The sidewalks are filled with evidence of raw domesticity—this is what public housing looks like in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. There are living rooms under bus stop awnings, bedrooms made out of garbage bags and cardboard and open bathrooms in doorway alcoves. I walk down Ellis Street dodging mattresses, tents, Chinese take-out cartons, syringes and feces (likely not canine). A breeze brings an acidic whiff of pee that burns my nostrils. I hold my breath and walk faster hoping to find air I can breathe. This is the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, named after a similar historic neighborhood in New York City. Yes, that tender cut of meat—not because it’s precious or top-choice but because it’s the “soft underbelly” of the city. In the Tenderloin, humanity’s precariousness meets society’s mercenary tendencies, and the vulnerable become victim to our vices.
But he sees me. I’ve been marked. He’s tall and lanky and sways cool and easy in the Sunday morning sun. A black beret rests on top of a hairless head and his face is shadowed with stubby whiskers. In the 50’s perhaps he would have been a patron, or a musician, at the Black Hawk, one of the Tenderloin’s famous jazz clubs where greats like Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk played and recorded. But on this morning, in this time, he’s just another panhandler.
He shakes his Starbucks’ coffee cup as I approach, “Good morning, any spare change for breakfast?”
I’ve seen him before but of course I don’t know his name. My pace quickens.
“Come on man, how about a few coins?”
He follows me with a forced smile and the percussion of his cup and pivots with me as I move to his right. I’ve got to hand it to him; his marketing has good engagement. It’s not aggressive but it’s determined.
I am on my way to my church, Glide Memorial Church, a remarkable spiritual community that walks their talk, serves 2000 meals a day—breakfast, lunch and dinner. I consider inviting him to Glide but I remember getting cussed out by someone in the street a few weeks ago when I suggested he could get a meal at Glide. I’m in the Tenderloin every Wednesday for choir rehearsal and Sunday for church (called celebrations) because I sing in the Glide Ensemble—gospel music rooted in the pain of slavery—honest music that somehow made it possible for slaves to live through another day. The music still touches and moves broken spirits and inspires hope. But on this morning, in this moment, I don’t want to walk the talk or sing the songs.
At least look him in the eye, my inner voice reprimands. I was raised a preacher’s kid in a religion that mixed love and judgment in a cocktail that was sweet and yet burned when it went down. I think of Jesus’ parable about the righteous who neglects those in need, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Matthew 25:45
I am surprised the man’s eyes are clear. I am ashamed that I assumed they wouldn’t be. The window between us opens and closes quickly. I’m on my way—I need to get somewhere.
“Sorry," I shrug my shoulders as an apology, "Not today."
I think it sounds like a nice no.
But before I can move around him he says, “You said that last week. If not today, then when?”
I almost trip over my feet. I thought this man was an obstacle on my way to church but maybe he’s the sermon. My breath gets small and I feel like a kid who has just been caught in a lie. I open my wallet, but not my heart, and put a couple dollars in his cup. If you do the right thing for the wrong reason, is it still the right thing?
I continue down the Tenderloin gauntlet, now carrying an unwieldy burden of shame that expresses itself as irritation, maybe anger, without a name or a destination. Who am I mad at? Him? Me? San Francisco? God?
I’m a few hundred feet from Glide and I see a woman sitting in front of a business that has not yet opened. She’s wrapped up in a sleeping bag with her head poking out the top. She’s looking down the sidewalk at me. I gird myself for another request.
As I pass she calls out, “Good morning.”
I wait for the “ask” but she just smiles. I take a deep breath and allow the air to be what it is. I feel something soften—it’s starts with my shoulders and moves to the muscles in my jaw. Her hair is wild and she looks like she just woke up. There is warmth in this new moment. Maybe I’m the first person she has seen today.
Without a Bible verse or a “should,” I smile back at her. “Good morning.” I’m surprised how good it feels to see her.
“Love your haircut.” She calls out again.
I start to chuckle and then mysterious tears well up in my eyes.
I pause and take another breath. “Thank you.”
Her smile is toothless, “You have a good day honey.”
I reach the intersection of Ellis and Taylor Streets and look up at the sun bouncing off the tall white bell tower of Glide Church. I'm ready to sing.
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.