Monday, July 28, 2008

For Whom The City Lights Glow

I'm pleased to offer a guest post by the ever lovely Slouching Mom. After reading her thoughts about her BlogHer experiences it moved me enough to ask for more. She's written quite beautifully about another view from our recent weekend.

I didn’t know San Francisco would be so cold a place. And I don’t mean the kind of cold you can combat by pulling on a sweater.

I stepped out of the taxi onto a crowded sidewalk in front of the swank hotel that had promised me a Heavenly Bed. (Later that day I’d discover that the bed in my room WAS heavenly. I don’t know what the management has done to achieve beds like that. I wanted to take it home with me.)

The sidewalk was jammed with people, people coming, people going, people sightseeing. And with someone who was neither coming nor going, who was most definitely not taking in the sights. He was sleeping. Or perhaps just closing his eyes against his own reality. His arms and legs were curled protectively around his chest. For warmth, for privacy, maybe for both. He was pressed as close to the wall of the hotel as he could get, but still, people were stepping over him.

Stepping over him.

I thought, How could people be so oblivious to their surroundings that they could walk over another human being? Without even hesitating? What does that say about how they overvalue their own lives and preoccupations? Because, don’t you know, they have places to go. And he so obviously doesn’t. No, from the looks of him, it’s been a long time since he had somewhere to go. A long time since he slept in anything resembling a Heavenly Bed.

You’ll think I’m naïve. But I’m not. I grew up in New York City in the seventies. Those were some of the worst years for the Big Apple’s homeless. Since then, New York has handled the problem of its homeless with clumsy but well-meaning hands. Things aren’t perfect there. Yet they are better, by a long shot, than they were when I was a kid.

Why can’t the same be said of San Francisco?

I wasn’t sure until the second day of the conference whether what I had witnessed at the entrance to the hotel was just an isolated event, however distressing.

That’s when I went to dinner a few blocks from the hotel.

And found that – if you looked – there were lots of people sleeping on sidewalks. Or sometimes, sitting up or standing. As human beings, even the homeless, will do.

One man was rather jovially trying to assist all the lost tourists. Your hotel?, he’d shout. The hotels are over there! And he’d point left where a group of befuddled tourists had just decided to try right.

He was not misleading anyone. He knew these streets.

But instead of thank you’s he received withering, or fearful, or angry stares from people so far out of their comfort zones they might as well have been on the moon. That group of tourists? They went right. Idiots, I thought. Was I being uncharitable? You decide.

I thanked him on their behalf. I figured someone ought to acknowledge him.

No problem, darlin’, he replied. I like to get people where they need to go. Used to be a bus driver, y’know.

I wanted to stop right there and stay awhile. Find out why he wasn’t still a bus driver. I was sure that he’d been an excellent driver. Why had he ended up here, there, everywhere, nowhere?

But I couldn’t stop. I had somewhere to be, you see.

Later that evening, as I lay in my Heavenly Bed, it was not the doings at the conference that kept me awake.

It was the man who used to be a bus driver, who for all I knew had slept in a Heavenly Bed himself, in a life so far removed from his life of today that it might as well have been another life altogether.

Who sixteen stories below me was surely tossing and turning as well, trying to find the elusive sweet spot, the spot where the concrete didn’t rub painfully against his limbs, his back, his head.

I finally fell asleep, high above him, the lights of San Francisco twinkling, beckoning me through the sheer curtains on the windows in my hotel room.

But those beautiful city lights? The tragedy is that they beckon only some of us. For the rest of us, they’re just one more hindrance to falling asleep.


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35 comments:

Sober Briquette said...

jen, I'm not speaking for SM, but this is a perfect example of the consciousness your site has brought forth in countless readers.

I went to the library this week looking for books on getting organized, but the one I grabbed for in case someone else might come up behind me and get it first is called "Stick Your Neck Out: a street smart guide to creating change in your community and beyond. Service as the path of a meaningful life." That's your influence, babe.

Thanks.

Lara said...

I am so glad this post is here. I have been lying awake several nights this past week trying to flesh out my emotions about the many homeless men and women I passed (yes, passed because I, too, had somewhere to be) in SF. My experience in the 90's with an organization addressing homelessness in my hometown has had me wary ever since of giving money or stopping as I pass people in the streets. "This doesn't help them", I was told. I don't know if that is true, but I listened. So I don't. In SF I looked at these men and women and said, "I'm sorry" when they asked me for $1 because they were hungry. They.were.hungry. How could I do that? What kind of person am I to heed an organization's advice instead of my own heart? The man on the corner - he is someone's son, could be someone's father or brother - and he deserves to live without being hungry.
But I didn't listen to the little voice in my head, and I can only hope the next time I'm in that situation I will.

Janet said...

The homelessness in SF was staggering. I have never witnessed anything like it. And so many of these individuals approached me, personally pleading their stories. Please, I got three kids. Please! We're all hungry. So I gave money more often than not. I know it's just a teeny bandaid on a gaping wound, but it felt crappy to not give any.

Karen said...

Sarah - yes & yes. I also grew up in NY and now feel so far removed from homelessness that it is jarring to return and see it fade to the background of city life.
And Jen - now we are moving, quite purposefully to Northampton - to stick our necks out in a variety of ways. I'll be back for more strength and insight.

mamatulip said...

Very, very well said, Sarah.

Kyla said...

Gorgeous. And heart breaking.

Janet said...

You raise awareness on this issue in a very personal and non-judgmental way, which is what we need. Even now with all the education, so many people think that homelessness is something people get through their own carelessness or stupidity, and that is only true in a very few cases. Downsizing, ageism, the mortgage crisis, and many other primarily economic issues have combined to almost literally throw people out into the streets. And we are only now beginning to take steps to bring them back in.

wheelsonthebus said...

