Don’t Ignore the Discomfort
An exploration of humanity in the streets of San Francisco.
First, a series of stories. Let’s try to go through them chronologically.
I was walking back from dinner with my brother carrying a leftover takeout box. We passed a homeless person who asked us for change. My automatic response was “Sorry, don’t have any,” briskly walking passed as if the interaction had never happened.
“Why didn’t you offer him the leftovers?” my brother inquired.
I paused, I honestly had not even considered that as an option. I felt pretty terrible about myself, but that served as motivation to hopefully curve my behavior.
Me and my friend were walking back from a lunch sharing a bag of beef jerky. Someone asked us if we had any food to spare and we offered the remainder of the bag of jerky.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m vegetarian,” he replied.
Me and my friend looked at each other and couldn’t really believe what just happened. We replied that we didn’t have anything else, so the person went off on their way.
We laughed about this, and everyone I’ve told this story to has since found it amusing. “Only in San Francisco,” was a trending response. However, it seemed rather odd that this was funny at all. Was his dietary restriction unreasonable simply because he was asking for my help?
I was waiting in line at a taqueria when I noticed someone sitting outside asking for change to get something to eat. When I got to the front of the line I decided to buy extra chips for him. I approached him and gave him the bag. He promptly took it from me, shoved it behind his back, and continued asking for change to get food.
I felt slightly annoyed. I realized that this was because I had the expectations of gratitude and wanted to be thanked for my contribution. When I got none of that, I felt shafted.
Each one of the stories above forced me to look at myself in an uncomfortable way and realize how I was interacting (or not interacting) with people around me. Avoidance taught me that I had an automatic response to ignore people that asked me for money. Superiority taught me that I held my values to be higher than those in worse situations than me. Expectations taught me that even when trying to be charitable, I required acknowledgement from those I was forcing my help upon.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but each interaction, though marginally better than the last, felt inadequate. Almost artificial in a way…or rather…degrading.
I was walking home when someone asked me if I could change a dollar for four quarters. I understood how embarrassing it must be to pay for something in coins, and given that it was a humble request, I happily obliged and gave the man a dollar. As soon as I did, he turned around and walked away, continuing to ask other people to change his four quarters for a dollar.
Somewhat in disbelief, I talked to the man and held out my hand asking him for my four quarters. He gave me a disingenuous apology and shook a few pennies onto my palm before he went off in his merry way.
Initially, I was mildly annoyed, but as I continued to walk home, I was flooded with awe. This man lives his life in a system where his interactions with other people are degrading. People avoided him, and he understood that. He understood it so much that he devised a way where he could take advantage of that system and get money from it. It was brilliant.
I certainly wasn’t treating him like a human being, so why should he?
Well Intentioned Degradation
This was upsetting. It seemed that nearly all well intentioned charitable actions one could take on the street were degrading to the individuals receiving help. Luckily I had lots of time on my hands so I decided to use it to be depressed about the terrible state of the world. I spent days sinking my face into my bed and looking at random corners of the internet for things to cheer me up. In my search, I found this video:
A touching video of a group of students trying to make the day brighter for a homeless person. If I had watched this a year ago I would’ve been touched. But because my cynical side had taken over, I watched the entire video and all I could think of was…“that man looks rather uncomfortable.”
Though the intent was rather sweet, the actions the students took were, once again, degrading. They didn’t ask the man if they could make him part of a street show. They didn’t even ask him what he thought of the entire event once it was all over. While watching the video I couldn’t shake the feeling that this man did not seem to enjoy the imposed attention and felt helpless in being able to change the situation.
But hey, at least he got a few bucks out of it…
Names and Choices
So, as you imagined, I decided to try to make my interactions with people in the street more dignified. I didn’t quite have a plan for this other than I wanted to make sure I asked and used people’s names in conversation and that I offered people choices. As such, some more stories followed:
Jasper occasionally sits by the bus stop near the Walgreens that I frequent. I already knew Jasper’s name since he was quite charismatic and would occasionally chat with the casual passerby.
Me: Hey Jasper, how are you doing today?
Me: That’s awesome. Hey, you know, I’m going into Walgreen’s right now, can I get you anything Jasper?
Jasper: Bacon Jerky.
