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The Three-Inch Stare

`I USED to belong to a family. Now I belong to the streets.'' It was a slurred statement overheard on a late-night subway, a disheveled, bony old guy behind me carrying the odors of too many nights in doorways and swigs of cheap wine. I turned slightly to see him, this man who would publicly confess to anyone on a subway that he now belonged to the unholy streets instead of a family.

The US Marines have a description for a battle-fatigued face. It's called the ``face with the thousand-yard stare.'' The meaning is that war is hell and you can see it in the eyes of many numbed soldiers.

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The man behind me had the three-inch stare. His sad, sad eyes were those of the timeless self-absorbed man, the addict for all seasons. The three-inch stare can't see too far beyond its nose. ``Help me,'' says the pleading look. ``How could this have happened to me? Help poor me.''

Between appearance and false sympathy is reality.

I talked with the man at length. His tale, true or not, was a tale of woe. The world had done him in, he said. Woe is me, he said. He whined. He lamented. He said the fault of his condition was elsewhere, not in him. He complained that his family had abandoned him to the streets, and that every living soul, including God, wanted him dead. Solace came in the bottle. Could I please let him have some money for a drink?

I said no and suggested several places he could go for professional help or at least for food. He suggested several places I could go and then included me in the category of people who wanted him dead.

No doubt psychologists or theologians could offer some insights into the dynamics of the two players in this subway scene. Me, maybe with a little false guilt or do-goodism on display, and him, snared by self-pity and alcohol into doing anything for the next drink; together we were probably playing out roles.

There are those who would say, let the old guy have what he wants because he is what he is. After all, it's his life, his lonesome whine, his three-inch stare. If he is one of life's wastrels, so what? That's life. Has there ever been a moment when the self-absorbed wounded haven't been among us?

Looking at it this way, he and the rest of us are reduced to genetic burps with fixed, helpless destinies, some good, some bad. And the guy on the subway gets all the bad.

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The difficulty for me in this human dilemma is wrapped up in the lines from one of Diana O'Hehir's poems. `` ... Everytime I travel I see men who look like my father. ...''

The difficulty for me is family - the broader, deeper sense of family which defies genetics and even logic to conclude that everybody wants to belong, to connect to a family, even those who insist connection is not for them and would be too terrible to maintain.

I see my father, my mother and brothers everywhere, even in a man who wants nothing more than an alcoholic buzz. This, it seems to me, is part of the antidote for the mess on earth, that we connect and stay connected to the audacity that we mean something together, that old men on subways mean something, that the meaning of meaning can become clearer.

The other part of the antidote is much, much harder: To rise up, shut up, and work quietly to make a difference.

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