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“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” — A text I received from my father early one morning in January. His words followed by little emojis.
It’s the morning in San Francisco. It’s windy and cold and sprinkling rain. I’m walking down Mission Street and all I can think of is my father in another time and place. I see him sweeping. I see him sweating. I see him as he was in his early forties, a strong wiry man with curly black hair and a mustache, a man on a mission, a man in charge of so many stressful things. Or at least that is how he seemed to me: constantly consumed with his work, important work, feeding folks who lived in the neighbourhoods of inner city Baltimore. And there I was, watching him as he worked, my summer months spent in the sweltering heat. My time spent with volunteers and my father’s instructions to his staff.
I pass a man covered with a blanket. He has no shoes. His fingers are flicking and stained. He seems ok. No signs of needing medical attention. And then I’m remembering learning how to sweep. I’m remembering my father talking to me about how to sweep a floor. About how to gather the dirt and debris against that wooden floor. About how to make pile after pile until every little bit was rounded up and eventually collected and removed from the room. I’m remembering that I wanted to go home. Why were we still there? The echo of his instructions filling that space. I was promised time to play catch. To work on my throwing motion to second base. To lift weights. To make popcorn and watch movies. But we won’t leave. There is still much to do. Work to be done so that in the morning, people will have something to eat and drink. So that they will have refuge. And instead of leaving, I know that we will be heading up to his office.
Sometimes on my walks to work, I see people sweeping the sidewalk outside their tents. I see them organising their things. They smile and I smile and we say hello. Sometimes I see people who are hurt. Who have been hit by others or have fallen and can’t seem to stand up. Sometimes, it’s bad. Sometimes they are intoxicated. Sometimes they are not. If it’s bad, I stop and I take out my latex gloves that I always carry with me and I ask if I can help. I wait with folks until the ambulance or the fire truck comes screaming down the street. I talk to the responders and give what information I can and then I throw away my gloves and continue on my way.
This is San Francisco. My San Francisco. Many times a day, it reminds me of my father’s Baltimore. I don’t find this to be bad. Or filled with sorrow. It is simply a product of a city. Of a divide. Of how we have chosen to segregate ourselves. The towers go up. The gates get locked. We walk right over it.
Soon, I’m walking through the crowds and down to the train. I take one stop and then I walk up to the centre of the city. I approach the entrance to Jones Street. The morning is in full swing. People are yelling and talking and trading. There is construction and laughter and a line is forming outside the building where I work. I’ll have an hour or so before we start serving lunch. Free lunch for folks. I say hello. Good morning. I shake hands and slap backs and hear stories of what happened earlier that morning. And then I climb the stairs to my office.
Lately, I’ve been remembering the act of learning. These memories of learning how to sweep. Of staying late to organise materials and supplies and people. These memories I hold of another time and place. Of how the repetitive nature of doing the work allows you to gain some greater understanding beyond the act of doing. And perhaps, it’s been triggered by watching my country spiral back down the slope of history. A history we seem unable to come to terms with. Or understand that we are repeating. Or for the fact that we are satisfied with pretending it never occurred. These acts. These slogans. This willingness to walk all over each other.
The sound of a boom box is filling my office. People are dancing out there. I know my father is at his house. I see him sweeping. Cleaning the yard and organising the recycling. I see him working. And I wonder if that will be me. I wonder if I will get to see the work I do become unnecessary as he’d hoped he’d see one day. I wonder if food insecurity and homelessness and vilification of others will become something rooted in our past. I wonder if we will make it a priority to one day dismantle the chains of loneliness. Of oppression. Of the need to feed our brothers and sisters.
Ah, but there is work to be done. There is only so much time for these memories. For these meandering boat rides into the past. We have what we have. Our goal is to be done with these things. We must go back to work. To sweep. To remind each other that this has all been done before. To try our best to stop repeating the past. To one day finally move off into the light of understanding.