Two Dollars

I woke up feeling depressed on Monday, one of those days when I have zero motivation to do anything, when I futilely click around the same websites over and over, looking for something new to show up. There’s a feeling of fatigue, sadness, and frustration all rolled into one, and the word “depression” describes it exactly. To try and get out of my rut, I forced myself to get out of the house with a single goal in mind: to replenish my supply of Old Town White Milk Tea.

I was in a daze the whole time walking to BART, to riding it, to walking to Chinatown. On the train I allowed myself to space out, staring into any direction without a person in it. At times, I’d read a few lines on my phone. But the feeling never subsided. I felt self-conscious. I felt ashamed to be seen, afraid to be judged, worried that people might somehow know my current emotional state. I was still able to put up my front, standing up straight and walking like I was sure of myself. When I read the e-book on my phone, the words clicked even if the feeling remained unchanged. It’s a strange experience, like I’m outside of my body, which continues to do what it normally does even though I’m tearing up inside. Sometimes, I make eye contact with people and wonder whether the bad vibe can be seen emanating from the top of my head like a smoky black cloud. I do get an occasional smile so perhaps I’ve gotten good at keeping up my appearance.

My goal complete, I go to my neighborhood McDonald’s to get lunch. I have to say, McDonald’s is a comforting place to me. It’s a place where anyone can go, where people will leave you alone. You don’t have to dress a certain way. You don’t have to have a lot of money. This is true in San Francisco, and it is true in Hong Kong. It is truly a people’s place. It’s the perfect place for someone like me on this day, a place where I can go to blend in.

I’m sitting at one of the high tables with bar stools near the entrance. I watch people come in and out. Halfway through my fries, I notice a scruffy, skinny, street man come in. He’s probably homeless; there’s no way to know, but I’m willing to bet he spends a lot of time on the street. His clothes are dirty, his face is dirty, and he looks run down.

He first approaches two women sitting near the front registers. One of the women is on her cellphone. He sits down across and says something to them. The woman not on the phone looks scared, while the woman on the phone shakes her head. He lingers for a few moments before making his way to the next table, this time a tattooed man with long hair with his headphones on. The man removes his headphones. He shakes his head and mouths something which I can’t make out. The street man tries again and the tattooed man repeats his previous action. The street man turns away and continues to the other tables.

Earlier, when I exited the Embarcadero BART station on my way to Chinatown, a self-proclaimed veteran sitting in a wheelchair next to the top of the escalator asked me if I could spare any change. We made eye contact and I pursed my lips, throwing up my hands to indicate that I had none. I didn’t think much of it as I continued on. On my way back, however, I saw that the man was still there. Because I was walking towards him this time, I could see the tattoos on his left leg, suggesting that he might really be a veteran. I could also see person after person walk by him without even the slightest acknowledgement, as if he wasn’t even there. When I tried to make eye contact with him again, he just kept his gaze downwards. It must be exhausting to be rejected and ignored so consistently.

I actually had two quarters on me this time, the change from getting the milk tea. I reached into my pocket to get them, but then I hesitated. I was expecting him to ask for change again, and when he didn’t I froze and continued walking down the stairs like everybody else. I didn’t want to be caught out, to be the only person who deviated. As I entered the BART station, it bothered me that I didn’t just do it.

Seeing the street man in McDonald’s getting rejected over and over, I was reminded of the veteran and tried to put myself in their places. I thought about the idea of rejection, of being ignored. It reminded me of trying to find a job, except with a job it doesn’t happen every ten seconds and it’s not right in your face. Would I be able to do what they do? On this day I couldn’t even walk around without fear of being judged or doing what I really wanted to do.

Now, it was finally my turn. The street man came up to my table and asked if I had any change. I didn’t hesitate this time and gave him the fifty cents. He then turned to the kids sitting next to me and asked if they could help so he could get a burger or something. When I heard him say he wanted to get a burger, it occurred to me that fifty cents wouldn’t be enough. I asked him, “oh, you want to get a burger?” and he eagerly replied in the affirmative. I reached for my wallet and pulled out two dollars. The street man’s face lit up and he seemed to be in disbelief, letting out a chuckle and exclaiming, “two dollars!”. I was a little bit startled myself seeing his reaction to receiving two dollars. He seemed excited and hurriedly left the McDonald’s.

