Some things you know in theory, but they only become real at a particular moment.
This happened to me once in Liechtenstein when I briefly took a job as a temp worker at a plastic factory. I went to the employment office to find something a philosophy student in search of cash for a quick trip was qualified to do. A plastic factory in Switzerland, it turned out, needed somebody to lay squares of plastic down on a mold, heat the mold so that they collapsed onto it, spray them with cool water so they'd hold their shape, and then lay them down in a second pile.
I could do that.
And I did it for twelve hours a day, which sounds demanding until you realize that it was only for two weeks. The most alienated of workers, I didn't even know what the plastic slabs were for. I was a cog in a machine. I'm sure my job is no longer done by a non-mechanical cog.
But one thing stuck in my mind. At the bus stop at 4:30 am each day, I'd see a crowd of people. Guest workers on THEIR way to work. But they kept it up for months, years or decades. They'd been entirely invisible to me, and they would have stayed that way, too, if I hadn't decided I needed spare cash for my trip.
The other day, something similar happened. I was taking a Greyhound from DC to Boston, and at 2am we stopped at Port Authority in New York for a couple hours. There, too, I saw a crowd of (formerly) invisible (to me) people. There was an old lady with a walker piled high with blankets. She sat down next to me, muttered something about prices these days, and slumped down on the bench. It was freezing, but she fell asleep at once.
A girl across the hall sat on the grimy flooring, deep in conversation on her phone. "If you're not gonna love me, what the f--- am I here for?" she demanded tearfully. And on and on. A couple sat on the cement in the corridor beside a toddler in a dilapidated stroller. The woman, frustrated but patient, was trying to coax the little girl to sit still, but the man just kept hissing "Stop," at intervals, in a monotone, through clenched teeth.
The toddler dropped her sippy cup, which gave me a chance to pick it up, hand it back, and launch into a well-intended mini-speech. I remember when mine were that age. It's so hard, isn't it? It does get easier. Want me to rock the stroller for a minute? I wasn't sure, though, whether what they needed was an encouraging word or for me to alert one of the roving policemen so he could confiscate that baby and give her a stable home somewhere else.
As departure time neared, I moved towards my gate and saw people lining up to leave. As bedraggled and miserable as THEY looked, they were a definite step up from the others, who, I realized belatedly, weren't waiting to get out of there. They were hoping not to get KICKED out of there. They LIVED there.
How oblivious could I get?
Sometimes we hear words like "marginalized" and "periphery" and dismiss them as bleeding-heart buzzwords. But sometimes their meaning hits us over the head.
Then we get away from Port Authority, or the village bus stop at dawn, or the bad neighborhood, and out of sight becomes out of mind. But they don't fade into non-existence because a passing stranger has caught her bus and gotten on with her life. They're no less there than I am. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, a person's a person, no matter how invisible.