Looking into, Not Looking through a Man: Life as an Invisible

When you see my face on this site or in person, it’s typically an open, nice-enough face. Oh, it may not have matinee-idol written all over it, but my face is not unpleasant or disturbing. In short, I like my face just fine.

That face has been looked into with love, which is nice. That face has been looked into with anger, which is either intimidating or amusing, depending on the circumstances. That face has been kissed and punched and slapped and stroked. It has been regarded.

My face has also been looked through, been disregarded, been invisiblized . When I was broke and unshaven and dirty, most folks didn’t look at me, they looked through me, as if I didn’t exist, as if I weren’t there, as though I weren’t a man who’d loved and cried and laughed. When my teeth had fallen out, when I was living on the street, when all I wanted was a drink to stop my shaking, the mass of humanity ignored me.

Being ignored is better than being beaten up. On balance. Still, if someone’s pushing you down or punching you, they’re acknowledging your existence. A someone doesn’t beat up a nothing, after all. I suffer, therefore I am, as a Cartesian might rewrite the dictum. Ego pati ergo sum, as it were.

Disregarded long enough, a man questions his existence. Disregarded long enough, a man hates himself. Disregarded long enough, a man stops acting like a man, forgets he is a man, loses sight of his human nature.

Goddammit, pay attention to the people around you. Show regard for the fat ones, the smelly ones, the dumb ones, the ugly ones, the toothless ones, the pimply ones, the unshaven ones, the misshapen ones. Regard and respect those ones; don’t treat them like zeroes.

This rant is a response to a text I got this morning from a man I’ve known a while. James, I’ll call him, and I have never been close. James is standoffish in general and rather shy. Because he played lacrosse for Stanford 30 years ago, and is still six-three and 250 pounds, he can seem intimidating, but inside he feels a lot of insecurity. Although he never said so, I imagine he saw me as a mystical chucklehead, sort of a wizard/clown combination. Regardless, James and I have never been close. Still, we’ve always looked each other in the eye and tried to treat each other with respect.

A few days ago, James contacted me, saying he needed some help and support from a social-service agency with which I’m familiar. He asked me to intercede, make a phone introduction for him, so he wouldn’t feel awkward going in for help. I assured him that wasn’t necessary, he could go to the agency and they’d help him with a smile.

I was wrong.

From James’ text this morning: The staff was aloof and distant. They laughed when they talked with each other, but they lost their smiles when they talked at me. I left without the help I needed.

James was treated with disregard. James was treated as an object. James was treated like an annoyance.

Strike that last paragraph. James wasn’t treated like anything. James didn’t exist. James was invisible. James wasn’t really there.

James is homeless. James is an active alcoholic. James probably doesn’t smell great.

James is still a goddamned human being.

And so are the bureaucrats who looked through him this morning. I would like to call them out by name, call them out by agency, spread word of their casual cruelty far and wide.

But I won’t.

Instead, I wish them long lives and eternal existence following this life. Let those egotistical, superior, distant, aloof sonsofbitches never cease to exist, and let them prove their existence through the clown/wizard’s update of Descartes:

Ego pati ergo sum.

I suffer, therefore I am.

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