In 2010, National Geographic stated that San Luis Obispo is one of the happiest places to live. In 2011, Oprah Winfrey sent Jenny McCarthy out to SLO to do a segment about how it’s the happiest city in the US. After that, this town has used the “happiest place to live” as a commercial motto to bring in tourism, invite businesses in, sell homes at inflated prices, and make this little town into a very prosperous place to live; which makes people happier. So, yay Oprah and National Geographic for letting people know that we do live in a beautiful place with incredible mountains, clean oceans, clean air and (somewhat) controlled development. So yes, it is happy.
This isn’t about that. I see the positive aspect of taking on the role of such a title but then I also spend a lot of time walking in just about every part of this happy town, seeing the things people forgets to recognize when they are so focused on “happy” and meeting people who are invisible because they are reminders of what isn’t right in the place they live. There are little clusters of forgotten people who have made homes out of little corners of this town. Under the freeway overpass, under bridges, behind large multimillion dollar commercial spaces. People will find anywhere they can to make a home for themselves. As much as I find this the strength of the human spirit to survive, I always know that no man (person) should go without basic needs that help him look in the mirror and know he matters. Every man should have a place to lay his head, to wake up and be able to make himself something to eat, to wash himself, and make his way through his world as a member of the community he lives in. No man should be living under a bridge or in his own filth while there are those around him live with more than they know what to do with.
6 weeks ago, around 6:30am as I was walking to Black Horse on Marsh to get my morning coffee, a man literally stumbled into my life. He had a hurt leg, a walker, a backpack, and that was all. I ran to him to help him get up and the first words out of his mouth was “I’m not crazy, I won’t hurt you”. He was homeless and in pain. He is one person in a larger group of people who are disregarded, considered failures, who are put into a cluster of whatever view there is in the culture that blames a person for a bigger social problem that isn’t going to be resolved. So after helping him up and getting him a cup of coffee, we sat at the bus stop and talked. His name is Pauly. I laughed and told him that I live in the house of many Pauls. I told him I’d look for him and he told me the same. He seemed like the kind of guy who fell on hard times and hasn’t been able to get out of it. After that I looked for him when I was out but didn’t find him. I hoped that he found a place to live or was able to get out of town to a better situation.
Last week, I was walking to get my coffee and I looked at the place I saw him the first time and he was on the bench, weeping alone. I went over and said hi. It hurt my heart all over again to see a perfectly capable person unable to be capable because of his situation. I listened to him and tried to put together what his story is and figured out it doesn’t matter. He is a person and he matters. As I was leaving him, he said “I don’t believe in god anymore, I thought I should tell you”. I’m not religious person but I understand the need to believe in something bigger than oneself, to have faith in something to keep the spirit to move forward. When I heard that, I got angry. To lose your faith, whatever it maybe, means that you have lost faith in the people around you. This man needs a place to call his own and it shouldn’t be under the bridge. This man needs a door to walk through every night, and chair to sit in, a kitchen to make coffee in, a bathroom to…, and a job that he can work at to earn his living. But more than that, he needs to know that he hasn’t been forgotten because he matters.
What’s the point of all soap boxing? I don’t know. I just know that when I’m walking around and looking at all that is celebrated about living in this happy place, I also see a whole lot of people who would be happy with something as basic as a little acknowledgment that they still exist, even if they aren’t living the happy life we are selling to ourselves in the happiest place to live.