One Minute in Saigon
Fancy jewelers use mirrors in this way. Small mirrors carefully arranged to reflect the open, intricate functioning innards of hand-crafted watches that they say, "you never actually own, but merely look after for the next generation."
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.
Generally, 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 principle 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. 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…well, 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.
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...
...as cheerful 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, briefly catching the reflection of my satisfied resolve to contribute readily for the rest of my travels.
Author: Kevin Mulcahy