By ALEXI VENICE
During this week of Thanksgiving, I am thankful for a roof over my head and food on the table. A few months ago, when a colleague and I were walking to lunch on Market Street in San Francisco, we had an experience with a homeless person.
We both currently live in the Midwest in cities less than one-tenth the size of San Francisco. We have some homeless people where we live, but given the inclement weather from October through April, we aren’t used to seeing the sheer volume of homelessness that exists in San Francisco.
(Tent City, the homeless, and their relocation have been covered extensively by The San Francisco Chronicle in multiple articles. Link here. The series is illuminating, deeply emotional and very thorough.)
I want to explore a different angle than The Chronicle explored —my own conscience (yes, I have one)—about my personal duty and obligation to a homeless person. As background and context, I’ve donated money to local homeless shelters and personally bought clothes for the homeless. What I witnessed on Market Street in San Francisco, however, rattled me. I feel like I froze, overthought the situation, then blew it.
We passed a seemingly homeless woman in her mid-30’s, sitting on Market Street with an infant on her lap. Yes, a newborn. She had two small dogs tied to a garbage bin who were hovering around her, and her tiny newborn was cradled between her legs on a blanket. This was a startling and jarring scene for us, stopping us in our tracks.
(It would have been nice to insert a photo of her here, but how would I do that? “Hi, can I take your photo for my blog post? Here’s $20 for your trouble?” Instead, I ask you to picture her in your mind’s eye.)
My colleague and I were deeply troubled by the image of this woman and her infant on a civilized city street in America with people passing by, some casting a glance in sympathy, but most ignoring her.
I’m not criticizing the residents of San Francisco. I don’t live and work there. They probably see her often and know more than I do. Likewise, I don’t know her personal story. All I saw was her sitting on the sidewalk—three days in a row—with a baby, two dogs and a green garbage bin.
Witnessing this woman eating a sandwich, holding her baby, and coping on the street wasn’t just a topic of conversation for my colleague and me. It was a wakeup call about humanity and our moral, ethical and religious obligations. We discussed her over lunch—in a comfortable restaurant with tables, chairs and china—and struggled with our duty to this woman and her baby. The disparity between her existence and ours clobbered us over the head.
Should we throw money at her? Is that the answer? Does she want money? She wasn’t asking for it. She didn’t have a cup in front of her. Some people sitting on the street are very clear about what they want, displaying a cup or sign, or verbalizing it—loudly—as you pass by. She didn’t have any signs or say anything.
As we discussed what to do, I told my colleague that I expected the homeless woman to be on my elevator to Heaven when I died. My colleague asked what the heck I was talking about, so I shared my philosophy about how I think I’ll arrive at St. Peter’s Gate.
People often have the expectation that when they die, they’ll arrive at Heaven’s Gate alone, as a single traveler. I, on the other hand, expect to arrive with a group. Statistics show that approximately 150,000 people die daily on our planet. Allowing for different religious beliefs, and those going to hell, logic tells me that I’ll present to Heaven with others.
As our line moves slowly, serpentining between railings like at Disney World–waiting for our individual interview with St. Peter–I’ll look at those around me, wondering how I’ll fare in comparison. For example, if Ellen DeGeneres dies the same day I do, and my pitch to St. Peter is that I brought happiness to people by making them laugh, I’d better hope that Ellen isn’t standing in line in front of me. My contribution is so minuscule in comparison that it’s laughable in and of itself. After enjoying a good ironic laugh, St. Peter would banish me back to Earth to start over.
Please indulge me that St. Peter’s decision might be based on a comparative analysis. I realize I’m not citing any theological reference in support of this position. In fact, I might simply be judged against the 10 Commandments under the circumstances of my own, singular existence. That doesn’t stop me, however, from looking around at my fellow human beings when I’m in certain settings, like on a plane, elevator, or city street, wondering if this will be my group when I arrive at Heaven’s Gate.
Under my comparative analysis, I have a sinking suspicion that I’m going to die the same day as the homeless woman with the infant on her lap. I picture us standing side-by-side under the scrutinizing gaze of St. Peter when he asks me, “Alexi, when you were in San Francisco in 2017, did you walk past this lady and her infant without stopping to ask if she needed anything?”
I will tell the truth—as you must when being interviewed for a spot in Heaven. “Yes, I walked past her.”
“Why did you walk past her?” St. Peter will ask.
“I don’t know. A combination of factors—not knowing what to do. Not wanting to invade her world or space. Not knowing what I could offer her. Not knowing if I would offend her by offering money. Basically, fear of failure and general insecurity,” I would mutter in embarrassment.
You know what I think a reasonable response from St. Peter would be to my rationalized excuses? Do you want the honest truth from me—what I truly believe in my heart-of-hearts—even though it doesn’t reflect well on me?
Here it is: I think that St. Peter would justifiably say to me, “Back to Earth you go, Alexi, until you can figure out that you need to stop and ask a mother who’s sitting on a city street—with an infant on her lap—if she needs anything. And, prepare yourself to engage with her and help her to obtain what she needs. This might interrupt your day, make you feel uncomfortable or generally inconvenience you. Go back and try again. Love you, bye.”
And, I will sink back down to Earth, be born again, start all over, and hope to hell that I get it right the next time when I’m interviewed by St. Peter.
I failed the homeless mother with an infant resting on her lap. I will pray for her this Thanksgiving, hoping she and her child have a hot meal and place to stay on this sacred day in America, as well as for the cold winter months that follow.