I just read *Another Bullshit Night in Suck City*. I think you would appreciate the complex insight it gives on homelessness.

Vodka Mom said...

omg..this is like hide and seek! Now, to read the post. :-)

jen said...

Thank you, S for putting words and faces to something many of us step around and over in the course of our lives.

The comments are wonderful.

Lara, i agree. its about compassion. they aren't ducks in the park. food should be a basic human right.

One moment that stuck with me over the weekend was when I was outside later at night and was giving away some of the cheeseburgers from the cheeseburger party ( i showed up once it closed down and Joy had asked me to take some and pass some out so I took them outside) and one man, when offered them carefully took 2 and then asked "thank you. do you have any water"

water? it made me want to cry.

slouching mom said...

thank YOU, jen, for providing me with this forum.

and i agree -- the comments are wonderful. they give me hope.

marymurtz said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. It's a reality check for all of us, to appreciate what we have, and further, to step outside our comfort zone and help other people. It's heartbreaking.

Vodka Mom said...

It just has to make us all wonder..where will WE all be in four years, ten years, or whatever? What choices will WE make, and how will that affect where we will sleep? I wonder.

Susanne said...

If it weren't for this blog (and this time slouching mom) to remind me I'd totally forget about homelessness. There aren't any people on the sidewalks where I live, and when I go to Munich I go to the inner city where homeless people are carefully removed. (Also they can have something to eat and a bed to sleep in.)

Magpie said...

Well said, S - and thanks for giving her a plaform, J.

Amy Y said...

That was a beautiful and moving post, Mama. Thanks for sharing your experience...

ozma said...

I really like this post.

I once hung out with a guy in the 7-11 parking lot and he talked about how he got into that situation. Depression and alcoholism. That's pretty much all it was. Sweet, young, soft spoken guy. Got into the army, became an alcoholic, now he's at the 7-11 bumming change and drinking.

He was really honest with himself and me. It was interesting. I wonder if that ever helped him, if he ever got better.

Sad. But in a bizarre way, I could really relate.

ozma said...

Oh, I should mention that was in a suburb of San Francisco, where I used to live.

And the homeless people there drove me crazy. It was one of the reasons I was happy to leave. It got to be too much for me after awhile.

thailandchani said...

This is stunningly written of course. There's too much to say for the comments forum of a blog.

There's got to be a balance between actually being able to make change in the here and now as well as looking to longer range solutions (which will seem different for everyone, depending on POV)

~*

zellmer said...

This is beautifully written Sarah, and eye-opening. I have to say I've noticed such an enlightened sense of perspective in your writing since the conference. Vacations can do that can't they? It seems to have grounded you and got you thinking about what really matters. I'm grateful to you for sharing that new perspective with us. Your words this week have often forced me to think about things less selfishly than I had been previously, and I really appreciate that.
:)

Beck said...

This really shook me. There IS poverty here - severe poverty - but it takes different forms and is easier to ignore. THanks for the reminder to stop pretending I don't see what is right in front of me.

Amanda said...

Oh, there's always magic here. I'll carry my dusting with me, letting it catch in the breeze and float toward someone else, a kindness if not total enlightenment.
You ladies are beautiful.

painted maypole said...

beautiful post, slouchy, and fantastic and so appropriate to do it as a guest spot here at Jen's

Aliki2006 said...

Beautiful job with this. D.C. is bad, too, it breaks my heart.

QT said...

I noticed MANY more people on the street than I do here. One actually hailed a cab for my group and I had nothing to give him - I rarely have cash - and so all I could say was thank you. I felt pathetic.

Great guest post.

Pgoodness said...

very well written.

I don't know how some of them survive - not physically, but mentally. How does that man who once drove a bus still find the strength to smile and point strangers in the right direction? Especially when he sees the looks people give him...

womaninawindow said...

I want to speak to that driver...I just do...

Heather said...

The homeless in my city are well-hidden. I'm not sure which is worse. Occasionally you'll see a man sitting on the street corner with a sign asking for food. It's difficult to explain to children why he's there and doesn't have any food. I also don't feel safe enough to stop and help. I don't really worry about my own safety, but I have my three young kids and if my decision to give a man $5 caused one of them harm in some way I'd never forgive myself.

On the other hand, there are many MANY resources in my city for people who need food or shelter. I always wonder why they don't try there before standing on a corner.

Either way, it can't be an easy thing to do. I'd be mortified if I was in that situation.

I find it very sad.

I also lived in NY as a kid in the 70s.

carrie said...

SM did it again. Thank you for so eloquently stating something that others, just like those tourists you saw, chose to ignore.

I remember seeing extreme poverty for the first time and feeling exactly the same way.

Hetha said...

When is this country going to get its priorities straight!

I've only been to SF once, having lived in quaint little small town America all my life. It was a stunning reality check to say the least and I'll never forget it. Never.

KC said...

SM- this was so beautifully written. Having heard your voice now, I can hear you reading it.

Thank you for sharing this story.

Bon said...

it's always a surprise for me, how different cities deal with their citizens who are homeless...and always a shock when the cities i think of as most green and friendly are the least so on this count.

this moved me, Slouchy.

Christine said...

i see it every time i go home. my sister sees it every single day. it is horrible and soul shaking. well, it should be at least. i am still shocked that many many people DON'T get more upset by it all.

Jocelyn said...

As always, this blog leaves me breathless and awed and reawakened.

Bobita~ said...

This has been my struggle and the reason why I can't write my Blogher recap. I can't seem to fit the two experiences together...lovely BlogHer, and then the sadness I felt every time I made my way back to my hotel.

Thank you for writing this.