“Every closed eye is not sleeping,
every open eye is not seeing.”
| Bill Cosby|
As I made my way across the leaf speckled street, my mind was strewn with questions. How can I have my eyes open yet not see something? How can there be things in my life that I don’t truly see? I let my questions fade away and hoped that the next few hours would ease my cares.
With determination in my step I placed my chilly hand on the sticker adorned door, took a deep breath, and pushed. Planting one foot in front of the other I made my way to the place I had always told myself I would never go. Despite my reoccurring need for some type of sustenance on a Sunday evening I had never once given into my fears. To me this place was the equivalent to the scary house on the corner in the old movies. Everyone in the small town talks, telling the main character that it’s haunted. Why is it haunted? Because someone was murdered there of course. Full of fear the character avoids the house at all costs.
My situation was no different. I had clearly been warned. I had been told that the foundation where I stood was the location for multiple drug deals, robberies and the like. Therefore, as the accusations continued to pile on, I began to steer clear and continued to tell myself that I would never set foot in the “scary house on the corner.”
Nevertheless, I found myself with my back up against a rack of crackers and chips in the Elliot Park Market. Pushing aside my fears, I remembered that I was on a mission. I had come to observe and I would do just that. So, with purpose, and a little caution, I made my way to the window sill, sat down and simply watched.
The sights, the sounds and the smells of the dimly lit grocery store seemed to almost contradict, yet complement each other. From my perch on the window I watched a Somali women bring her husband (or so I assumed) a steaming cup of coffee. On the other side of the market two young children were throwing grapes at each other. From the street a young man came walking in and was greeted by the owner of the market with a hug and a cheerful “Hello.” The man was not a family member or even a close friend. He was simply a regular; someone that had been adopted into the Elliot Park Market family. This seemed curious to me. I decided that this strange behavior was something I needed to explore further and wrote down a possible question for the owner.
As I lifted my pen from the page I heard loud chatter coming from behind the counter. With the store void of even a single customer the workers and their friends had taken it upon themselves to engage in lively conversation. I listened, although I could not understand, as the friends and co-workers laughed and swapped stories. Even though they were speaking Somali, there was something about their conversation that eased my nervousness and calmed my fears. There was a sense of acceptance among the friends. As they sat in the circle behind the cluttered counter, not one of them was excluded. The scene reminded me of the Thanksgiving dinners I had experienced ever since I was young. The group in the market was filled with all sorts of people. Although they were all the same ethnicity their gathering was so unique. The group contained an old man, a young boy, a teenage girl, an older woman, and a few middle-aged men who I concluded were brothers that ran the store together. Some were related, while most were friends. Some of them were loud and talkative, attempting to steal the stage, while others were quiet and only spoke when they were spoken to. Nevertheless, I was pleased with the sight of such a unique group of people, just as I was with my family at Thanksgiving. I closed my eyes and could picture the Elliot Park Market crowd sitting around a table of food simply sharing life together. Despite their differences, it was then that I realized what they truly were… they were a family.
As the conversation between the peculiar family continued, my ears wandered to the music playing in the background. Under the distant street lights I saw a young Asian man holding a small stereo in his bundled arms. Through the stickered door I had freshly entered, I heard the glorious sounds of Gillespie wailing on his crooked trumpet. At first I was a little irritated by this nuisance, but as a few minutes passed, and I continued to write, I began to slip into the culture of my surroundings. As my pen scurried across its lined page I felt my foot begin to tap in sync with the music that danced in the background of my observatory. Little did the pesky youngster outside know that I had a sweet inclination for Jazz. But, before I could close my eyes to dive in the glory of the swirling blue notes that surrounded the market, my fantasy was put on hold. The owner of the store, who I would later call Mr., rose to his feet and squared his shoulders. I felt my muscles tense as I projected the coming scene. As Mr. made his way to the door I assumed that his foot was less inclined to tap than my own.
As the bell on the door tolled, signaling its close, I watched Mr. stroll over to the young man. To my surprise he approached him to start a conversation, not an argument. I watched their mouths move in silent camaraderie and wondered what words escaped their lips. I jotted down probable situations. There were three possibilities. Perhaps they were long lost friends and Mr. had walked out on his market so quickly due to excitement; or possibly they shared a love for rousing Jazz trumpet; or maybe I should slowly make my way to the door and get home before the cops came. However, as I kept my eyes glued to the scene that unfolded, my mind crept back to the words I had heard Bill Cosby speak: “Every open eye is not seeing.” Every open eye is not truly seeing. I watched Mr. walk back into the store as he chuckled with his new-found Jazzy friend. Once again the joyful and compassionate group of Elliot Park Market accepted yet another honorary member into its gracious arms. My eyes were open and I finally saw.
My preconceived notions had hindered me from realizing that although I had opened my eyes to “the scary house on the corner” I hadn’t been seeing what stood forgotten in my own backyard. I was in the midst of gracious and virtuous people that, had I not been selfishly grasping for course credit, would have never had the pleasure of meeting. With my new realization I decided to call it a night. I would return the next day; hopefully with a new set of prospects.
