Tuesday, April 21, 2009

People Person of the Day

So I was having dinner with some friends Monday night, and they told me a story about their daughter. (Now, although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind my blogging this story, still they haven’t given me explicit permission; so I’m changing the names.) Their daughter, whom I’ll call “Hallie” for narrative purposes, is very, very bright, and apparently one of the most single-mindedly people-oriented folks you’re ever likely to meet. She’s a high school dropout – but that’s because she didn’t stick around for her senior year of high school since she already had a couple of semesters’ college credit under her belt and wanted to get on with her bachelor’s degree; and she will shortly be finishing up her master’s and getting on with her career in social work. So brains are not a problem.

That’s why it was a bit surprising when she came home from college to spend a Christmas with her parents and kept getting lost every time they sent her out on an errand. Granted, she hadn’t grown up in that house, which her parents had only recently moved into; but she had spent the previous summer living there with them and had – to all appearances – learned her way around the new neighborhood. Yet here it was at Christmas and they could hardly send her to HEB for a gallon of milk without her getting lost on the way.

So after this happened for the third or fourth time they asked her, “Hallie, what’s the deal? How come all of a sudden you can’t find your way around town? You were doing fine last summer.”

“Well, you see,” Hallie answered ruefully, “the problem is, all my landmarks are gone.”

This didn’t make sense. “What do you mean, ‘my landmarks are gone’?”

She explained, something along these (Perilously fictionalized for narrative convenience) lines: “Well, to get to HEB I always used to turn right at the intersection where the homeless guy with the long white beard hung out. And the fitness club was a couple of blocks north of the Vietnam veteran in the wheelchair...”

“Do you mean to say your ‘landmarks’ were homeless people???”

“Well...yeah. But I guess it’s gotten cold or something and they aren’t in the same places they used to hang out last summer.”

“Um...well, dear, that’s why most people, when they are looking for landmarks, they use things like, you know...street signs.”

Now I think this is a completely disarming story, because I can’t begin to say how admirable I think young Hallie is – most of us have trained ourselves to look right through homeless people as though they were invisible, but Hallie notices the homeless people more than any other feature of the landscape. And not just as Homeless People: she notices the personal details of the homeless people, which is to say that she doesn’t just see them (which in itself is more than most of us manage), but she sees them, instinctively and emphatically, as individuals.

So if I were Hallie’s parents, I think I would certainly have been tremendously amused to find that my daughter was completely incapable of getting around town at Christmas time because she habitually used homeless people for landmarks and the homeless people had all moved while she was away at school. Yes, no doubt, I’d be tremendously amused.

But I’ll tell you what else – I’d be so proud of her I might just bust wide open on the spot.