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Street Life: Our Only Hope for a Vanishing Civility?

Debra Efroymson
Dhaka, 2006

Is civilization possible if people of different classes and views don't mix? If children don't learn--from their own experience-- how and whom to trust? Despite being an eternal optimist, I can't help but feel a bit concerned over the evidence of where we're heading, in a world where we believe in respecting the freedom of people to isolate themselves from others, but not the freedom of those who wish to lead a more social existence; the rights of drivers but not of pedestrians, of drivers but not of children....

A child rests from playing with other kids in the open environment of the street
If someone can claim he learned all he needed to know in kindergarten, may I not claim that I learned all I need to know by interacting with people on public transit and in the streets? I have learned a lot in school, but street life has certainly helped round off my education, and contributed aspects that I couldn't possibly have gained in a classroom, or from a book, or from socializing only with like-minded individuals. I have learned, and I have been touched, inestimably and repeatedly, by my interactions particularly with the poor in cities around the world. There are lessons which defy simple language to explain, resonating as they do with some deeper understanding of the world that needs to be lived, not told; the way I find literature explains the world in ways I can't repeat in simple sentences. But for the sake of communication, I'll try a little over-simplification:

I have learned the art of trust. Not blind faith, trusting everyone I see, but of judging someone's intentions quickly and responding accordingly. Of course one must make mistakes occasionally, but I believe that the art of trust can be refined a great deal by experience, and a little wisdom involves ensuring that mistakes be made fairly safely. As a result, I have gained innumerable invaluable experiences in the form of almost instantaneous friendships, experiences which "common sense," or at least common notions of safety, would have denied me.

An acquaintance in a shop in Kathmandu takes me to his village home; a stranger in Dhaka I've known for a couple hours takes me to a wedding via dark and empty streets. A woman working for Biman Bangladesh airlines, who obviously had learned the same lesson, shut the door to her office in the airport and gave me a massage when I complained of a headache. We teach our children to avoid strangers and to say no to many things; I have learned the great art of saying yes, and in the process have had the chance to see firsthand how beautiful people are.

I have learned--what I wish I could say I already knew and always remember--that people, even the homeless, are human, are individuals. It is easy to forget this; just as some people seem to lose their humanity living on the streets, so others lose it by avoiding the street people. I have recently begun to make eye contact with rickshaw pullers and the local trash pickers, exchanging brief but friendly greetings.

One day, while I was walking to my office, a beggar gave me a friendly greeting, as if he knew me, as if we were equals, and after I turned into the office, joined his companion and resumed begging. Why is it so touching to be greeted like a friend by a beggar, rather than being asked for money? Because just as I would like to do for him, so he did for me: he asserted my humanity rather than classifying me as an object.

I have learned the value of a stranger's smile; that the poorest and least attractive people can have radiant smiles; that the color and diversity of life are great compensation for misery and pain; that it is possible to maintain hope in the face of incredible problems because even many of the worst off manage to keep joy in their lives.

civilization has some hope when a child from the slums interacts with one from the upper class neighborhoods (people do of course have poor servants, but if you want your bike fixed for free, you'd better be polite to the repairman!)
Of course there is a flip side to this: by walking and cycling, I get the chance to interact with many people, but they are universally poor or middle class. As a result, I have had little or no chance to challenge my stereotypes about the rich, or about car owners and drivers, and thus I heap unending contempt on those nameless and faceless people.

My own sense of humanitarianism doesn't extend to the car drivers who blast their horns or threaten to run me down; I am not able to conceive of them as fully human. The feeling, no doubt, is mutual, and until they descend from their cars and condescend to interact on the level of the street, the gap may never be breached.

Debra Efroymson