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11:49 p.m. - September 16, 2003
On a train platform or in a train, my eyes are not beautiful
While on the train platform tonight, a woman in a wheelchair sidled up to me and asked if I could do her a favor and read her the next two arrival times because the display case height is ill-conducive to wheelchair users. I said sure and told her the next trains are at 10:15 and 10:35 and I had to bend slightly because eye contact is polite when all of a sudden she grabs me by the chin and rasps, You have beautiful eyes. It is too impolite to swat an old woman's hand away, even in this cold post-modern world, right? I backed away and this woman lunged and grabbed me by the chin again and repeated her comment, You have beautiful eyes.

The train arrives and we both enter the car. Train departs station and she makes an announcement to the fans returning from the Giants game (we won):

Excuse me, everybody. I have multiple sclerosis and have an appointment with my neurologist - that's a doctor - tomorrow and I need $20.00 for my copayment and I am begging you, this is what an old woman in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis must do to see the doctor. Please? Anybody?

I sat there wondering whether her story was true like any classical empiricist, gathering data: No alcohol on breath - independently verified since she breathed all over me earlier - no stench of tobacco or dilated eyes, no tell-tale signs of a scam. And I thought about her as a person, what it takes for someone to beg, what it means to be a Christian in situations like this, whether I should give her the five dollars I had in my pocket. I would have given her that money if I knew nobody could see me do so and I thought that was odd, that intense dislike of drawing attention to myself present even in random events. And I sat there thinking about multiple sclerosis and what it can mean but not always, and as the train pulled into the station she turned to me and said sotto voce, Don't feel bad. I do have multiple sclerosis but I do this to make my rent. Don't feel bad okay? Remember you have beautiful eyes and exited the car.

Now, I know the polarities about social services and funding and charity and frankly, I don't care much for all that. I wondered if her plea would have been received differently had she been honest and you know, given the housing prices in the Bay Area, I wouldn't be surprised if people listened to her more attentively than claiming medical necessity. Some argue our society is getting better and others argue it's falling apart. When you're on a crowded train and nobody even glances at a frail woman's plea, you can't tell me that we're better off as a country and people than we were in some rosy past. And if people avoid eye contact to deny or avoid recognition of humanity and shame or guilt, that's no different than participating in the social forces engendering beggers seeking to pay rent in the first place.

I've been looking in the mirror and it saddens me to think that perhaps her compliment You have beautiful eyes was part of a gimmick. For a moment there, before she made her announcement on the train, I believed her and was thrilled. I do not have beautiful eyes at all. Now, I wonder, if I thought I had beautiful eyes before her comment, would I have given her the $5.00?


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