Noe Valley Voice March 2006

Emotional Street Turbulence

By Anna Van der Heide

I'm not a politician or a social worker, so I can speak candidly about my problem with the homeless and street people.

Not that these people harass me, verbally or otherwise. They're just there. And that's the problem. In the small rural community on the East Coast where I live part of the year, I'd never walk past a person asking for help. Yet, during my eight years in San Francisco, I must have walked past a hundred.

Although no Mother Teresa by a long shot, I am a good person at heart. I don't like the idea that there are people in this opulent city who don't have enough food to eat or a place to sleep. Yet having to deal with the situation on a daily basis drives me nuts! There! I've said it!

I wake up feeling pretty decent, but by the time I get to work, I've seen the face of misery up close at least three times, been angry twice, felt guilty at least once, and am always pained by my impotence. On the way home, the turmoil begins again.

This roller coaster of emotions takes its toll. I call it EST, or "Emotional Street Turbulence." It goes like this:

On a good day--Monday, for instance-- feeling fresh from the weekend, I might press change into the outstretched hand of each person on the sidewalk and warm to the smile or the "God bless" he or she gives me.

Yet on Friday it's a different story. I'm thinking, Here I am, a woman in her 50s, still working, ankles swollen, totally exhausted, dreading the wait for the J-Church, and some kid is asking me for a handout? How dare he! My mind is afire with recrimination.

Later, I berate myself for my meanness, my pettiness. After all, I earn $25 an hour. How could I have refused to give something to that scruffy-looking young person who says he's hungry? It's not like he's going to go out with my dollar and buy himself a Porsche. Guilt sets in.

The next week, the kaleidoscope has shifted, and I try again. I map out a few strategies. My mantra becomes: "There but for the grace of God go I." I give what I can with what I feel to be genuine warmth. I even try to pick someone I see every day in the same place for "scheduled donations." It doesn't work all the time because I don't feel like being a good person all the time. Sometimes I have to duck to the other side of the street so that the friendly fellow I've been supporting doesn't see me. I don't want to hurt his feelings.

But then--oops!--I encounter a panhandler who looks totally fit or I am accosted by someone in a state of repellent inebriation. My ship of emotion lurches. I reel out the familiar script: If they really wanted to, these people could stop drinking, stop using, get a job. Besides, where are the family members? Their friends? They must deserve this. No more money from me! No sirree!! I walk away in a holier-than-thou snit.

Righteous indignation lasts for days. I walk swiftly by, blinders on. I ignore the pathetic signs, the pleas. I pretend I don't hear the sound of a plaintive recorder, the painful screech of a violin played by an elderly fellow who can hardly stand on his pins. I ignore the sign of a young mother with a toddler, slouched against the wall in the BART station, asking for money for diapers and milk.

But I can't keep it up. So I give in.

Now, having come full circle, from the day I gave to everyone to the day I blithely closed my eyes to an unconscious person on the sidewalk, I have arrived at a conclusion. This daily encounter with suffering is part of the plan. It's a way of not letting me get too smug. It's a constant reminder of my blessings and the fragility of life. It's a way of keeping my eyes and heart open.

So instead of being a "problem," it's a lesson. I am taught daily, on the streets of San Francisco, to be thankful and "for-giving." Even the anger and guilt I feel is part of being human. It's part of a day's work. Looking at it this way may not be the solution for everyone, but for me, it makes things a bit more bearable.

Jersey Street resident Anna Van der Heide is a poet, playwright, mother, and grandmother who has been a peripatetic legal secretary for the past eight years. A former editorial writer for Maine's Morning Sentinel, she retreats to her backwoods digs every spring.