Orchard Road, in Singapore.
A bustling urban thoroughfare,
And playground for Ferraris and Bentleys,
With broad, polished promenades
Lined by haute shopping malls, Four Seasons hotels, and orchid topiaries
And frequented by financiers whose cufflinks
Are worth more than the GDPs of most countries.
Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Vertu, and Rolex storefronts dazzle pedestrians
Who perambulate, unhurried by pecuniary concerns, beneath multistory LED billboards.
Detritus, crime, poverty,
And last year’s summer fashions
Are quietly removed by robotic street-sweepers and secret police,
At the apogee of human civilization.
A rising, twenty-seven-year-old, recent medical graduate from the US,
I am in Singapore to conduct health systems research.
But in the evenings,
I walk this Fifth Avenue of the East,
Gleefully aware that the generous emoluments of my profession will soon grant me
Access to all the superfluous treasures around me.
I moisten the front of my underpants
As yet another sleek Lamborghini growls by.
Outside of an especially lavish galleria fittingly entitled PARAGON, a scene:
A disfigured, octogenarian Singaporean man.
He wears faded green trousers, clunky black boots with a hole over the right great toe,
And a soiled khaki button-up shirt with a crumpled collar.
His left leg hangs shriveled and lame;
The muscle atrophy and limb malformation are pathognomonic sequelae of paralytic polio.
(I’ve never before seen a real-life case.)
He has severe, untreated kyphoscoliosis,
Which leaves his back frozen in a gruesome spiral like a gnarled tree branch
And his torso bent in a permanent obeisance.
Hobbling along the sidewalk with a gait that lists continuously to the port side,
He proffers something to the chic passers-by,
Who either grimace and recoil
Or ignore him entirely.
He turns his face upwards to me.
His cloudy pupils reveal bilateral cataracts; his skin is leathery and deeply wrinkled.
His merchandise consists of little travel-size packages of Kleenex,
I have only $1.30 in spare change
Clinking in the front right pocket of my Armani slacks.
When I offer this sum,
He angrily shakes his head
And points to the cardboard sign indicating the $2 price.
I try to explain that the money is gratis, not intended to procure a product,
But the man continues to refuse.
Mortified to imagine my fellow orchardists witnessing the richly attired doctor
With a crippled beggar,
I hastily drop my coins into the red plastic cup that functions as his cash register
Safely ensconced in a bistro terrace across the street,
I order supper and glance back towards the gargoyle,
Who is still attempting, unsuccessfully, to make sales.
Suddenly, his poliomyelitic leg catches on an ornate flagstone.
My stomach wrenches
As he stumbles,
Collapsing like a sodden sandbag,
Spilling his tissue packs and precious coins across the path.
He lies there for several minutes.
No one stops
To help him to his feet or to gather the scattered goods.
Laboriously, he and his grotesque frame rise to a crawling position,
And he scrabbles about to collect his various wares,
His rheumatic fingers in constant danger of being crushed
By handcrafted Italian loafers.
The organic, fair-trade falafel wrap and kale salad remain untouched on my plate;
Shame, indignation, and despair prove a heavy enough repast.
I feel nauseated.
An elegantly arranged orchid bed next to my table
Receives my vomitus.
This is the magnum opus of humanity:
Bilious stomach acid on one’s lips,
Which no Kleenex tissue
Or silk handkerchief
Can ever wipe clean.