Note: This story occurred in 2000 and I initially wrote about it in 2002. Since that time it continues to run in local papers, usually between the Thanksgiving and Christmas. I have recently added a few “epilogues.” – Bob Fagan
(Bob Fagan, a Pleasanton resident, is the Western Vice President for The Callahan Group, Inc. and specializes in mentoring and personal coaching of CEO’s and top management as well as golfers. He is about to publish a DVD and audio CD on applying The Law of Attraction- a sequel to “The Secret” together with two similar products for golf and business leaders A former golf professional, he has a background of more than twenty-five years in the corporate world, which has included startups and turnarounds at the CEO-COO level. Mr. Fagan would invite feedback and may be reached at email@example.com.)
I’m not much different from many East Bay dads or businessmen, but awhile back I stepped out of my safe, secure suburban existence and spent five days and nights living on the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco. To say the least, it was an enlightening experience with some unexpected surprises. Maybe the most significant lesson from the whole escapade took nearly two years to realize.
By way of background, I am a fifty-year old divorcee, the proud father of two wonderful teenagers, and call Pleasanton home. I have owned some modestly successful businesses and headed up and turned around some organizations in a continuing career. There is nothing too remarkable or unusual about me except that no one would ever picture me as a shabbily dressed homeless person existing on the sidewalks with not even a blanket or tarp. Hardly street savvy, many of my life lessons were more apt to be gained on the farm fields of southeastern Pennsylvania, the playing fields, or in the Boardrooms rather than the streets of San Francisco.
As life would have it, you sometimes do crazy things. Why did I do this? It was mostly to “stretch” myself and step outside my comfort zone, hopefully learn something about myself, and simply experience life in a more unique fashion. Also I was curious about how some of our less fortunate live and endure. And finally, part of me wanted to search for God’s force, wherever it might show up. I chose the week before Thanksgiving to become “homeless” in San Francisco – to literally live on the streets. My life had typically been so busy with the children and work, and trying to start a dating life. With my children and lady friend out of town, and just having finished an assignment as President and Chief Operating Officer of a Berkeley-based E-commerce software company, there was a perfect window of opportunity for time off. No one knew of my whereabouts except for leaving an answering machine message that I was “away and out of communication.”
Working in cities from time to time, I have long observed those weary tattered folks, pushing a shopping cart or curled up over a heat vent or asking for a handout. If you are like me, you have noticed them too. Perhaps you have avoided them, afraid to make eye contact, or maybe you have shown them compassion and dropped some coins their way. More than likely you have not been too comfortable in their presence. Besides many are dirty, sick, or in some way disturbed. Some might be dangerous. Others can be obnoxious. Now, just for a moment consider what if the tables were turned? What if you or I were on the streets?
Would living on the streets be uncomfortable, dangerous, degrading or humiliating? Where would I wander? Where would I sleep? How would I eat? Showering? Not likely. Would I be hassled or helped, threatened, harassed or welcomed? Would I stay with my challenge or quit?
My preparation for this special sabbatical was minimal. I stopped shaving a few days ahead of time, delayed a haircut, and for about 24 hours ahead of time, I only drank water. If this was going to be any kind of worthwhile experience or test for me, I should be hungry and properly grubby. As far as personal items, I took a pocketknife, a magic trick, $25 in quarters to give away, and twenty dollars stuffed into my socks for emergencies. Because it always feels chilly to me in San Francisco, I wore five thin layers of clothes up top and long underwear and old blue jeans below. Some old shoes that were ready for the dumpster and a faded red hooded sweat jacket with an old knitted green and white stocking cap completed my attire. As my contact lenses would be impossible to maintain in such an environment, my coke-bottle thick glasses would be a fitting complement to my outfit and grubby salt and pepper stubble of a beard. Whether I was recognizable or not is debatable, but I did look “uninviting” to say the least. Now I must add, my ace in the hole was that I did possess a return ticket to the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station with a comfortable car parked there waiting for me.
