A Lesson from Lennon

I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love. -The Beatles I saw a lot of faces this spring break. It began in Florida. The faces were all variations of tan, from the young and freckled, content in a laid-back lifestyle of surf and sand to the wrinkled and relaxed, saturated with the pleasantries of wealthy retirement. I spent the first half of break soaking up the sunshine and drinking smoothies, driving around with the sun roof open and “Can’t Buy Me Love” blasting loud. This carefree week stood in utter juxtaposition to the second half of break. After an hour-long flight to Oakland International Airport, I found myself in an entirely different world. Sure, the weather was still warm and breezy, the Pacific Ocean just as vast and blue as the Atlantic, but the similarities ended there. Living with three other girls in a dorm room half the size of my own in a San Francisco youth hostel was nothing like my luxurious bedroom in Sarasota. The view out of my window was no longer of palm trees and a glimmering lagoon, but of the brick wall of a run-down tenement next door. At night, my spring-break lullaby of waves and crickets switched tracks to a cycle of police and ambulance sirens, honking cars and shouts from the streets. My trip to the Tenderloin, the most dangerous, drug-laden part of San Francisco, was far from the wonderfully aimless week I had spent in Florida. I had traveled to San Francisco to learn more about hunger and homelessness, and to actually do something about the suffering I constantly hear about on the news. I wanted to put a face to the statistics, because as daunting as the facts are — over three million Americans will sleep on the streets tonight — the personal stories of these people are what can truly hit home. So there I was in the Tenderloin, half-expecting to find myself in a horror scene à la Hostel by the end of the week. I fully expected to find a lot of miserable street-dwellers, brought down to depression by their bad luck or bad choices. What I found was something I could not have expected, something the media never portrayed to me. Volunteering at locations like Glide Memorial Church, where I served meals to hundreds, the Canon Kip Senior Center, where I played bingo with homeless seniors, and the Community Hospitality House, where I sorted through art by homeless artists, I found something that confused me at the time and puzzles me still. The homeless were not the helpless, huddled masses I had imagined. Their faces were dirt-caked and worn for sure, but there was something in their eyes that I had not seen in any of those sated faces in Florida. They were tired and hungry, but somehow, the vast majority of those I met were happy and hopeful. The men and women I served at Glide were more polite and grateful than many of those I’ve sat down to dine with in the most formal of settings. And while a few of the paintings I organized at the Hospitality House expressed sadness, many were light and funny drawings with clever captions, and even more were beautiful and elaborate expressions of hope. I didn’t know what to make of it all. Why were these people so kind to me when they could have felt spiteful, resenting me for having been born into privilege while they worked to escape the poverty they had no say in? And, most disturbingly, what is it that the well-off are missing in their lives that many of the homeless people I encountered have found? We joke about retail therapy and how much we just need Starbucks to survive. But, really, who are we kidding but ourselves? A five-dollar cup of coffee and a pair of $150 jeans isn’t going to make you any happier. On a greater scale, graduating from an Ivy League college or living on a five-acre estate can’t be equated with contentment. It can certainly mean academic success and financial security, but it is by no means a FastPass to happiness. Realistically, this does not mean that we need to sacrifice our wallets and burn down our homes in order to be at peace with ourselves. We do need, however, to realize that we can live with so much less. All the excess in our lives is blocking our view of the big picture. Gratitude, humility, and love, sentiments I found in soup kitchens and shelters in Tenderloin, San Francisco are far more fulfilling than the privileged lifestyle and materialistic mentality I saw in Florida. At Canon Kip, I spoke with an old veteran, who could hardly hear me as I tried to make conversation with him in Tagalog, my mother’s native language. I thought that perhaps he was only smiling at me to keep from laughing at my broken attempt to speak his language. But then, as he rolled away in his old wheelchair, he pulled my head close and whispered to me: Mahal kita. I love you. And I felt it, a tiny, perhaps insignificant, moment of understanding. We must care for those who come our way and appreciate what we have been blessed with. The Beatles were right; you really can’t buy me love. Jenn Schaffer is a two-year Lower.