by Geo Ong
Before I knew his name as Jamil, he was just a stranger who had seated himself next to me, joining me in watching the people walking up and down the street. He was working, employed at the small bodega next door to the falafel shop. It was he who initiated the conversation by asking, ‘Falafel?’ He mentioned that he was off at two and that he couldn’t wait to go home and go to bed.
‘Talking to someone certainly helps the time go faster,’ he said. I was perfectly happy to let him use me like that. He was very friendly, sincere, making an honest remark about the pleasures of female-gazing along the avenue. He’s lived in the East Village all his life. He’s seen it change from a setting of political unrest and poverty to now being one of Manhattan’s most popular playgrounds. It didn’t seem to bother him. Perhaps to a writer or an artist, it would. He was just glad he could walk home safely.
I asked him if the bodega was family-owned. He hesitated, and then answered, ‘Sort of.’
Occasionally he’d break our conversation, walking back into the bodega whenever a new customer walked in. After one particular two-minute stretch, he came back out, surprised to see me. ‘I thought you’d disappear,’ he said, resuming his seat next to me.
Alarmingly, I found myself slipping much too easily into the role of outsider-journalist: a privileged suburbanite of upper-middle-class upbringing, foolish and ungrateful enough to rebel against such fortunate circumstances, trying out poverty, a social experiment that would most likely never become too real, especially when one can return home when things get only slightly dodgy.
My uneasiness in trying to connect with Jamil was class-based, whether or not that’s really the case. Perhaps part of being brought-up in a bubble of surburbia was assuming that everyone else had it rougher. I was interested in poverty but unaccustomed to it. Somewhere between not knowing and learning, a large globule of guilt had ballooned in that space.
I let him go back to work and I told him I’d stop in and see him next time I was around, but I am not entirely sure I will. I came away feeling a small pinch of pity. I realise now that I have no right to feel pity for anyone. My uncertainty in visiting him again had nothing to do with pity, but rather the possibility that Jamil wouldn’t remember who I am, that I too was just a drunk visitor, and that I didn’t care about our conversation and would never think of it again.
Would it be worth it to prove him wrong?