“Hello? Can I show you some of my artwork?”
The petite man waited for my response; he wore loose, earth-toned clothes that, like his face, had seen the grime of the streets. His hair, worn with corn rolls, was pulled back loosely into a ponytail. In another universe, he would’ve been considered cute; but in this one, you only saw homeless.
We had just exited Palacio de Cristal before being accosted. I felt my hackles rise, the wall coming up; Spain has too many swindlers and peddlers on the street.
“It doesn’t cost anything to view them, just for a little bit. Where are you from?”
My foot inched forward cautiously.
“Ah, that’s a really cool city. I’ve visited a few times. I’m originally from Brazil.” he said, fiddling with a piece of metal. “Here, I’ll make a ring for you. Can I see your fingers?”
“So… why are you here?” I asked, holding out my hand for him to eyeball. He paused to meet my eyes, his face breaking out into a smile.
“I love travel! I love learning about new cultures and hearing different languages. Here, let me put this on for you.” He held out his hand, palm facing upwards, waiting for me to make the next move. I shed my glove and placed my hand in his. The ring slid on easily, the size perfect. It was simply designed, yet delicately feminine.
“Michelle. Michelle, right? Yes?”
“Ah! Great! So you’ll marry me!” he said, grinning widely, hopping backwards back to his cloth display. I couldn’t help but laugh. “So anyways, if you like anything you see, tell me. If not, that’s ok.”
I stared at this man, this man that reminded me so much of another older man that I met once off Kona Highway in Hawaii, selling bracelets as a way to fund his love for living. This man that embodied a spirit so similar to mine, proving that although people may have experience different things, we are all still people.
At that moment, a man peddling beer—the exact same type that plagued us in Barcelona—swung through our exchange to pass the jeweler a beer, who grinned in thanks. My brain reforged an association between the beer peddler and jewelry peddler and, although I knew the difference between them, I couldn’t unsee it.
I didn’t know what to do. I stood there awkwardly for a while before he read the no in my eyes.
“Thank you,” I said, although I knew those two words couldn’t convey all that I was feeling in that moment—only apology. “Here, you forgot your ring.” I held out my hand once again.
“No,” he said, waving his hand. “It is yours. You may give me something for it if you would like but it is a gift. Remember, though, you are married to me now!”
I had no more words. My hand spasmed convulsively near my wallet but in the end, I smiled and walked away. I was afraid to look back.
Immediately, I was hit with guilt; I had been unable to shed my prejudices to recognize honesty in this man in order help him out. Remembering the promise I made to myself at the beginning of my journey to remain open to experiences, to counter all the biases that I’ve been taught all my life, I realized that I was failing. As I’ve said before, these people don’t enjoy that they have to subject themselves as annoyances in order to live; it’s a necessity. Although some may approach it in a reproachful manner, at their core, they are all still people—people that have just been on the wrong side of the socioeconomic system; people that are that way because of systems, societal constructs, that work against their existence. And I, coming from a place where I am bred to believe that everyone wants to take advantage of me, coming from a place where I have the means to help a fellow human out, couldn’t see through the fog. I couldn’t even donate 2€ for the ring he gave me. The man who had less to give gave me whatever he could offer.
Later I would try to convince myself that had I given him 2€ for the ring, it would corrupt the exchange we had as two equals, one offering a token of friendship. But, yet again, in the same manner that I took his ring, this thought is selfish. No matter the intention behind his gift, the fact that his dependency on donations for survival remained constant, a fact that I chose to ignore.
A month has passed since this interaction and I still feel guilty when I think about it. The other night, I walked past the beggar standing outside of my favorite boulangerie. Many others strode past him, ignoring his repetitive, “bonsoir, bonsoir.” His hands shook from cold, jingling the change-filled cup every time it did. Looking down at the 1€-something change I received from the store, I held out my hand and greeted him, “bonsoir,” and parted with the coins—an action executed a month too late. It was then that I made the first of many resolutions: in 2014, I would like to continue fighting against my own biases and to give whenever possible, even during times when I have little to give. We all need help sometimes.