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PLACES (of the earth & mind)
Saturday
Jan262013

On the street, in the cold

The first sound I heard this morning was Gunner moaning from...where exactly was it? Is he under the bed, is he sick?  Wait, no, maybe it's not Gunner, maybe it's Alexandra's on a Skype call in her bedroom. Is she crying? What could be the matter? Should I go in there and check on her? No, it sounds further outside.  Is it someone talking on a bullhorn in Namesit Miru, the church square half a block down the corridor from our flat? What are they saying? How are they posssibly holding a political rally at this time of the morning on a Saturday and in this cold?  I get out of bed and make some coffee, sit on the couch and open my laptop. And then I hear it again, rolling past me on the street below.  It's the tram! I can make out the faint sound through my double-pained windows. The cold has actually changed the sound of the tram wheels grinding on their frozen metal tracks. It sounds like the tram is crying as it passes. It's that cold.

10F degrees actually. I thought that once the thermometer went below 32F it pretty much all felt the same. It turns out there is a big difference between 32F and 10F and it makes a huge difference in how long you can be outside without losing feeling in your nose.

We were eating lunch at a pizza restaurant the other day and there was heavy and consistent traffic outside the window. Three men, one woman with a baby in a stroller and one small boy, I'm guessing 3-4, stood in a loose group between our window and the street. The men were 30-ish, mullet-ed, pony-tailed. They had squeegies and spray bottles and alternated moving in and out of the traffic, trying to make a few crowns washing people's frozen windshields. The woman stayed on the side with the children, stepping side to side under her long cotton skirt, chain smoking over the stroller, watching the men, while the young boy stood still with his hands in his tiny courdoroy pockets, looking into the stroller at the baby. They were there for at least the 45 minutes that we were at the restuarant, but by the time we left the restaurant, they had moved to a perhaps more promising corner. Are they Gypsies? I keep hearing derogatory things about Gypsies from my Czech students and friends. Things that make my California-grown-politically-correct ears hum and make me uncomfortable in my seat. The Czechs are blatantly discriminatory against Gypsies in what, from my distant positition seems like a chicken and an egg problem: Discrimination...can't get jobs...don't work...make money from begging...maybe to a little stealing.....why work?...discrimination....and around again. But like I said, I'm a bit of an armchair philosopher on this one. The Czech (and Slovaks, and Russians) have no sympathies in their hearts for the Gypsies. 

Maybe this is what they do as a family, on a Friday afternoon, go out and watch dad squeegee cars in the shocking cold. I found myself too shy and embarrassed to run out of the restaurant and give them money. I considered buying them a pizza. But, what if I misunderstood the situation? Would it be insulting? There's no way they spoke English. How could I explain myself? To be honest, I found myself actually quite mad at the mother. Is there no place, other than this cold corner, that you can take your children? No homeless shelter is going to turn out a mother and babies in this cold, if in fact, they don't have a place to live. It seemed to me that it was her choice to keep her children standing there all day while she watched her husband/boyfriend/brother (who by the way spent most the time joking with his friends, not comforting the woman, not picking up the 3 year old and squeezing the cold out of him). Reading this, I sound like an ignorant, arrogant middle-class jerk. How dare they be poor, how dare they let their children stand out in the cold. In India, I saw them force their children to roll in dirt wander through traffic begging for money. In Vietnam, their children work the cash register at the family store at 1:00am. In Cambodia, they dress their children up with three coats of make-up and costumes and send them into the strobe-lit tourist nightclubs to beg for money. And here the poor children keep their mother company while she keeps her boyfriend company in the bitter cold while he tries to score a few crowns. Can I judge what a family makes their children do for money? If the mullet-ed boyfriend uses the crowns he earned for cigarettes, can I despise them all and join my Czech friends in their judgment? If he gives the crowns to the woman and she uses the crowns to buy milk and bread for the children can I forgive that they both made a baby and a 3-year old stand in the freezing cold for hours?

I can go 'round and 'round, but I guess the only truth I can come to is that there's no real place for my judgment in this scenario. It's just the way the world is.

 

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