The man who did not beg

A page from my Prague journal. Not a happy story. I debate whether to share it. But travelling is sometimes less sightseeing and more just plain seeing:

Friday. A day originally planned for hedonism. Wandered down to Husava near Bethlehem Square. A walk filled with traffic and city, working people, playing children, tourists. Found the small memorial to victims of Communism, including Jan Palach (a student who set himself on fire) beneath the shrubs near the statue of St. Wenceslas. Sat beside the memorial for the longest time, thinking. Nazis, Communists, riots, water cannons, freedom, replaced now with the callousness and complacency, shallowness, consumption, rush, that comes with capitalism. A generation who does not struggle, a gift won by their parents. Do they realize? Tourists who drift and gape. No one weeping in the square. No one laying flowers on the graves. Yes, don't waste flowers in this way. There are better ways to honor the dead.

I escaped into Old Town Square intending to eat myself silly, searching the market for bramboraky (potato pancakes) and trdelník (round pastry)...Paid 10KC for a public bathroom. Highway robbery. Trying to decide between 100g of Old Prague Ham or a duck sandwich, I stopped to take pictures of a weaver at a loom. Nearby an old man was reaching into a trashcan. Did not notice him at first, but then after finishing my pictures realized the man had pulled out first one and then another coffee cup - one was a Starbucks - and was trying to sip what little was left from them.

Is it possible for a man who has lived through the Nazis, through the Communists, to stand in the very heart of this city and drink drops of coffee from the trash while all around people pay for painted eggs, tours, candy, great hunks of meat, sugared pastries, overpriced restaurants, admission to a clock? Why does no one stop? Why aren't we lifting this man on our shoulders and celebrating him?

Once I realized, I scrambled for money to give him, and came up the quickest with two 20KC coins just as he was leaving. "Prosim!" I said, holding it out to him. He said thank you in Czech, nodded and smiled - he had not been begging; he had not asked for it. "Prosim," I said again, stupidly, not knowing what else to say, because prosim means please, here you go, and you're welcome. I felt greater and lesser all at once, a saint for charity, and the lowest sinner for my gluttony, that I could think of eating pastries while men still suffer.

Here was a black hole in the marketplace, a void that sucked into it all joy, all color, all bustle. Not from the man, for he was blameless - a saint himself, an angel speaking Czech. The darkness came from what minutes before had been the cheerful crowd, the crowd who had ignored this man with sinister blindness. Where is human kindness? And now I, wracked with guilt, walked towards the Karlův Most, not caring about the traffic. Why hadn't I given him more? Why not have emptied my pockets? What is it to me? No grand lunch for me; I found a 30KC sausage and ate it gratefully, thinking that the man could buy that with my 40KC, at least...But why hadn't I given him more? He might buy himself a whole cup of coffee now, but why hadn't I given him more? He disappeared into the market, humble and bowed with age, and I, stunned, walked towards the bridge.

I want to drink; I want to sip grey coffee in a small and thoughtful place. I need to write to understand this, and now put it to paper on the benches between the Manes and Charles while the happy music from a nearby tent mocks me with its sureness.

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