I saw something one evening last week that I’m having trouble forgetting. I was running errands here in our Silicon Valley community. It’s not the wealthiest community in the valley, but also not the poorest. One of my stops was a mall with a Sprouts market at one end, a Office Depot in the middle, and a Sports Authority at the other end. I was headed to the latter.
But in front of the Sprouts stood a man and his young son, begging. The man was probably in his thirties, dark-skinned – Indian or Pakistani – and he looked a little lost, as if this was the last place he expected to be on a weeknight. His son had those amazing wide, dark eyes typical of children of that heritage. The man’s hand-lettered sign was small and hard to read, as if he was embarrassed to be asking for help. As I continued through the parking lot, I saw a woman opposite the Office Depot whom I assumed to be his wife. She was also holding a small hand-lettered sign for help, also looking lost – and a little scared. It was going to be dark soon.
I noticed them – and remember them – for a number of reasons. First, homeless people aren’t that visible in this particular suburb. I won’t say we don’t have them, because I know we do, and I know we have homeless families. The latter are even less visible. Second, the fact that they were South Asian was unusual as well. My Caucasian sense is that that culture tends to be very family-oriented. Where was their extended family?
Our situations were stark contrasts between those who think in the long term and those who think in the short term. There was a family, desperate, looking for help, a meal, a place to stay, something to get them through the night. And there I was, heading to Sports Authority because we needed more rubber pads for the floor of our home gym. There was a family looking only at the short-term – getting sustenance before darkness fell. And there I was, wondering if we’ll have enough to retire on in seven years.
It didn’t take too much imagination to create their backstory, because there’s always a backstory. I often wonder how the homeless become homeless, how they get to the point where they’ve cycled through every possible contingency of family and friends and support systems, only to find themselves on the hard, cold asphalt of the outside world. The father probably came here looking for tech work. He got a good job. Maybe he and his wife even scraped together enough to buy a house at the height of the market. But then the downturn hit. He lost his job. The house lost value. They couldn’t sell and couldn’t pay and couldn’t stay.
I have no experience with situations like this. I have always had a roof over my head and the safety net of generous parents beneath me. In 1993, we bought our first house. We leveraged everything to do it – saved for a year, cashed in retirement plans, borrowed money from my parents – and had almost nothing in our checking account the week the deal closed. The following Wednesday, the magazine I worked for was unexpectedly shuttered. It would be disingenuous to say I was scared, because three days later I had an offer for another job at a higher salary. That’s the Silicon Valley I know.
And sometimes the story isn’t what it seems to be. In 2009, there was a small uproar over the eviction of a man named Harvey Lesser from his apartment in Boulder, Colorado, fueled by the fact that a freelance photographer was there to record the event. Lesser was described as an unemployed software developer with chronic health problems. But the backstory – which I only know because Harvey was married to my first cousin for 20 years – was a little more complex. Yes, Harvey was unemployed and had chronic health problems relating to obesity, but he had also gambled away a $500,000 inheritance from his parents over the previous few years. None of the stories mentioned that little fact.
Backstory are great for context, but context belongs to the long term. That little family was focused on the short-term, on getting through the night. As someone living for the long term, I believed that whatever I could have given them wouldn’t have helped them in the short term. Recalling stories like Harvey’s didn’t help. I drove on to Sports Authority, but I still remember their faces, and probably will for the long term.