Do You Notice?

Thoughts on community in the big city.

“It cold enough for you?”

I turned to the man speaking to me in line at the Gallery Place McDonald’s in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. He was black, stood tall and lanky, could have been anywhere from 30 to 50 years old. He wore an oversized jacket, dirty sneakers, and a wearied face.

“Yeah,” I laughed good-naturedly, trying to think of a friendly and witty reply relevant to the November weather, “just barely.”

“Where you from?”

“Originally I’m from California,” I paused, then decided to explain I was no tourist. “I’ve been in D.C. three and a half years though.”

“Oh that right? What have you noticed about D.C.?”

“Noticed?” The turn in the conversation caught me off guard. “Well, I’ve noticed a lot of things.”

“What have you noticed?” He was adamant. My order was about to be called.

The loudspeaker blared: “Number 135.” There it was.

“I’ve noticed it’s cold enough outside!” I tried to play the wimpy Californian, make a joke out of it. No good.

“It’s that all you’ve noticed about D.C.?” There was a stronger hint of accusation this time, a weightiness in the question that I didn’t have time to bear.

“I’ve got my food. I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. I’ll try to pay more attention. Have a good day.”

I’ve heard it said that behind almost every question is a statement. As I walked to the National Portrait Gallery across the street, I wondered what it was he’d wanted me to notice.

I left the man behind at McDonald’s, but not the question. It stayed with me. What should I have been noticing? What should I have said?

Later a reply would come to me. I imagine it going like this:

Sir, I’ve noticed a lot of things about Washington. I’ve noticed energy and ambition, zeal and hope. I’ve noticed the grand Romanesque buildings that promise to herald liberty and justice until the end of time. I’ve noticed the nation’s sharpest minds moving here to work an unpaid internship so that someday they can make America a better place for both of us.

But I’ve also noticed disparity and injustice. I’ve noticed that I can’t hardly walk a quarter mile in this city without passing someone who will have trouble staying warm tonight. I’ve noticed power and poverty crossing paths at the 3rd and Penn Starbucks and not exchanging a word. I’ve noticed how three years of life in this city has changed the crowds of faces in Chinatown into a stream of static. I’ve noticed how I pass dozens of stories of heartache – incarnate in wrinkles, bruises, and scars – to get to Nandos Peri Peri to grab dinner and drinks with my white-collar friends. I’ve noticed how I’ve been so caught up in the busyness of life here that I never stop to listen to those stories unless they’re thrust in my face, and even then sometimes I’ll shove them aside.

Yeah, I’ve noticed a lot of things in this town. It’s the best of places. It’s the worst of places.

There’s something especially poignant about this encounter occurring in a place like Washington, D.C. In this city the systemic issues reign supreme in the minds of our politicians and journalists and innovators as vast abstractions, numbers to be curtailed, figures to be improved, arrows on graphs to be redirected. It’s easy here to miss the trees for the forest.

It makes me wonder. Maybe the process of rebuilding community begins with the simple act of noticing. Maybe it begins with opening our eyes to the embodied world around us, to the Image Bearers at the crosswalk down the road, on front porches across the street, behind the counter at the local coffee shop, or standing in line next to us at McDonalds.

Image via Unsplash.

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