Monday, March 1, 2010

creature comforts

It turns out, my original plan is a little more intimidating than I'd realized. Prior to actually inviting a homeless person to lunch of dinner, I'd just imagined it automatically comfortable- that the homeless person I'd invited would be bawled over from my generosity and immediately an outpouring of life experience, trauma and answers would emerge. But it turns out, even selecting someone to invite to share a meal is a scary thing. I realized that my "altruistic" intentions of learning how to turn around some poor soul's life wasn't alluding me from my habits of judgment and discernment. I set out multiple times hunting for the "right" person to invite. How, if I'm looking to do good, could I rule out anyone that was asking for help? And I realized that I was looking for someone who wasn't a lost cause- someone who would truly have a chance at changing and internalizing all that I was going to give. What I really was looking for was a way to make me feel good- and despite hiding it behind my facade of "doing good", there it was: I needed to feel like I really was making a difference more than ACTUALLY make a difference. Though terrible to admit that what I really wanted was just to feel like I was a good person, if in the long run I'd given a hungry person a few meals, did it matter if it was really driven by more selfish means?

Not to contradict myself, (though I believe Walt Whitman has forever enabled us to do so) but I could argue against that thought as well. In Acts (somewhere in the first 9 chapters)a couple dies because they covet a larger sum of their profit from a property they sell. When confronted, they deny it, and immediately drop dead. I'm not an evangelical looking to turn this blog into another attempt to convert non-believes, but I believe this Bible story has some interesting moral to it: this couple had donated fairly generously to the church, but could have given more. My interpretation of this is that the couple perished because they LIED about how much of their money they had actually given rather than the fact that they hadn't given all they could spare. A more real-life analogy to this is the fact that my roommate allowed someone to sleep in my bed while I was away one weekend. It wasn't that someone had done so, but it was done behind my back and I only found out because of my meticulous way of making my bed: when I returned at the end of the weekend I could see that my bed wasn't made the same way I'd left it (a bit of a "Goldie Locks and the Three Bears" moment). I'd asked her if someone slept in my bed. Despite initial denial, she did reluctantly concede that yes, someone had slept in my bed. HOWEVER, I will once again contradict myself: both the aforementioned two examples are driven by deception with ends that do not result in any positive outcome. So therefore, I'll continue with my selfish drive to feed the homeless. I digress...

Homeless in San Francisco are ubiquitous. (San Francisco city spends over $200 thousand each year trying to "clean up" the streets- Yet there were times where I'd felt equipped and confident enough to go through with it, and had to give up my search because of time deadlines. Then there were many times where my discerning eye withheld me from attempting any offer. (I do attribute part of this to the fact that a young girl on her own inviting a random stranger- a stranger of any sort, homeless or not- is a risk. The other part I attribute to being judgmental and scared...)

I first came upon Sam in December after leaving my Monday night Bible study. I had taken some left-over cookies from a holiday party to the group session and was looking to ditch the last bunch before getting back to my apartment. I found Sam parked outside of a small corner shop, flanked by some haggard bags and a half-empty bottle of coca cola. I approached him and sweetly asked if he'd like some cookies. Sam happily accepted and said "God bless you!" as I handed over the plate. "God bless you"- that's what everyone wants to hear when we do something good. We want that affirmation that "Yes, I am a really good person. I did something completely out of the goodness of my heart." So, when I finally was ready to begin my "project", I thought of Sam and set out to get him some food.

I found him once again alongside the same corner shop, hidden beneath the same weathered coat. I came armed only with my credit card and so I asked him what he'd like to drink. He requested just a coke and some Ritz crackers. I quickly delivered to him the items and continued on my way. The following night I returned to Sam again, this time with a plate of leftover steak, potatoes and salad. I found his usual spot empty, and learned from the clerks inside the store that immediately after I disappeared around the corner the previous night, Sam had cashed in the coke and cracker I'd bought for a fifth of cheap vodka. I was crushed. I'd been deceived. But wasn't that just the argument I'd assured myself above was ok? Sam had allowed me to believe I was giving a poor, homeless man a nice meal and waited until I'd gone to make sure that I didn't see him ditch the crackers for some booze. Sam was playing the same game I was, just another version. Neither one of us were being completely honest. Sam didn't want some crackers that would only stave off hunger a couple of hours. Sam wanted something that was going to really make the pain go away- something that would stave off whatever he was feeling. But he let me think that he was going to crack open that box of Ritz crackers with a smile and go to sleep feeling better. He was helping me.

So tonight, as I passed Sam outside the corner shop, I asked him which brand of vodka he'd like and if I could at least buy him a sandwich to accompany the liquor. Sam readily accepted, even pulling out an empty bottle to show me what size he wanted. Sam was very gracious of the favor, and he might just have waited until I'd gone once again to trade in the sandwich for another bottle of vodka, but at least tonight we were both half honest.

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