Eye Contact by James Knisely

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close-up of five dollar bill, lincolns eyes

You see these people everywhere, anywhere you may have to stop or slow down: the freeway entrance, the freeway exit, the on-ramp here, the off-ramp there. Everywhere. They’re homeless, I suppose. That’s what their signs say: “Homeless,” “4 kids,” “Disabled,” “God Bless.” I suppose in some cases they really are, but how do I know? How am I supposed to know something like that?

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to do something about it. Every time I pass one of these people, I’m going to put five dollars in a jar at home. At the end of the year, I’ll give the money to somebody who’ll know how to help. The Foodbank, maybe, the Homeless Shelter, the Mission.

But what counts as “passing” someone? What if they’re on the other side of the street? Or they’re on the exit side as I’m going in? Does that count? Do I owe five dollars then?

Maybe it should be about eye contact: every time I make eye contact with someone asking for help, I owe the five dollars. But how do I know whether they’re asking for help or just waiting for a ride? Okay, it’s if they have a sign. Every time I make eye contact with someone who has a sign.

But what if I don’t make eye contact? What if I have to turn away to look for traffic? Does that get me off the hook? Maybe I only look away because I’m embarrassed to make contact with these people. Or I think that if we do make contact, they’ll zero in on me and try to wring some money out of me that way. Does it matter why I don’t make contact? Can I still keep the five dollars? That would save me some money, all right …but I have to admit it defeats the purpose. So maybe it’s every time I make eye contact or should have made eye contact but looked away.

Unhappily, that gets us into the question of “shoulds”: “I shoulda this, I shoulda that.” We let our lives be crushed under the weight of shoulds and shouldn’ts. So maybe “should” isn’t the way to put it. Maybe it’s every time I could make eye contact but don’t.

But if I don’t make contact, who decides whether I could have or not? I can’t think of an answer for that one. If I spot a beggar across the street watching traffic from the other direction, is that a good faith miss? Could I have made eye contact? Who’s to say I couldn’t? Do I owe five dollars for every beggar I ever see?

Or I’m right next to the beggar but they just don’t happen to look at me. Hey, I can’t make eye contact with someone who isn’t looking. And what if I’m not sure? What if they seem to glance my way but I can’t tell whether they’ve spotted me or are just looking around?

Maybe it’s whether I make eye contact or would have made eye contact if I hadn’t looked away. I think that’s it. That way there’s no should or could, it’s just the plain fact of the situation—I’ve made eye contact or would have if I hadn’t turned my head.

I think that’ll work. That way I’ll know I’m doing my part without getting ripped off. It’s a good plan, and I’m feeling better about the whole thing.

I wonder if five dollars is too much.

James KniselyJames Knisely is a native Seattleite. His novel Chance: An Existential Horse Opera was a finalist for the 2003 Washington State Book Awards. His poetry and prose have appeared in Exquisite Corpse; North Dakota Quarterly; Knock; the brilliant but now defunct Point No Point; Summit; and online with several essays at HistoryLink.org.

Interviews with Knisely have appeared in The Raven Chronicles (Vol 13 No. 1, 2007) and online with the North Dakota Quarterly. He’s honored to be the Novelist-In-Residence at Seattle’s legendary Blue Moon Tavern. His website jamesknisely.com is usually hacked by miscreants claiming to be foreigners.

Story image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Laszlo Ilyes; Author image credit: Shawn Crowley.


  3 comments for “Eye Contact by James Knisely

  1. For the first time, EVER, today I was asked if I could spare food. I was exiting McDonald’s. I caved and gave him one chicken nugget. I only had a four-piece, or maybe I would have spared two.

  2. This is hysterical. I love it. And can so relate to your dilemma. Hey — five bucks is five bucks. For me it’s every time I see someone with a sign and a dog. The dog is the clincher.

  3. I love the title thought it was going to be about a shy boy or girl but it was the rantings, thoughts of an undecided nation-who do we “help” when, why,why not and how much. Well done.

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