LTRP Note: Lighthouse Trails has asked Warren Smith to share a brief Thanksgiving greeting to our readers and a story from his book Watering the Greyhound Garden: Stories from the Streets of San Francisco. Many of our readers know Warren from his books that warn about spiritual deception but don’t know that he was a career social worker serving in a variety of positions over the years—including his job as a Travelers Aid social worker at the Greyhound Bus Station and on the streets of San Francisco.
A Thanksgiving Greeting
This Thanksgiving, may the Lord bless each of you as you gather together with family and friends to give thanks for His many blessings. May we remember too the countless churches, ministries, and Christian agencies that help to serve people who find themselves in need on Thanksgiving and at other times throughout the year.
My very first job as a social worker was with Travelers Aid in San Francisco. I was the night social worker operating out of the lobby of the San Francisco Greyhound Bus Station. From my ground level position I met many lost and desperate people whose lives were significantly changed—both physically and spiritually—by ministries, churches, and agencies like Travelers Aid. It was often quite amazing to watch how churches and community groups networked to help those who were experiencing hard times in the city. In my particular position, I saw people who had often reached the end of the line and had dead-ended at the Greyhound.
The Greyhound terminal was like a modern-day Jericho Road where broken-down travelers were in urgent need of help. From California dreamers and state hospital runaways to an abused housewife, a stranded grandmother, a suicidal transvestite, and a seventy-three-year-old man still riding the rails—all in San Francisco and earnestly seeking help. Their stories tell the universal story of the wayfaring stranger—the traveler in trouble. The following story from my book Watering the Greyhound Garden is about a southern man who ended up stranded, alone, and without hope at the Greyhound Bus Station. His story serves to remind us to give thanks always for the way God works in our lives. (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
My kinsfolk have failed, and my familiar friends have forgotten me.—Job 19:14
When I first spoke with Willis Potter, he had been sitting in the Greyhound lobby for nearly three days. He’d caught the attention of our volunteer as he periodically walked past the Travelers Aid booth to go up the stairs to the men’s room on the second floor. A North Carolina native, the seventy-three-year-old man wore wire-rimmed glasses, spoke with a strong southern accent, and walked with a noticeable stoop. His thin, silvery-gray hair framed his high pale forehead and angular facial features. Wearing a coat and tie and neatly shined shoes, Mr. Potter was very proper in his own country kind of way. His manner was gruff, and he would periodically punctuate his sentences with the characteristic phrase, “Don’t ya know.”
“I spent my whole life in Holly Hill, don’t ya know. I was livin’ with my sister there until she died two years ago. Her kinfolk kicked me out after she died. They tried to put me in a home for old fogeys, don’t ya know. But I ran away to New York. I met a Jewish woman there and lived in her home near Coney Island. Then one day we had a fight and I had to leave, don’t ya know. Been travelin’ ever since.” He told me how he’d crisscrossed the country several times over the past two years with his suitcase and three large trunks—but in spite of all his traveling he’d never found a place that felt like home.
“I miss them dogwoods in the spring, don’t ya know. That Carolina countryside is the prettiest dang thing you’d ever want to see.” His eyes seemed to glisten as he pictured the familiar scene in his mind. “But if I went back to Holly Hill they’d just try to stick me back in that home for old fogeys, don’t ya know.”
When I asked Mr. Potter what his plans were, he said, “To die.” I was taken aback by his straightforward pronouncement and asked him to explain.
“I aim to die, blast it! I arrived here at this bus station with $65 and some hoodlum robbed me twenty minutes later, don’t ya know. Social Security doesn’t even know I’m here, and they never get my checks straight anyway. I’m sick of the whole thing. I had a good life, but it was over the day I left Holly Hill. I’m too old and too tired to keep travelin’ around like this. I want to die, and this bus station is as good a place as any.”
