Three Different Stories, One Common Thread

social issues

By Angela Noel

May 6, 2018

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’ve been criss-crossing the country lately. Not only have I been to five destinations in six months with work, but Paul and I also went to Nevada for a long weekend. Invariably, someone is driving me somewhere in each of these trips. And those someones have stories.

I learn things when I sit in the back of someone’s cab, car, or van. You might recall my experience with a cabbie last year when a simple question resulted in a truly unique conversation about his road to recovery from a gambling addiction and his path towards helping the homeless. These more recent stories are like that, but different.

February 2018: San Francisco, California

On my way to a conference, I took an Uber from my hotel to the Presidio overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Igor*, my driver, talked with me about everyday things, like the cost of living in San Francisco and the strangely cold weather we were experiencing at that moment. We drove by the water’s edge where runners with baby joggers raced by in the chill wind. Somehow, the Parkland shooting came up.

Social Issues of violence
This is a view from Igor’s car on the way to The Presidio.

On February 14th, 2018 seventeen people were gunned down by a former student. It had been mere weeks since the event. As we both expressed horror, Igor, a young man not far from the age of the teenage victims, shared that he used to live in Florida. In fact, he’d gone to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He knew Aaron Feis, the Football coach whose body shielded students from the hail of bullets. I asked him, as gently as I could, how he was feeling.

“You know, it’s hard. It’s just hard. For everybody,” he replied. He didn’t seem overly emotional, just bewildered. “How do we grieve for something like this?” I asked him.

“I don’t know.” Igor ran a hand through his hair. We spent the next few minutes in silence. Not because things had become awkward, but because I think we both got lost for a moment in the enormity of the thing.

March 2018: Las Vegas, Nevada

My husband and I woke up at five a.m to board the shuttle that would take us to our kayaking adventure down the Colorado River. Brett, our driver, wore a fishing hat over his blond hair. The sun was not yet up as we drove along the mostly-empty highway towards the outfitters shop. Brett told us that’s where we’d load up our supplies and meet our guide for the day.

Social issues like teenage alcohol abuse
Behind me is the Hoover Dam. In front are the start of the 11-mile paddle down the river.

Prior to boarding the van, Paul had paid eight dollars for two tiny coffees and a croissant for our breakfast. While we ate our expensive coffee and pastry we chatted with Brett about his life in Vegas.

He told us he was a single dad, raising three daughters. Their mom had left a few years before, and wanted nothing more to do with the girls. I wondered, as we learned his story, whether the half-light of the early morning helped make confessions like these easier.

He went on to tell us that his eldest daughter, just thirteen, had been expelled from school a few days before. She’d been caught with a water bottle filled with vodka, which she’d offered to her friends. Brett explained how she’d tried to lie. How she’d said it wasn’t hers; that she was just holding it for a friend, and she hadn’t had any of it herself. But her dad knew the signs of a hangover, and she had one the next day. He knew she deserved the punishment. But what next?

He asked for neither sympathy nor advice. I think he just wanted to say the words out loud, to hear himself speak about the challenges he faced. Paul and I both listened. We asked what he planned to do.

“For now it’s no phone, no TV, no friends. For now, we’re just trying to figure things out.”

The average age when American girls have their first drink , I later learned, is thirteen.

April 2018: San Francisco, California

A sinus infection pulsed in my head, making me feel slightly woozy and sorry for myself. The Uber driver, James, patiently helped me navigate the San Francisco streets in order to find his little car parked nearby.

As Igor and I had discussed back in February, the price of housing in San Francisco and the surrounding area came up in our driver-passenger conversation. James told me he’d managed to  build a little cottage at the back of his grandfather’s property, thus solving his personal housing problem. But the two years it took to complete the paperwork, with study after study, permit after permit, made what should have been joyful–the building of a first home–a chore.

Social issues like homelessness
The high rises and the lights hide the misery beneath. Homelessness in California is on the rise.

Next, I mentioned how many homeless people I now see in California in general, and San Francisco in particular. I shared that it hurt my heart to see one woman cradling a two-year-old girl begging for money outside the conference center day after day. I’d watched as a person employed by the conference helped a homeless man to his feet, “Sir,” he’d said. “Sir, you can’t sleep here.”

While listening to my story, James agreed the problems of homelessness were only getting worse. The cost of housing was high, building new housing units was filled with red tape, and no one seemed able to see or address the underlying causes. At one point, the city had handed out tents. But then when the tent cities went up, the neighbors complained.

But there’s more. James knows a man who works in government. From him he learned of an unintended consequence of the eco-friendly single-use plastic bag ban of 2016. “The homeless,” he said, “they use their bags, you know, for their poop. Without the bags, they just do it on the street.”

“What?” my sinus-infected head had trouble wrapping itself around this one.

“Yeah. I had a passenger one day and we were stopped at a light and the guy in my car says, ‘Is that guy taking a dump?’ And he was. We saw this guy squatting between two cars and then he just walked away.”

