Today I was on my way to one of the projects I work at, walking back from lunch.
A young man, carrying a black plastic bag of clanking glass, and another plastic bag of unknown items, walked up beside me. He was dirty, beyond the usual "unkept dirty"; dirt was literally caked on his face. His long nails had thick black dirt under them, his clothes look like they had been on and not washed for months, he smelled like a mixture of body odor, horse and mildew, and he had the look of desperation.
I didn't recognize him as he walked beside me and asked me for five rand. I said I do not have five rand. He asked me for any change I may have. I told him I had none. He asked for a cigarette. I told him I don't smoke. He gave up his efforts to try and get something from me and surrendered to small talk.
"You go to the soup kitchen much anymore?"
His question made me look at him properly. He recognized me from my 16 day time on the streets, more than 26o days ago. His question was nonjudgmental, in the sense that he did not look at how I am dressed now, and how I was then, and base a conclusion of why I would or wouldn't go to a soup kitchen on those judgments.
I felt embarrassed for not having paid more attention to him in the first place.
"Nah, I haven't been there in a long time."
He quickly said he also doesn't make it there much anymore. He said he was on his way to change those glass bottles because he was starving and he hadn't eaten all day. And then it hit me. When he approached me, I thought he just saw me as a "whitey", or a guy to "get something from", but he had seen me as a "comrade", someone who had eaten meals with him at the soup kitchen, someone who had to scrape to get by, a fellow "survivor". We continued to walk and spoke until we went our separate ways.
That short, seemingly insignificant, interaction caused me to think about things.
About what a different life it is to literally have to hustle, scrape, beg, and search for basic survival. How the place we are in in life is relative and also a matter of perspective, not only of self but of others. How we as humans can adapt to pretty much any situation and become comfortable in that. Today, this was the thought that was the most revealing, devastating and wonderful for me. I am again comfortable in not having to scrape for very basic survival, and that world, which I lived in for a brief moment in time, seems again very foreign and far off to me.