“Die right here in the Greyhound?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, sir. Right here in the Greyhound. Living is too much dang trouble, don’t ya know. I don’t care anymore.” He had made up his mind and that was that. The fact that he wasn’t asking me or anyone else for assistance seemed to underscore the seriousness of his plan. For Mr. Potter, the San Francisco Greyhound bus station was the literal end of the line. While most people in the lobby were waiting for a bus, Mr. Potter was waiting to die.
“Mr. Potter, when was the last time you had something to eat?” I asked.
“Three days ago,” he replied.
“Mr. Potter, you can’t just sit here and die!”
“Watch me,” he said with utter conviction.
I didn’t want to call Adult Protective Services, but he wasn’t leaving me much choice. Before taking that step, however, I made one last appeal by sharing a personal note about the city he now found himself in. I described my traveling out to San Francisco from Connecticut after being discharged from the Army. I was discouraged and depressed, but the city had given me hope and a new start. The people were friendly and open, and before long the city felt like home. I told him the reason I had my job in the bus station was because the people of San Francisco—through agencies such as United Way—wanted Travelers Aid to help people like him. I acknowledged that San Francisco was not Holly Hill, but the city had its own special beauty and charm.
Continuing my plea, I urged Mr. Potter to give Travelers Aid a chance. We could provide him with food and lodging, help straighten out his Social Security, and refer him to the Tenderloin Senior Center for assistance with permanent housing. Instead of putting him in a “home for old fogeys,” they would help him find his own apartment. I could even arrange to have Greyhound keep his trunks until he was settled.
Mr. Potter listened intently to everything I said. Perhaps too tired to offer any further resistance, he reluctantly agreed to work with me. I immediately took him over to the Greyhound coffee shop where he ended his three-day fast with a hamburger and a cherry Coke. After telling Greyhound to hold on to his three trunks, I called Mr. Patel and reserved a room for Mr. Potter at the Coronado. I then accompanied the weary North Carolina native in a cab to the hotel. After walking him to his room, I handed him several food vouchers. I told him to get some rest and that I’d be back the next day.
The following afternoon I led Mr. Potter over to the Senior Center on Leavenworth Street. Travelers Aid would work jointly with the center in assisting him. While they helped him find an apartment, we would continue to meet his immediate needs for food and lodging. We would also make sure that his Social Security payments were properly reinstated.
The Senior Center found him a small furnished apartment two blocks from the bus station in a building designed for seniors who were still able to live independently. The manager was very supportive and allowed Mr. Potter to move in right away, deferring the rent and deposit until his Social Security checks caught up with him. He even advanced Mr. Potter some money for his beloved “chewin’ tobacco.”
I was happy for Mr. Potter and visited him regularly during my dinner breaks. He would tell me tales about his childhood farm and of southern days gone by. Over time, I discovered he had his own unique vocabulary—he talked of his love for “cowpop”(milk) and his penchant for eating “cackleberries”(eggs). He was feisty and rarely smiled, but sometimes I detected a twinkle in his eyes when he delivered one of his characteristic digs at life today compared to “the good ole days.” Mr. Potter liked to tease me by calling San Francisco “Frisco.” I would remind him that San Franciscans never called San Francisco “Frisco.” Referring to the city as “Frisco” was the sure sign of an outsider—and that he was no longer an outsider.
Mr. Potter lived in his apartment for about six months. The last time I saw him he said he was moving out of the Tenderloin. The Senior Center had found him a studio apartment near the ocean in the Richmond District, which he described as “real peaceful.” The Tenderloin was too dangerous, he said, and now he wouldn’t have to be so worried about getting robbed by “hoodlums.” When I left his apartment that day, I was thankful that the man from Holly Hill would be living out the rest of his days in an apartment by the Pacific Ocean rather than in the lobby of the Greyhound bus station. His life had been uniquely shaped in the South, but Mr. Potter—“don’t ya know”—was now a full-fledged San Franciscan.
On behalf of myself and the editors and authors of Lighthouse Trails, may your Thanksgiving day be joyful and filled with God’s many blessings.