So what did I learn those few days living on the streets with virtually no identity, ties, or shelter. Well, to be certain, missing the normal daily hygiene needs and the comfort of a dry, comfortable house and bed was to be expected. My first shock was witnessing nearly two-dozen men and a woman choosing to relieve themselves during a two-hour period on the Market Street sidewalks that first night. Next it was really problematic to find a place on the concrete to lie down that did not have the stench of urine. I finally salvaged a small piece of cardboard to rest my shoulders and head on. Next I was really surprised how noisy the city was late at night with street construction work all around. About 2 a.m. the first evening I fell into a deep sleep only to experience two sharp pokes in the ribs. Looking down at me was a fellow looking far older than his years hunched over asking me if I had any “smokes or coin?” Though the man was harmless enough, I then realized that when I was asleep I was physically vulnerable. I never did sleep quite so well from that time on.
The first two nights were quite cold and damp. In fact, the temperature dipped below freezing, the coldest nights in years. I found myself crawling into commercial buildings on my hands and knees to avoid security every so often so I could get warm for a few minutes. The evenings, however, were therapeutic, a great time to meditate, reflect, and walk about the city in quiet solitude. The days were quite another thing. Nothing could have prepared me for the emotions and loneliness I encountered during the day.
The days dragged on and on. Sitting on the sidewalk or standing aside a building for minutes seemed like hours, and hours. Here I was in the midst of hundreds of people and never have I felt so alone. Whether I was situated on busy Market Street or in the Tenderloin section, everyone I saw had a purpose, to do an errand, get back and forth from work, go shopping, meet someone for a meal, enjoy entertainment or a friend. What’s more, I assumed they would all enjoy a soft, warm dry bed and a hot meal that night. Me, I had nothing, no purpose, no responsibilities, no acquaintances, nowhere to go, and no one in the world knew I was here. I never did expect a “normal person” to engage me, let alone make eye contact, but I never anticipated the loneliness that would accompany having no purpose. It simply didn’t matter to me or anyone else in the world what I was doing or where I was regardless of whether it was 7:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., or 4:30 p.m. Sure, I could poke into some bookstore for a short time, but under the circumstances, even that grew old. If someone is a sane, sober person, I can now appreciate how and why they could lose either their sobriety or their sanity. Before I could not.
The days were pure hell. They simply dragged on and highlighted my loneliness. The reason was that I was completely stripped of all relationships. Typically those homeless have very few if any relationships, which is the saddest twist. Come to think of it, with a friend this whole homeless experience could actually have been fun, but I would have totally missed my lessons. My solo expedition was not fun. Though I am not particularly extroverted, those seemingly endless days on the streets of San Francisco drove home how much I need people in my life. Besides, isn’t wonderful to share memories together with someone?
Properly hungry, I frequented the back door and dumpster areas of restaurants, hardly the table cloth and fine wine decor that I usually associate with my city dining experiences. Standing outside some of the Union Square establishments, I was usually ushered on as opposed to being accustomed to being welcomed in. Fast food establishments were my restrooms of choice, a place to take a paper towel bath. (Longer term good personal hygiene would be a virtually impossibility.) In the early morning, I was never at a loss for reading. The homeless like me can peruse The Wall Street Journals and New York Times that are cast on the sidewalks long before their owners arrive. I would recycle those papers later stuffing them inside my clothing to try to keep warm against the damp night cold. I quickly learned that many homeless would commandeer a blanket, tarp, or shopping cart with the more enterprising building their own mini-shelters. My only protection were plastic trash bags that I scrounged from the trash and poked a hole in the bottom to put over my head for the heavy rain I encountered on my third evening.
Taking BART into the city, I was wondering if I would engage any of the other homeless in conversation. Would I encounter down-on-their-luck professionals? Soon I deemed it better to keep to my own business. Interestingly I must have encountered maybe two hundred fellow drifters and less than a dozen I could identify as women. Most of those people were sadly mentally or emotionally ill or the casualty of drugs or all. The vast majority appeared fiercely independent, though most would be quick to accept any charity cash, a drink, a drug fix, or food; and cash is king. Other than a few other homeless talking at me, none really talked to me. I heard many strange conversations, anger, and requests for money. It was here that I dispersed my stash of quarters to my fellow squatters with a smile and some encouraging words, and would then move on. No, I cannot boast of any interesting “new friends” and in a real sense that was part of my experience, the loneliness.
