Having been challenged to find the story of one of the estimated 15,000 people living on the streets of San Francisco as part of “Five Dollar Day,” I chose to sit down next to James. When I saw him hunched against a scraggly tree on the corner of Seventh and Market Street the only things I knew about him were written on his cardboard sign: he was traveling and needed money.
My name’s Naomi.
Can I sit here?
I felt the creeping awkwardness of silence. As I searched him for some inspiration for conversation, I realized James was only about two years older than me. His neck and arms were covered in tattoos and his long hair hung in a stringy curtain over his eyes. His left front tooth was missing, and his under-eye was puffy, marbled with purple-yellow. I didn’t know what to ask.
People don’t often divulge their life stories to strangers.
So… where are you traveling from?
Portland. Yeah. I really love it there.
But then again, strangers don’t often ask for life stories.
I lunged at this shred of connection—I am from Oregon! I grew up in Bend. At this point, the exercise in empathy got real blatant, real fast. Oddly similar details spilled out: James was born in Bend, seventeen years ago he and I were living in the same city, each with single moms.
Given these similarities, the subsequent divergence of our paths is astonishing. At sixteen, James skateboarded more than he went to school and tried heroin for the first time while I stayed up late doing homework and learned how to drive a stick shift. Somehow, we both made the decision to become vegetarians and to travel the world. The difference there lies in our motivation; I’m striving to stay ahead of what the U.S. expects of an eighteen-year-old, while James is trying not to let heroin catch up with him.
Had I sat next to any other person holding a cardboard sign on Market Street that day, it may have been harder to find commonalities, but I do not doubt that they would have been there to find. The most important choice I made that day was to sit down next to James, to ask that initial question, and to truly listen to his response.
After all, it’s impossible to hear answers to questions I never ask.