Of course, poop isn’t what anyone really wants to talk about on a ride to the airport. But then again, when should we talk about it? The rise of human feces on San Francisco streets began before 2016, but has sharply increased in the last two years. Whether this fact stems in part from the bag ban or something else, I can’t say. But what seems obvious to me, and to James, was that the problem of human poop on the streets of San Francisco is a symptom, not the disease.

The Common Thread

Why have I told you these three stories? Gun violence, teenage alcohol abuse, and homelessness touch us all in one way or another. These perfect strangers shared their stories with me. Why? Perhaps for the same reason I’m sharing them with you.

We have to talk about them. We can’t let what we’re seeing stay in the dark. The tragedy of human existence is not that our lives end, but that we don’t recognize ourselves in the tragedies faced by others.

Each one of these stories shows a side of me: a bewildered youth, a heartbroken parent, and a citizen helplessly witnessing the intersection between rules and reality.

We are all the same. To do something about the problems of the world, we have to see them as our problems, not someone else’s. Only then will we have the will to change.

Your Turn: What stories have you heard from strangers or friends lately that have made you pause? Do you plan to do something about what you heard?

*names have been changed

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

35 thoughts on “Three Different Stories, One Common Thread”

  1. I hear it and see if as I walk and take transit. I think we have to begin locally – what and can we do for individuals in our city. It is great to give to worldwide catastrophes but people have to start also looking closer to home and issues right in front of them. Great post.

    1. Yes. I feel like the key is not waiting to act. That’s one of the commitments I make to myself is to not wait to do things. If I deliberate too much when I could be doing something, paralysis sets in. I love your point–to focus on the local makes a huge difference.

  2. Excellent post. You weaved the seasons and intersections of our lives beautifullyby your words and with your heart.

  3. It’s interesting at how at these particular moments in our lives we come across these people and their stories. It’s like the universe is trying to tell us something! 🙂

  4. I liked your stories and felt great sadness at the same time. My uncle lived in California most of hisife- he often told us tales that counteracts our associations with the state. I can imagine people feel the same about Ireland when they hear our painful truths x

    1. That’s a great point. I think sometimes, though we don’t want to hear the other side–I know I don’t–it’s important to question those assumptions. I did love Ireland when I visited a few years back. But I know, like everywhere, there are issues.

  5. Love how people suddenly start sharing bits of their lives with each other. I always pause at stories where people have overcome incredible adversity and simply shrug it off as normal.

    Sad stories however maybe you were meant to hear them and write this post.

    1. I agree, the best stories are the overcoming adversity ones. I think, in these cases, it was important that I listen. And as you suggest–maybe it all comes down to just sharing and deciding how to overcome the adversity together.

  6. Very though provoking. I work in a small Vintage shop part-time and what I find, and what I see in these 3 stories as the common thread is the human need to be understood. Folks are in pain and they need to release the pressure. Perhaps we do not have the support systems like we use to and now we must share with complete strangers. Or perhaps, you are like me and people feel safe with you and know that a compassionate soul has arrived to help them make sense of their world.

    1. Oh yes! What a perfect thread to find. We do all need to be understood. I don’t know if people feel comfortable with me, though I’d like to believe they do. I’m honored they share their stories with me.
      I’m so glad you know your own gifts of compassion, though. I’m certain it makes a big difference to those around you who need a kind word. Thank you for reading and adding your thought!

  7. Wow. Awesome post. Yes we are all the same. We all have the elements of the stars in our bodies, every single one of us. I think that’s so amazing. And we’re all connected that’s why we have to be careful how we treat each other. 🙂

    1. Yes. I wonder . . . since we can prove that two atoms separated by thousands of miles can impact each other (the beauty of quantum physics) what if we could scientifically prove that an impact to me has an impact on you? Like a real, measurable cellular level impact? That’s science I’d like to see on Nova any day of the week.

  8. What amazing experiences, and people, you have come across lately, Angela. And, your experiences are a result of you and your willingness to listen, and your hunger to try to help others. You’re a great person. Thank you for doing what you do. Sometimes all people need is for someone to listen. You are that, but so much more because of the awareness you raise through your writing and good deeds.

    I have a story about my cousin to share. She is a young mother who has always had a kind heart – a giving heart. The recent media focus on sex-trafficking here in Minnesota had touched here deeply, so my cousin was desperate to find a way to help. After reading a very recent article on how men brand the young girls like cattle, she knew how she could help.

    My cousin makes jewelry, so she raised enough money to make bracelets that have the word “Loved” engraved on them for all of the girls in a local shelter. This particular shelter provides services specifically designed to meet the girls’ needs, address the harm caused by the trafficking, and move them toward recovery and self-­efficacy. My cousin wants the girls to know that their cattle brands mean nothing. She wants them to know that others love and care about them. Besides donating bracelets to the shelter, my cousin is volunteering her time by teaching the girls how to make jewelry.

