Displacement

It has left a strange feeling no longer seeing him there. Bizarre how we can develop emotions for strangers, how some faces can burn their way through our retinas to imprint themselves in our minds like the icons of successful brands.

Enveloped in a haze of carbon monoxide fumes, he stood still on green, whatever the weather, far away from the shrapnel sun of his homeland. Stranded below an exit of Milan's ring road. In the heart of Italy's industry he watched lorries rattle by and people drive to work. He belonged to the lowest link of the employment food chain. To that class that stands at traffic lights across the globe's urban sprawls cleaning windscreens with dirty rags, selling paper tissues or disposable plastic lighters or rancid red roses, or simply begging.

He did nothing of these things. When the lights turned red he simply walked between the two lanes of traffic looking at no-one, asking for nothing, as if he were an eighteenth century patrician poet out for a stroll.

The sight was close to surreal, especially as he looked like North Africa's answer to Groucho Marx. He hobbled along with the pride of a defiant gypsy woman. Tenderness in his eyes. Once, when I saw him flash a smile, he looked just like my maternal grandfather, himself the son of Russian emigrants. In a flash the vision of an emergent humanity merging as one, lost to each other through six degrees of separation.

And then one day, after months of seeing him, he was no longer there. Gone somewhere: a different traffic light, expelled for being a sans papier...missing in action without any news coverage. Peace and prosperity after all, do not reside simply in the absence of war.

April 09, 2003 | 11:52 AM
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