Almost 10 years ago, when our daughter was taking her first steps, Eileen and I took our first family trip to the west coast and enjoyed an unusually sunny week in San Francisco with side trips through Sonoma wine country. This summer my parents generously gifted us with two weeks’ family vacation. My wife wanted to go back to her happy place. So we spent a week in Napa and a week in San Francisco.
This time the two places couldn’t have been more of a contrast. Sunny and mild Napa with its easy dusty roads through the valley of wineries and mountain side trails was almost the exact opposite to the cloudiness and wind of busy urban San Francisco by the bay. This time our child wasn’t being pushed along in a stroller. She was sometimes dragged, sometimes carried, sometimes running far ahead of us depending on mood, activity, or energy. Dream vacations and trying to recapture them are not easy things to do. But as the Buddhist saying goes, “Sit on a rock long enough, even the rock will get warm.”
Living the Dream
All in all, we had a modest list of things to do while on vacation. Hannah wanted to eat sourdough bread. We went almost daily to Model Bakery in Downtown Napa. She enjoyed dipping the bread in infused olive oils we picked up from Oxbow Public Market next door. Her other staple, aside from Cheerios, was baked beans! In San Francisco she was treated to sourdough bowls of clam chowder near Fishermen’s Wharf. Although the sea lions weren’t there that day it was a win-win for dealing with the long walk along the Embarcadero and overcoming the wind.
I wanted to go to Muir Woods, where Hannah had taken some of her first steps as a baby so that we could retake a picture with her under the redwoods and to see her reaction to these tall natural wonders. I also wanted to run across the Golden Gate Bridge, but settled for running the winery trails in Napa, the indoor gym in the SF hotel, and the surrounding neighborhoods of Nob Hill, Soma, Tenderloin, and the Financial District where different classes of people and tourists all bump up against each other.
Eileen wanted to take me to the wineries in Napa and enjoy good food there and in San Francisco. We enjoyed our first Banh Mi in Napa and treated ourselves to a meal at Greens Restaurant. This establishment near Fort Mason, where Off the Grid hosts the notorious SF Food Trucks, is also Ground Zero for the vegetarian movement started by California Zen Buddhists. She also wanted to sit by the waters of Sausalito and enjoy the sun.
It doesn’t take two weeks to do any of this. And we certainly did more than we planned. What we had not planned for was the amount of homeless people in the San Francisco area surrounding our hotel and along the public transit routes we took. As seasoned New Yorkers, this wasn’t an uncommon sight, but as parents on vacation with a child, it was troubling.
At first, we were angry. It was marring our vacation experience. We wondered how an iconic tourist destination could be so carelessly unkempt. (The San Francisco Chronicle wondered the same thing, as published in an editorial the day we arrived). But we remembered how places like NYC were in similar disrepair in the 1980s and ‘90s and the strong-arm tactics that city took to remove pan-handlers and vagrants from the streets. You do so by pushing these people out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. (But that isn’t the kind of people we are or want to be).
We wondered if there were more homeless people than last time. But last time we had a rental car and didn’t take mass transit as much. We noted that many were seriously in a bad way: poor hygiene, poor mental health, poor social skills. They were sometimes aggressive and were frightening to ourselves and certainly of concern for our child’s safety. So dream vacations end up being either a gated Disney Land vacation experience or negotiating the equivalent of a family stroll down an alley.
Living With Your Means
My daughter wanted to know: how did these people end up homeless? Were their parents homeless, did they come from homeless families? The short answer is “I don’t know.” The slightly longer answer is “They didn’t come from privilege.” At the very least, at this moment in time they are not the recipients of privilege—like we who are on a paid-for vacation—were.
I invited her to think about the things that we packed to go on our trip. Think about the items that you told yourself “I have to have that,” “I’ve got to bring that with me.” I told her that they pack up and carry things like that too. But the reason why they look the way they do is because they don’t have enough money for new clothes, a home or place where they can regularly clean up, or even afford a steady meal. They pack less excess with a mind for the means to live day to day. And they continue to live with chronic need.
