Thomas Fuller, currently the San Francisco Bureau Chief for the New York Times, recently penned an opinion piece on his experience returning to San Francisco after 27 years covering civil unrest and poverty in Asia. His writing is ripe with sharp observations about the state of affairs in San Francisco, specifically with reference to the astounding wealth gap that has opened up there in the years since he left, a gap that he is only now able to observe. This piece is meant to comment on the wealth gap through a lens of affluence, something that can be done in any city where a wealth gap exists, which is most of them. Thanks for reading.
As I walk along Mission street, away from work, away from the hustle of downtown San Francisco, I notice, though not for the first time, the homeless man sitting on the corner, just outside the pizza place that someone told me not to try, even though it always smells delicious when I pass it. I imagine it smells the same to him, the only difference is that I have the choice of whether or not I want to eat there. He does not, and he knows it. But he sits outside nonetheless, perhaps hoping that an employee will take pity on him, walk outside, and hand him the slices that didn’t make it into the hands of customers. But no one does, or at least they haven’t for a long time. That man knows, because he’s been there for years. The previous owners were good people — hard-working, and kind. But they weren’t ready when their landlord began raising rent, and were forced out before they knew it, out of the restaurant they had owned since before San Francisco became known as a home for social freedom, let alone for the emergence of digital technology. That man on the corner has been there long enough to watch as small tech companies gradually came to occupy buildings previously leased by the phone company, or warehouses that once housed manufacturing plants; long enough to watch as Giants fans began showing up in downtown San Francisco on Friday nights, talking about their team and Pacific Bell Park, then SBC Park, then AT&T. That man on the corner has been there long enough to watch as others like him began their slow migration to downtown San Francisco, where they know so many of the people are the perfect combination of wealthy and sympathetic, their bank accounts swollen with more money than they’d ever know how to spend. In San Francisco, now, homeless line the streets along which those of us lucky enough to work downtown walk. Most of the time, we remain deliberately oblivious to the plight of those who, for the most part, sit quietly waiting, hoping that one of us will make eye contact with them, stop, and offer them money, or even something as simple as being acknowledged.
Economics classes like to talk about the wealth of a society as measured by all the goods and services sold in that society in a given year, and on the surface, that seems fair. A society that produces more for its citizens is, on the whole, more desirable than one that produces less. But that ignores the reality that a walk down Market street on a given evening will reveal to anyone willing to make it: it is not always true that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Many are left out. And measurements like GDP do not account for the fact that wealth is not always distributed in an optimal way. In fact, it becomes ever more apparent just how many are left out of this bubble as we notice just how good the quality of life is for those of us lucky enough to be living inside it.
So many of us are able to treat cities like San Francisco as vacation hotspots — places we visit when we seek to escape the mundane. We do this by dining out at restaurants the names of which we cannot pronounce, or by attending a three-day music festival in a park that for the other 362 days every year is a home for many without one. For those three days, the homeless must find somewhere else to wait, awash with the knowledge that they’d have to spend months panhandling to garner the cash required to revisit the home the festival forced them to leave. For many of those inside, however, the cost of admission is negligible — afforded to them by the work they do between breakfast and lunch on a given Tuesday — that is, after they’ve had their coffee from the barista stand that makes it for them every day, free of charge, on the eighth floor of their company’s building.
This privilege is what allows us to walk the streets of San Francisco, eyes forward, deliberately oblivious to the pain, suffering, and anguish that sits just below our gaze; deliberately oblivious to the bearded, dirt-stained figure, who sits cross-legged on a box that two weeks earlier was used to deliver a mattress to the software engineer who lives upstairs. That man on the corner, a mess of filth and despair, dares not train his gaze upwards — he knows no one is looking — but rather reaches out his arm and gently shakes a paper cup with the Coca-Cola logo emblazoned in red cursive on the side, the brand a constant reminder of the system that failed him, the jingle of coins just audible over the din of affluence; of traffic; of progress, that allows us too often to forget that “the workweek” we so frequently dread is the very thing that grants us the privileges that the man in the 49ers coat doesn’t know, has never known, and will never know.
