My Kosher Salami Omelette with Hash Browns and Siberian Dark Rye Bread was set in front of me on the counter quickly followed by a big mug of steaming filter coffee. Life was taking a big turn for the better.
We were only 16-hours into our time in San Francisco but it had already been quite eye-opening. I think my imagination was heavily coloured by thoughts of beatnik poets, Haight-Ashbury, Jack Kerouac, a smorgasbord of arty, techy, foodie and hippie culture all wrapped around one of the most spectacular natural harbours in the world. All that was about to change.
The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) dropped us on Market Street near the Civic Centre historic district. Our first impression was of some grand architecture, fountains and wide boulevard type streets. Zeroing in on the smaller details we then became aware of a shuffling component of the pedestrian population. Closer up they presented themselves in many forms, among them: wild-eyed or catatonic, mumbling incoherently or shouting to the heavens, gurning and grinding teeth or slack-jawed and dribbling. If they weren’t upright then they sat on benches or on the sidewalk or just stretched out flat. Some were in wheelchairs or electric chairs. There were dogs of various shapes and sizes, shopping trolleys piled with paraphernalia, all the detritus of the domestically inconvenienced was out on show. And moving amongst this spectacle was the traffic of the everyday, shoppers and tourists, workers and commuters.
We had arrived in the homeless capital of America and it was quite a shock, even after the many months we had spent in India, and especially coming immediately after three days spent in upscale Monterey and Carmel. We had also by a certain perverse twist of fate managed to book ourselves into a rather unsavoury hotel: The Budget Inn. The clue is in the title and we should have seen it coming, but I shall pass over that institution.
After chaining our luggage to the radiator we took to the streets to explore and were soon aware of a familiar smell, an ammonia scent, particularly strong near doorways and alleys. That was coupled with a strong odour of unwashed humanity and also a sickly sweet smell as though of fruit rotting. We walked past many groups and individuals but none engaged us, seemingly content to be amongst their own. There was a slight edginess but it never felt overly threatening. A woman screamed at a policeman and some turned to look, for a moment, and then moved on. A man ran madly across the street in front of a trolley car and again, a few turned to look, but most carried right on walking. Trash bins were routinely turned inside out and the contents scrutinised and picked through. A tiny, aged Chinese woman shuffled along staring blankly in front of her and a man with a pram holding a sleeping infant asked me for some change.
I once read in a highly regarded source that America is the worst place in the world to be poor. But not for the obvious reason that one is surrounded by such conspicuous wealth and over-consumption on every level. It was because if you are poor in America it is because you deserve to be poor. In a country where meritocracy is the accepted credo, it follows that if you are rich you deserve to be rich because you worked hard and if you are poor it is because you did not work hard, if at all, and thus deserve to be at the bottom of the pile. Whether that is the received wisdom of the majority of the American population today I do not know. Personally I find it a repugnant idea. Many who have never done a days work in their lives inherit tens of millions, others labour every hour they are given and are beaten down under a barrage of misfortune. Therein lies the rub.
Throughout history, dire poverty has been a basic condition of the mass of mankind. Thomas Malthus, a British clergyman who founded the science of demography, wrote in 1798 that it was impossible for people to “feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and their families” and that “no possible form of society could prevent the almost constant action of misery upon a great part of mankind.” For most countries, poverty was not even a problem: it was a plain, unchangeable fact. To eradicate extreme poverty would also be remarkable given the number of occasions when politicians have promised to achieve the goal and failed. Others in society would advocate a ‘laissez-faire’ approach and do nothing: allow the free market to solve these problems and wait for the astronomical incomes of the extremely rich to ‘trickle down’ to the rest of America. However, experience has shown that this ‘solution’ is just a mirage because all that does percolate down is a mere trickle.
Poverty the American way has shocked me in a different way to poverty in Britain or in India. I find it hard to square with the super-abundance of material possessions that greet one at every turn. This country is a consumer paradise for those with dollars in their pockets and has a culture that seems to shout ‘More is More’ at every turn and feel very little shame in that. I also feel saddened that the United States of America is not the land of equal opportunity for all that it aspires to be and feel a little naive for ever thinking that it could be so. It also occurs to me that the end of homelessness is a myth as there will always be new people coming in, suffering through the cycles of their lives.
I passed a brass plaque mounted on a stone plinth in memory of the poet Robert Frost who was born in San Francisco. Nearby transient homeless people were asleep on the steps of a large bank or sat on the sidewalk beside their suitcases with handwritten pleas for cash on small pieces of cardboard. The plaque gave a brief description of Frost and then these words:
“Such was life in the Golden Gate:
Gold dusted all we drank and ate,
And I was one of the children told,
‘We all must eat our peck of gold'”
I walked on and turned a corner down a side street. A man moved away from a wall and I had to step over a rivulet of golden water that ran to the edge of the curb and into the road.