For Whom The City Lights Glow

I'm pleased to offer a guest post by the ever lovely Slouching Mom. After reading her thoughts about her BlogHer experiences it moved me enough to ask for more. She's written quite beautifully about another view from our recent weekend.

I didn’t know San Francisco would be so cold a place. And I don’t mean the kind of cold you can combat by pulling on a sweater.

I stepped out of the taxi onto a crowded sidewalk in front of the swank hotel that had promised me a Heavenly Bed. (Later that day I’d discover that the bed in my room WAS heavenly. I don’t know what the management has done to achieve beds like that. I wanted to take it home with me.)

The sidewalk was jammed with people, people coming, people going, people sightseeing. And with someone who was neither coming nor going, who was most definitely not taking in the sights. He was sleeping. Or perhaps just closing his eyes against his own reality. His arms and legs were curled protectively around his chest. For warmth, for privacy, maybe for both. He was pressed as close to the wall of the hotel as he could get, but still, people were stepping over him.

Stepping over him.

I thought, How could people be so oblivious to their surroundings that they could walk over another human being? Without even hesitating? What does that say about how they overvalue their own lives and preoccupations? Because, don’t you know, they have places to go. And he so obviously doesn’t. No, from the looks of him, it’s been a long time since he had somewhere to go. A long time since he slept in anything resembling a Heavenly Bed.

You’ll think I’m naïve. But I’m not. I grew up in New York City in the seventies. Those were some of the worst years for the Big Apple’s homeless. Since then, New York has handled the problem of its homeless with clumsy but well-meaning hands. Things aren’t perfect there. Yet they are better, by a long shot, than they were when I was a kid.

Why can’t the same be said of San Francisco?

I wasn’t sure until the second day of the conference whether what I had witnessed at the entrance to the hotel was just an isolated event, however distressing.

That’s when I went to dinner a few blocks from the hotel.

And found that – if you looked – there were lots of people sleeping on sidewalks. Or sometimes, sitting up or standing. As human beings, even the homeless, will do.

One man was rather jovially trying to assist all the lost tourists. Your hotel?, he’d shout. The hotels are over there! And he’d point left where a group of befuddled tourists had just decided to try right.

He was not misleading anyone. He knew these streets.

But instead of thank you’s he received withering, or fearful, or angry stares from people so far out of their comfort zones they might as well have been on the moon. That group of tourists? They went right. Idiots, I thought. Was I being uncharitable? You decide.

I thanked him on their behalf. I figured someone ought to acknowledge him.

No problem, darlin’, he replied. I like to get people where they need to go. Used to be a bus driver, y’know.

I wanted to stop right there and stay awhile. Find out why he wasn’t still a bus driver. I was sure that he’d been an excellent driver. Why had he ended up here, there, everywhere, nowhere?

But I couldn’t stop. I had somewhere to be, you see.

Later that evening, as I lay in my Heavenly Bed, it was not the doings at the conference that kept me awake.

It was the man who used to be a bus driver, who for all I knew had slept in a Heavenly Bed himself, in a life so far removed from his life of today that it might as well have been another life altogether.

Who sixteen stories below me was surely tossing and turning as well, trying to find the elusive sweet spot, the spot where the concrete didn’t rub painfully against his limbs, his back, his head.

I finally fell asleep, high above him, the lights of San Francisco twinkling, beckoning me through the sheer curtains on the windows in my hotel room.

But those beautiful city lights? The tragedy is that they beckon only some of us. For the rest of us, they’re just one more hindrance to falling asleep.

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