One of the reasons we picked Santa Rosa, CA to settle in, is its diversity. There are all makes and models of people who live here, a variety of race, color, creed, sex, and socio-economic class. All very new and different to us after living 27 years in a college town in lily-white New Hampshire.
My husband lives in second-hand t-shirts–or even third-hand, who can tell? He wears them until the edges fray and the stitching unravels. (Remind me someday to tell you about our very first date.) Some mornings he takes a mini-sabbatical and heads off to a local coffee shop to research and write. He typically walks, and schleps around a worn-out backpack filled with his phone, laptop, and other necessities. And sometimes he puts off getting a haircut for a few weeks.
Nothing notable about that in Keene, NH. But one day, he caught a glimpse of himself in a store window, and realized that in Santa Rosa, he looks like a homeless person.
That population is as diverse and unique as any other group of people. There are many ways people become homeless, especially in a city that’s seeing another spike in housing prices, and rents that are unimaginably high. Some folks have cars, and sleep in them. Some have dogs, and struggle to keep them fed, as well as themselves. Some push old grocery carts filled with their possessions, or stuff they can recycle. Some carry all their possessions in an assortment of garbage bags. Some stay in small groups, others range far and wide. Some are reserved and cautious, others can be in-your-face with their issues, although the latter is actually rare. Many more are invisible to us. Most stay close to available social services. Range too far, and they won’t get back in time to get a bed for the night.
The other thing we love about Santa Rosa is how the city government, and the communities it services, strive to work WITH this population, with compassion and respect.
Last week I spent hours in my studio, getting my new space set up and my work on display. I inherited an airconditioner and a microwave. Which means I can stop by my favorite neighborhood mini-mart store in the morning, pick up a delicious entree of pesto tortellini, or a tri-tip sandwich, or an enchilada, and heat it up and eat later in the day.
I made a such food stop there last week. While waiting in line, I saw a man carrying several trash bags, wandering around the store. He left before I got in line, or I would have offered to buy him lunch, too. I felt bad that I’d essentially done that ‘I-can’t-see-you-so-you’re-not-my-problem’ gaze we get when confronted by social issues we don’t think we can do anything about.
But I got a second chance to do the right thing. I saw him again on my way out of the parking lot. I had no cash, but I realized I had quite a stash of parking meter coins. I grabbed a small handful of quarters and rolled the window down.
I pulled up alongside him. “Hey, good morning! I don’t have much cash, but I have my parking money, if that will help…?” I held my handful of coins out to him.
He stopped and looked at me, and said, “What?”
I thought, oh no, I’ve embarrassed him. But I repeated my offer.
He was still confused, so I said, “I thought maybe you’d like to get something to eat? I saw you in the store a minute ago. All I have on my are these quarters.”
He started laughing.
“I WORK there!” he said. “I’m just taking the recycling out!”
Boy, was my face red. I apologized.
“No, that was really kind of you,” he said. “REALLY kind. You have a good day now.”
Sometimes even the appearance of a good deed can bring laughter to a dark and dreary world.