    I thought of this story as an example of someone who took action, and thought it appropriate to share here.

    Angela, wonderful post!

    1. Oh my gosh, Erin. I got chills reading about your wonderful cousin. I’m so inspired by her work and her sincere act of love.
      She is truly performing a radical act of empathy that I could only dream of.
      What can I do to support her?
      I absolutely suck at making jewelry or crafts of any kind, but I’d love to do something.
      Any one who doesn’t just talk, but actually DOES something with the gifts they have deserve a support team to celebrate the effort and contribute to the work.
      Let’s talk if you think there’s more we (I) can do.

      1. Angela, I know what you mean. I still get chills thinking about it and talking to people about it. I added you to her Facebook group (feel free to leave if you don’t want to be in the group) where she updates people on what’s going on). She was previously asking for sponsors for the bracelets, but she already placed the order for the supplies. Not sure if she’ll order more or not.

        Also, I agree! Let’s be her support team. I’d like to know if we could help out in any other way too. I’ll be sure to ask her, and let her know that I added you to the group. 🙂

        Thanks, Angela, for wanting to get involved. x

        1. I may have let her know just now before reading your comment! As another reader noted–sometimes you have to do what you can when you can. And while I’m feeling inspired and able, I want to do something not just “hope” I can at some point.
          Sorry if I jumped the gun!

  9. Oh my god these stories are heart breaking, Angela. I kind of love having these special conversations with random strangers though. It’s good to talk to people who you wouldn’t normally talk to. I remember chatting to a stranger about her heartbreaking journey with IVF and desperately trying for a child (she did have one eventually). I’ll always remember that conversation. It was quite special. Keep having those conversations Angela- I hope we hear more.

    1. I agree with you. Sometimes having a conversations with a stranger is the only way to say what’s really on your mind.
      I’m sure you offered the woman having trouble with conceiving a kind ear.

      I remember, years ago, I spilled my guts to a stranger after a particularly terrible night with my ex husband. Her kindness may have been the only thing that got me through the day.
      I think you nailed it with your comment–these special conversations are just that, special and priceless.

      1. Sometimes it feels like fate when people appear in our lives, only for that short period of time and they lend you a well needed non-judgemental ear or sage advice or it’s the other way round. Someone briefly comes into your life, so you can help them in some way. Even if it’s just in a small way. It’s all quite lovely really.

  10. Excellent post Angela! As I was reading your stories I kept thinking how much safer we sometimes feel sharing with strangers. We can somehow retain anonymity but destroy the paralysis that comes with feeling isolated. I have too many stories like the ones you’ve shared to retell hear but I do totally appreciate your idea of the common thread. In my first few ‘lives’ – my 20s, 30s, 40s, – I directly addressed different issues at different times through my work and in my personal passions. Now professionally, I support those who are in the trenches through coaching. In my experience, society’s problems can overwhelm us if we are paying attention at all. My approach is to do what I can when I can – and to not beat myself up with guilt when I can’t.

    1. Hello, Janet! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Your approach makes so much sense. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the worlds problems just leads to paralysis. But doing what we can when we can with a focused spirit and a commitment to “just do” makes a difference. None of us will save the world on our own. But little things working in concert will make a difference. I believe that.
      Your work sounds very fulfilling. I love how you describe your first few “lives.” There’s that beautiful line that Meryl Steep says in “The Natural” that I always quote. It’s something like, “You know, I believe we have two lives; one we learn with and the one we live with after.” I think we get to do that again and again–more than just two lives, many learning lives and many ones we live with after.
      Thank you again for your thoughtful words.

  11. I don’t believe much of anything I tell myself, until I hear myself say it out loud. It really is a burden sometimes to keep things within and just be in your own head. Talking to other people, can be very helpful but there is something about talking to people you don’t really know and don’t expect to see again that allows you to open up all the more and even if you don’t solve your problem, you release a lot of the inner-stress that you are feeling. i enjoyed the stories and the post.

  12. I count my blessings every day. It is so sad to see so many people struggling just to survive.

    1. It is. Very very hard to see. But in some ways I feel compelled to see and not just turn away. I do that too, sometimes. Like it’s too hard to look in the face of someone asking me for money and say no. But then again, I should offer them that small thing. If I’m saying no, then I should have the courage to say no with compassion if nothing else. I’m not sure–still trying to figure that one out.

  13. We only get one shot at it and wish we could all just get on with life and happiness.
    Many thanks for stopping by my Travel and Photography blog. 🙂

  14. Sometimes people have stories that they need to share. It’s great that they found someone who was willing to listen and be there for them in that moment.

    1. I wonder how many “strangers” have been my ear over time. I think the number is probably greater than I think! Thank you for reading and commenting!

  15. Such dramatic, real-life stories are not always so easy to read, but they are worthwhile. Thank you for them.

    1. I agree. Definitely not easy to read or to hear. But it’s one of those things–a bit like working out. It has to hurt a bit to help us improve. Thank you for reading!

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