At that moment, I realized that I may have been had. The way to a burger was inside the McDonald’s, not outside. Maybe his face lit up because he couldn’t believe that for once someone was naive enough to believe that he was actually going to get a burger. I realize that I may have acted as an accessory to drug or alcohol addiction, but it doesn’t matter. The look on his face when he received the two dollars was like the boy who received a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, and him leaving hurriedly was like he couldn’t wait to hook it up to the TV. It was real.

In the past, my policy was to never give handouts to panhandlers because I felt it would further encourage begging and not really solve the underlying problem. But now, my mindset is different. If anything, I was probably naive before to think that societal problems like poverty and homelessness could ever be solved in my lifetime. Do you really think that by withholding fifty cents, you’re going to make this guy turn his life around? Yes, it’s true that able-bodied people should try to find jobs and work hard to pull themselves back up and that my giving them money might encourage them to not do that. But in order for that to work, jobs need to be available. Hard work needs to pay off. Increasingly in society, we find that these two things no longer apply. People can toil for 16 hours a day and still remain stuck in their socioeconomic echelon.

I recently re-watched the war movie Saving Private Ryan. In the movie, medics would give dying soldiers morphine to ease their pain. There was no way to save them, yet the medics expended resources on them. Why?

We are all real people with real feelings. Can you imagine how you would feel if you worked 16 hours a day with no end in sight? Can you imagine living in a cage home in Hong Kong during summer with no air conditioning, again with no end in sight? Knowing you were stuck in this situation, would you still want help, knowing it was only temporary relief? People are not just statistics, and poverty is not just some arbitrary number. There is real suffering going on, and if I am to withhold aid that alleviates that suffering even for just a moment, claiming that my aid would prevent someone from helping themselves, then there actually needs to be a way for that person to do it. Otherwise I’m just making excuses when people continue to suffer indefinitely, and I am just trying to make myself feel better for being a hypocrite.

With society facing issues like overpopulation, limitless greed, rising inequality, and political corruption, creating euphemisms like “the working poor” and “extreme poverty” (as opposed to regular poverty, right?), it’s pretty amazing that two measly little dollars could light up someone’s face like that. These are large, complex problems with no solution in sight, and yet all it took was two dollars to grant a momentary easing of pain. Will two bucks pave the way to utopia? Probably not, but now that I’m more experienced in life, I realize that there are no absolutes when it comes to resolving society’s problems. The best you can do is to try and make people in hopeless situations as comfortable as possible, like in Saving Private Ryan.

As a society, we are supposed to take care of one another. It’s why humans first banded together in the first place. And yet, we seem to have forgotten this. It seems like it’s every man for himself now. I recently tweeted about watching an intersection to see why the housing market in SF is fucked up. To expound on this, what I meant is that people can be so selfish, self-centered, and self-absorbed. Drivers accelerate at yellow or red lights because they are in a hurry. Pedestrians start crossing when the signal starts counting down because they have the right of way. People think only of themselves, and not the people around them. And that includes landlords.

As an alternative, how about try stopping at a red or yellow light so you don’t endanger anyone? How about waiting for the next “walk” signal so that drivers can make their turns? How about charging a rent that’s good enough instead of trying to squeeze out every last penny just because the next landlord is doing it? Again, it’s real people with real feelings. Remembering that society is made up of individuals, if all the individuals are only capable of thinking for themselves, then sooner or later society will break down. We are already seeing signs of this. Why not try remembering that we are part of a community and try to help out your fellow man?

That night, I went to Monday night basketball at Dolores Park. It’s been going on for a few years now, just a bunch of guys from around the neighborhood getting together to exercise and unwind. I ended up on a team with a bunch of selfish players who never passed the ball. We ended up losing badly. I didn’t think it at the time, but as I write this now I realize it was yet another reflection of what’s going on in society now. Told you that basketball is a reflection of life.

On Tuesday morning, I woke up and the depression was gone. It’s happened enough times now for me to expect it. I remembered the look on street man’s face when I gave him the two dollars, and I wanted to write it down so I won’t forget. So now, a few days later, I present to you this blog post. Happy Friday, and happy holidays!

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