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Look straight ahead

Spare some change?
Sorry, don’t have any on me.
Thanks anyway.

I don’t have change on me
when I’m downtown
and walk with
class privilege tunnel-vision
down the street.

I only carry apologies,
no time to stop
for even a second.

When I was nine,
and didn’t understand money yet,
my family went to Africa
to visit close friends for Christmas.

Walking through Lalibela, a small village
in Ethiopia, we toured churches
connected with underground tunnels.

Dazzling colors of stained glass
and elaborate jeweled crosses
covered the walls of each one.

Spare some change?
Sorry…

I was raised Christian
and something that’s
stayed from childhood hope
to adult atheism
is the irony of beautiful churches
towering over poverty next door.

Walking to another
souvenir shop
rows of outstretched hands,
and voices begging in Amharic
filled either side of the path.

Their cheeks and lips
dried by the sun,
thirst burning on their skin
like I had never seen before.
People crammed
elbow to elbow,
on their knees
faces up to hot sun
watching tourists
push through
with American money
in a hurry
to vacation.
Our tour guide said

look straight ahead,
never break stride,
don’t talk to a begger on either side.
If you give to anyone,
they won’t
leave you alone.

But I stopped,
saw a child my own age
underneath his grandmother
to hold her frail arms
in a final plea
for compassion.

I imagined spending
entire days
video games traded for sun burns
basketball for tunnel vision rejections
quick bike rides to the park for
hours barely standing in hopes
of my next meal.

My grandma out of a retirement home,
collapsing on me in the street
and all I can do is stretch out
for pennies.

For tourists
photographing poverty.
For nothing.

Spare some change?
Sorry…

My mother hid
all the cash
in a necklace wallet
to prevent pickpockets
so I saw every bill
doled out for a marketplace
trinket or snack.
She said we couldn’t afford
to give out money to everyone.

But I did some calculations
with nine year old math,
imagined a coin in every set
of outstretched hands.
I thought we could do
something.

Spare some change?
Sorry…

I don’t know when
nine year old math became
adult penny-pinching.
When I learned to
look straight ahead
without breaking stride.
When I found
only powerlessness
in my wallet.

When I forgot to imagine myself
in that child in Africa’s place
and only remember to
move quick,
forget what my privilege is based on,
forget to see humans around me,
and just walk right along.

I know that handing out quarters
won’t change someone’s life.
But I also know
I have more to offer
than apologies
or loose change.

Daniel Georgeson is a member of Old Growth Poetry Collective here in Olympia. He helps run a regular poetry open-mic, Olympia People’s Mic, every Thursday at Cafe Love, starting at 7:00 pm.

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