This morning I had breakfast with one of my best friends who is headed to Cambodia tomorrow for 6 months of work on war tribunals there. As it was his last day in San Francisco, we headed to one of the best and most popular establishments in our beloved city. As we ate our morning rolls on one of the most thoroughly gentrified streets in the city, a man walked up to us asking to buy him food. Though he was initially hesitant to eat something from this establishment, he eventually agreed to allow my friend to buy him something.
We sat with the man for a couple of minutes and heard his story. The man told us that he was from Mississippi, and had been living homeless in this city as he had no job and knew no one here, save for the mother of one of his former friends. The lady had agreed to pay the remainder of his $35 greyhound ticket if he was able to come up with at least $15 towards the trip. With full faith, my friend gave him $5 towards this ticket.
After speaking with him further, it was clear to us that his thinking was as follows: he could spend the $5 on either a) his bus ticket, b) food, or c) cigarettes. He knew that the number one thing he wanted, and needed, was to get back to Mississippi, but the way he saw it this was only a small part of the $15 he needed. He hadn’t been able to make $15 in the days that proceeded, so why did he think he could do it now? I’m sure the pull of cigarettes was tugging at his mind, but he kept suggesting that he wanted to spend this money on food. If he could just get $3 more, he could buy an $8 pizza from the place down the street. Worst case, he could buy something from McDonalds. He couldn’t go to the overpriced grocery store a block up because he wanted a real meal.
After we parted ways with the man we had a long conversation about our encounter. We talked at length about the state of classism in America. We talked about fundamental problems with our economic structure, but were at loss for a better solution. Sure, personal responsibility is endlessly important, but how can you ask a starving man to think of anything but food? Does the urban underclass have the opportunity to take responsibility in the first place?
Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t think any of us can be sure, regardless of how loud we scream our political beliefs, and how eye-catching our bumper stickers are. But I do know one thing. The only thing we must absolutely demand of ourselves is to keep going. If we aren’t optimistic, if we aren’t open to new ideas, and we don’t keep trying we are lost. Without optimism, even in the face of seemingly endless suffering, we have nothing. Maybe this man will spend his $5 on cigarettes. Maybe he’ll spend it on a greyhound. Maybe neither. But without the faith of another human being, he wouldn’t have had either.
On a day with the memory of so much pain we grieve, but we grieve together. Please remember to love together too.