Apathy at a traffic light

I wonder if I am the only one who momentarily forgets how to drive when I set foot into a rental car. It is almost as if years of doing the same thing daily are completely offset by the fact that my indicators are now on a different side of the steering wheel. Each time I accidentally turn on my wipers I also automatically forget how to drive. This spontaneous forgetfulness (I wonder if it’s a disease) results in a mad fumbling and a sheepish smile before I realise that no one has any interest in me and that I have missed my turn. The GPS lady ignores me in an angry silence as if every time she reroutes me it is a personal insult, I tell her I am sorry but she is resolute and unforgiving. Great, now the rental car, GPS voice lady as well as 90% of the other drivers on the road hate me. Just great.

In any case, I had just stopped at a traffic light and still glowing with the monumental pride of correctly identifying my indicators, a young boy wearing a baggy grey t-shirt appears at my window. One upturned palm almost completely overlaps the other and outstretched arms are answered by the shake of my head and me mouthing the word “sorry”. There is no thinking in this action, it is bland and without emotion. Years of driving through our beautiful country and one violent “smash and grab” later and I am indifferent to the sunken eyes, to the torn clothes and the thin limbs. I barely even look him in the eye. He too is used to this dance, to the callous shake of my head, the emptiness in his palm and he walks on, hopeful that someone will see him, hear his plight. As I watch his retreating frame fade into the distance in my rear-view mirror, I see his skinny shoulders lift slightly as his clasped hands reach up to brush something from the top of his ear.

The spark of recognition is instant, in that moment I know exactly who is he, I know his name, I know how much his mother loves him. I feel the sun, hot and dry on his skin, I feel his hunger growing an emptiness in his belly. I feel the ache in his feet, the defeat pulling at his shoulders. At that moment, he is my nephew. My wonderful, insane, eight-and-a-half-year-old nephew whose skinny frame is much like this boy’s on the street. I have listened to his laughter, I have soothed his tears and I have heard his dreams. And yet I have turned my back to him here on the street, I have betrayed him. I have said to him “You are not my problem, go find someone else who will care”. It was in my power to help him and yet I did nothing, his needs could have been answered but I did nothing. Since when do the needs of our children not matter? OUR children, Africa’s children, the world’s children. Having no blood tie to the boy on the street kept my window unopened, kept my emotions at bay. He was not my problem. Neither was he the problem of the two cars behind me, or many others that will pass him by. But whose problem was he then? Is this my moral code; love those closest to me, help those closest to me and no one else matters? I would never allow this to happen to my nephew, not only because he is my sister’s son, not only because I love him, but because, fundamentally, it is wrong. But without thinking, this sense of right and wrong did not apply to the boy at my window. Should I take solace in the fact that no one else opened their windows, that everyone else behaved as callously as I did so that I know I am not alone in my apathy? Should I reason my way out of this and write of how it’s not safe to just hand out money or of how there is a possibility that the money I give him will go to “no good”? Maybe if I write about how my attempts would be insignificant in the greater scheme of things it would quiet my guilty conscience? None of it is enough, none of it matters or makes sense because I could have easily helped him without really sacrificing anything of consequence to me. Nothing I tell myself alleviates the guilt because I know I should be doing all I can, I know we should.

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