It cannot be easy to hold out your hand hoping someone will give.
I look try to look away from those asking for money on the streets when I am in Sicily (or anywhere for that matter). I am more sensitive to it in Sicily because those needing help are often far, far from their real homes and vulnerable in a number of ways. This is not an indifference to the plight of the less fortunate. Far from it. There have been times in my life where the want of such simple things was an impossibility, when just getting what I needed would take gargantuan feats, despite the fact that I have always worked hard. Lack can grab you by the throat and shake until you can’t breathe. I am sensitive to it. I encounter it with more and more regularity. When writing about and working with immigrants and refugees, need is a prominent theme–and it is endless. I am not a policy maker. There are others with far greater minds than mine to do that work. People interest me. I do not observe them from a distance. Their stories are not abstract , theoretical jottings relegated to my notebooks. They live and breathe, and I along with them. I do not want to be drained of emotion. But I cannot live with emotional distance, either. I won’t allow it of myself. My eyes is wide and gaping whether I like it or not.
When I am in Sicily and I am approached, I do not try to figure out genuine need from those trying to shake me down. How could I possibly ascertain that? What is the litmus test? Either I am ready and willing to give something or I am not. The reasons why I find it difficult to look at them is two-fold: I have experienced that kind of need and I will always find it hard to confront in others. I also am cognizant of the fact that many locals, while extremely polite, will look right through or past them. I can do neither. But I am a sucker for kindness. And so. . .
When the sweet gypsy girl with the little girl calls out to me “Ciao mia amica!” and embraces me with such warmth , I feel tears stinging my eyes, I melt. I am in need of coffee, and I have my book bag with me. My eyes are stinging from the bright sun and cold morning air. Her hair is a mess, her skin dusky. The child she carries is different from the one I had seen her with the day before, but I reason that she has two: a girl and a boy. Or two girls. I am really not sure, because she has a cousine who looks just like her. The children seem interchangeable somehow. Her husband is in Rome. She is with the children. If I will give her money today, she will come and find me upon her husband’s return and she will pay me back. She shifts the child on her hip, whose nose is running, sticking to the hair that is blowing in the wind all over her face.
I give her some money and she kisses me all over my face. I am embarrassed by her display since it is out of proportion to what I had just placed in her hand. She persists in asking me where she can find me in a few days so that she can pay me back. It is a game that she must play and I know this. I tell her that the money is a gift to her and her children. I could not confront this poverty and this need. To have anything at all in the face of so much need in the world seems to me to be a vulgar thing, I have always struggled with this and I struggle with it still.
A few days later , on a beautiful Sunday, I am sitting in the Duomo with my friend Sarah and I see the gypsy girl and her cousine stroll into the view. The gypsy and her cousin, veritable twins, have only one child with them on that day—a little boy, disheveled in the way that the family always appears to be, pushing a rickety little pink baby carriage with neither baby nor doll inside. He is so tiny, going around in circles with the carriage, whose wheels looks as though they are held by threads. He talks to himself. I cannot see the gypsy girl or her cousin. I express concern to my friend Sarah , who assures me that they are somewhere in the crowd, watching from a distance. This is something that few would do in the states. But this is Sicily, after all, on a Sunday, in the Duomo for goodness sake.
The little boy abandons the carriage and walks into the array of tables where family’s are soaking up winter sun and drinking coffee and eating. Out comes the little boy with an enormous chocolate cone. He is still unsmiling. He takes himself with his cone into the crowd. I tip my head back and close my eyes to the sun. When I open them , he is gone.
At the table behind us , two women, one breastfeeding a baby are approached by a very old gypsy woman. She has the same yellowish-brown complexion if the cousins. She wears a thick wool skirt and thicker wool stockings. She is devoid of any facial expressions and simply holds out a small dish. She is making me uncomfortable , but I might be the only one who is. The woman disengages the baby from her breast and swaddles her a little tighter despite the warmth of the day. I do not know what transpired, but when the gypsy woman walked away, the woman with the baby was wiping up a spilled beverage from her clothes.
I wanted to analyze. I wanted to ask the woman “what happened?” Sarah, serene as can be, was on to something else, looking around, smiling. But I always want to know. It’s often my downfall.
Before we leave, the little boy emerges out of the well-dressed crowd in the Duomo. He is still holding tight to his cone, which has melted , but not by much. He has a bit of chocolate on his face. With determination he walks his tiny self past the outside tables into the cafe. I see him walk up to the counter. I imagine that he does not like chocolate. Wants another. They will give it to them. Because Sicilians love children and indulge them
I have given up trying to judge who needs what. If I can, I give. If I can’t, I can’t. But then I feel awful. This is an occupational hazard I suppose. Or is it just a condition of being a sucker? Or , merely humanity with a heart?