Any time I go outside my house there is a subconscious portion of my brain that is devoted to threat assessment. It keeps watch on everything, asking the question “Am I safe?” If the answer is not a clear yes, the process jumps into my conscious thoughts and I start paying attention to the thing which tugged at my subconscious. Usually the thing is another person. I then have to look and evaluate how that person makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I don’t like the answers because they are based on racist or classist assumptions that Not Like Me = Dangerous.
I was pushing my cart toward the exit of the grocery store, past the floral display. A man was there, he was a bit scruffy with skin much darker than mine. His clothes might have indicated homelessness, or perhaps just a very low paying manual labor job. His hand was reached out to touch one of the plants. It was an almost reverent touch. He caught my eye because that subconscious assessment said “Not Like Me. Possible Risk” My more conscious assessment reminded me I was in a public place, surrounded by people. There was no actual risk here. So I did a thing which I have been working on doing more often. I smiled at him in greeting. Treating him with human respect rather than allowing the “Not Like Me” fear to make me look away and pretend he was not there.
His face lit up in an answering smile. “They’re so pretty.” He said in heavily accented English.
“Yes.” I agreed, slowing my cart down. I love flowers and plants. This man did too. It was a small point of connection.
“I’m from Guam. There are so many flowers there. Big. Everywhere. My wife, she would make a” His hands gestured making a crown shape on his head while he searched for the word
“Leiei. She plant so many flowers everywhere. All around the house.”
My cart was fully stopped now. “How wonderful.” I answered.
“Yes.” He sighed. “I miss the flowers. I come here to think of them.”
In that moment I had a sense of how very far away this man was from the home of his heart. It also seemed like he’d been away a long time. His clothes did not indicate someone who had the income necessary for international travel. I also know that international travel is much more complicated for people who will be scrutinized by customs officials. I wondered if his wife was still in Guam far away from him.
We shared one more smile and parted, me to my car, him to stand in the floral section missing his home. I don’t know any more of his story than that brief piece. I don’t know what brought him here, his immigration status, or his life goals. Yet for a moment “Not Like Me” vanished and I could see a homesick fellow human who likely gets ignored and cold shouldered every day.
It is a small thing to meet a person’s eyes and smile or nod, but the accumulation of small things matters. Giving someone a moment of being seen, instead of being invisible, is important. Particularly for those among us who become invisible because they make others uncomfortable for reasons that they can’t control, whether it be skin color, disability, communication issues, or not being able to afford clean clothes. I can’t smile and nod everywhere. Sadly the world is filled with situations where doing so actually would increase my risk of being harassed in some way. But the places where I can out number the places where I can’t. I’m trying to be better about doing it and about re-training the risk filter in my brain to recognize that just because a person makes me uncomfortable does not give me leave to treat them as if they are less than human.