Thursday, September 12, 2013

Homeless to Helpless to Happiness

I got to work a bit early the other day.  A good thing, too, because I realized I needed to pick up a sympathy card for a friend, a co-worker, who had lost someone dear.  Good thing there was a drugstore that opened at seven a.m. just down the street!  It was a perfect morning for a stroll with the sky overcast, but not too cold out, typical Bay Area summer morning.  There were already lots of folks hustling about on Broadway.  More getting on the bus to who knows where, heading down the escalator to the BART trains, heading up the escalator from the BART trains.  Felt like some pretty good energy;  the busy and active kind of energy.  I hoisted up my backpack and headed down towards the store.
Within the first block, I happened to pass two men and one woman who were stopping random folks asking for spare change, hand-outs.  Nothing out of the ordinary, really, especially on the downtown street. 
On the second block more of the same, but, this time, four people asking for help.  I felt a little badly for them, but did not give any donations out.  I noticed that no one else did either. 
Seven people in need, asking for hand-outs in the first two blocks. Wow.
On the third block along Broadway there was only one guy, a dirty humongous sleeping bag, ripped all over, no zipper, draped across his shoulders and gathered at his chest.  His medium length brown hair askew with patchy hair growth on his red, blotchy face….kind of like he’d been sleeping out on a bus bench all night.  Now here he was sitting on that bus bench, alone.  Some people stood nearby, waiting for their ride to appear.  As I approached, the bus pulled up to the curb.  Riders got off, riders got on. The sleeping bag guy stood and immediately moved toward a young woman who had just stepped down off the bus.  She didn’t give him a chance to say a word, simply clutched her purse and just about ran away from him.  She looked very frightened.  He stood there for second, nonplussed, then tightly gathered his tattered bag around his shoulders and took off in the opposite direction of the woman and me.
Eight people in need, asking for hand-outs in the first three blocks. Still wow.
Block number four.  Two more beggars, but wait, one of them was the woman from the first block!  How the heck had she passed me without me noticing and how did she get ahead of me?  Still, as much as she was trying, no one was offering free hand-outs this morning. 
So where am I taking us with this? Is this some moralistic message about homeless people and ignoring them as much as possible?  No, actually this is about everybody else on the journey, me included.
Because I realized as I reached my Walgreen’s destination, that not one person had looked at me directly, or at anyone else for that matter, no one smiled at anybody, there were no ‘Good morning!’s or ‘Have a nice day!’s or anything.  We all were just scurrying along to our destinations, looking down at the sidewalk for the most part (how did we not run into each other?), not addressing ANY fellow humans on the street.  Heaven forbid a homeless person approach; we couldn’t even deal with the non-homeless folks en route!
As I eventually entered Walgreen’s and stood there reading all of the sympathy cards to find just the right one, I thought about how I didn’t happen to see one nice thing happen on the way there.  Not a nice word, not a smile or laugh…maybe it was too early in the morning, 8:00 am…is there a start time for acknowledging mankind?  Is there some social etiquette standard about not bothering anybody downtown, on a work day, in the morning?  The thought made me a little sad and the sympathy cards I read surely weren’t helping matters.
Of course, about halfway through my card review, I thought: Who am I to judge?  I am nobody. And I didn’t do anything nice either, unless keeping out of everyone’s way and making sure I didn’t run anyone over is something especially nice.  I know, I know,  it’s not.
Then I got a little mad.  At myself, for being part of this anti-social and non-caring human race, or at least the part of it that was around during my five minute walk to Walgreen’s.  It was Monday, early, I had to go to work, a friend’s loved one had passed, I couldn’t find a good card, and there was a line of six or seven people checking out with only one person behind a register, three others vacant.
Right then and there I took a deep breath and decided to conduct a little test. Until I got back to my office I would count up how many times I discovered one person acting kindly or doing something nice to another person – one Walgreen’s card purchase (“Good memories to see you through” with a pretty little river scene) and four downtown blocks to redeem my faith in mankind….and myself!  I couldn’t wait to see what the results would be!
See, there, already my attitude changed and - VOILA! - I found a good card.  So I got in line, number six in waiting.
The guy in front of me asked the lady in front of him if she knew anything about bus Clipper Cards and if he could increase his card amount at the register.  The lady just shook her head ‘No’ and turned away.  He looked a little chagrinned at her response, but then turned to me.  I wasn’t sure, not being a public transportation commuter myself, but I thought he could so I told him so.  “Thanks,” he said….see, that was something nice, wasn’t it?  Minimal effort, but a nice gesture nonetheless.  I mean, I could have told him “Dude, I don’t ride no stinking bus” and buried my nose in my card, but I didn’t.  That counts.  Act of kindness Number One.
Back on the road, okay here we go, Return Block #4.  I looked, I peered, I observed.  Nope, nothing.  No smiles, no conversations, no greetings.  Scurrying ants.
Okay, that’s okay, everyone was busy, still early, three blocks to go.
Return Block #3.  Another homeless person, asking but getting nothing in response, just completely ignored.  Nothing nice happening here either.  Mimes in a sad play.
Return Block #2….I was starting to lose a little faith now, I was halfway to my office, and could it actually, really happen: NOTHING NICE?!  How about anything other than complete silence and introversion?  I smiled at a couple people, trying to stir it up…nothing.  I actually raised my hand and gave a little wave to a woman…nothing.  No responses, nothing nice.
I was done.  Return Block #1….back to where I was just twenty minutes ago.  Who cared?  I didn’t, just get me off the street and into my work space, I was sad.
I hardly paid any attention until I reached the door to my building on Broadway.  I took a deep breath and opened the door, holding it open for an older woman to enter behind me.  She did.
I went up to the elevator and pushed the ‘Up’ button.  As I waited I rolled my head, neck and shoulders, literally trying to shake my doldrums and re-energize for, still, my entire work day ahead.  The elevator arrived, the doors parted.  I held the door open so the same older woman could enter first.  I stepped in.  Pushed the button for floor number five.
“What floor?”  I asked her.
“Three,” she responded.
In five seconds we reached the third floor, the door opened, I moved over so she could exit.  She did.
But, just as the doors started to close, she reached back and stopped them, stuck her head back in, smiled at me, LOOKED at me, and said, 
“Hey, hope you have a nice day.”