Me: Oh, wow, that…quite the conviction there. No hesitation.
Jasper: It’s delicious.
So with that, I went into Walgreen’s and looked for bacon jerky. I couldn’t find it, so I decided to just get pork jerky instead, but as I was waiting in line to pay, I realized that I had no idea if that was an adequate substitute. I got off the line and went outside to tell Jasper that I couldn’t find the bacon jerky. Again, without hesitation, he replied “isle 6.” Sure enough, there it was, bacon jerky. I also got a bag for myself cause I was curious to try it. As I walked out I went up to Jasper and gave him the bag. He thanked me and I told him to take care as I left.
Michael was standing outside a different Walgreens selling newspapers. He asked me if I wanted to buy one and I said I wasn’t interested. I told him I needed to go to Walgreens to pick up some medicine.
Me: By the way, what’s your name?
Me: Would you like anything from inside Michael?
Michael: Oh, um, a soda?
Me: Oh, what soda?
Michael: Sprite would be good.
Me: Excellent, I’ll be right out.
I went into Walgreens and after picking up my medicine, I searched for a bottle of Sprite. I came outside and handed Michael the bottle. He offered to give me a newspaper for free, but I told him that it was fine. “Alrighty, gotta head out, take care of yourself Michael.”
On hindsight I wish I would’ve taken the newspaper, as an exchange is usually more dignified than just giving someone something.
I was walking back home when I passed Donald as he asked me for a light for his cigarette. I let him borrow my lighter and asked him how his day was going. He was really enthralled that I had paused to talk to him, and was excited to be able to tell me a bunch of stories. He considered himself an artist, so I told him I could relate. He showed me some of the trash other people had thrown out that he wanted to repurpose as art, but didn’t have any ideas on how to yet. At some point he mentioned how he would really love to have color pencils again.
Me: You know, I’m heading to the store right now, I could probably get you a set of color pencils.
Donald: Really? That would be fantastic!
So me and Donald walked to the nearest Walgreens and into the school supplies isle. Perhaps he was overwhelmed, but he started grabbing color gel pens, color pencils, and colored chalk. Though slightly annoyed that he was grabbing more than we talked about, I realized this was a very human reaction — going to the store hungry will most certainly cause you to shop more, so I didn’t care too much. Once we got out, he gave me a wonderful hug and thanked me immensely.
Don’t Try this at Home
I really enjoyed my interactions with the people I met, but I am fully aware that not everyone can do the same. I have the privilege of being an intimidatingly-looking man which makes me feel a lot safer and more comfortable when engaging in these kinds of interactions. Still, not every story ends as nicely as the ones I’ve outlined above. I have been harassed, yelled at, and followed. After all, people are complex, and not everyone takes kindly to these interactions.
However, this wasn’t really meant as a solution to a problem, but rather, an exploration of humanity. It’s an interesting thing to think about when you interact with someone. If conscious, it can lead to some really creative and dignified ways to help people that are safe for everyone involved:
The Street Store is a wonderful concept which brings back dignity to those in need. Ideas like these are rare, but not impossible to come by. Best of all, they’re just that much more satisfying.
It’s fascinating, we live in a world where humanization is clearly valued, so much so that we’re constantly striving towards trying to humanize technology. However, we’re all responding from the need to feel like a human being without wanting the responsibility to act like human beings to each other.
Yet, being more conscious of helping in a dignifying way is infectious. After overhearing my conversation with Jasper, a stranger inside Walgreens asked if he could get Jasper something as well. Sometimes all it takes is to see someone else doing it.
The intent to make people’s lives better is certainly out there. We just need to see it more in action. Being informed on the most effective ways to help is easier than ever now, but how to treat someone with dignity while helping them is still not really discussed much.
Little things are surprisingly impactful.
- Using someone’s name when talking to them to recognize them as an individual.
- Making someone an active participant in the interaction by giving them choices instead of subjecting them to a situation they can’t change.
- The difference between the dual-empowerment of shaking someone’s hand compared to the demeaning and overbearing tap of the shoulder.
- Or simply giving someone the time to have a conversation in equal footing.
From my small interactions, these are some of my main takeaways. Things I invariably failed at the beginning but, with time and practice, learned about by not ignoring my discomfort. Hopefully you can take advantage and add to these as well.