A while back I stepped out of my safe, secure suburban existence and spent five days and nights living on the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco. Hardly street savvy, many of my life lessons were gained on the farm fields of southeastern Pennsylvania, the playing fields or in the boardrooms.
I chose the week before Thanksgiving to become "homeless" in San Francisco. My life had typically been so busy with the children and work, and trying to start a dating life. With my children and lady friend out of town, and just having finished a work assignment, there was a perfect window of opportunity for time off. No one knew of my whereabouts except for leaving an answering machine message that I was away and out of communication.
Working in cities from time to time, I have long observed those weary tattered folks, pushing a shopping cart or curled up over a heat vent or asking for a handout. You may notice them, too. Perhaps you have avoided them, were afraid to make eye contact or maybe you have shown them compassion. More than likely you have not been too comfortable in their presence.
Yet, what if you or I were on the streets?
My preparation for this special sabbatical was minimal. I stopped shaving a few days ahead of time, delayed a haircut, and for about 24 hours ahead of time, I only drank water. As far as personal items, I took a pocketknife, a magic trick, $25 in quarters to give away, and $20 stuffed into my socks for emergencies. I wore five thin layers of clothes up top and long underwear and old blue jeans below. Some old shoes that were ready for the Dumpster and a faded red hooded sweat jacket with an old knitted green and white stocking cap completed my attire. My coke-bottle thick glasses would be a fitting complement to the look.
My ace in the hole was that I did possess a return ticket to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station with a comfortable car parked there waiting for me.
Missing the normal daily hygiene needs and the comfort of a dry, comfortable house and bed was to be expected. My first shock was witnessing nearly two dozen men and a woman choosing to relieve themselves during a two-hour period on the Market Street sidewalks that first night. Next it was really problematic to find a place on the concrete to lie down that did not have the stench of urine. I finally salvaged a small piece of cardboard to rest my shoulders and head on.
It was surprising how noisy the city was late at night with construction work all around. About 2 a.m. the first evening I fell into a deep sleep only to experience two sharp pokes in the ribs. Looking down at me was a fellow looking far older than his years hunched over asking me if I had any "smokes or coin." Though the man was harmless enough, I then realized that when I was asleep I was physically vulnerable. I never did sleep quite so well from that time on.
The first two nights were quite cold and damp. In fact, the temperature dipped below freezing, the coldest nights that year. I found myself crawling into commercial buildings on my hands and knees to avoid security every so often so I could get warm for a few minutes. The evenings, however, were therapeutic, a great time to meditate, reflect and walk about the city in quiet solitude.
The days were quite another thing. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotions and loneliness I encountered during the day. Sitting on the sidewalk or standing aside a building for minutes seemed like hours. Here I was in the midst of hundreds of people and never have I felt so alone. Whether I was situated on busy Market Street or in the Tenderloin district, everyone I saw had a purpose: to do an errand, get back and forth from work, go shopping, meet someone for a meal, or enjoy entertainment with a friend. What's more, I assumed they would all enjoy a soft, warm bed and a hot meal that night.
I had no purpose, no responsibilities, no acquaintances, nowhere to go, and no one in the world knew I was here. I never did expect a "normal person" to engage me, let alone make eye contact, but I never anticipated the loneliness that would accompany having no purpose. If someone is a sane, sober person, I can now appreciate how and why they could lose either trait.
Typically the homeless have very few if any relationships, which is the saddest twist. Though I am not particularly extroverted, it drove home how much I need people in my life. Besides, isn't it wonderful to share memories with someone?
Properly hungry, I frequented the back door and Dumpster areas of restaurants, hardly the tablecloth and wine decor that I usually associate with my city dining experiences. Standing outside some of the Union Square establishments, I was usually ushered on as opposed to being welcomed in. Fast food establishments were my restrooms of choice, a place to take a paper towel bath.
Originally I wondered if I would engage any of the other homeless in conversation. Would I encounter down-on-their-luck professionals? Soon I deemed it better to keep to my own business. I must have encountered maybe 200 fellow drifters and less than a dozen I could identify as women. Most of those people are sadly mentally or emotionally ill or the casualty of drugs or all of the above. The vast majority appeared fiercely independent, though most would be quick to accept any charity cash, a drink, a drug fix, or food; and cash is king. Other than a few other homeless talking at me, none really talked to me.
One of the liberating aspects of being homeless was the complete sense of freedom, but at the high cost of loneliness. They live a very independent life of freedom: no mail, no bills, no bosses and no responsibilities. Survival appeared to be their primary and possibly only purpose.
Inspired by the movie, "Pay It Forward," I chose to beg for money on my fifth and final night. Armed with an outstretched arm, a cup and a hopeful smile, I had 14 people drop coins into my cup during a two-hour period on Market Street. For each who did, I gave them a dollar bill from my emergency stash in return. Eleven of the 14 were dumfounded by my gesture. I simply told them to "pass it forward" and "thanks for showing heart." It made me feel human again; I had been starting to wonder.
It was my final morning, the day before Thanksgiving, and at 4 a.m. I was ready to go home. Another day was not going to prove more. By 7 a.m. I was home in my familiar warm, safe surroundings. Before entering my house I stripped down in the garage and tossed my clothes in the washing machine. I then took a long, welcomed hot shower, followed by a late morning nap in my cozy, warm bed.
The life lesson that immediately hit me was that I, as well as most of us in America, live a life of abundance. You could take everything away from me except my health, my time and my relationships, and I would still be a very wealthy man. That realization has since led me to a greater contentment with life in general.
In the meantime, the company I had been helping to start lost its funding and closed. Like many, my investment and retirement portfolio suffered losses. Now I was better prepared than ever to cope.
The more important lesson was one just as powerful: a newfound appreciation for relationships, health and time. Simply stated, each of us is presented every day with a life-altering choice. That choice is whether or not we choose to be content with what we already have. The challenge for me has been an acquired taste and an appreciation for the better, finer, faster, smaller, more powerful and more prestigious "stuff." When that appreciation becomes an appetite, it creates stress and puts things out of balance. It dawned on me that I was setting myself up for recurring dissatisfaction.
Many of us are constantly racing through life, failing to stop and appreciate the many blessings we have all around us. We are racing toward the future, be it an appointment, a vacation, a retirement, or even a relationship. What if we were to simply step back and observe, and appreciate?
Two days later on the Friday after Thanksgiving, clean-shaven and well clad, I revisited San Francisco for a day of shopping with my lady friend. There were some familiar faces that didn't recognize me, and I observed some very familiar patches of pavement as I recounted to her what I had just experienced. San Francisco will never be the same for me; I am different now, grown a little. And now every day is Thanksgiving.
Bob Fagan, a Pleasanton resident, is the western vice president for the Callahan Group Inc. and specializes in mentoring and personal coaching. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.