The Problem with Perception

Sitting quietly outside the local coffee shop, wrapped in an dingy old sweater, her elbow visible through the thin fabric. She sits unassuming, sipping a large cup of coffee and holding her sweater tight around her – closing off the rest of her body from the cool morning breeze. “Good morning” I say as I walk in to the cafe, and she looks up with gray-blue eyes and returns my good morning with a smile. Calm and serene, enjoying a beautiful morning. This is the same woman who I witnessed just days ago screaming at any passerby – asking why it was okay to be loud and to enjoy the company of friends only if you weren’t homeless. How come she was being removed from an outside table to another cafe (where she had spent money), while equally loud customers continued their chatter – attempting to drown out her plea for equality. When did it become shameful to be homeless? At any given turn in this crazy capitalist society we live in, each one of us might end up sitting in her spot. Holding the worn sleeves of our sweater, attempting to start a new day and forgot the horribly cold night – the unforgivably hard ground, the street lights blinking. When did we start ignoring the signs written, the hands reaching out for help? “Anything Helps”, and we assume “anything” means cash and cash means alcohol and we’re not contributing to that? How am I any more of a person than the man who stood against the median pole at the stop light the other day? He held a sign against his chest that said “Just hungry” -Sunburned, gray before his time, scraggly finger nails and worn jean – and SO sunburned. He stood, back against the pole, sign and face directed toward the midday sun – avoiding the eyes of all of the people in the cars who likewise avoided his eyes – rolled their windows and distracted their children. I ended up parked right next to him and handed him a couple pieces of pizza I had in a bag – commented on his need for shade and then drove on. I immediately regretted not having water to go with the dry pizza and hoped someone else had enough sense to have an extra water bottle in the car. Why avert your eyes? What is their story? These men and women stranded in this place. So many times I’ve complained to someone about the path I’ve followed to end up in this town, and I wonder what their story is. Why Davis? Why come here? Did you come here for school? grow up here? A job that fell through? Train? Why here? Where do you come from? And I wonder if anyone asks. Or if someone were to ask, would they tell? You see, the problem with perception is that it is very self-assuming. We assume our perception is correct, or at least somewhat relevant to the story under the surface….and bias exists in the people we ask as well.  And so the problem with perception becomes our inability to overcome the walls we build between each other and isn’t there a Robert Frost poem about that? “He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’. “ – But are we being good neighbors? On either side of the wall or the fence, the one sitting or the one walking by – the one in the car, or the one horribly sunburned – how do we bridge these walls and fences?

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