Show after show, Mr. Rogers put on his cardigan, laced up his indoor shoes and sang about the people in the neighborhood, asking his TV audience, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” He knew the value of those whose lives touch ours.
Mother Theresa said, “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” And she said, “Go out into the world today and love the people you meet. Let your presence light new light in the hearts of people.”
I think a lot about the people whose paths I cross. Their wellbeing is what feels like religion to me. It is the first principle of seven that guide Unitarian Universalists in lieu of this religion having belief requirements. It is also the ultimate meaning of becoming a bodhisattva if you follow the precepts of the Buddha and hope to use your awakened state for the good of all beings.
In my neighorhood, there are people to greet as I walk from the Safeway parking lot between Webster and Fillmore to the Starbucks at Fillmore and O’Farrell. Not just the living neighbors, but the folks named in the square I cross. African-Americans, Japanese, Filipinos and Jews who have contributed to the welfare of Western Addition and the city. There are the political usuals like Willie L. Brown, Jr., Esq.; but there is also African American, Revels Cayton, a former San Francisco deputy mayor and trade union leader who was the first manager of St. Francis Square, a 300-unit housing development in San Francisco’s Western Addition; Joseph “Joe” Johnson, Labor and Civil Rights Advocate and first African American Deputy Mayor; Isaac Stern, violinist; Yori Wada, first Japanese American appointed to the Board of Regents at UC; and Doris Ward, first African American woman to be elected tax assessor. Lots of important social contributors alphabetical from Fillmore to the parking lot.
The people in my neighborhood include Nicole who patrols the Safeway parking lot, Audrey and Gale who are checkers on the morning shift. When I get to Starbucks, I greet Rob, Jessica, Lee, Mike, Matthew and the other baristas who treat me so well. But it’s not just the baristas whom I count as friends. There’s Danny who lives in the Rosa Parks apartments formerly called The Pink Palace. And Doug who would rather drink Peets coffee but meets me anyway so we can share the morning newspaper. These men are my friends as is Mary who does in-home care and reads the Bible and the fourth-grader Sanai who reads comics with me before she goes to school.
I count Abe, whose last name I don’t know, among these people who matter. He and I are often first arrivals when Starbucks opens at 5:30 a.m.
But we weren’t always friends. I spoke to him about a year ago, suggesting since we saw each other every morning, perhaps we could be friends, but he didn’t see it that way and told me to go away. He picked his own friends and I wasn’t one of them. For many months my appearance in his presence would cause him to make unkind remarks about pushy people, remarks I was meant to overhear. It would have been funny if it didn’t hurt my feelings. The other people I spoke with each morning were also his friends and they couldn’t convince him I was an okay person.
Abe began to end his animosity one morning when I came in excited about a 49ers’ win and could talk about what I had seen that impressed me. He too was feeling upbeat about the victory, and he accepted my enthusiasm.
A day or so later when he came in, I was reading comics with young, Sanai, whose mother was a friend of Abe’s. He said hello to her and asked her what she was doing. She told him she was reading with one of her best friends. After that, Abe decided he and I were friends.
Indeed, every day we speak and many days he gets up from the table that has the best lighting and the plug for charging the computer or phone and tells me to sit there.
We all look after him. Sometimes I will buy him oatmeal and tea because he doesn’t drink coffee. I count Abe among the people in my neighborhood I love and respect.
Loving my neighbors is real whether or not they know it or reciprocate. Abe didn’t have to care for me to be worthy of my regard. It feels better when regard is mutual, but being cared for is not the payoff; it is a bonus.