Almost every morning, near my subway station I see the same homeless woman (or, I just assume she is homeless). We always say hello to each other. She never asks for anything and I never offer anything aside from a friendly nod in her direction. She wears an oversize green hat with feathers. Her face is dirty, but pleasant. She reminds me of a painting called "Peasant woman against a background of wheat" by Van Gogh. Sitting right at the entrance of the subway station (her office), she is usually holding a small calculator, engrossed in what seems to be a long mathematical calculation. Her fingers moving really fast all over the number keys, she pauses for a second (waiting for the results?) Sometimes she seems visibly distressed by what she sees on the display and sometimes she laughs out loud.
I used to catch myself feeling sorry for her. I’d get a little pang in my chest, "Poor thing, she must be thinking it’s a Smartphone". Until one day, recently, I had an "aha" moment. It went something like this: How different am I really from this woman who is starring at an inanimate object and seems to be having a conversation with it, expecting it to respond in some way? Not by a wide margin, I am guessing. When our gazes meet, I am usually holding THREE inanimate objects - a blackberry, a phone and a radio (or an iPod). How crazy must I look to someone who prefers to have enough hands to hold, say, a cup of coffee, or someone else’s hand? Do people feel sorry for me in passing? Yes, I realize that a calculator isn't the same as a blackberry in terms of a two-way communication, but how different is it really? It’s made of plastic, mostly, from what I can tell. Ok, it displays letters AND numbers. Big whoop. But I'll be damned, if any one of us at one point or another (or every day!!) didn't look at our Smartphone in bewilderment, feeling lonely, isolated, misunderstood, outsmarted by the darn thing. How different am I from this woman, because I’ve been known to slam the phone down, as if it’s going to care, mumble something under my breath while shooting off an angry response to an "idiot" on the other end of the cyberspace, not realizing that the joke is on me because my inbox is too full and no emails can be sent out, or to be woken out of my trance of singing along with Madonna by the hissing “shhhhh” from my neighbors on the subway. Basically, I started looking at this woman and myself in a new way, wondering all along, if a blackberry isn't buzzing, does the silence mean we no longer belong, disconnected in a bigger sense of the word or are we just plain crazy? And if we’ve truly lost touch with our true selves, with our identities, and handed our souls, lives even, over to the inanimate objects, can we ever find a way back, find a way home and are we just as poor and homeless as my friend in front of the subway entrance? Or maybe it’s just me...Now when I approach the urban “peasant” woman, we nod in each others direction in total comradery, as if to say, "Yep, I hear you. The fuking numbers just don't add up". All I am missing, really, is an oversize green hat.