When You Least Expect It (from, 07/18/2013)

Today I went to the Public Health Dept.’s Employee Service Awards Ceremony.  No reason, really, just hadn’t attended in years and thought it would be fun, see some friends, some co-workers….okay, I admit, free coffee and fresh muffins WERE a big draw!
The first group of award recipients was announced: they were two 40-year civil service employees of Alameda County…40 years!  They were hired in 1973 – I was a junior in high school!  The hosts showed some Power Point facts from 1973, like Billboard’s top 4 songs: Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Bad Bad Leroy Brown, Killing Me Softly, and Let’s Get It On, (the youngster sitting next to me didn’t know any of them, I knew them all); best picture Grease (polite applause);  and, the President that year, Nixon, who resigned the following year (solid boos for him).
By this time I was having a pretty good time, albeit a little jittery because I was drinking a full cup of Starbucks coffee, caffeinated, which I haven’t done in a few years.  I usually drink decaf coffee or herbal tea.  A few years ago I was monitoring my heart rate for my doc and discovered that caffeine spiked my heart rate!  I guess the Public Health Dept. doesn’t believe in decaf coffee or herbal tea since there wasn’t any available - I sort of understand that because better to have amped up workers than relaxed, decaffeinated ones, right?  Okay, on top of that I had one-half of a poppy seed muffin….of course, it was one of those humongous Costco muffins and even only half of it was about the size of a flat truck tire, but how could I resist?
So, wired from fully-leaded coffee and sugared up from the tire-muffin, I sat there thinking my jittery thoughts, wondering whether I should just ease my way through the crowd of employees, go back to my cubicle and drink a bunch of water to dilute the expected raging chemo-induced energy about to course through my body. 
But then the two 40-year employees were brought up to the podium to receive their employee awards and they stepped up to the microphone.  One I knew and actually worked with for a few years in the early 90’s, Ms. B. (her name has been omitted to protect the innocent, namely ME, because she might whoop on me for telling everyone she’s been working for 40 years!).  When she spoke I was knocked for a loop – so I guess she got me anyway - she actually thanked me for hiring her to the Health Dept. some 22 years ago!  And then she thanked me for taking the time to help her become a better employee, better supervisor, and for caring enough to stick with her through some rough periods.  She told everyone I was one of the reasons why she had stayed in the Dept. for 40 years!
Wow.  Now the reason I’m sharing this is not to pat myself on the back (which I can’t reach even if I felt I was deserving) or to let you know how truly remarkable I am (I’m just a normal, everyday Phil).  I mean, honestly I’m not ashamed to admit it, but, before she mentioned it, I didn’t really remember that I had hired her. Heck, it was twenty two years ago!  My youngest daughter, Kelsey, was born that same year, and that’s one of the few things I DO easily remember from those years gone by.  For the rest of those 22plus-year old memories either someone’s going to have to remind me, like Ms. B. did this morning, or they will remain tucked away, gently resting, quietly relaxed and happy.
No, the reason I chose to share this part of my day with you is to only say something pretty obvious:  Life is sure funny.  Because when you least expect it, something happens that helps you realize you are part of a bigger drama than yourself;  that you may touch someone or help someone or even piss someone off without even realizing it.  And then, years later, even 40 years later, you might get thanked ….or just as easily whooped!
Congrats, Ms. B., for being such a dedicated public employee and for bringing a good memory back to the present for me.  It was a good way to start the day with some perspective.
Now where the heck is my water mug….aaarrrggghhh?!