Pictures of Poor People

“There is not one who does good, there is not even one.”
– Romans 3:12

First, there is the chalk story busker. Today you could think of her as Blond April, but tomorrow, after the Grafton Street pavement has been hosed down overnight, when you see someone rewriting her story of childhood trauma in large, neat, colorful letters, the writer will have red hair, and you will think of her as Auburn April.

Next, there is the still body sprawled theatrically across the grass in St. Patrick’s Close. It is possible, on close inspection, to determine that the color of the narrow slit of glassy iris visible between his partially-open lids is blue, like the evening sky which the unmoving eyes reflect. There is an empty beer can laying inches from one limp hand. Maybe it was placed there as a prop by the man with the fancy camera who smirks as he leans in for a shot of this unwilling model for his “Typical Dubliners” Instagram album.

Finally, there is the man with the holes in his shoes curled on his side on a stone bench just a few yards from Rowan Gillespie’s sculpture Famine, along the Dublin Quayside. Unlike those gaunt images of starvation, he is on the husky side. Unlike the probably-intoxicated man by the cathedral, he appears to be merely drowsy in the afternoon sunshine. And unlike Blonde April, he does not imply any curiosity about the contents of your pockets, so you don’t offer him compensation before snapping a photo of those indisputable shoes—the footwear of poverty.

And what about you? How do you look?

Blond April has placed a cup suggestively at the corner of her carpet-sized chalk paragraph, so after you stand there and read her whole story—how she was taken from her family as a child, endured the deprivations and dangers of foster care, made her escape, but now dreams of college—you owe her compensation. You spare yourself the usual internal debate about the thin line between charity and enabling, and you drop a two-euro coin before granting her the further benevolence of engagement.

“Do you think you would have been better off if you’d been left with your birth family?”

She eyes you suspiciously, so you clarify. “I adopted a child from foster care, so I just wondered.”

She considers her audience carefully for a moment before deciding on the judicious reply, “Well, they were on drugs.”

“So, you wouldn’t have been safer?”

“Foster care wasn’t safe.”

It’s not a soothing reply. She has not cleared you of the indictment against the system. So to balance the transaction, you ask if you can take a picture of her story. She grunts assent, and looks away. This is the chance you take, when you decide to be a tourist attraction.

Your self-righteousness feels slightly shaky, so a few minutes later in St. Patrick’s Close, when you catch the photographer in the act, you choose redemption by photobombing. You ask, “Is he okay?” and lean into the frame to gaze into those blue eye slits.

“Alcohol,” the photographer replies, lowering his camera and miming a tipple. He dons an expression of concern. “I don’t think he is okay, do you think?”

The half-open mouth, the sunken cheeks, the pitted skin on his fleshy nose, with a tracing of swollen capillaries, the eyes that do not see. Could there be a dead body in the middle of a busy tourist district?

“Are you okay?”

He catches a breath, and although he still does not shift his eyes or hands, his cheeks flap slightly with the expelled air. He is alive. He has drunk himself into oblivion. He will sleep it off. You need not take responsibility.

The photographer tsks and trots off in the direction of the cathedral. And because it is nearly 5:30, and you had planned to attend evensong, you trot right after. It is so much more appealing to stop someone else from doing wrong than to start yourself doing right.

But though you settle comfortably in the peaceful sanctuary, eager to be entertained by angelic voices singing the Word of God, you are not to be let off that easily. If your own conscience has been caught slumbering, the lectionary has not. When it is time for the epistle, it turns out to be from the third chapter of Romans, and probably you would need to be deliberately obtuse to miss the point.

So the next day, when you are standing with several others, contemplating the hollow cheeks and emaciated limbs of Gillespie’s bronze figures, you notice the man with the holes in his shoes and you’re stumped. St. Paul, what would I do if I were not a hypocrite? Offer him my own shoes? Offer to buy him shoes? What is righteous? What is kind?

The man awakens from his snooze and rolls off the bench, stretching. He turns and regards you as you stand there irresolute. Then, with a tiny, knowing smile, and a glance at the famine figures, he put his hands in his pockets and strolls away down the quayside.

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