At 1:34 P.M. I found myself with my hand placed on the sticker adorned door yet again. But, as my hand pressed on, instead of my face exhibiting fear, it reflected deep curiosity and excitement. What would happen today at Elliot Park Market? Who would I meet? What would be said? The questions kept growing and my wonder followed suit.
This time when I entered my new playground of observation, I found myself in the center of busy shoppers. There were only two members of the Market Family gathered behind the counter; one working the cash register, and one bagging the perspective foods. As I walked over to my familiar spot on the window sill I decided that I wanted to contribute to the frantic buzz that filled the Market. So, I grabbed a red plastic basket to fill with food I did not need so that I could spend money that I did not have. I made my way through the small, shallow aisles picking various items off the shelf. The first item to enter its new scarlet home was a package of salted sunflower seeds; the perfect snack for a long afternoon on the job. The second and final item that I chose was a big bottle of sweet iced tea, which served as a delicacy for a financially challenged college student. As I made my way to the counter that I had spent over an hour observing, I made a point of not only keeping my eyes open, but trying to see what was going on around me. I confidentially placed my basket on the narrow counter, smiled my most genuine smile at the man I had come to call Mr., and waited as he scanned my snacks.
Mr. matched my smile with gusto. I reached into my wallet to retrieve my five dollar bill. However, before he took the money he paused and glanced at my hand. I was wearing a silver, cheap looking, purity ring. He glanced from my finger, back to my face and asked innocently, “Are you married?” I laughed enough to let him know I wasn’t offended and then proceeded to tell the gentle Somali man that, no, I was not married. I told him that I had a boyfriend but that I was only in college. He looked a little puzzled by my response. He furrowed his brow and questioned me again, asking “Why then, do you wear the ring there?” I smiled and told the man that I wore the ring as a symbol of purity; stating that I would not have sex until I was married. With this he seemed quite intrigued. He was quiet for a moment. I was a little uneasy with the fact that my sex life, or lack thereof, was being discussed in a busy market. Nevertheless, I awaited his next question, as I knew there would be more.
Mr. continued his curious inquiring with disbelief. “You have never had sex?,” he said. “No,” I replied. The man looked amazed. He then asked me how old I was and I told him I was 19 years old. He questioned again, “So, you’ve never had sex?” I responded the same and he turned to the two men that now stood behind the counter. As they talked for a few seconds they began to chuckle. I felt my face change the shade of my shopping basket and I began to regret the place where I was standing. I lowered my head and decided that I would take the embarrassment and wait to see if there was anything else he had to say.
As I tried to cool my fiery complexion, I heard their native chatter dim and I raised my head. He was smiling at me and with the most genuine care he asked me finally, “Why won’t you have sex until you are married?” I responded by saying, “I’m waiting until I’m married because I believe that it honors God and my future husband.” Mr.’s face left me unsure of how he would react to what I had just said. He turned to the two men behind the counter, in what I assumed was corporate mockery, and I planned to make my embarrassing exit. However, as I grabbed my snacks and began to pivot, I saw who I had deemed my mocker move from behind the counter. I stopped my advancement to the door and turned to meet him face to face. My mind flashed back to the “scary house on the corner.” What had I gotten myself into?
Our eyes met under the flickering fluorescent lights and my heart began to race as I was sure that Mr. saw my legs begin to sway. He held his gaze and I dreaded what would next escape his lips. However, what happened next shattered my expectations. Mr. took a step closer to me and rather than teasing or yelling, asked, “What is your name young lady?” I told him, “My name is Hannah.” He smiled and said something that I will never forget. He said, “Hannah, I know where you go to school and that we have very different beliefs. But that’s not important right now. What’s important is that you know how pleased I am to find such an honorable young woman in my store.” Then, as he extended his dark hand to me, he said, “It’s very nice to meet you.”
After returning the polite gesture, I spent the next hour behind the counter interacting with the Elliot Park Market family. Although I couldn’t understand some of their conversation, I learned more about them than I had ever hoped. In my time behind the counter, the barrier between friend and family member, I was able to learn about their lives. I learned about their family and their business of running the market. I learned about their faith and about their customs. However, what I learned the most was that I had the Elliot Park Market family to thank for helping me see what was in my own backyard.
As I stood at the counter listening to Mr. explain to me how to work the cash register in his broken English, I couldn’t help but smile. I had started my journey as an outsider, but I was confident that I would end as an insider. The members of the Elliot Park Market had willingly accepted me into their strange, yet remarkable family. As I scanned a young woman’s gallon of milk and asked Mr. how to give her change, I realized what Bill Cosby meant when he said, “Every open eye is not seeing.” Even when our eyes are open, it’s a conscious choice to truly see. I realized then that if I wanted to get the most out of life I first had to see what life was proposing. I had seen “the scary house on the corner” in my many days of passing. Yet, little did I know that life was proposing that I not only open my eyes to what was around me, but that I see what I had been given.
Life isn’t about simply having open eyes.
It’s also about really seeing the beauty it offers us;
the beauty that comes in truly seeing the most nameless faces;
the beauty that comes in learning about another person;
the beauty that is revealed in even the smallest,
and sometimes even the scariest of places.