Change. Is this something you anticipate or something to be reviled? Some changes are easy. Other times, they resemble trying to turn the Titanic.
Years ago, I helped run and volunteered at a homeless drop-in center off of Haight Street. Every Friday night, my friend and I would troll the upper Haight and hand out invitations to a motley crew of street kids from the hippies to the gutter punks. We would circle back after completing the walk to Stanyan and make our way back to lower Haight where we would cook that evening’s soup and assemble the dregs of yesterday’s pastries from our neighborhood Starbucks. Everyone had a job. And mine, unsurprisingly involved the kitchen. Some nights Mary and I would show up at the Living Room, and find an odd hodge podge assortment of food that did not appear to hold any semblance of a meal or sustenance. On those evenings, I would pray for guidance and sometimes I would cry like a mother who couldn’t feed her children. It’s a despicable feeling and thankfully only happened one or two times. Darren, another volunteer became quite resourceful with the peanut butter. When we had it on-hand, he would sneak it into soup as a source of protein, giving a tinge of creamy richness to the soup bubbling on the stove top. Over the years, there were different cooks in the different incarnations of the coffee house drop-in that was the Living Room.
Out in front-of-house, the coffee percolated in a large stainless steel receptacle while the hot water brewed. Any assortment of hot tea bags from a trip earlier in the week to the food bank made their way into a basket. Before the doors were unlocked, the kids would gather in the back patio, smoking, chatty and waiting for the doors to open. For a few hours, this place was transformed with burning incense and candles, with tapestries slung on the walls and all the couches oriented toward a large television for the weekly movie viewing. We worked and welcomed the kids in with the intention of an alternative to the street and perhaps the drugs that might be tempting them otherwise.
Bright shapes and configurations of Tetris descended down the large television screen while the first few to make it inside would quickly find seats near the controls to the game. I buzzed about the room, saying hellos, making sure the beverage and eats stations were stocked, giving hugs and high fives. After an hour, we’d start that night’s movie and the kids would settle into the couch, some ready for the cinematic escape, others for a warm and soft place to nap for the next few hours. And just like that, the movie would be over, we would thank them for coming before we flipped on the fluorescent lights and began cleaning up, swinging the couches back against the walls, sweeping any crumbs from the floor. At this time, at around 1 a.m., Mary and I drove down emptied streets of San Francisco making the long trek back to Marin. The 101 freeway wound like a great snake, darkened by night and only visible by the wan lights of my car and the moon illuminating the stretch of road before us.
During my three years as part of the Living Room drop-in, I worked under Rob’s leadership and then shared the helm with Mary before Eric began to lead it. We collected stories and made friends. This community of people, these friends of ours were an important part of our lives. During that time, I was in graduate school, and the Living Room was the thing that gave me purpose and moved my spirit.When confronting the travails of grad school, they paled in comparison to my friends who had chosen or had thrust upon them this other way of life.
Something we learned quickly was the importance of the group – the family – the community necessary to make it on the streets. Mary and I were a team and a sounding board to talk about the night’s events, to cry and pray at things beyond our reach when we saw our friends in battle with themselves or others.
One evening I met a kid named Chris. His eyes still shone with that sense of possibility. Apart from his eyes, his demeanor, the clothing with a light dusting of dirt and his way with the others all singled him out as a newbie. He seemed happy in his new lifestyle and friendly, if not a bit shy. I had pegged him as one of the rich kids looking to escape that lifestyle- it was not uncommon to find them loitering on Haight Street, in “rough” and “worn” looking clothing, as if auditioning for a part before reading the script and learning the character’s outcome.
I watched the weeks go by and saw Chris a handful of times until he stopped coming to the Living Room. Then one afternoon several months after I’d last seen him, I ran into him on Haight Street, a changed kid.
His long brown hair now gnarled and matted, those bright brown eyes now empty of their former sheen. He walked alone but talked loudly to an unseen companion. I said hello and he looked at me blankly even as I tried to remind him where we’d met. We parted one toward the park and the waiting drum circle, the other in a haze and fog that had engulfed him. I saw him one other time but kept my distance picking up further cues of dissociation. It saddened me, not knowing how far further down the rabbit hole he would have to fall and if he would ever find his way back.
My friends who lived outside, calling the trees and inlets of Golden Gate Park home- who lived under the Bay Bridge and forged a life outside of the rules of the indoor people- they taught me so much. Perhaps the most important lesson learned involved the necessity of community. Sure, there were the lone wolves among the street kids who happened upon the Living Room, my chess teacher and friend Johnson, among them, but he is a friend for another story. They understood the importance of watching each others’ backs and possessions. When one kid got sent to jail for drug possession, his friends watched his dog, Socrates until he was released.
When my time to depart from the Living Room came nigh, I departed unexpectedly and as quickly as my first visit had convinced me to ingratiate myself into this community. My exit and the reasons for it resembled more of a Roman candle than a long steady burn. During that time, I also began to question if people can really change- myself included. This involved me interviewing friends of different ages, trying to gather as many perspectives as possible.
I needed to believe we can.
And that was the key- the “we.” We’re not so different, are we- the ones who dwell indoors? It’s so rote and expected, that phrase of Thomas Merton‘s, but it is true: “No man is an island.” We need each other. Together we are stronger.
A proverb in the book of Ecclesiastes says, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
See, it takes a village. And sometimes or especially when change is involved, the role the village plays becomes paramount. Is it one of support? Is it one of static understandings?
I tried going back to the Living Room after Eric had taken over running it, after Mary had moved away, after I had moved into San Francisco from Marin. And while it felt good to see old faces, give hugs to old friends and support Eric’s leadership, it felt different. I had changed and so had it. The community playing the pivotal role in my life had shifted. This place which had shaped me and both softened my heart and hardened my understandings of life on the streets no longer fit.
When the change comes, we must not fight it, but instead recognize the secret is to learn from it- best done with a village that’s got your back. And sometimes that might involve a slice of pie…
(to be continued)