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.
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.
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.”
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.
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