Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Giving thanks and giving back

Posted by shannonclark on November 23, 2006

Here in the US today is Thankgiving. One of the rare national holidays that is truly non-denominational, yet like the Fourth of July also fairly uniquly American. For most people it is a time of family visits (often somewhat painful ones), too much food, Football (American style of course), and then lots of shopping over the long weekend which begins the Christmas (well “Holiday”) season.

In the past year I have lived, at least for a time, in four cities, move myself a couple of times, helped one ex-girlfriend move twice, sold a condo, sold, stored or gave away much of what I had owned and in short have restarted life in many ways. My health, while not perfect, is good and San Francisco’s hills are having the desired effect as I slowly am losing some weight. Still, my to do lists go on for pages and pages, and many projects are started and ongoing – but the fruits of these labors are not always yet visable.

But I have much to be thankful for – I try to thank all the many friends, old and new, I’ve had this past year – if I have yet reached out to you specifically, consider this a small, not sufficient, thanks!

Later today I’m going to spend the morning volunteering at a soup kitchen, Martin de Porres, which is located in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. I’ll go there as early in the morning as I can and help however I can in prepping and cooking food (or whatever they need me to do).

Then in the afternoon, I’ll return home and cook a traditional Thanksgiving Feast. My plan is to make a whole turkey (was frozen but without additives) stuffing it with a simple sourdough stuffing. I will then bake some Acorn Squash, a few yams, and more stuffing. Make some simple mashed potatoes. And of course, lots of fresh cranberry sauce (the Ocean Spray Recipe – sugar, water, boil till the cranberries burst, cool). At the last minute I’ll quickly prepare some French Green beans for a bit of color, contrast and vegetables. For dessert I’ll have some Mitchell’s Pumpkin Ice Cream (possibly with some Argentinian carmel sauce). That I can prepare all of this food, most of it purchased from small, local stores in walking distance of my home is something I am very thankful about.

That I may end up with most of it as leftovers makes me give thanks that my friends have organized a movie night on Friday – so I’m going to be bringing Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and likely yams and squash for the movie night!

Then on Saturday I may join other friends at a potluck in Palo Alto.

So for old and new friends I am very thankful.

But also whistful. Both for being alone and single, and that though I am trying I have yet to have the impact on the world around me which I might like to have. The world is a very complex place (in both the normal and the technical meanings of that term). In the upcoming months I hope that I may, in a small way, help illuminate one new approach to understanding economics – and thru economics how the human parts of the world work (I’ll leave the ecological aspects to the ecologists and biologists – though clearly what they learn and understand has great implications for economies).

At the same time, I find myself adjusting to a new city and not always in ways that I am happy about. In Chicago while there were (and are) many homeless and impoverished residents, the numbers at least the visable numbers were vastly different than here in San Francisco. Certainly a large part of this is the difference in climate – winters in Chicago can and do literally kill people trapped outside in them, so many many fewer people attempt to survive a Chicago winter on the streets.

Here in San Francisco, however, there are homeless people sleeping in many doorstoops along commercial streets, setting up encampments in abandoned lots, begging in many diverse ways on most major streets, selling goods from blankets on many corners, approaching anyone waiting at many bus stops. I can’t recall a day here in San Francisco without seeing multiple people sleeping on the street and nearly none (when I left my home) when I was not approached to give money at least once. To deal with this you adopt a bit of social coldness on the street, I find myself less engaged by the other people on the street (assuming that at least some of them are looking at me to ask me for money).

I’m not scared or worried, though given the times of days I wander and not uncommonly the neighborhoods where I may be late at night, perhaps I should be at times, but in general I seem to present myself not as a good target for a mugger (and certainly physically I am not a small presence, but also for whatever reason I do not seem to attract mugger’s interest).

But I am saddened by my own coldness – I’d like to help everyone I meet – but I can not. And any amount of money I might give to some does not address the more complex issues that have left the city of San Francisco and indeed the US (and the world) with so many of our residents and fellow humans living without the basics most people take for granted especially here – shelter, clean water, changes of clothes, enough food, a regular means of engaging positively in the world (a job in most cases, school in many others).

