When I was a kid, poverty was as real as baseball, apple pie and the pledge of allegiance to the flag. In elementary school, not only did you have to learn your ABCs, but you also had to figure out how to trade your government cheese with the other kids before lunch was over.
But our kind of cheese wasn't considered real currency in the cafeteria. Everyone knew that the cheese we ate was for poor people. And every day at lunch, we learned something that our teachers could never teach us in the classroom: The "American Dream" came at a price. A price that some of us could not afford.
And the best thing we could do for one another was to watch out for those kids who believed too much in "hope." We knew that if you believed in hope, you might start believing that things are going to get better. And when they don't, some kids don't know how to pick themselves up off the ground again. They end up using up all their energy believing and hoping.
So at the ages of 5 and 6, we knew that we had to choose between two things: either dreaming or surviving. We chose to survive. And that was that saddest day of our lives. As we got older, the dreamers would tell us that we needed to "pull ourselves up by our own boot straps." But what the dreamers did not know was that we only had one pair of boots in our household. And they had to be handed down. Boots that were either too big or too tight. But we we were taught to be grateful for what we had. Whether or not we believed in God.
It seems as though not much has changed, now that I have become a man. The poor keep getting poorer and the rich keep getting richer.
On a recent day at Starbucks in Palo Alto near Stanford Avenue, a homeless man was trying to get a bite to eat. He ate alone at the table for the physically challenged. He was in a wheelchair and had a physical deformity that did not allow him to lift his head, his wrists were bent inward, he could not open his hands, and his back had curvature so bad that he could not sit up straight. This forced him to eat somewhat like an animal.
He looked like a cross between the elephant man and the hunchback of Notre Dame. Well, after awhile people started to treat him like that. His appearance and actions were so offensive and uncomfortable to some people that it made them angry. I just saw a man struggling with every ounce of his being to try to hold his sandwich and his coffee steady enough to eat and drink.
But the beauty of this guy was that he was one of only a few people in the room who was able to see his own dignity and humanity, while at the same time not feeling sorry for himself. He refused to take free food from one patron and my help holding his coffee.
Don't get me wrong -- not everyone treated this man in a dishonorable way or felt sorry for him. But there was one guy who had had enough. A guy who felt that the homeless man was not of the right status to be among Stanford University students and high-tech engineers. This man began to harass the homeless man and tell him that he had to leave. Even when the homeless man wanted to use the bathroom, the other man claimed to represent the baristas, and told the homeless man that he had to leave.
I watched with surprise as the baristas stood behind the counter in silence. I had spoken to the baristas earlier about the homeless man and they did not seem to know much about him. But after almost 15 minutes of watching this man being harassed by this patron, I had had enough. I thought this man's attack was unwarranted and without merit.
The attacker said that the baristas were his friends and that they were closing the cafe. I then said that this man is my friend and closing time is in 10 more minutes. Then four other people began to join me in helping to defend the homeless man, with one group offering him money as he left, although the man hadn't asked for it.
I eventually pushed the man in his wheelchair to the bus stop, and we said our goodbyes. And yes, he wanted me to push him according to his preference, but what is it for me to practice a little bit of humility so that this man can have just one moment to feel like he is deserving of respect by another human being? Even for a man who has nothing, no one can put a price on human dignity, respect and self-worth. By pushing this man to his destination, I hope that it gave him at least one moment to be seen as a human being again.
I spoke with a sergeant of the Palo Alto Police Department, and we shared our mutual respect for the homeless of one of the most affluent cities in the world. We discussed how he knows that some of the homeless he deals with on a daily basis have millions and choose to live outside the system. We both agreed that everyone should be treated as a citizen deserving of respect.
Lynel Gardner works in Palo Alto, lives in the Bay Area, and is an actor, playwright and filmmaker; he works with at-risk youth. He can be reached at email@example.com.