When a Smile Is Too Expensive to Give a Homeless Person

'Even a smile will be enough' was the message on a piece of cardboard, outside another luxurious branch of H&M. But it only hastened the passers-by.

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Alon Idan

I read the text quickly. It was written with a black felt-tipped pen, in small print letters, on a square piece of cardboard. I went on walking southward. She was sitting outside another luxurious branch of H&M, a fair-skinned young woman with thin facial features, green-brown eyes, curly hair, torn blue jeans and old sandals. The people coming through the glass door carried bags crammed with new clothes – H&M was having a special on women’s jeans (50 percent off on the second pair) – and hurtled past, without giving her a glance.

I continued moving, too, in a fast walk that might have been intended to evade the possibility she represented. The possibility of a different life: dark, scary, lacking; a life of disability and penury that exists parallel to regular life; a life that has apparently gone awry and been cast violently to the margins and is now in need of help to get back on course.

I walked fast, though I wasn’t hurrying anywhere. Or maybe I was hurrying somewhere: to the regular place I’ve been walking to for decades – the safe place. All I need do to get there is to maintain a steady pace, balanced movement, equilibrium. The place to which most people walk, in most periods, always with eyes looking forward, only forward, careful not to look sideways, not to fall into the abyss, not to plunge into the dark, where there are girls sitting on the sidewalk outside an opulent H&M branch, holding a piece of cardboard.

Only this time, something wouldn’t let me keep walking. My legs slowed down; my head wanted to see what else the piece of cardboard said. I walked back.

“Give what you can. Even a smile will be enough.” That’s what it said. But no one smiled. Just like me, everyone was in a hurry, wearing goal-oriented faces, snug as a bug in their suits, looking at their wristwatches that ticked and tocked, reminding them relentlessly that life zips by in a flash, that it’s over before you know it, that there’s no time to stop, no time to wait, no time to look, no time to smile. Who smiles anyway, why smile?

Most people whizzed by in a flash, as though angry at what was written on the piece of cardboard. Here and there someone bent over to drop a coin or two into the cup, then immediately crossed the road, as though not wishing to spend more time than necessary next to the young woman. It seemed to me that what disturbed the passersby more than the money or the food or the physical need was the declaration that a smile would be enough. That seemed to speed them up, make them flee the danger zone.

The danger of the smile. Yes, more than anything it was the smile she asked for that hastened the step of the people rushing by, in their suits and with the watches, artists of balance, so afraid to look to the side, into the abyss, lest they see their reflection looking back at them. Because, though they would never acknowledge this, they themselves were implicated in the smile she asked for. For that smile is the only thing that she and they still have in common, the last possibility that might connect a wretched, hungry, homeless woman who’s been kicked around by life, to satiated, well-tailored, self-confident people who stride decisively to the place you have to stride to if you don’t want to fall into the gutters of existence.

The smile she asked for was time. Time to stop and look at her, acknowledge her, notice her, be aware of her, of the possibility she was. She was ready to make do with a smile, because she knew that a smile could help her more than money or food or lodgings. After all, those things will only make possible her continued existence within the abyss, within the parallel course of life, within death. Whereas a smile could light up, if only for a moment, the great darkness in which she exists; could move her for a few seconds to the illuminated side of the planet. She asked for a smile, because she wanted to go back to living among human beings.

Finally I went over to her and put a $5 bill into the plastic cup.