It was my first time exploring San Francisco on my own.
I was already in love with the city. The cool air and lack of humidity calmed the hairs on my head, hairs that normally fly up at the sense of a single drop of southern humidity.
Here everything, including the interior of buildings, had the musty smell of the ocean. Here the earth learned to deal with a lack of rain by masking the environment in a morning fog–a fog that slowly drifted away as the day progressed, like an artist unveiling a masterpiece.
The previous day my good friend and I biked all around the city. We started in the Tenderloin and doubled back over the Golden Gate, stopping by the Buena Vista for some Irish Coffee on the return trip. There were some near-death experiences with trolley tracks and cab drivers. There was some beer in China Town.
The next day while my friend was at work, I planned to feed the Bison in Golden Gate Park. As I exited her apartment onto the bustle of Market Street, I was let loose in a resplendent city I barely knew but was dying to become best friends with.
“ALWAYS look like you know what you’re doing.” I recited the mantra of all woman walking in a city alone.
I learned this particular mantra in the streets of Manhattan; I tried to confidently battle a blizzard in the winter vortex as a Georgia girl whose only experience in the cold was as a five-year-old trapped at a Children’s ski school in Colorado. It went really well; I was the picture self-awareness as I slipped across the ice in my Uggs towards various reputable publishing houses.
This blatant self-awareness came about once more as I spent the next half hour in San Francisco walking down Market Street, staring at my phone’s GPS and checking every metro map I passed. I looked exactly like I knew what I was doing.
Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned abruptly and tensed up.
“Ma’am, I’d keep that phone away if I were you. This area is famous for muggings.” a tall man wearing a long raggy coat said with sincerity.
He had a face with wrinkles that defined his life like tree veins. Smoky eyes shot out underneath thick ashy eyebrows. In his hands he carried a wad of newspapers.
I was hesitant in this encounter. My muscles tightened and I clutched my purse to my hip. Although I knew there were too many people around for anything horrible to happen, the stories of my dad dealing with gypsies in Europe entered my head.
“Are you looking for a certain place?” he added, sensing my apprehension.
I forced a smile.
“Goldengate Park, actually. I’m not sure which train will take me there.”
I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but eventually this man and I started talking about life. About how San Francisco compares to Seattle, where he once lived. His name was Lou, and he spoke in detail about his travels around the United States by foot and train. About literature and fine arts. When I mentioned to him that I was working towards a Master’s in English, he began to fumble in his pocket for something, pulling out a crumpled piece of yellow paper.”I love to write poetry.” he grinned with pride.
Suddenly another tap on my shoulder. I reached in my purse for the mace I kept in my pocket, only to release it the once the man made himself known.
“Now,” the stranger laughed heartily, “…don’t let this old man bore you with his words!”
He was wearing a black shirt and pineapple cargo shorts, carrying a black trash bag with two heavy items in it. The cracks in his skin were filled with dirt, his grin bared a missing tooth; his hair was a peppered mane. Lou explained that I was new to the city and trying to find my way to the park. We chatted some more before Lou shook the paper back and forth, his hand trembling.
“Would you like to hear some of my work? I’m published, you know.” He winked.
And Lou then began to read these beautiful words on hunger, poverty, and political greed. He spoke of humanity, love, and helping others. It was an outpour of spoken word–something I did not expect due to my own shallow preconceived judgments based on his appearance.
A man who I initially thought to be homeless, begging for money, ended up being an erudite man passionate for change… who simply wanted to help me find my way. Both Lou and his friend were indeed homeless, but they never had a look of despair on their face. Both had shelter but volunteered at other homeless shelters. They were hungry, but worked to get food to others.
Towards the end of our poetry reading, Lou’s friend (I so wish I could remember his name) handed me the black bag he was carrying. I was a little startled by this offer–not knowing the contents. Before I accepted, he opened it to show me two beautiful San Francisco coffee mugs from Starbucks. I didn’t understand why he would give these to me when they needed far more than I.
He said it was my welcoming gift to the city, something to remember it by.
But these mugs remind me of far more than the city now. When I came home I gave a mug to my parents (my dad used to live in SF) and kept one. More than anything it has served as a memory of generosity…. And to this day it reminds me to help others, to be humble and grateful, and above all not to judge. I will forever remember that moment, shrouded in simplicity but inundated in meaning… a manner that most life lessons seem to guise themselves in.
Growing up in a small town near Atlanta, encountering homelessness was not a regular thing for me. When I did go into the city with my friends and their parent’s, I would often watch as adults scoffed at the people on the streets.
That always made me so sad. It still makes me so sad.
One night in LA, my friend Robyn and I ate and Mel’s and took our leftovers back to the hotel. Along the way there was a veteran holding a sign. He was missing an arm.
Rather than giving him money, I handed him my leftovers from dinner, which I honestly thought he would throw away. As we continued walking, I turned to see him gorging himself on the food. I immediately started crying in response. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go hungry. I still can’t.
Another time I was walking with a group in Seattle when an elderly woman began to follow us. She was mouthing something to the people around her, but I was unable to understand it.
Finally along a crosswalk she caught up to me and tapped my shoulder. I turned to see her pointing at my half-empty water bottle, trying to say “water” as best as she could. I ignored this woman for four blocks, and all she wanted was water. Dumbstruck, I handed her the bottle.
Perhaps I’m overly emotional. Or maybe it’s because I have lady parts. But mostly I think it’s because everyone in my life lives in such a way that food and water occur in abundance. It is never a concern. We don’t have to worry about sustaining ourselves.
I also didn’t understand the thousands of people who could walk by people on the streets and feel absolutely nothing.
I know that sometimes homelessness is chosen by people out of idleness. That people spend money on drugs rather than food. But sometimes it’s not that way; how are we to know a person’s life story just by a glance? When someone thinks they lack purpose, it’s pretty easy to fall.
Regardless of a situation, seeing another human being in pain will always affect me emotionally. It should affect everyone emotionally. That’s what makes us human. We love, we care, we hate, we despise. But more than anything we are empathetic by nature. When we see another person’s situation we reflect that back into ourselves.
On the other side, it’s hard to justify giving a person money when you know the money could go towards something that will send them further down a spiral. That’s why what Lou later explained to me got me very excited about a particular movement that helps employ and inspire the homeless.
The papers waded up in Lou’s hand were Street Sense, a newspaper that employs homeless citizens to write, edit, and sell papers for an optional fee/donation of two dollars. This is what he was handing out, and this is where he was a published author, a title that gave him purpose and pride–feelings that gave him the confidence to go out and help others. As a writing teacher, this was so inspiring to witness. Writing creates self-awareness, it provides release, an exploration of thought that leads to better understanding. Employing the homeless to write not only gives them purpose, it improves their communication skills–skills that can directly influence and increase their employability. There was so much good coming from what seemed like such a simple idea.
It’s always amazing to see the ways in which writing can impact people’s lives, it’s one of the few processes that benefits the producer and the consumer with something outside of monetary gain. But now that I live in D.C., whose homeless population has increased by 16% since last year, Street Sense carries far more of an impact in terms of supporting local vendors.
Do you have Street Sense in your city? Check them out here: