Just this morning, on my way to work, I had about enough of working in San Francisco. At the corner of New Montgomery and Market a man completely mentally gone, was standing, weaving, holding his pants around his knees. A little further on, a man screaming in his own private language was running at people, trying to scare them, and succeeding. What exactly are you supposed to do when you encounter this stuff?Many homeless don’t fit the fond stereotype of down-on-their-luck families who just need a helping hand. Some woebegotten souls lack basic life skills of cognition and social behavior, skills any normal ten-year-old has. Personal hygiene is often lacking, and such individuals are not employable. They are schizophrenic, manic-depressive, psychotic, anxiety-ridden and/or addicted to drugs and alcohol. If you see one coming toward you and especially if you have a child with you, cross the street. (Yes, I know the parable of the Good Samaritan and no, I’m not him.)
The people to whom we serve a hot meal at the Redwood City community center are not like the homeless in San Francisco….or so I thought. Last Sunday we had ladled out the last of the lasagna and salad when one lady started screaming at an African-American man. She rained profanities—the F- and N-words—at the top of her lungs. The man became agitated and hurtled apples (from the brown bag lunches that we distribute at the exit) at the screamer. Fortunately, none of them landed.
Her face was red with anger as she turned to me, “Call the police! Lock him up! What kind of Catholics are you?” Assuming that advising her that we were, in fact, Episcopalians, would do little good, I turned my attention to the man and held up my hands. Sir, please stop throwing things.
“She called me a n******. She’s a crazy b****!”
I walked toward him.I know, thank you for letting this go, thank you for not responding. Please, it’s not worth the trouble, I said over and over. She wants me to call the police. I don’t want to do that.
“They’ll never believe me,” he said with some bitterness, “she’s a white woman and I’m a black man.” Yes, thank you for letting this go. He dropped his arms, turned and walked to his dilapidated car.
Pushing her shopping cart, the woman followed us and continued her expletive-laden rant. I planted myself in her path so she couldn’t go any further. Please ma’am, what did he do? I listened to an incoherent diatribe about the man’s parentage. I never did find out what set her off. Responses from me just made her angrier, so I just nodded my head and listened. Her harsh tones gradually diminished until she finally departed, but not without repeating her observations about African Americans and Catholics. Americans reach too readily for the pill bottle, but this was one person who definitely needed prescription medication, and I hope she had some at home.
I apologized to our volunteers, some of whom had brought their children who were serving for the first time. “Is it always like this?” they asked. No, I’ve been doing this for two years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
As our other guests filed out, they gave us more thank-you’s than usual. Perhaps some were worried that we wouldn’t be coming back. Our next date is in December. We’ll see you next time, I said, and there were relieved smiles. That was our only reward, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. © 2007 Stephen Yuen
The salad and baked chicken and rice was made for less than $20 in July.
Another snapshot from July.