Questioning Reality Over Lunch
I had a 30 minute break before my next appointment and I was delighted to be right by the Ferry Building which is filled with some of best food in the city. I went to my favorite Japanese takeout spot Delica, bobbed and weaved through the mass amount of summer tourists and found a lovely spot outside to sit overlooking the Bay Bridge.
That’s where I started talking to Bruce. At first impression I was pretty sure he was homeless but his clothes were more well kept than you’d expect if that was the case. He started to share with me that he came in on the Ferry and it was the first time he had been on it. I asked if he was visiting and he said, “yes, I am a visitor who has never left.” I’ve heard that a lot from the homeless I speak to in San Francisco. “I came in 1974, or 68, or _____ to start a new life, and well, I guess I never left.”
He shared a story about growing up in Stockton (a large town about 80 East of SF and I recently learned through Bruce, the home of the Bob Hope theater.). He was 18 years old and he had such a bad case of scoliosis it put him in the hospital for two years. He was unable to walk, terribly lonely, and suffered daily. He remembered becoming very bitter when no one came to help or visit except his mother. He said he was near death for almost a year of his stay. His mother reminded him at the time that the only reason he lived through the ordeal was that his church community donated blood and money consistently for the two years while he was on the brink. “I’m lucky to be a visitor to this life that happens to get to stay awhile.”
Bruce looked at me and got a little weepy. He was feeling sad and grieving for a life that could have been but never was. He was also feeling a little angry at the world. In a staccato type rhythm he exchanged sentiments of loss and bitter in short nonsensical clips.
~ I hold doors for others and they should be holding doors for me.
~ I’m almost at my grave.
~ I’m just stuck now and no one cares.
~ I can hardly walk without pain, and you take one look at me and you can see I’m dying.
~ I’m always the cleaning up after others.
And then suddenly he shifted gears and shared a ray of light in his life.
“I don’t drive anymore but last year I met a gal who became my girlfriend. She had a car. And that was great. She was someone who drove me around.”
“One of my friends is over there.” He pointed to an elderly woman in a hot pink shirt, sitting in the shade, admiring the view. She looked at us when he pointed but didn’t acknolwedge our existence. “She’s from Slovakia. She’s pretty nice. Tim’s somewhere around here but I don’t know where. I’ve been sitting here by myself for a long time.“
It was at this point I started to wonder what was truth and what was fiction. And immediately after that wonder, I wondered why I wondered that. Why am I even questioning his truth or reality? What does it matter? I was doing that a lot more since I moved here.
Moving to San Francisco and adjusting to the homelessness here vs. how it was in Chicago was a much bigger adjustment than I expected.
The first time I talked to a homeless person here they tried to attack me. It came out of nowhere and she lunged at me as she was yelling at the top of her lungs to get out of her way as she had a boat to catch. She missed punching me in the face by half an inch.
The second time I talked to a homeless person, he SHRIEKED at me and told me to never look him straight in the eye as the Devil will come through them and kill me. His eyes were so fierce I think I believed him.
The list goes on an on and includes a red rolling briefcase that carried secret pies attached to a hysterical woman that almost broke my leg. I used to talk to the homeless in Chicago and never feared retaliation. It’s different here though. There are way more drug and mental illness challenges with the homeless here. So co-existing with them, seeing their humanity, having compassion for them and not ignoring them, takes a different way of being. And one I am deeply committed to learning.
Last year I met this lovely and kind homeless man and we sat and talked for over an hour. He was one of the stayovers from the 60’s. His stories were fascinating as he shared about his Grateful Dead experiences, places in San Francisco that no longer exist that are legends I’ve read about, and road trips he took all over the state. Most seemed true and I honestly don’t know fact from fiction. But I sure enjoyed them. I shook his hand at the end, gave him some of the groceries I had just purchased, wished him luck, and walked home. I told friends about it; some of whom work directly with the homeless or in psychiatric care. They were adamant that I should be very careful about shaking the hands of a homeless person here because it’s too easy to catch hepatitis.
I felt so hopeless at that moment. I am lost on how to be a good human in these situations. I’m trying to do my best, day by day, situation by situation, person by person.
So back to Bruce. Bruce told me that when he was a kid his next door neighbor was Chris Isaak, the singer and actor. He tried to play with him when they were young but Chris always stayed indoors. “Now I know why! He was making music! And look where he is and where I am. I should have stayed inside too.”
Oh, ok. It’s fiction I decided. But why did it matter to me? Why is it so important to me in this situation to know if Bruce is telling me fact from fiction? What is it in me that wants to know if it’s truth or not?
The fact is that Bruce simply wanted to share some things on his mind and talk to me and I was in a space to listen. What did it matter if they were fact or fiction? I remember when my mom was dying in the hospital and she started to hallucinate. The doctors advised us not to rationalize with my mom, correct her, or “interject with reality.” We were encouraged to just “go with it.” To be honest, those were some of my favorite conversations with mom during that most traumatic time. It turns out she was coping. Coping in the only way she could to survive the trauma and horror of what she was facing. In her own way she was out of body and creating a reality that worked for her. And since all I wanted for her was to be allieviated of suffering, I supported anything that did that.
Mom and I had marvelous conversations about the birds singing in the room or the dance hall band and doing the jitterbug. My favorite moment was when I walked in one day and she could not WAIT to tell me about the ice cream cone Barack Obama had given her the night before. She was absolutely delighted by his visit and their conversation…so much so I wrote him a thank you letter. And that is truth, not fiction, by the way. (You can read a copy of the letter I sent him here if you’re interested.)
My appointment time was coming close so I needed to get going. I started to thank Bruce for the conversation and Tim showed up and sat down with us. He was an AirForce Veteran, wearing a cap with an Airforce One patch. Tim saw it in a museum in California on the last field trip from the home. He asked Bruce if he had a nice time and Bruce shared that he had a nice conversation with me. Right behind Tim came the woman in pink. The three of them chatted and Bruce introduced me to Edna. “She has the same name as my mother. I wish mom could have come on this trip with us but she can’t walk too good anymore.” They decided it was time to head to the Ferry that would take them back to the senior home and we all said our goodbyes. They all reached out their hands for a shake and I gladly returned the gesture. I started to scurry as I knew I was running late, but I couldn’t help but turn and watch them walk away. Together, the three of them, very slow but sure, helped each other, arm in arm, walk towards the Ferry where a young woman — I assume one of the staff for the home — was waving to them. Some of their peers were already gathered around her. It was a senior home field trip day and these three pals had a good time.
I turned to call a Lyft and as I rode to my appointment, I couldn’t resist looking up where Chris Isaac grew up. He grew up in Stockton, CA. Why did I need to look that up I wonder? What IS that?????