Friday, February 8, 2013

¡Qué Vergüenza!

As I walked home from my Pilates class today, I saw a boy of about 12 or 13 (the same age as one of my nephews) being held down in the street by three men. If it weren't for five motherly women, also surrounding the boy, he would have been punched in the face by one them. The cocked fist of the man trembled with rage as the boy screamed and squirmed and kicked, and the man responded in turn with a shriek of anger in the face of this little street monster. I stood mesmerized by the scene.

 "¿Qué pasó?" several people asked me as they stopped to stare as well. By this point I had gathered fragments of the story from witnesses and explained as best I could. The boy had snatched a necklace from a woman's neck. The angry man came to the rescue by tackling him, the other men followed suit. The boy was homeless. No parents.

The police arrived and talked to the victim, the witnesses, and the boy as he sat on the curb with a sullen look on his face. From my view across the street, I couldn't tell if he was crying. As the crowd dispersed, many took a moment to speak to the boy. Even the victim and the other woman she was with knelt down close to him and looked him in the eyes while they had a little chat. One grandmotherly woman patted his cheek as she walked passed. 

The folks on my side of the street had mixed reviews of the scene. ¡Qué vergüenza! What a shame, some felt, he's only a boy. Un niño. Many expressed their disgust at the insecurity of the city. Today he grabs a woman's necklace, but someday he will be stabbing people with knives, one woman standing next to me predicted.

"You don't see this in the United States, do you? This kind of insecurity?" One woman asked me. (I had not told them I was American, by the way, but my accent, barely intelligible Spanish and workout clothes gave me away.)  

"Not usually children," I replied, "Adults. Teenagers. Usually not children. We have social services for children so they don't live on the street, but that's not a perfect system. We have homeless children. Sometimes children steal too." 

Two years ago I witnessed a homeless teenager bleed to death in front of the Orlando library from a stab wound to his neck. I conveyed this story to the women in broken Castellano with hand gestures stabbing at my jugular. "¡Qué horror!" they said, and tsked as old ladies do.  

I asked the women if there were services for homeless children here. Will they take him somewhere and help him now? "Sí," one woman said. The other just shrugged and shook her head as she walked away. 

Soon I was conscious of the fact that I was the last one watching. Only the officers and the boy remained, and they seemed conscious of me too. Slowly I continued down the sidewalk with a lump in my throat. Glancing back, I wasn't sure what I wanted to see. What happens to him now? I just wanted to know.  

As I reached the intersection and crossed the street, I turned to look again, but they were gone. Even the police car had vanished. I looked forward to step up on the curb and suddenly the boy was in front of me. Faded red shirt, dirty, ripped jean shorts and shoes barely covering his growing feet. We locked eyes for a moment, and I wanted to say something to him.

¿Estás bien?

But the words didn't form quickly enough to reach my mouth.

He spotted a bus coming up the street and in a moment he was running away from me, toward the bus stop. And he reached it in time for the 118 to swallow him up as the doors slammed shut.

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