I recently strolled to my local pharmacy for a quick errand. Like most short walks around my Seattle neighborhood, I passed a homeless gentleman and his folded cardboard sign. Written in black permanent marker, the characters read something about about hunger and blessings; I didn’t glance long enough to comprehend the rest. His appeal to everyone’s good nature was signed “Love, Dan”. If my life were a movie, this would be a fairly standard backdrop to my otherwise uneventful walk through town.
Strategically placed, Dan sat next to a fleet of stairs en route to the stores above. Lucky for me, a couple was walking to my left, so with little hesitation I flanked to the right. This way, I didn’t have to pass too close to Dan. Ya know…in case he made a passing remark in my direction. I take a mental note of occasionally crossing streets in similar fashions. Moments after this unconscious maneuver, I categorize it as a tactic to evade social responsibility. It was a way to justify the avoidance to myself. And I began asking ‘where does my social responsibility lie to those in my community’? I would go out of my way to help a roommate or best friend’s father, but how about a neighbor in my apartment building? How about the drugstore cashier I see so often? What about Dan?
Somewhere along that spectrum of my interpersonal connections, friends, and acquaintances, a line of social responsibility is drawn. On one side, I help; on the other side, they will probably take care of it. I’ve wondered a lot lately…who are they? Who are these people I so often think are responsible for improving our society? Truthfully, I put a lot of faith in they or them to fix the problem, but I’m not really sure who they are. Many of us give them a pretty hard time. Most commonly they are given responsibility for our economic woes: rent inflation, scarcity of non-seasonal fruit, or mortgage-sized childcare costs. There are endless amounts of external blame we give issues seemingly out of our control. However, experience in my local communities have led me to realize an important fact: we are all part of the greater they. Society is truly a collective of individual actions. While some of us have more worldly power than others, our lifestyles impact those around us.
Deeply impacted by a recent of Me to We, I mulled over the vision of transitioning Earth from a me-centric competition to a we-centric resolution. In that moment I faced my values, but I also searched for excuses. Was I in a hurry? No. Could I pretend I didn’t see Dan? Also no. And a perplexing favorite of mine: if I gave him money, would he use it to buy drugs? Well, I couldn’t say for sure, but I was mostly frustrated by the knee-jerk nature of this thought.
I could’ve spent the next 20 minutes asking myself just as many questions, but I always come back to the following: at what point would I sit on a street corner and ask folks for help? I mean, consider how many things you would rather do than solicit for a handout. As with any intention, some people do it out of malice, but I believe most people do it out of sincerity. If I really believe in Me to We, I have to live those values myself. While I struggle with the thought of handing anyone money, I have no problem sharing the gift of a meal. I hopped into line at Starbucks and purchased a turkey panini.
I descend down the left half of stairs–the same ones I avoided earlier–and introduced myself to Dan. Perched on a concrete flower bed, Dan was gazing west down the sidewalk. A cream-colored cowboy hat, weathered tan jacket, and faded blue jeans hugged his frame; he reminded me of country icon George Straight. His toes wiggled through the top of black dress shoes. After a simple hello and extending of my hand, he graciously accepted my gift. What was the harm in chatting for a few minutes?
To my discredit, Dan wasn’t a good ol’ southern boy. A Connecticut native, his family moved to Seattle in 1959. He told me he never finished high school saying claiming his memory wasn’t strong enough to “keep all the facts in his brain”. Furthermore, plagued by a chronic mental disorder, he was unable to hold down a traditional job. He did however proudly share the time he opened a handyman business with his brother. He proudly told me they made $10/hr raking leaves, gardening, and doing odd plumbing and electrical jobs–stuff he learned from his father. The business never really took off. Now in his late fifties, Dan gets by thanks to Disability payments from the US government. Without them, he would be kicked out of his subsidized housing complex and back on the streets.
A few minutes into our conversation, the sandwich remained untouched. I encouraged him to take a bite, then reciprocated my half of the conversation. I told him I lived in the community and worked nearby. I shared that my father is on disability and confirmed his lament that it isn’t always enough to cover the bills. I pushed myself off the wall and squatted down below Dan’s eye level. I settled in. Was I in a hurry? No, I wasn’t.
I broadly asked him how things have been today? Most of us would recount our routine: woke up, went to work, came home, made dinner, etc. Dan measures his day based on how many people stop by to help. “It’s been pretty slow” he said. He tallied me as the first person of hundreds to stop by, let alone spend a few minutes chatting. It was 16:45. He dishearteningly recounted his morning breakfast at Jack in the Box: “my favorite sandwich is up to $1.59, they’re pricing me out of the market.” His housing unit is located in Seattle’s University District, so I’m familiar with the Jack in the Box he was describing. I never think twice about spending $2 on a meal.
Despite a large homeless population in the University District, he busses up to my neighborhood every so often to get away from the alcoholics. “A lotta people are into drinking and drugs down there, but that’s not really my scene”. He looks out over the street in which he chooses to sit. A car honks at a texting driver and 4’x8′ plywood sheets protect an abandoned storefront. “The views aren’t too bad here…at least I think so anyway”. So many aspects of his reality are different from my own.
Despite all 11 of his brothers and sisters living in the Puget Sound, he says they barely return his phone calls. With few visitors, he spends his evenings listening to KUOW 94.9 FM, the local NPR station. I laugh earnestly and tell him I also listen to KUOW during my daily commute. As an active listener, one thing he finds difficult to forget is the US presidential election. He told me he voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary, but I didn’t have the heart to inform him that Democratic Primaries carry no weight towards the delegate count in Washington State. A smile stretched across his face as he prescribed the world as “needing a political revolution.” I nodded my head.
When Dan’s not listening to the radio, I learned he writes poetry. He wrote a children’s book about story-telling, prose, and pentameter, but much like his family, the publisher never called him back. While I’m not sure there ever was a publisher, I presume the notebooks at his feet contain a fair share of rhymes. Despite my 9th-grade lesson on Shakespearean sonnets, Dan reminded me how they worked. The first line rhymes with the third, and the second with the fourth. He unearthed the words quatrain and iambic pentameter from the depths of my brain, even correcting me when I said they have 12 lines–it’s actually 14. He was pleasant to speak with and I found myself wishing the conversation would continue. It was almost 17:00 and his bus transfer was nearing expiration. He thanked me for the sandwich and mentioned two hot meals constitutes a pretty successful day. I wished him well and encouraged him to continue writing poems.
At face value I’ve recounted an interesting peek into the life of a struggling Seattleite. Yet, my interest for him and offering felt meaningful both to Dan and myself. I had time to stop and I’m glad I did. Dan is certainly an example of someone living in the present moment. How could he not? I imagine his every thought revolves around making it just one more day. It’s then I wonder how my life would be different if I treated each conversation as the only conversation of the day? Imagine my attentiveness, gratitude, and genuine interest in hearing about your presenter’s victories and struggles.
In crafting a more intentional life, it’s important we use our skills, talents, and resources for the good of others. Amazingly enough, this benefits our own well-being, sense of purpose, and long-term satisfaction. Although my time with Dan only scratches the surface of more complex issues, I consider it a personal step in the right direction. I’m recognizing a need around me and choosing to acknowledge the need of those in my community. I yearn for being more present, intentional, and conscious of my social responsibility. We all contribute a thread to the social fabric. Each of our decisions can inspire, motivate, and impact–sometimes unknowingly. If they can be blamed for the problem, I too believe they can work towards the solution.