Our faces

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, January 27, 2017)

“Honestly, if I were two-faced would I be showing you this one?” – Abraham Lincoln

KAMPALA, UGANDA — There was a time when I’d walk down the street and look at people’s faces.

Any city would do as long as it had a downtown drag of even modest substance. The first was Kitchener-Waterloo where I was a student living away from home for the first time.

On King Street, sometimes after washing dishes at the old Walper Terrace Hotel, I’d walk through pedestrian crowds like a fish swimming up-current. How mysterious and edifying to see even a flash of some defect that some face might reveal about some stranger’s life.

Faces do this. They hold your entire life in memory. They’re a doorway.

This is why Abraham Lincoln said that any man over 40 (I’m sure he meant women, too), is fully responsible for the face that he projects to the world, (the irony being that Lincoln’s face looked like it had been kicked by a horse, which, in fact, it was, or at least his head was, when he was a boy.)

Yes, even the most laughable faces can reflect remarkable things. Sometimes a divine mercy even lets us laugh at what our faces show we’ve become, if not laugh at the hopeless masks that we love to wear over our faces.

Facebook and its social media compatriots have flourished in this line of work. They’ve created an alternate world where, instead of showing your raw and pure Lincolnesque face, you can easily put forth what you’d find at some masquerade ball in Venice.

The false validation can be addicting. On the other hand, if it wasn’t for the Internet and social media I’d never have been put in touch to see the real-life, real-skin faces of three friends I hadn’t seen in decades.

One, a former journalism professor known as “Trotter,” now 90 years young, had a particular energy, unbridled vocabulary and artful tendency to flail himself across your desk. Another is a friend from the same journalism school, near where I’d go on those walks to people-watch. The third, I hadn’t seen since high school in 1981.

When last in Canada, in separate meetings, I had lunch with each of them. Our lives had intersected once upon a time. Then this “Well, hello again.” It was both fantastic and unremarkable. We’d all moved on and changed and all that. But our faces have remained unique in Earth’s sea of seven billion.

You’ve noted, maybe, in this space a new variance of my own face. Columnists do this occasionally to freshen up, reluctantly if they prefer old photos making them look younger, realizing that even fresh photos (known in newsrooms, as in prisons, as “mugs”) may or may not resemble what you’d see if you bumped into said columnist in the supermarket.

Like any face, mine has its issues. My eyes aren’t what they once were. After my brother started calling me “Graybush,” I went clean-shaven for years. Now, some facial hair is back.

(Yosias will be happy. An Eritrean boy, he’s my son’s school chum in Uganda, a fine lad who once wished aloud that his own dad were more like me. “Why?” my son asked. Yosias: “Your dad is so hairy and muscular.” The boy somehow sees what I don’t.)

You might imagine that after all these years I still like to look at the faces of strangers. You’d be right, even if my people-watching is now on streets far away while sitting with a glass of this or that in hand.

From my perch in Africa, I especially enjoy looking at faces at a certain streetside café in Kampala, a meeting place with energy and music where expatriates from plenty of countries mix with Ugandans who can afford a latté.

Across the street are some of this city’s beggars. I’ve known a few by name. And those faces? They’re not bitter. Not ugly. Not damned. Those beautiful faces, unlike most faces, are also not forgettable. Theirs are the blessed faces of unsullied realness.

This is what happens when you’re missing certain things. Your face can light up all the more.

Then again, aren’t we all beggars, starving, in need of the same bread?