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I remember with the vividness
of this lime and mango gelato
how content I used to be
some thirty years ago
living one block from the library,
taking the grimy bus
one and a half hours to my abject job
returning each dusk to my abject apartment
in a strange city: no phone, no TV,
one unreliable friend.

I used to buy those huge cans of V-8
when I could: 3 inches of juice per day.
Lettuce, lentils and bread.

In a bad patch, I lived nine days
on Lipton Pea Soup packets
the office stocked for free
along with the tea bags.
One a day so they wouldn’t notice.
I was too embarrassed
to tell anyone, or ask for a loan.

I read a lot, and walked around.
I couldn’t help anyone, but I would have.
I would have!
I was absurdly happy.

Even now there is really very little
I couldn’t do without.
Of course I still want to help someone,
especially now that I have a good job
and a well-fed family,
and loyal friends, and a house.

Then how do I explain
the charities whose letters I’ve tossed
after reaching my “quota”
and the 800 numbers
I didn’t write down
because I didn’t know “for sure”
where the money would wind up?

Mother Teresa said
all she would ever need
was two saris and a bucket.

I’ve nodded and smiled
at a woman who lives a few streets away.
She must be having trouble:
single mother, wary expression,
crappy car, lawn unmowed.
Her children stop their play
on pink plastic structures
and stare at me as I drive by.
Do they stare at everyone?
I’m too embarrassed
to ask her if I can help.
Which of us am I embarrassed for?
Can my hesitation really be
a complicated form of empathy?

No. I am just embarrassed.