Minute in Saigon
it dawned upon me that I had never seen a one-legged man before.
The store I stood before used mirrors to project the few tarnished goods
on display into an infinite receding highway of small, battered brass
and aluminum cigarette cases. What caught my eye was a figure moving among
them. At first it looked like a small man, leaping from case to case.
Startled, I shifted my angle to get a better view and realized the figure
was the reflection of a man approaching my peripheral. I turned to catch
up with my subliminal, already struggling with a pattern my brain could
not quite process. An erratic hopping movement. It was the unfamiliar
preview of a one-legged man in motion. No crutches, no cane, just one
barefooted leg flexing below a long un-tucked shirt. Suddenly it dawned
upon me that I had never seen a one-legged man before.
He pogoed forward, catching me seeing him, seeing me. Silent acknowledgments
were traded, those instinctive gestures between strangers whose eyes meet
straight on as they pass on the street. I offered him the chin lift common
to my culture and received in return an uncommon diagonal head movement.
Satisfied, my vision retreated, ready to pass back to the infinite brass
highways in the shop window, but then I hesitated and returned for a second,
more concentrated look. I had focused on the kinder profile of his face.
The unkind profile, the right side, was, from chin to forehead, an eight-inch
mass of taut, blotched scar tissue. This man had only one functioning
eye. Yet, his countenance was not that of a man with such disability and
disfigurement. It was an intelligent, familiar face, common among crowds
of intelligent, familiar people. Yet, it simultaneously communicated the
imploring, silent plea of a seasoned street beggar.
A threshold of defense
within me was suddenly breached. I felt humbled to contribute to this
man. When I travel, I carry my large bills in my left pocket and my small
in my right. My face met his again and my left hand, as if under the control
of another,reached to my left pocket and reappeared, extended about two
feet in front of me at chest height. I held out the equivalent of two
months wage for the average citizen of Saigon. Our faces communicated
silently, mine with raised eyebrows politely offering, his face
his face, puzzled at first, began that slow unfolding smile of realization
that a misunderstanding has occurred. My gift remained extended yet he
did not accept.
I do not give to beggars, especially in third world countries, where
I have constantly rebuffed the daily assault of panhandlers and
street hustlers. It was a principal I had articulated several times
to my traveling companions. I believed it was not my role to supplement
for the failed welfare systems of the host cities of my travels.
But this city carried burdens on top of the usual poverty-induced
inflictions and diseases long eradicated in the west. This was Saigon,
in South Vietnam, a city with an additional underclass of amputee
victims of war and post-war detonations.
Here before me, one man balanced on one leg, looking at me through
one working eye, yet to me he projected an air of dignity, not destitution.
For the third time within minutes, I again caught up with what my consciousness
was slow to process and laughed the embarrassed laugh of one who means
well but has inadvertently erred. He graciously shared my embarrassment
and laughed with me causing his scared tissue to pull tautly on his upper
lip. I leaned forward, placed the money in his shirt pocket and gave him
a friendly tap on his shoulder. He widely smiled his gratitude, turned,
and pogoed away with a cheerful spring in his bounce
a bounce as a man with one leg, one eye, and no arms could give. No arms!
I thought. Wow! In the space of an instant, I felt foolish for not noticing,
overwhelmed by his predicament and now heightened by a new sense of awareness.
I turned to go my own way, catching the reflection of my satisfied resolve
to contribute readily to needy cases for the rest of my travels.
© Keven Mulcahy 2002
and Diane's Travel Writing Address"
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