Listening to the conversations – both sane and insane of the homeless there are clearly as many reasons and stories as there are men and women on the street – but I do see a few broad patterns. There are many here in San Francisco especially who at least appear to be suffering from a serious illness (often mental) – they talk to themselves and act out all the steroetypes of a crazy person (really poor hygiene, fits of violence, mumbling aloud etc). Another, also large and at times hard to tell apart from the crazy people, group are drug users – not casual users but physically and mentally adicted users, abusers. These too I encounter all to often on the Muni buses and on the streets.

But then there is another, and more uniquely to San Francisco group of people – people who appear in some ways to be homeless (though whether they are or are “just” poor may be hard to tell) but who are also working hard at a variety of unique professions. The bottle/can collectors (who raid most of the blue recyling bins here in San Francisco) – the small scale carry bags, the next stage push shopping carts, and there are a few – must less likely to be “really” homeless who work in teams driving pickup trucks – often taking all the bottles and cans from bars and other businesses (perhaps they are also sharing the revenues from the recyling and deposit returns?).

Another group pick and/or sell the piles of “stuff” which appear on street corners across San Francisco. San Francisco, like New York City, for the most part does not have alleyways which Chicago uses to hide trash collection (and parking) from public view. Instead, all across the town trash is put out on the sidewalk – when someone has stuff to give away/throw away, the place it also on the sidewalk – usually not in garbage cans but just in piles or boxes. People come by and pick through these items – others then spread out blankets on street corners across the city and sell a random collection of items. I suspect that many (perhaps most?) also sell items of a more dubious orgin (both stolen goods and in some cases likely also illegal substances).

It is a strange situation – there are also a handful of people who try to sell the local “street” paper – though something about the process here is less polished or professional than the sales of Streetwise in Chicago (where sellers have to have a badge issued them by Streetwise and have to adhere to some sets of standards).

I also spend a lot of time here in San Francisco in areas that are historically Hispanic. Like similar areas in Chicago there is a strong tradition of mobile venders in these neighborhoods (year round here in San Francisco, in Chicago they are much less active in the wintertime). These corner taco trucks, ice cream push carts, corner fruit sellers etc are a part of the urban landscape. So to, here in San Francisco and across the bay area, are corners where migrant workers gather waiting to be picked up by anyone seeking day labor (something similar happens in places in Chicago but more typically in a slightly more formalized manner – again due to the weather). I’ve seen similar corners in Seattle, Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville and San Francisco.

It all points to an important, yet troubling, oddity about American life and the economy. All of these gray areas, the cash workers, the corner markets, and even the charity of strangers, points to entire swaths of society that are outside of the normal realm of study. Swaths that are intimately a part of our daily lives – but are all too easily ignored and rendered invisible.

As an economist (well at least someone who is writing about economics) my view is that in part these swaths of society suffer from this very invisibility, this disconnecting of them from the rest of the economy.

While I am far from rich (especially here in the Bay Area where even millionaires can face challenges paying their rents) I am deeply thankful for the depth of connections I can benefit from – where the worst to happen and my entire apartment and belongings to be destroyed (and all of my other financial assets at least made hard to reach) I am comforted by the numbers of people – both friends, family and others to whom I could turn. Not just for immediate help, but also I’m confident in my abilities – and their friendships – in helping me get back on my feet should I ever need it.

But clearly for 1000’s of people, likely millions, they do not have these resources and relationships to turn to – the friends who would lend a hand, make an introduction, suggest a job, etc.

Modeling it from my networks perspective, this may also be in part because the connections for many are very few and narrow (a recycling center, a government aid agency or two, an underfunded/overworked private aid organization, sproradic day labors for cash, etc). And though they may spend what they earn at a variety of stores, the lack of the basic elements of society (home, mailing address, bank accounts, etc) combined with the very poor access to (and use of) hygenic facilities make it increasingly difficult for many to build up ongoing positive relationships. (and clearly activies that are deemed “illegal” – such as drug sales etc do build up relationships over time with customers and others but the shroud of illegality make these relationships hard to build on into the future.

Complex issues without easy answers.

I am thankful that I can observe and think about these issues – and not live them myself.

But tomorrow I will try, in a small way, to give back to my new home city and all of the residents here.

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