If films show violence in its wider context, show what it does to the victim as well as the perpetrator…then those films can fulfill a vital function in the awakening of humanity… That in you which recognizes madness as madness (even if it is your own) is sanity, is the rising awareness, is the end of insanity.
-- Eckhard Tolle, A New Earth
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 -- Ellis/North Fifth St. to Columbus/Green -- $7.60
ON A CRACKLING-COLD WINTER NIGHT IN 1993, I went with my then-girlfriend, Rhonda (she’s now my wife), to the Kabuki Theater on Post Street to see “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s soul-ripping, Oscar-grabbing movie about the Holocaust.
As the final credits rolled I slumped in my seat feeling like a gutted fish, feeling as though someone had taken a sharp knife and slit me open from my pubic bone right up to tip of my chin. How-could-human-beings-treat-each-other-this way? I sat there feeling unable to move, until Rhonda and the folks with the brooms moved me along.
Out front of the theater, we were greeted by an unusual sort of “receiving line” -- a row of about a dozen seasoned, bundled-up panhandlers, each savvy about the effect that a movie like “Schindler’s List” can have on unsuspecting viewers. I knew that these street veterans were just doing their jobs -- grinding it out, working a crowd -- but I also instinctively knew that if I were to stiff them (Sorry…no…not tonight…sorry…no, no…sorry…), if I were to pass up even one of these, my fellow species-mates, I would have to first shut down some vital part of my own humanity.
It is no easy thing to access, even briefly, one’s own humanity, and now I felt -- desperately -- that I did not want to lose this raw, exposed, intensely alive feeling in which I was newly awash. I walked down that row of ragged figures and passed out coins and then dollar bills until I had given something to each of them. At that time in my life, the eternal money-scuffle seemed particularly acute, and ten-odd bucks did seem significant -- but a little money was, I knew, absolutely inconsequential when compared to the cost of casually denying my connection, or anyone else’s connection, to the whole human race. Tears had been welling at the edges of my eyes inside the theater, and by the time I reached the end of the line and had seen smiles creep across each of those humble, weather-beaten, dentistry-starved faces, my cheeks were wet.
During the several days that followed, the whole experience resonated quite satisfactorily with me, and, while reflecting on it, I noticed that even after I’d handed money to each beggar I still had enough left over to afford a post-movie sandwich-and-bowl-of-soup with Rhonda, still had enough to ransom our car from the parking garage, and could still pay my share of that month’s rent.
I began to wonder, “What if I just gave money to EVERYONE who asked for it?” Would it kill me? Would I actually go flat broke? Would I wind up on the street, too? Or are these just bullshit fears?
And so it began. Within a few days I was automatically giving money to every panhandler who approached me; to every friend who asked for a loan; to every one of the clipboard canvassers I encountered on street corners; to anyone who asked... I didn’t always give the full amount requested, but I made it a point, whenever someone physically presented themselves in front of me and requested money, to always give something, to always say Yes.
Prior to any city stroll, I made sure to load my pocket with quarters -- I didn’t want to ever be forced to say No. And before every cab shift, I positioned a plastic yogurt cup full of coins beside me on the front seat, just in case a cardboard-sign-wielder approached me at a stop light. (Full disclosure: I did not actually give money to absolutely everyone who asked -- I especially remember occasionally stiffing one particularly aggressive and obnoxious panhandler in my own neighborhood -- but my estimate is that over the course of the next fifteen years or so, I gave it up roughly ninety-eight or ninety-nine percent of the time.)
As the years unfolded, I observed that habitually saying Yes didn’t really seem to impact my overall finances at all. I still experienced the upswings and downswings typical of economic life, but giving away little bits of money (my self-imposed minimum was fifty cents) didn’t seem to deprive me in any noticeable way. Never once did I find myself thinking, “Gee, if I hadn’t given anything away this month, I could have done X or bought Y or taken a trip to Z…”
But I also could not help noticing that a few nice surprises started showing up on the plus side of the theoretical ledger. For one, the clamoring mobs that I feared might descend on me, never did. Sometimes I would walk through my own neighborhood, or through unfamiliar neighborhoods, and for days at a time not a single person would hit me up. And even when I was hit up a lot, the total never amounted to more than a few dollars on any given day. The idea that saying Yes would bankrupt and ruin me was a lion of a fear but a mouse of a reality.
Also, I found that I no longer feared Other People or even Life Itself quite as much -- and what price can we assign to that? I won’t pretend that saying Yes turned my life into some magical dream -- none of the lottery tickets I bought during that (or any other) period of my life ever won me anything more than ten bucks -- but there certainly were some memorable moments, some inexplicable shimmering moments...
I could have a much longer conversation, I could write a book, about those years, but for now I’ll just say that the whole experiment often seemed to be changing something fundamental deep inside me, seemed to be altering, perhaps, my very DNA. Once in a while I found myself fancying that all this saying of Yes was somehow making me…I don’t know…making me bigger?…making me better?
But there were also many times when there seemed to be no magic in it at all, times when I felt like I was just grinding it out, times when I found myself pulling money from my pocket and giving it to the very same panhandler for what seemed like (and with several of them it might actually have been) the five hundredth time. But mostly my experience was completely positive, even sheer fun. Saying an automatic yes made me feel like a more empowered human being. Every time I gave money away I knew I was avoiding, or at least deflating, an almost-guaranteed downer -- and often I was transforming it into the opposite. My days seemed filled by notably happier people. I grew to look forward to giving my money away, and I came to count the practice as one of my favorite things about myself. For years and years and years I gave money to damn near every single person who asked for it. Kind of remarkable, no?
BUT IT DOES SEEM to be a hard and fast rule that whenever we make a hard and fast rule out of something, we eventually squeeze the life out of it. And sometime during the years 2007-2008 I began to notice that this practice of giving away money was no longer so much fun for me anymore. Sometimes it felt like a chore, an assignment, and sometimes I found myself outright resenting it.
After months of consideration, on January 1, 2009, I went cold turkey. To break my ingrained habit, I went ninety straight days without giving a penny to anyone. (I was amazed at how quickly a few of the panhandlers I had come to imagine as friends turned vicious.) After those ninety days passed, I began to consider requests for money on a case-by-case basis, which has been my practice during the eighteen months since. And, for now, that feels just right.
HOWEVER, I never did suspend my practice of giving away a free ride during each taxicab shift. That practice originated a good while before -- and, to me, never seemed directly connected to -- my Schindler’s List Declaration. Nonetheless, during the process of reevaluation, I did question it. I told myself that if Body suggested I give it up, I would at least listen. But I never did receive any such guidance -- all along, Body has seemed to love the free ride.
Still, while Body and I were conferring, I did a little bargaining. “If I have to give this up, I will,” I said, “but first I think I should at least write about it for a while…”
No problem, said Body.
And as the year 2009 unfolded, the idea of a one-year Free Rides Journal began to germinate… And that’s how we came to be here today, Friday, September 19, 2010…
IT’S MID-AFTERNOON, AND I’VE BEEN HUNGRY FOR THE PAST TWO HOURS. As I’m maneuvering my cab into a parking spot right in front of the Subway sandwich store on Ellis Street, just half a block from the Powell St. cable car line, a handsome, successful-looking couple, somewhere around forty-five or fifty years old, walks up to my back door. The man leans down and peers inside. I’m sure they could easily flag another cab, but I hate to turn people away. The energy involved with saying No is just too grating -- and I hate the feeling I have when I see my rejection register on people’s expectant faces. I wave this couple in. Lunch can wait.
The man has a German accent: “Ve vant to go to Ee-tah-lee.” I understand that he’s just trying to have a little fun with me. Guidebooks refer to the North Beach neighborhood as “Little Italy” (locals rarely call it that), and the man has intentionally dropped the “Little”: We want to go to Italy. Beside him, the woman snickers softly.
Me: “Oh-kaay... Italy.”
He, playfully: “Yes, Italy.”
Me: “I did have a fare to New York City once. But Italy… This will be my longest ride ever!”
The woman, also with a German accent, also having some fun: “How long did that take you? Two days or three days?”
Me, pulling away from the curb, heading away from New York, away from Italy, and over toward North Beach: “Sixteen days.”
If they want to continue down this path, I in fact can tell a much longer story, but Sixteen days seems to have bumped them off balance. A short silence ensues. I fill it with, “You are from…Germany?”
The woman: “Nederlands.”
The man: “We live only 20 miles from the German border, so it is hard to tell.”
The woman: “Have you ever been to Nederlands?”
Me: “I spent twelve hours in Amsterdam once, twenty-five years ago. But I also once spent several months driving around Europe in a Volkswagen bus that I bought from a Dutch man. It still had one of those NL country decals on the back, and at least once a day someone would come up and start speaking to me in Dutch -- so I feel like I’ve spent much more than twelve hours in Nederlands.”
They tell me they have visited America’s East Coast before, but this is their first time Out West. Eight days ago they flew from Amsterdam direct to San Francisco, and, with the exception of a visit to Muir Woods, they have spent their entire time poking around inside the city limits. They have loved San Francisco -- great food, friendly people, and the scenery, goodness! “This place is just absolutely beautiful,” says the man. They are scheduled to fly back to Amsterdam at 6 P.M. this evening -- “After we have a cup of coffee in Italy,” the woman reminds me -- but they definitely want to come back and take in the whole region. “Yesterday we tried to rent a car so we could drive out into the countryside,” says the man, “but there was not one rental car to be found in all of San Francisco. Even being a Hertz Gold Club member was not enough -- not one car available in the whole city.”
There has been nothing particularly special about this ride -- any veteran cab driver has had thousands quite like it. But this is my free ride for today. It’s late, I’m tired, I want to go have some lunch, and I haven’t given away a ride yet -- sometimes I am (sometimes we all are) just grinding it out.
My Dutch friends don’t seem to be grinding at all. They seem quite tickled about the free ride. In a few hours they’ll be airborne, headed back home, satisfied by the discovery of a delightful new place -- but right now, stepping out of Green Cab #914 in front of Caffé Roma in the heart of “Italy” -- with the jutting Pyramid Building off to their left, with Telegraph Hill rising up behind them, and with amused smiles on their faces -- they look to me like they’re having just about all the fun they can stand.