Seeing Tony

I’ve passed him dozens of times. Playing his guitar—or carrying it in its black, soft-sided case—Red Sox ball cap covering his patches of white hair, teal windbreaker when the air has a chill, with lollipops and candies for the kids, drawing them in with the promise of a song and the plastic percussion instruments spread at his feet. We referred to him as the green Kleenex box man, after the bright green box he placed on a stool for tips.

I’d never spoken to him, barely made eye contact. He seemed pleasant enough, crooning away at what seemed to be an endless string of Beatles’ songs, but engaging too much would make me feel obligated to offer him a tip, perhaps fun while vacationing, but not when you pass the man several times a week. I would notice him from afar “Ah, there he is, out again today,” then divert my eyes and attention as I passed so that his “Girls, do you want to hear a song?” was addressed to someone other than me. A whole year, and we’ve never spoken, just occupying space, passing by, in the same town.

Until last week—when he sat down on the other end of bench where I was reading Mere Christianity. After a few songs, with muttered “I guess no tips for the guitar player” in his native Bostonian accent as people walked by us, he turned to me and struck up a conversation. As we talked off and on for the next half hour, I realized that this man was not the happy-go-lucky grandfatherly type I had perceived him to be. That green Kleenex box represented his livelihood. He might be smiling, but he was cynical, bitter about the cards life had dealt to him, and he was lonely.

People in this area of New England are not known for being particularly friendly. In fact, I’ve heard the word “cold” used many times (and with much reason). The unspoken rule seems to be: don’t make eye contact and don’t strike up conversation with strangers (or even your neighbors) beyond obligatory pleasantries. Hard for a rural Pennsylvania girl like me.

But as I find myself giving in to the social norms here more often than I would care to admit, I wonder where that leaves people like my new buddy Tony. What happens when we don’t acknowledge people even by letting our eyes rest on them? What happens when we don’t pause long enough to smile and say hello? I think that when we do this, we let someone like Tony go from just feeling lonely and bitter to feeling…invisible.

Last week, I wrote about attending: the practice of stretching toward and paying attention to the life around us. As I’ve been musing on this more, I think that perhaps the most important area of life to apply this is with people. If we do it with nothing else, let us at least pay attention to these our fellow life-travelers; let us acknowledge their humanity; let us see them.

In the Gospels, we read of how “Jesus saw” people. I don’t want to read into the use of this particular word too much, but it’s interesting that typically Jesus is seeing those who could easily be swept into the margins, out of sight, unseen, invisible. He saw the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, who shouldn’t have even come close to him; he saw sick who needed healing; he saw the tax collector Matthew and called him as a disciple; he saw the children, being shooed away from him; he saw those blind and lame for decades; he saw the crowd, helpless, harassed, shepherdless. With the commotion of the crowds clamoring for his attention, with the antagonism of the religious leaders, in the midst of his teachings and his unruly disciples, Jesus saw. He paused, he paid attention, he stretched toward, he attended to these people.

This is hard business, truly seeing our fellow man. We like to be the ones seen. We may present ourselves a certain way in our dress or our actions to be complimented or admired. We may wait until someone else notices us and let them strike up a conversation. Perhaps it’s insecurity. Or perhaps it’s “polite” forms of egocentrism and self-absorption. We want to be the ones noticed—initiating this with someone else puts the focus on them. But, really, isn’t this as it should be? Shouldn’t our goal be making each person we brush shoulders with be as “seen” as we can make them? In making others seen, aren’t we also making them loved?

And so, once again, let us attend…to our fellow human beings, giving them the dignity of being seen-ones, loved-ones. Let us stop and pay attention.