A Different Gratitude

Homeless_on_bench_stencil_Melbourne

I’ve been feeling unusually grateful lately because I’ve come to realize I have just about the best husband, family, and group of friends a woman could want. But yesterday, I had an experience that humbled me, and made me feel a different kind of gratitude.

My friend Katie and I planned to meet up at Starbucks. I was running early because I expected traffic to be worse than it was. She was running a little behind. So I sat on a couch and fiddled with my phone while I waited for her. An older black woman shuffled in. She moved slowly, carried two reusable grocery bags full of stuff, and wore two hospital bands on her wrists. The weather had been just above freezing and rainy for over 24 hours, and she had clearly been out in it. She asked if the couch across from me was taken, took a seat, and at a fast food sandwich from one of her bags.

When Katie arrived and went to order her coffee, the woman asked me if she could use my phone to make a call. She told me the number, I dialed it for her, and she proceeded to talk on my phone for about 30 minutes while Katie and I sat and talked. She kept saying, “I am sick. I am tired. I need to heal.” She was asking people for money so she could stay in a hotel. When she finally got off the phone, I asked her if she was OK and if I could help her get somewhere like a shelter or a church where she might get assistance. She didn’t want to go to a shelter because they stole her clothes. She didn’t want to go to any churches either. She said they used to sometimes pay for a hotel room for her, but they wouldn’t anymore, and they told her not to come back. But she had a friend up Rt. 2 working at a cell phone store who said he could give her a few dollars. She was sure he wouldn’t give her a place to stay, but “every little bit counts,” she said.

If I were by myself, I probably would have wished her luck and gone on my way, but with Katie there, I felt a little braver. Katie’s a former public defender with the social skills and resources to connect with people in need, like this lady was. I offered the lady a ride to the cell phone store. She said she could’ve waited for the bus, but it would take a really long time and there are no shelters at most of the bus stops here. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and it didn’t seem right for her to be standing around in the rain. So, we drove up Rt. 2 more than half way to Baltimore, and dropped her off at this cell phone store. She didn’t know if the guy there was going to actually give her any money. I did not offer to hang around in case he wasn’t even there or wouldn’t help her.

On the way there, she told us a little about her life. Her name is Linda. She says her mother hates her and stopped her from marrying the love of her life. When Katie asked if she was sick, Linda gave her her hospital release papers, which we didn’t read. We started talking about Christmas movies somehow. Linda’s favorite Christmas movie is the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (mine, too!) and we both hated Scrooge. She and Katie agreed on Miracle on 34th St. I was the standout vote on claymation. It was a silly conversation, but it felt good to find something we could all have in common.

I didn’t really feel good about leaving Linda. I wanted to help her, but all I did was literally move her up the road a bit to an unknown destination. Katie had been going through her mental files thinking of places we could bring her, but if she wouldn’t agree to go to a shelter or church, there wasn’t much we could do but drop her off where she said her friends would be. Her contacts in the court system could only step in if Linda if had been arrested. And although she had just been released from the hospital, she said she had no case worker or social worker to ask for help.

Still, by the end of the ride, Linda was smiling. I have no idea if we helped her, but she certainly made me realize how lucky I am. Today, my family is coming over to celebrate with us, and really, the only thing we’re celebrating is the fact that we’re so lucky. Linda probably won’t have a Thanksgiving dinner. She told us to eat some turkey for her. I don’t normally eat turkey, but what the hell. It seems a little ungrateful not to.

Read More

Monday Night Nonfiction: Warm

Sad man in the streets of San Francisco

On a Friday afternoon in San Francisco, I decided to take a walk. Nimby was working late, and I wanted to pass the time till we could go to dinner together. I walked from his office on Folsom St. to The Embarcadero and proceeded along the water all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. The sun was going down, the end of our stay in SF was near, and I really missed my cat. Nothing was wrong, but I felt lonely and homesick.

“What would make this better?” I kept asking myself. I had a little cash in my pocket. I could go shopping or stop for a drink. I could find a place to sit and watch people or stare out at the water. “What do I want right now? What would make me happy?”

Eventually, I came up with an answer: “It would be really nice to have a friend, not to be alone, to be warm.”

As the sun set, the cool wind off the water was gaining strength, driving home both the chill and the loneliness. Sure, I’d be having dinner with my husband soon, but at that moment, I felt totally isolated. Even as I had these thoughts, I was walking into the most blatant tourist trap in town. Dressed in the baggiest jeans I own and several layers of clothing, walking alone and sporting ratty pink hair (my hair had a rough week), I became aware of the suspicious glances I was getting from tourists.

As I entered a section of tightly packed souvenir shops — the kind that look the same in every sea-side town — I heard a man complaining about the tourists who couldn’t spare enough change to get a burger. It’s true that I have a history of giving my pocket change to the first person who asks when I leave my hotel, but I had no intention of giving this man anything. I checked my phone for a status update from the husband and was just reaching to put it back in my pocket when the man saw me, assumed I was reaching for cash, and began to thank me. It was too late. We’d made eye contact. I finished putting my phone away and moved to another pocket to fish out a dollar. Caught up in my own awkwardness, I may have smirked by accident.

“Please don’t laugh at me,” the man said.

I took a second to look at him. He looked in his 50s, tired, weathered. He wore a thin wind breaker.

“I wouldn’t laugh at you,” I said. “You’re a human being.” I gave him a dollar, and he hugged me. He even kissed me on the cheek and exclaimed about how cold my skin was. His face was rough and bristly.

“Your skin is cold, but you have a warm heart,” he said.

Our exchange lasted all of 10 seconds, then I kept walking. A few minutes later, I got a phone call from Nimby and went off to meet him and a friend for dinner in the poshest apartment building I’ve ever seen. We had a nice night. We were warm, and we ate well.

Read More

Monday Night Nonfiction: Post Card from San Francisco

Baycityreds_castrostfair_1975

I love San Francisco, but I always feel a little bit sad here. At first, I was sad because I wanted to live here and it wasn’t going to happen. Then, I was sad because I also love my home, and being away from it for a long time is hard for me. I come out here for a week or two at a time while my husband is working in town, and that’s two weeks away from my Mao, my yoga classes, my favorite baristas … my home. Wherever I am, though, it’s easier if I’m with Nimby because “home is wherever I’m with you.” So, as long as we’re together, I know we’ve got family taking care of our house and the cat, and everyone will be there when we get back.

Still, I find things to be sad about. It is an understatement to say there’s a homelessness problem in SF. Many of the city’s homeless are visibly ill, suffering from delusions, depression, mania, and addictions. I always wind up giving all my pocket change to one person and then walking around the city wishing I had a lot more pocket change. I know no one expects me to save the entire homeless population of SF. I feel compassion for them, and sometimes that feels a lot like sadness.

That’s not to say I’ve been depressed the whole trip — far from it. It’s been sunny with blue skies since I got here, and we’ve had a beautiful time. That little bit of sadness is ever-present, and it reminds me that I’m not sad about where I live or because I’m home sick. Sometimes I’m a little bit sad because stuff is so beautiful and it can’t last forever.

When I came out here for my 30th birthday, I had the most amazing week. On one of our last days, we went to this burrito place in the Mission for lunch, and it was a perfectly sunny day, and I took a bite of this burrito and got misty eyed (one tear!) about how fucking good it was. No, I wasn’t stoned. I just felt really thrilled and lucky to be alive, and a little sad because it was such a fleeting moment.

 

Read More