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    Posted October 12, 2010 by
    San Clemente, California
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    The Eyes Have It


    I discovered it early, as a youth, looking into the eyes of black men. That may seem like a prejudicial statement, but it isn’t in the least, and it seems to have borne out over time.

    I remember walking in LA once with my mother when I was 12 or 13 years old. I was a pretty frail little boy, and Downtown was a big, scary place for a first time visit. In the opposite direction, came stalking this hulking black man, t-shirt hanging out the bottom of a dark, pull-over parka, big heavy boots thundering against the sidewalk, the ripple of the nylon straining against his stride, hot breath puffing out of his mouth in the cool morning air. You could practically ‘feel’ him coming and I’m sure there was sweat radiating off his head, because I had the sense of a big, dark, scary freight train coming at me belching steam everywhere. An apparition like that just couldn’t help but draw one’s attention as it approached, so naturally I’m looking that way, half expecting mommy to grab my collar and snatch me to safety and sanity at the last moment before impact.

    But then it happened: eye contact. Mine to his. Fixed and frozen for the briefest instant in time, just like a photograph, except this time memorialized with a wink and the ever so slightest upward crack at the corner of his mouth. I could feel all the muscles in my face relax and my eyes soften as my mouth started opening to form the “he..” sound in “hello,” but then he was past, gone, striding on up the sidewalk.

    We each went our separate ways, never to see each other again, of course, but the moment has lived forever because something very special took place – we communicated without saying a word. We had acknowledged each other’s presence in the world by making eye contact. The big scary black man told the frail little white boy being drug through the strange city by his mother that “everything’s cool, you’re OK little dude” and the wide-eyed white boy was able to send back “whew, thanks!” all in that moment’s passing, with nary a word spoken. And we both knew it.

    What should capture your attention even more is that even though I have never seen that man from the streets of LA again, his wink has lived with me ever since, my entire life. A forty year wink. That’s pretty good mileage for such a small gesture, don’t you think? I couldn’t possibly tell you how many more it’s collected for me since then. A veritable magnet for an invisible man behind the camera. In this age of everyone hunched over looking down at their cell phones, game screens, or computer consoles, we have forgotten to look, we forget to make eye contact, to connect with each other, another soul, to communicate, “I see, I understand, I know, I care, you exist and you are safe.” I can’t wink, but that black man at least taught me to look, to look deeply and honestly, and I have been “looking” ever since, collecting those soulful winks.


    story and photo by Tom Murphine

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