I Left My Heart in San Francisco

I flew up to San Francisco this morning for a business day trip. Earlier this afternoon as the group I was with walked down the street and hailed a cab, we all piled into it and I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk as we drove away. He had a sign that read, “Have AIDS. Homeless. Need food. God bless.”

Without dissecting the situation too much, it is a sad state of affairs on one level or another that the man was sitting on the street at all. Some may opt to bring him food. Others might default to giving some change here and there, or maybe a few bucks. Some may pass by and wonder if he really had AIDS, while others may wonder if he was truly homeless. Some might glance his way and wonder if he really needed food, whereas others may zero in on the religious angle and wonder if he really believed in God.

For me, the point is that regardless of whether his sign was factual or not, something compelled the man to believe that sitting on the sidewalk is the best option for his day, potentially the week, and maybe even for a month or longer.

Simply put, if the sign is factual, I’m sure there are resources in the city which could be sought out and utilized by him. It’s therefore sad that he’s not making use of them — and if he is, even sporadically — it’s sad that precious moments of his life are still being passed by sitting on a cold sidewalk.

If the sign was (and it’s disheartening to think that it could be) made up, it might leave one (like me) wondering what happened in the man’s life to make him think he’d be more successful in making a sign and asking for a handout than by trying to do more, to be more.

A long time ago, I heard that people who stand in busy intersections with signs asking passersby for money can make upwards of $60,000 a year, tax-free. Despite this, I had a theory that I talked myself into. If I wanted to give someone a buck — what’s it to me? Not much. It’s a couple of small burritos from Del Taco that I don’t really need, or it’s half the cost of a tall coffee from Starbucks. My thinking was that I’d give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they really just needed money and that my dollar might be the one that made them think, “I can do more. I’m worth more. And this is the last dollar I’ll ever accept in this manner.”

Over time, my theory changed a bit — not necessarily for the better. I figured if they had a problem with addiction, the dollar may very well be used to continue that addiction — which I was OK with. My thinking was that sometimes desperate people do desperate things to get their next fix and, in a twisted way, I figured my dollar could potentially keep them from becoming desperate and hurting someone to get the fix they needed.

But I gradually stopped carrying cash over the years and, like many, began living by debit card. I had a ready answer for those asking for assistance: “Sorry, I don’t have any cash on me.” And it was true.

Despite the truth, I felt a bit empty so I began donating to The Smile Train when I started receiving their information in the mail. Minor feelings of redemption ensued. When The Salvation Army bell-ringer stands outside the stores during holiday season, I try to fill their red kettle with a dollar here and there, and with as much loose change in my purse that I can find. Slightly stronger feelings of redemption usually follow, but they’re short-lived.

Today as I was looking at the man with his sign, I saw him not as homeless or hungry or with AIDS, but I saw him simply as someone in need of something. Perhaps he was in need of exactly what his sign said, or perhaps he was in need of completely different things. My heart went out to him, because without engaging these people, sometimes all we can do is wonder, or find a foundation in their area that can accept my donation that — hopefully — somehow reaches the man.

I often wonder about things in general, and my subjects range from the mundane to those which skew more philosophical. In his case, I wonder tonight if he’s still on the streets in the rain, or if he’s found shelter.

If he’s found someplace to be, where is it?

If he needed food, did he get it?

Thoreau’s words have never felt more true and stung my being the way they did when I saw him. “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

Today I saw now a man on a sidewalk, but simply a man in need — maybe of something different than what his sign said, but who had needs all the same.

And what I saw in myself is someone whose heart got left behind a bit when I found myself in cab, driving away, not really sure what to do the next time I encounter this.

Tonight I am thankful for various things…for the city resources that exist for those who need them, for the people in a needy person’s path who can potentially direct them to the assistance if they ask for directions, and for a simple cardboard sign I saw almost six hours ago for mere seconds, but which has occupied my thoughts since my eyes fell upon it. A little bit of my heart was left behind in San Francisco, but I’m thinking that it will grow back once I’m able to find a reaction I’m happy with the next time I encounter something like what I saw today — and when I have the time to be able to do something, however small, to help it.

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