My wife talked to her about societal “sins.” She impressed upon her that it’s not up to one person alone to solve these kinds of problems, but that it takes bigger collective action to do these really big things. But focusing in on what we could do right now, we could first remember that they are people in need.
Although we ourselves were living beyond our means, we found ourselves with leftovers and uneaten food constantly. Every night we were in San Francisco, I took a walk with Hannah and gave this food away. My daughter was wary about the experience. It was not something she enjoyed doing, but she did her part. What I wanted her to focus on was that we talked to these people and that they talked with us. And we did something with each other.
Had we been collectively braver, we might have spent more time talking and learning about one another. But our basic evening was seeking out someone who looked like they needed some help. We would approach and ask, “Hi, would you like some food?” Most of the time they would soften up and answer affirmatively. They would often offer up a blessing to us or to God or give some words of thanks while receiving whatever parcel of food we had.
One time we gave our second to last meal to a guy on the corner. A few paces down we saw two more sitting against a wall. I lamented to Hannah that I only had one meal left and didn’t want to give it to the pair because I didn’t want them to fight over it. But just as I said that, the man I had first given food to appeared and gave the remainder of his food container to them, so we ended up giving our last two meals to those two after all.
Another time, we only had a small bag of bread to hand out. There was a person I remembered from my running route who would sit under a tree and loudly shout out “Appreciate it!” in a braying like mantra that was off-putting. He did not socially present himself as very sane, but I approached him and said, “I only have a small bag of bread, but you are welcome to it.” He looked up at me and our eyes locked. He dropped his street character and said to me in a plain soft voice, “That would be great. Thank you.” Then he dropped his head and went back to braying “A-preee-sheee—ate it! A-preee-sheee—ate it!”
Packing to Return
When we pack we tell a story to ourselves of what we expect in the trip ahead. We pack for emergencies, we pack things for conveniences, we pack for our everyday needs. To move requires strength to carry our baggage. To travel requires coin to cover costs. And the adventure story we weave for ourselves is the benefit we hope to receive for that cost.
There is something real and concrete to packing your bags and then setting them to the side. There you behold your belongings. You run through a mental list of important things: where is my transit ticket? My ID, my money? My toiletries, my electronics, etc.
At airport security you are separated from everyone and everything else. Your check-in is taken away. You place your belongings in trays and through the scanner. You remove your shoes. You enter a doorway that scrutinizes and clears you. TSA personnel may pass a wand over you or pat you down confirming it’s just you (and just your baggage) that is going forward.
For our time in the airport, we are a different kind of homeless vagrant. Surrounded by food and amenities, we consider their costs and burdens and are wary of our strange surroundings. We travel across time zones, we encounter countless people from different places, and for a moment we share space from point A to point B.
This most recent family vacation was sometimes too long and sometimes not long enough. It was filled with wishes, mostly fulfilled. But it also took place in a bigger world and context not easy to ignore, even if we were the kind of people who wanted to do that.
We enjoyed our time in Napa and San Francisco and its side trips even as the rest of the country dealt with shootings in Minnesota, Baton Rouge and Dallas, where issues of race and privilege brought the streets and alleyways into our homes. We kept these things as far away as we could from our daughter’s vacation for her own well-being. Nevertheless, a piece of that bigger, inescapable world made its way into our view.
She hiked farther than she ever had before. She rode more mass transit in two weeks than the entire past year. She tied together her parents’ memories of our first dream vacation with new memories and hopes for what to do next time we return. But perhaps most importantly, she took her first few steps outside every night as a stranger in a strange city to share what little we had with people who had even less.
Jesus teaches us this past Sunday to call upon Our Father and pray for our daily bread. Today’s readings remind us that this generation seeks signs, but will receive no sign but the sign of Jonah, for something greater than Jonah is here.
- What can you and your child do to be more regularly involved with chronic issues such as hunger and homelessness in your area? To pray for daily bread and bring communion to those in need?
- What are the little essentials that you pack away in your baggage and what among them can be given away or packed with more care for others?
© Copyright 2016 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Contrast: Napa & SF, July 2016(featured image); Two Pics: 1st Steps and 10 yrs later, July 2016; San Francisco Collage, July 2016. All Photos by Jay Cuasay. All Rights Reserved.