A trumpet plays a mournful tune nine floors below, then I hear a bagpipe. A bagpipe? Breaking glass tinkles like a discordant piano, then crashes like cymbals. It’s recyclers smashing bottles at the end of the night. Every so often waves of laughter and conversation float upward as small groups leave bars, then, silence.
Sounds of the city pounding in my brain…. It’s 2 a.m. in San Francisco and this song and lyric are playing in my head. But none of this really bothers me. I’m okay just lying in bed listening to the city at night and wondering about its people.
Wandering Union Square earlier in the day I’d spotted an adorable dog, a little larger version of Riley and oh-so-friendly. I walked over to say hello to him and his owner, a woman sitting in a wheelchair panhandling.
“What’s your name?” she asked me. I told her.
“I’m Linda and this is Justice,” she said, pointing to her cutie-pie of a dog. “He’s nine and I rescued him in October.” He put his sweet little paws up on me in greeting. Justice seemed well-loved and well-cared for, a happy dog.
We talked a bit about the dog. She was super friendly, a lovely woman, like someone you might meet in a supermarket or at a party. We chatted. Michael waited a few steps away, looking at his phone.
“So are you managing ok out here?” I asked.
“Oh yeah.” She smiled reassuringly, grasping a plastic cup that held a few coins. “I only come out here because after I pay rent and utilities I only have $150 left to live on.”
I asked if this were her usual location and she said it was. I gave her a few bucks because I’m a sucker for a cute dog and good conversation. Because I caught some breaks in life and it seemed like she hadn’t. Because she could use them more than I could.
I walked away wondering about her life. We’re in that area fairly often so I might see her again. Now that we’ve met, I might learn her story. Maybe she’s on disability. I know people on disability. It’s not enough to live on. Maybe her rent is for a shabby room in one of those dismal SROs. I thought about her the rest of the day and the next. I’m still thinking about her.
It bothers me that people are forced to live in poverty, that we have so few effective safety nets. Walk San Francisco a few hours and you’ll see that it is full of homeless people, mentally ill people, people who pee in public doorways, even a woman stretched out and sound asleep on the sidewalk in front of a bus stop. There are ranting “religious” and just odd guys hanging out in the crowds. I notice it all.
There’s a place for everyone, I’d like to think, but clearly, here in America, there’s not. That fact is the impetus that compels me to buy warm hats, gloves, sweatshirts to donate to homeless charities. And to give money.
That night we sat at dinner with friends, a nice restaurant, delicious food and fine drink, talking about our lives, which seemed super-privileged against what I’d seen that day. None of us are in the so-called 1%. We’re just normal people who did well and do well. My friend is accomplished in a field where few find success; her husband is climbing the ranks in his field and working hard. All four of us? Hard workers.
I don’t have guilt about having earned money and having the normal things that accompany a bit of financial security. I don’t and I never will. I feel lucky, never guilty. But I do see my responsibility to help people who don’t have my life.
There’s no question that my husband kicked up my life a big notch. But even he hadn’t rounded back to my life, I’d still be ok. I’d still feel lucky and I’d still share. I just get to share more, now.
Here in the U.S. here’s a lot of anger at people who have means and this amorphous desire to “share the wealth, ” whatever that means. I can understand that as it pertains to CEOs and other execs in this area who make so much money it’s obscene. Yes, some of them do good things with their money. But not all of them. Some of them just spend it on themselves, living obscenely well. Of course, that is their right. They made the money fair and square.
I can say this with assurance: if the angry people had money they wouldn’t be so angry. And if they’d made it themselves, they wouldn’t be so quick to advocate sharing it. Things would look quite different.
It’s because here in this country we seem to be all about our own self-interest, regardless of our means. The rich want to get richer and usually they work to make themselves richer. The not-so-rich want to get rich and some want to do that by getting hold of some of the money the rich make. This is what used to drive Republicans but now it’s anger at rich people that drives them. There’s some misguided belief that a rich guy like Trump knows more than others about “making this country great” when in fact, sitting in his solid gold New York luxury apartment he knows much less than a person on the street like Linda.
It’s peculiar to watch all this from where I sit now. It’s not where I always sat. But then again, I always figured I’d make my own way and rely on myself. And hope that I’d have access to a safety net if something awful befell me.
Safety nets. That’s what I think this blog post is really about. The need for safety nets so people like Linda and her sweet dog don’t have to sit on the street and ask for handouts.
Linda’s stuck in my head and my heart now.
I hope she’ll spend a little time in yours.