A reader writes from a distant city:
My church seems to attract a fair number of, shall we say, eccentric folks. There’s a guy who wanders in and out during Mass. He talks to himself and anyone who will listen. I have no idea what he’s saying most of the time, but it’s an easy thing to listen and nod. It makes him smile and I feel better than I would if I looked the other way.
My homeless “friends” usually congregate in our riverfront park at night. They sleep in the shelter and look after each other and their stuff and sometimes ask a passerby for a cigarette. Mostly they go unnoticed. I always look them in the eye and speak with them. It’s another thing that costs nothing and lets them feel good about themselves. Last summer the riverfront was off-limits. After two floods, the whole area was cordoned off and didn’t get cleaned up until nearly September, and then it was too cold for them to hang out there. I miss them but I’d be really happy if no one has to sleep there this summer.
At a recent meeting on homelessness in Seattle a well-traveled woman observed that people in nations she visits are more likely than Americans to engage with strangers. “Americans don’t say hello,” she said. My experience abroad has been similar. Why, then, do we Americans consider ourselves an especially friendly, welcoming people? True, with some notable exceptions we’re more accepting of cultural and racial diversity than are many other societies – a virtue, even in cases where what we accept can be pretty much limited to the abstraction.
Anyway, I like to greet people on the streets of my city as though it’s a village and we all know each other even though we’re not all on a first-name basis yet.