One of the liberating aspects of being homeless was the complete sense of freedom, but at the high cost of loneliness. No one came to arrest me though I did not try to provoke anyone. A few times I was asked to “move on.” No security guards ever discovered me sneaking past them; many were asleep. Neither did anyone ever offer to help me or direct me to food or shelter. Had I really been desperate, I could have entered a church or police station and sought assistance. The thing is that most of the people on the streets do not want help either. They live a very independent life of freedom, no mail, no bills, no bosses, and no responsibilities. Survival appeared to be their primary and possibly only purpose. Yes, life on the streets can be numbing.
In an interesting sidebar inspired by the movie, “Pay It Forward,” I chose to beg for money on my fifth and final night. Armed with an outstretched arm, a cup, and a hopeful smile, I had fourteen people or couples drop coins into my cup during a two-hour period on Market Street. For each who did, I gave them a dollar bill from my emergency stash in return. Eleven of the fourteen were dumfounded by my gesture. I simply told them to “pass it forward” and “thanks for showing heart.” It made me feel human again; I had been starting to wonder.
It was my final morning, the day before Thanksgiving, and 4:00 a.m. I was ready to go home. I had weathered the cold, the rain, the dangers, and my loneliness. Another day was not going to prove more, and I decided to utilize my BART ticket back to Pleasanton. I had stretched beyond my comfort zone, enjoyed much solitude, and had a better appreciation of what living on the cold, hard concrete is like. No fun. By 7 a.m. I was home in my familiar warm, safe surroundings. The first thing I did before entering my house was to strip down in the garage and toss my clothes in the washing machine, then take a long, welcomed hot shower, followed by a late morning nap in my cozy, warm bed. Later, rested and clean, I called people to reconnect and made sure to tell my children and girl friend how much I loved them. (I waited until later to reveal my urban adventure.)
The life lesson that immediately hit me was that I, as well as most of us in America, live a life of abundance – more than a billion people would instantly trade for my worst days. I concluded that you could take everything away from me except my health, my time, and my relationships, and I would still be a very wealthy man. That’s a powerful thing to internalize. That realization has since led me to a greater contentment with life in general. In the mean time, the company I had been helping to start lost its funding and closed and, like many, my investment and retirement portfolio suffered some significant losses. These were hardly the circumstances I had anticipated; yet now I was better prepared than ever to cope with them and go happily forward minus the stress.
During the next year and a half as I recounted my story to friends, I was encouraged to write about it. I delayed because I did not want the theme to focus too much on me, but rather the experience, and I hoped to find and offer some revelation that might benefit others. It was not until writing down my thoughts for this article, that I discovered the real epiphany, the “Secret.” In our nice little pocket of Northern California affluence, perhaps this message is particularly relevant.
It finally dawned upon me. The more important lesson was one just as powerful as that newfound appreciation for relationships, health, and time. Simply stated, each of us is presented every day with a life-altering choice. That choice is whether or not we choose to be content with what we already have. The challenge for me has been an acquired taste and an appreciation for the better, finer, faster, smaller, more powerful, and more prestigious “stuff.” I now realize that when that appreciation becomes an appetite, it creates stress and puts things out of balance. Whether a newer car, a more lucrative investment, faster gadget, fancier dining and nicer abodes, or a higher salary, etc., those items are exciting only for a short time. When they become engrained in everyday life, I (we) take them for granted and they stop bringing contentment. Remember that great raise you received several years ago, the nice car or big screen TV you bought, or that fancy house that you finally moved into? How exciting are they now?
Many of us are constantly racing through life, failing to stop and appreciate the many blessings we have all around us. We are racing toward the future, be it an appointment, a vacation, a retirement, or even a relationship. What if we were to simply step back and observe, and appreciate?
It dawned on me that I was setting myself up for recurring dissatisfaction. Whatever is going on in our lives, we immediately adapt to and then it becomes a neutral, a given, and eventually will not be enough. The only solution is to make the willful decision to be content with what we already have. Am I selling out, giving up, or being less competitive? Heavens no, but I am reintroducing balance and sensibility back into my life, and it’s exhilarating, better than a new Porsche! In retrospect, my grandparents and even my parents, all reasonably affluent and definite achievers, practiced enjoying what they had. I used to think that they missed much, but now I realize that they didn’t. They bought quality, saved, donated, were well read and educated, traveled, and played, but not at the break-neck pace that I and many of my baby-boomer compatriots have.
