Be in your environment

I was recently at theĀ Semicon/Intersolar trade show in San Francisco. Seven days of walking to and from Moscone Center, going out, attending events, and spending time exploring the city. Except for one trolley ride, I walked everywhere. I doubled-down on ‘experience’ … the experience of the city, and the show.

Last year I blogged about how the show affected me, because of the positive feedback from our prospects and customers. This year I want to tell you about the people on the streets of San Francisco. And I mean PEOPLE, as in street-people.

Experience 1:

After dark one night, about a block from my hotel, alone at a corner. A black man, about a half-a-foot shorter than me, and ten years my senior called at me as he approached, “What you lookin’ for?” He wanted to make sure I didn’t make a wrong turn into a bad stretch of town. As he, Gerald, led me toward a nearby blues club (his idea, I played along), he mentioned he was homeless, and $15 would get him a room at the hostel for the night. IĀ  gave him the twenty in my wallet. As we walked, he told me how a recent break-up had led to his being evicted.

Experience 2:

My last night there, upon stepping out of a bar and considering my path to the hotel, another homeless guy, about my age and height, also black, sidled up next to me and started a pleasant rap/chat. As much as he could go on without me, it was an interactive affair, and we ended up talking. He too, was honest about his situation, and I asked where he was staying. In a tent somewhere (where, I wondered, in the middle of a city). I gave him the two dollars in my wallet. He told me he was studying PHP during the day at a center or school somewhere in town.

Experience 3:

Having a coffee and breakfast wrap outside a cafe, a homeless woman approached. “Dollar for coffee” she repeated. At this point, I had no cash on me. She wandered about ten feet from me to pan-handle other patrons. It was horrible to look at her. She wore only dirty sweats and flip-flops. Her feet were as worn as the flip-flops. She was of small frame, and when she bent over (an action that I can’t explain why she did, but obviously to relieve her tired body, brain, and/or spirit) you could see her spine clearly across the back of her sweatshirt. Then I noticed the large dark ring in her pants … at some point she had wet herself. Her voice was high and empty; she repeated “dollar for coffee” as often as she dared.

Yes, she was hideous. It was hard to finish eating, and I wanted to do so in a hurry! My personal revelation was that no amount of money that would have been in my wallet would have made a difference. She needed thousands of dollars worth of assistance. She was in need of professional help. She needed more than I could give, and my mind was hopeful that SF had services in town to help her. God, they needed to! As I left, she bent over again, to pick up a cigarette butt. Ugh.

Why am I telling you this?

Too many people, too many times, walk past homeless people, street people. Not only because I was new, a tourist, but because I had chosen to be a part of the city environment did I notice and experience these people. As a marketing manager, it is my job to be in tune with the marketplace, and I guess that carries over to other things.

I appreciated the two men who asked me for money because they were willing to meet me as equals, and be honest about their needs. The woman was a wake up call, that not everyone on the street is getting by so well. Maybe my prose doesn’t tell my experience so well, but to me these were memorable interactions.

Bonus link:

One place to encounter homeless people safely is via Invisible People. Mark is formerly homeless and posts short video interviews of people he meets in the street and in shelters. He has several success stories, and each is an exciting victory for him. Most of the time, like me, he can only tell their story. Not every video is a sob story, but a real connection with human beings. Here is a sample: