I am not a tourist attraction
We had one day to see San Francisco on our vacation . We had so many things we wanted to cover from Alcatraz to the Italian district to riding a trolley car and going to Fisherman’s Wharf. As we surveyed the land, we thought, how will we ever do all this on foot? Parking is practically impossible there, according to the locals. Taxis will suck the money right out of your pocket. Walking will get you nowhere especially when you look up the famous crooked street and see how steep it is. We kept seeing these double decker bus convertible tours pass us by as we were trying to decide what to do. We hesitated because we didn’t want that cheesy tourist feeling, but we also wanted to really capture this city.
After making friends with strangers and asking their opinion, we decided to bite the bullet, cheese or not and pay for a tour of San Francisco. The way this particular tour worked was awesome because you could get on and off the bus in any area and a new bus came every 15 minutes. So you could say “Hey- lets go to Haight and Ashbury for awhile.” And that we did. We stopped in that lil’ hippy block and enjoyed a dirty dive for lunch, the kind where you feel like you need to wash your hands afterwards. We had quirky soda pops that you place in what looked like dry ice for 5 minutes and the pop becomes cool and refreshing with flavors like ginger, pineapple and chocolate. We saw tattoos we have never seen and smelled a lot of Mary Jane.
We got back on the bus and then off to go see where Kate and Ashley made their start. I actually never watched the show, so I was unimpressed with the grandeur of some twins who used to film there. Though the view was very “San Francisco”. We also stopped at the amazing Golden Gate park and went to an incredible museum and visited the planetarium and saw amazing fish of all kinds. We experienced an artificial earthquake that was more like a ride Disneyland would cruelly make you wait a half hour for.
We visited the Italian district and it was enough to make me claim (falsely) I am, indeed italian. I wanted a cappuccino and biscotti, lasagna and a fancy dress with red lipstick. I didn’t get any of those things. But I wanted them and I wanted to go into this beautiful cathedral and pray the rosary. I’ve never prayed the rosary, but this place peaks your curiosity about the rich prayers of the saints.
We stopped in China town and our kids got lured by store owners asking them to come in and get a souvenir. There were American flag spandex leggings for only 5 bucks. I was tempted. Everyone knows how hot my thighs would look in those bad boys. We saw a lot of jade and wind up toys that looked like sushi and fancy flip flops that would break your ankles. We walked under the red lanterns and heard foreign tongues and smelled smells that woke our senses.
There were so many places we got to see in such a short time. This bus tour had different guides on different buses. Our first tour guide was a guy who had Rob and I laughing out loud. He made a lot of jokes about losing girlfriends because of his love for grunge music. One girl dumped him because he loved Pearl Jam more than her. I resonated. I think I love Pearl Jam more than most of my exes too. These guides were cheesy, informative and always pointed our view to the right or the left causing us to see and understand some new corner of this city.
We got on the bus and a woman guide was speaking into her microphone, which by the way echoed out onto the streets with passerby’s hearing whatever was being said. We drove through the Financial District and then on into the not so wealthy part. This tour guide was pointing out the impoverished neighborhood. She was sharing the dismal statistics of people who live there and the huge population of homeless people here in this part of San francisco. As she is beaming this out on her microphone loudly. I looked over the side of this topless bus and there are people lying there in their sleeping bags on the sidewalks. There were friends sitting with friends sharing some food they had been given… Some shooting up, some smoking, some just staring up at us. And I saw this lady keeping stride with the bus. She had short blond hair and dark black eye makeup. She was stocky and mad. She was making the international “I’m gonna cut your throat.” sign. The one where you take your flat hand and motion it back and forth across your adams apple to tell people to shut up. I saw her anger. I saw her being a voice for her people. It was like she said, “ I am not a tourist attraction and neither is my pain or my poverty! Stop!”
This was one of those moments where you see how we work. We, as in many middle class, rich americans. We pay with our extra “vacation” dollars to hop on some tour bus to see the sights and the next thing you know we don’t even think twice that the sights are now poor people. It is like we are at a zoo and we are staring down at them like they are monkeys or polar bears. “Wow, look at the animals. Look what they do. Look at how different they are than us. Look how they lie on that rock in the shade hiding from the hot sun.”