Life is so abundant is many ways. We choose and attract into our lives that which we think about. Maybe the answer for me is tempered between the scarcity that some of my earlier family lived with to today’s realization that life is rich, wonderful, and here for our care and enjoyment – a mixture of giving, receiving, and caring, but never thoughtless taking. Yes, I do aspire for more and better, but now in a more measured way, and not simply for myself. Anyway, it is our choice; one each of us can make every single moment. Enjoy your present and savor its abundance. You may find something even more precious as did I. I found something in that week that seemingly many others don’t possess – “enough.” My race was over. Gone is the nearly frantic pace to succeed. Perhaps now I may work to transition from whatever success I had to that of significance and giving. Perhaps the lessons of my “homeless experience” really caused me to discover that home lives within me surrounded by a wondrous sense of abundance!
Two days later on the Friday after Thanksgiving, clean-shaven and well clad, I revisited San Francisco for a day of shopping. I did not go alone, but enjoyed the company of my lady friend. There were more than few familiar faces that didn’t recognize me, and I observed some very familiar patches of pavement as I recounted to her what I had just experienced. San Francisco will never be the same for me; I am different now, grown a little. I purchased nothing that day which was fine, perhaps even exhilarating. Thanksgiving was sweet and it was the best of Christmas’ too. And now every day is Thanksgiving.
Did I also find that God Force or Source Energy? Just perhaps I did. It’s in all of us, whether or not we have a home. If you look for it, the wonderfulness is all around us. Treasure the life you presently have. God bless.
Epilogue, November, 2010.
It is a decade to the day that I returned home from my San Francisco street experience. Interestingly enough, the weather this week has been nearly identical to what I faced those five days and nights – record below freezing temperatures in the high 20s intermixed with rains as the arctic storms buffet Northern California.
I continue to live by myself in the same home I did ten years ago, but no one, most of all me, could have predicted how the next decade would transpire for me in both good and unintended ways. Had I possessed a crystal ball, I most assuredly would have taken pause if not been downright frightened. The details are unimportant, but as I look back, I wouldn’t change anything.
In addition to the lessons I related in the story, in the many times I’ve retold the story I have always emphasized that I could be stripped of all my worldly possessions, and left with only my health, time, and friends and I’d still be a very wealthy man. Earlier this year, I amended that. Though I don’t intend to manifest this, you could also take my health and time, but leave me with my friends and I’d continue to be a very wealthy man. I am not trying to sell you or anyone else on that. Rather I only encourage you to be open to the change and possibilities that your journey offers you, and not be addicted to what you currently believe to be your truth. “While your head and ego may often lie to you, your heart never will” is but one of many lessons I’ve since learned.
For me, I have realized that the answers to my life’s dilemmas and questions are found within as Jesus, Buddha, and the other great philosophers have offered. And reflecting back on all those people I watched while living on the street, I realize that for all our differences, we are all connected sharing more commonalities than differences with no one better or worse than others, but each of us are the products of different experiences and perspectives. Maybe in another dozen years I will have an entirely different perspective.
I now agree with what they say about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I can now look back on that crazy idea of living without for a few days and realize that it was indeed a gift.
I now am transitioning my belief that we are all, indeed, “connected,” and love or pure energy connects and fear disconnects us. When we focus upon our differences, we become fearful and nothing truly revolutionary, creative, or sustaining can ever come from fear. When we judge others, we take ourselves away from our best or highest selves and into a hellish fear. Though they may not appear as such, all of our journeys are perfect – perfect for our own lessons and impacting others simultaneously. Trust and focus upon love works far better than trying to avoid fear. And my journey continues…
The way I now relate to the world is far different than it was 15-20 years ago. I am pained to witness the hate, fear, and judgment that is highlighted and spirited on by the media, the elected elite, and the fearful, but even more delighted to see still more others shifting toward peace, love, forgiveness, compassion, and service. History has told us time and again that violence and killing don’t create lasting peace. The competition/scarcity model is sorely obsolete and creation model with collaboration, communication, and cooperation lies ahead. The fixes to our opportunities may not be instant enough, but the shift has begun and better things are ahead, especially when we truly realize that every thought and action does affect or contribute one way or another to this spaceship called Earth that we’re all traveling on.