.

      They are homeless people. Some stay quietly at a street corner, surrounded by junk that represent their (only) most prized possessions. Others wander around aimlessly, digging up in the garbage cans, begging from a distance for money or a cigarette. Usually we just ignore them, passing by without seeing them and, unless we cross paths directly, we don’t even register their presence anymore.

      But there are others we try to avoid at all costs; we fear them like we would fear a wild animal – they travel in packs, 5 or 6, sometimes more, and all have a plastic bag from which they inhale. You know them; they are called aurolacs (from the substance they breathe). Their stench seems even stronger, the grime more prominent; their eyes glow and they watch you with undisguised hatred. We fear them – especially in the evenings. Those of you who had business around the Bucharest North Railway Station know of what I speak. We fear them because we never know when they can become violent and attack us. We fear them and we hate them.

      In winter they gather around the subway exists or manholes – the warm steam allowing them not to freeze completely.

      For years I had to walk amongst them on my way to high school and back. I was terrified and for many months I cowered behind a group of adults to pass them. Then I got used to it; I learned their faces; I knew which were quieter and which were more agitated. One, in particular, was quite violent – he would scream at people, curse and, if you got to close, you were risking at least being shoved forcefully. He was maybe 2 years older than me – around 17 or 18 years old. I was avoiding him very carefully – he wasn’t that short and I saw numerous times what he could do, so I was painfully aware of what could happen to me.

      One February morning I was waiting the bus; 15 minutes had already passed and I was shivering badly when I started to walk to and fro in an attempt to thaw my stiff feet. It was a terrible frosty day and the cars were barely moving on the thick ice on the road. When I turned around, I froze (in fear this time) – not 12 feet away, there he was: the aurolac. Without even a look, he passed me by staggering, he stopped to a kiosk and I saw him giving the vendor (who eyed him suspiciously) a handful of small change. He grabbed something that looked like yogurt and came back to the bus station. He seated with his legs crossed on a pile of dirty, frozen snow, opened the yogurt, unbuttoned his coat and, with infinite care, started to pull something out of his inner pocket. If it were possible, I would’ve frozen even more and I presume my eyes grew quite big with incredulity. In his left hand he was holding close a white, chubby pup, no more than 4 or 5 weeks old. With his right index the aurolac fed the pup with yogurt, constantly whispering encouragements (“C’mon, eat up. You need to grow big.”). He continued to do so, without even tasting it, until there was no yogurt left and the pup ate it all. Than he petted it and, with the same care and attention, he put the pup back in his coat, rose to his feet and left.

      I watched the entire scene, from beginning to end, without moving – the bus came and left, I forgot about the cold, I obviously got late to school… I didn’t understand! What just happened? Was that the same violent aurolac that everybody feared and avoided or was he the proverbial twin?

      That image of him feeding and nudging the pup to eat hunted me for a long time. I don’t know if it was the decisive factor, but it certainly played a crucial role in finally understanding that there’s always more than meets the eye.

      Let me make myself clear, I still fear aurolacs to some extent – you never really know what kind of reaction could have a man or woman that is under the influence, that is starving, that is deprived of the most basic necessities and has been constantly chased down by his/her fellow humans. For years I walked amongst them; they never harmed me – not once – and I stopped looking at them with contempt and never again reacted like I was facing a wild animal.

      That February morning I was taught a valuable lesson – that we are all humans and we have neither the right nor the place to judge; and that you can find a shred of humanity and innocence even in the darkest and most sordid of existence.

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