“Not today” and other ideas for visiting “The City”

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For most people, November means Fall, Thanksgiving, football, Black Friday*. For communication nerds, it also means NCA or the National Communication Association’s annual convention. This year the conference took place in San Francisco, just a stone’s throw from my homeland. Double trouble! I flew home on a Friday and Mr. T dropped me in “The City,” on Sunday. A few days later, I took a metro, bus and train back to Sac. (Woo for public transit!)

One of the coolest things about the trip for me was to see how first-timers approached the city. I noted much giggling about cable cars, awe over the tall buildings and cool architecture, dread for the near-vertical streets, and of course, appreciation for the amazing restaurants. Although I haven’t spent an extensive amount of time in the city lately, I’ve hit all the tourist traps (except for Alcatraz, don’t ask me why), hung out with my sister who used to live there, and even survived 10-12 solo trips over the Golden Gate** bridge. I remember visiting the park with my mom as a little girl, eating African food with my hands at some downtown spot, strolling down Haight-Ashbury, eating sundaes at Ghiradelli Square, eating more sundaes at Ghiradelli square, hanging out at Pier 39 with T and of course, enjoying lots of homemade pasta*** in North Beach at Cafe Puccini. My historical memories are very sweet indeed.

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Less sweet were the realities of this trip in which I spent a significant amount of time denying requests for money. I wore out my typical response in exchanges like this:

“Can I have a quarter?”
Gulp. “Not today.”

“Give me a dollar.”
Sigh. “Not today.”

“Can you spare some change?”
Squirm. “Not today.”

I tend to be soft-hearted when it comes to requests from people on the street. I automatically think of how blessed I am and that if someone asks “Can you spare some change?”, the answer is almost always “Of course I can.” If I lie or say no, I feel disingenuous and selfish even if the odds are high that I am being fooled.

After three days walking the streets of San Francisco for my conference, it was with a significant amount of guilt that I realized that my reactions to the requests grew more and more jaded over time. Had I given a dollar to everyone who asked, I would have spent more than $50 and I started to get frustrated. I felt angered by the aggressive requests, the yelling when I declined, the overt use of intimidation on others. The emotions came to a head when I was swarmed in the BART (metro) station and I watched people jump past me to feverishly collect my change. I rushed off to grab the train, peeved.

Three days later, I’m still trying to make sense of it. Hailing from a Christian**** background, I am conditioned to believe it is imperative to care for the poor, the defenseless, those unable to fend for themselves. Like, in many cases, the people I met last weekend. It broke my heart to see adults wandering the filthy streets in rags, bare feet, reeking, carrying bags, digging through trash, sleeping on the sidewalk, talking to themselves, yelling at passersby, many clearly strung out. Some may argue that by paying taxes, I take care of the poor, but I feel compelled to do more. And yet, I can’t reasonably give dollars to every person who asks. (Really, I don’t have that many lately.) I don’t know what to do or how to contextualize my simultaneous feelings of guilt, anger, pity, frustration, sympathy.



* Black Friday for me means not shopping but DECORATING! Yes, you already know I’m a Christmas crazy, and since the Christmas tree is still standing sentry in the front room (undecorated, as if that makes it any better), I will be spending this November 26 pouring on the tinsel and ornaments!

** I contend that the scariest thing about San Francisco is driving. If you want to take your life in your hands, try it. Even better, try negotiating the hills in a stick shift. I am still haunted.

*** I was blessed not one but two delectable North Beach pasta dinners this trip. I can’t recommend Cafe Puccini and Franchino highly enough… family owned and operated with lots of Italian love. Read more about both of them (and other North Beach pasta places), here.

**** I realize that many belief systems echo these same exact ideals, for the record.

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