Alone on the Train
Social Isolation Symposium: Stories of hope and of heartbreak
I took a commuter train for my first job in the Bay Area, when my wife and I first moved here. We were living in the Silicon Valley while I worked in the inner city of San Francisco, about 30 miles away. As I took the train to work, I enjoyed people watching, noticing the various kinds of stress we humans embrace, and coveting the fancy clothes a Google or Uber salary could afford. Most who rode my train were wealthy tech people making their way from home to office or vice versa.
My work was with a ministry serving one particular low-income neighborhood of San Francisco called “The Tenderloin.” I would drive to the train station, walk to the platform, ride for 40 minutes, get off in the city, walk for 25 minutes, then up four flights of stairs to my office. As my friend Jarrett once put it, “In San Francisco, every day is leg day.”
A big part of my job was connecting our college-aged interns to a major focus of our ministry: adopting low-income apartment buildings in order to better serve our neighbors. We would go into these buildings 3-4 times a week, knock on each door, bring a resident some food, and ask how we could help. We also made a lot of friends and invited people to our church. It was good work.
We did this because we realized the root of what plagued this neighborhood—homelessness, crippling poverty, depression, mental illness—was isolation. Most residents of the Tenderloin lived in Single Residency Occupancy apartments, or SROs. This meant they lived completely alone in one small room with a kitchenette, if they were fortunate. A shared bathroom was often down the hall but rarely sanitary. The rooms were small and packed tight with the person’s possessions. A TV usually centered the room in some way, and sometimes a small dog or cat made its way around the little floor space left.
Visiting these residents, people from our ministry often offered them the only conversation they would have all day. For various reasons, people in the Tenderloin mostly kept to themselves. A dangerous neighborhood matched with extreme poverty led many residents of the Tenderloin to become stuck. Many of the people I met had nowhere to go and nothing to do each day. It often made me very sad.
The lives of our neighbors in the Tenderloin seemed somehow simultaneously boring and exhausting. Being alone all day—not having anyone to call or text, having no appointments or meetings set up for the day—was a frightening thought to me. It seemed like a weight of loneliness I had never encountered. What would that be like?
But then one day, when waiting for the train to go to work, I glanced down the platform at the rows of people engrossed in their smartphones or staring off into space as noise blasted through their earbuds. No one spoke a word to each other—and that was a normal day. Everyone looked so bored and exhausted. It was just dressed up isolation. Better shoes, but the same boredom. More expensive accessories, but the same exhaustion. It was then that I felt a great kinship with my friends in the Tenderloin: we’re all lonely. And we all need each other.
Read more stories of hope and heartbreak in the Summer 2018 symposium on social isolation here.