What do you think that sounds like to a homeless person who has lost everything including their dignity to hear tour guides all day long gawk at their poverty like its a tourist attraction? “Well folks, we have now landed in what is the poorest part of San Francisco… home to hundreds of homeless people. People who choose to be homeless,” says the guide. “They don’t want to work because the system works for them. The crime here is crazy and you wouldn’t want to walk around here at night because it is unsaaafe.”
How would the homeless people feel hearing this? They would hear things like: You are a statistic to me. You are something to avoid. You are dangerous. You are what makes this place unattractive. You are one to take pictures of, an object, but not a person. You are an attraction to drive through but never be. You are the one stop no one gets off for on this bus.
I mean I could keep going on. I wanted to scream at this tour guide! Stop! Just stop! Enough already! I understood why the lady was motioning the slit throat sign. These words held people down. They told people what they already believe: that their lives matter little.
People in pain and poverty are not tourist attractions. DO not gawk at them. DO not stare. DO not take pictures of them. DO not drive by them like they are a statistic, a thing.
There is this guy where I live who has stood on the same corner with the same cardboard sign for like a decade. And he waits and he hopes that people will give him what he needs. When I get stopped at his light, because it is his light, I observe people. And ordinary people, most of them, their cars are right next to his body and they look straight ahead as if he is not there, like you would a stop sign. You don’t look to your right and wave at a stop sign. But this man is not a stop sign. He is a human being. He is God’s creation. He is a child. He is a father. He is a brother, He is a friend.
Why don’t you look him in the eyes and if you insist that you will not give him money because you know “he will go buy alcohol with it” then give him the right to be a human being. Look at him and give him your biggest smile and wave. He is not a thing. He is not a monument of poverty. He is not a neighborhood that is bad. He is not a zoo animal. He is not a tourist attraction. And he is not a scary monster. Don’t worry, your smile won’t make him bust through your window and grab your wallet and your body and drag you into the bushes where your entire story ends. No, your great big smile might just say, “you matter.” Heaven forbid, if we cannot pull that off.
Ok, fine I went off. But we have got to understand these people are not tourist attractions. They are stories. Every homeless person I have ever had the privilege of spending time with has a story. And their story doesn’t find them there simply because they are wild animals or lazy. They are people in pain, people with wounds that need healing, people who have been abandoned. Do not drive through them like they are one spot on your way to somewhere cool.
Jesus might actually puke in his mouth if you do this. Am I using strong language? Yes, I am. Jesus would stop and touch people no one else would touch. Jesus would care if people needed food. He fed the five thousand because he was concerned they would be hungry and miss a meal, one meal. You don’t follow Jesus so He can make you rich, you follow him and He will make you care about the poor. Jesus called the rich young ruler to give everything he had to the poor and then come follow Him. I always imagine that Jesus had in mind the poor when he called for such a sacrificial move. But the rich man could only think of himself. Jesus told the story, the famous one, about the Good Samaritan. And how many people, religious people walked by the hurting man on the other side of the road, as far away as they could get, to pass him by? Too many. Jesus commended the one who went and helped the man whose circumstance left him there to die. So, this Jesus we talk about, how is it that we call ourselves his followers, yet we tour past poor people in pain as if they are nothing to us?
I am not a tourist attraction. Perhaps, a life on vacation or not, that lives like Christ would get off the tour bus and step foot into the scary places. Perhaps we should get off our high bus and go eat lunch on their sleeping bags. Perhaps we should ask them questions and actually be curious about their lives. Perhaps we should take tours of their lives and what journey brought them to this place. Perhaps, we should treat them as we want to be treated, with notice, care, respect, dignity, and love. Perhaps, we should realize we are standing in their living room, not our vacation destination. Next time you pass by someone in pain and poverty, take note. Look at your body language. What stereotypes are you handing out? What assumptions are you making? How nervous and fearful are you? Do you hide behind your sunglasses and act like you don’t see them? That is not a tourist attraction, a road sign or a monster, that is someone’s child. God’s.
If you want more blabber from a woman who wants to be Italian and loves Pearl Jam and keeps colliding with Jesus and it’s wrecking her life (in a good way)…subscribe to get these yammerings by entering your email address in the box on the right:) – Willow