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The man on the street in Rio

published: 2010-03-01

A 70-year-old man lies right in the middle of the pavement outside our apartment. He has an open wound from his knee all the way down to his foot. People pass him without even looking at him. I take a photo of him and simultaneously wonder why I find it necessary to do so.
I continue walking, order a fresh mango juice at the corner store, post a tweet from my iphone and consider buying a Brazilian soccer T-shirt for my son. Plus, I think about this man. I can think all these things in one singular time frame, simultaneously feel bad yet rushed to drink my juice and get to the market. Instead, I decide to turn back. Someone has to do something, I think, why can’t that someone be me? I also catch myself thinking: look at me being your typical outsider who comes in to this city and wants to help. It’s always the outsiders. Unfortunately though, we usually return only to leave unfinished business behind.

But now – as I approach the man from behind – the more urgent question has become: what on earth am I planning to do? Am I going to offer him my credit-card and iphone and tell him to call a doctor?
I chicken out, sort of. I step into a magazine store and ask the owner, “shouldn’t we be doing something about that man out there? Maybe you could call your doctor and tell him I’ll pay for the expenses?”
The store owner shakes his head condescendingly, “oh no, this man doesn’t want to be helped.”
“But have you seen his leg?”
“Yes, and it’s been that way for over two years. He wants to keep it like that. He’s always here, every single Sunday during the market, when all the tourists come and feel sorry for him.”
“Oh, okay,” I say. What am I to do? Force medical assistance on this guy and bereave him of an income? Now, all I find myself being strangely content about is that my Portuguese is good enough to hae this kind of a conversation. I ask the shop owner, “do you have the word “naive” in Portuguese?”
This, he does not understand. I explain: is there a word for when someone always believes everything they are told and thinks good of people?
He shakes his head. Maybe there actually is no word for it in Portuguese.

2 Responses to “The man on the street in Rio”

  1. The concept of self-mutilation for ‘professional’ begging purposes is found across so many cultures.
    I’ve never understood it.
    Better to harm yourself, permanently scar and mangle your body (and even more tragically, often those of their children) in order to beg more effectively? Just seems so bizarrely foreign to my world-view.
    Congratulations on your Portuguese – but don’t feel naive. Just feel lucky that you have lived most of your life where such a thing is not commonplace.

  2. alief says:

    @Lucretia The thing is though: I’ve lived most of my life in third world countries. And yet still I …
    It’s sad that poverty drives people to such extremes. Btw, even while fully knowing what he was doing I gave him a decent amount of money. Why? Because the fact remains: he is poor.

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