What is it about men like him that so repulses us? Is it his physicality? Is it that he looks and smells nothing like the men and women that sit next to us at work, or jostle against us on the subway? Is it his mentality, or ours? Is it that we believe so strongly in the value of hard work as both a personality trait and as the leading determinant of an individual’s success that whenever we see someone who doesn’t exude excellence, we write them off? In fact, I don’t believe it is any of those things — rather, it is the sympathy in every one of us that ties that knot in each of our stomachs every time we are forced into a situation where we have to walk past that man.
As humans, we are innately programmed to comfort one another. Some do so less than others, but it is human nature for parents to comfort their children, and similar actions occur between siblings, cousins, and friends. We derive value from the ability to help one another, and it pains us when we cannot. Every time we walk past that man, sitting there, huddled against the cold, his weather-worn face pressed against the cardboard box that for now is to him as what came inside it is to the man upstairs, we are simultaneously hit with the desire to help and the fear of what might happen if we do. And as humans, we are also innately programmed to respond viscerally to that fear mechanism, even if it has no basis in reality.
So imagine yourself, walking down that street at night, the sun already well below the horizon. Imagine yourself seeing that man, sitting there, paper cup in outstretched hand, shaking gently. That man is huddled in blankets that someone must have left him, wearing that 49ers jacket, shivering against the cold — he poses no threat. As we get closer, we are hit with waves of sympathy; of sadness, that something like this could be happening in the city we call home, that someone could be forced to live like this, homeless and alone. We yearn for an easy way to help, some simple thing we could do to get that man off the streets and into the shelter where he might at least get a bed and a warm meal. And yet, that magic button doesn’t exist. And as we get closer, we see a look on his face that may years ago have resembled a smile, but now appears menacing, angry, and pained. So we look up, away from that man on the corner, and return our eyes to the plane reserved for those of us who have keys in our pockets; those of us who have to open doors to return home. And as we pass him, we find ourselves justifying our inaction. He’s probably on drugs, we think. He had his chance. He may be. And he may have. But we aren’t sure, just like the single guy sitting at the bar with friends isn’t sure the beautiful brunette wearing the strapless red dress will turn around if he approaches her, or even accept the drink if he offers it; just like the mother isn’t sure that the pot she smelled on her son’s jacket as he brushed past her on his way to his room was actually pot, or something else; or whether his eyes are bloodshot because he’s been smoking, or crying, or both.
This conflict — this inability to be sure — is so central to the human condition that it nearly defines it. When we walk past that man, we are trapped — paralyzed, even — in a maze of our own projections of what might happen, as we so often are in so many different parts of our lives. We are sad, but not sad enough; pained, but not pained enough; sympathetic, but not sympathetic enough. And it is because of that divide, not between the rich and the poor, but between those with everything and those with nothing; that divide that allows some of us to find ourselves in restaurants where our meal costs as much as our rent; that divide that allows some of us to visit Golden Gate Park as a tourist attraction instead of as a home, that we find ourselves in that anxious state, sure of nothing except that we are unsure of everything, a state that always ends when the fear inside of us takes over and leads us back onto the path we know, away from that man on the corner. It pains us that the paycheck we received directly into our checking account the day before has no power in this interaction, no ability to fix, or even help that man on the corner. A few dollars may afford him a meal, but it may also afford him a bottle, and a subsequent arrest.
In examining our society, we must ask ourselves if the price of progress is worth the creation of a divide between classes so wide that it eliminates socialization — the most fundamental human trait — between two members of the same species. Maybe the answer is yes. I, for one, hope it is not. But hope is not a strategy. And I will, in all likelihood, continue to walk to work every day, button-down on, past that man huddled on the corner, his head bowed, paper cup shaking gently in his outstretched hand. I will walk into my company’s building, and up to the 8th floor, and I will order my coffee, and drink it as I sit at my desk, pondering the inhumanity of it all, but earning a paycheck all the same. And I may, eventually, spend that paycheck on a ticket to a concert held in a park that will, for three days, be devoid of the homeless. But, as I walk out of that park, and see that man, sitting there, on the corner, I may just question the merits of a society that so annexes its own that mere interaction with them is something that the majority of people often go to great lengths to avoid. And someday, I might just write about it.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to David Perell and Laura Nethercutt for their edits. And thank you to Thomas Fuller for inspiring me to write about the things I think about.