I've been back now a few days, but I think I left my heart in San Francisco. What a beautiful city! What amazed me most is how clean it is--at least where we were, which was mostly the Pier 39 area of Fisherman's Wharf.
And the people there are so friendly (and I'm not talking about the scammers who just want your money!) Everywhere we went, people were friendly and smiling.
But there was one smile that particularly caught my eye.
Let me set the scene:
It's morning on a beautiful warm day and my husband and I set out for Pier 39, which is about 4 blocks from the Best Western Tuscan Inn (a beautiful boutique hotel, by the way.) As we walk down Mason Street toward the piers, we're taking in the view. We cross Jefferson Street and head east until it turns into The Embarcadero.
As we walk, we notice the panhandlers. It's sad for me. They remind me of my brother Jason. I wonder if he ever panhandled like this before he was murdered. He'd lived on the streets of Edmonton, and died there too.
The looks in each panhandler's eyes is one of quiet desperation, lost hopes and unrealized dreams. Except one.
He is old, with sun-weathered skin. Maybe 75 or 80. Until he smiles. His smile makes him look 60 or so. It's hard to tell how old exactly, but his face is wrinkled and worn, as are the clothes he wears. His face and clothes tell a story, but few stop long enough to 'hear' it or acknowledge him. His shopping cart with all his prized possessions sits behind him. It doesn't look like much, but it's all he's got and he has to stay on guard to keep it.
What makes me look a second time is this man's smile. It radiates from him, sparkling like gold. You can't help but smile when you see him. His smile is contagious.
He plays an old violin. What makes this even sadder is that he can't play. What comes out is this horrid teeth-grinding, forehead-scrunching screech, like long nails dragging down a chalkboard. The sound is awful and everyone who walks by cringes. Some laugh at him and shake their heads. I don't blame them; it's hard not to.
I walk past and can't help but cringe at the strangled sound. Then I take another look and am mesmerized by his smile once again. What makes him so happy? Why isn't he miserable, like most of the others? Several thoughts go through my mind, an epiphany of sorts.
The next day we went back to the pier. The man was there, in his spot. But this time something was different. His violin lay on the ground, discarded. I think he'd broken some of the strings. Did he give up? No. He picked up the bow and with another piece of wood, played the bow. The sound was almost as grating as the violin.
Every day that we went to the pier, this man was there, playing his bow, his eyes sometimes closed, his smile ever so wide, as if he's hearing the sweetest tune on earth. He never asked for money, but his "tip" jar was in front. Other panhandlers boldly asked for money. One fellow held a sign that read: "Why lie? I need a beer."
Hopelessness and despair emanated from these people. Except for the man with the golden smile.
On that second day, I realized why he smiles so fully.
My epiphany: This man believes he is playing the most beautiful music on earth, a symphony of life. He believes that he is playing a concert and that we are his audience. He doesn't see our scowls. He sees the smiles and believes they are smiles of appreciation. He appreciates everyone who smiles back and he smiles even brighter.
Every day he goes to "work" and plays his concert, his gift to every person who walks by. His smile holds hope and appreciation. He's alive! He's free! He's celebrating life!
On our last day, a couple of hours before we headed to the airport, I wanted to do something special for the man with the golden smile. I brought him some clam chowder and a loaf of sourdough bread, plus an order of fish and chips. I wanted to thank him for his smiles.
When I reached his spot, he was gone. We looked everywhere. I was so disappointed. We spotted 3 men lying on the sidewalk a block further and I decided I'd give them the lunch. As we walked toward them, my husband spotted the man with the smile. He was pushing his cart and making his way toward us.
I stopped him and smiled back. I told him we'd seen him every day playing his violin or bow. He said he'd just taken a break. I told him I wanted to thank him for his smiles by bringing him lunch. When I gave him the bag of food, his smile was blinding.
He giggled and looked inside the bag. His eyes grew big when he saw the food, and he sniffed in the aroma, closed his eyes and smiled even wider. Then he looked at me and my husband and said "Thank you."
I know he has a story to tell. I wish I'd had more time to listen. This man could have been a father or grandfather. He was certainly someone's son, maybe someone's brother or uncle. I bet he's someone's friend.
He taught me a valuable lesson. Be grateful for everything. Be grateful that you woke up today, that you get to listen to your choice of music, that you get to play with your kids or even fight with your spouse. Just be grateful. And show it every day, no matter how rough life might get. You're alive! You're free! Celebrate your life!
And don't forget to smile! Smile at everyone you meet, and accept every smile as a gift.
This man may be a panhandler, but he's ever so wise. Part of me wanted to ask him his name; part of me wanted to respect his privacy. To me, he'll always be the man with the golden smile, a smile he shares with anyone he sees, even if you can't hear his music the way he does.
~Cheryl Kaye Tardif
author of Whale Song