Seeing the Unseen

Kevin Adler takes a moment to connect with a person he wasn’t expecting to meet on an ordinary day in San Francisco. 

Imagine you are sitting on your bicycle on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, waiting for the red light to turn green, and Ryan Seacrest approaches you.

Well, first he approaches a few other passer-bys, but they ignore him, almost recoiling as he approaches.

You see this.

Ryan Seacrest notices that you see this. So he approaches you.

What do you do?

Even though Ryan Seacrest isn’t my favorite celebrity, nor is he a friend or colleague, I imagine that if he approached me, on a nice day when I had a minute to spare, I’d probably hear him out.

And so, on January 18th, that’s what I did when Ryan* approached me.

I was sitting on my bicycle on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, waiting for the red light to turn green. Out of my eye, I glimpsed a distinct-looking man approaching me. I turned and saw that this was no ordinary man. Even without an introduction, you knew this was someone special.

He seemed uncomfortable, with a look of resignation on his face, almost as if he knew what I would say before I had said anything, as if he had interacted with me millions of times before and that I always responded the same.

“Excuse me,” Ryan began anyway. “But do you know where the nearest Jack in the Box is?”

I stared blankly.

It was a commonplace question, so ordinary that its simple utterance by almost any other fellow stranger would not have lifted an eye. But in this instance, by this discernible stranger, the question came as a surprise.

“Um, I’m not sure,” I replied.

I briefly deliberated whether to follow with a “sorry” and ride on my way. But, of course, I was intrigued. This type of question from this type of person does not happen just any other day. It’s not often that I have the opportunity to maybe do a minor kind deed for such a major kind of fellow as he.

I continued: “Did someone tell you that there was a Jack in the Box nearby?”

“No,” Ryan responded. “But I know there is one around here. I’ve been to it before. I think it is by 2nd Street. I just don’t remember where.”

“Hmm,” I said. And I deliberated some more time on whether to spare another minute and help a little bit more. Finally, I made up my mind.

“Here, let me check my phone.”

I pulled out my smart phone. And began to search for the nearest Jack in the Box, somewhere along Second Street in downtown San Francisco.

A few moments passed.

“You’re the first person who has stopped to help me,” Ryan muttered.

I was surprised to hear that.

After a pause, he continued: “I’ve been looking for the Jack in the Box for awhile, and I can’t find it. You’re the first person who has stopped to help me find it.”

My phone said it was close, within a few blocks. I gave Ryan point-by-point directions: “Walk down Market for two blocks, take a left onto 1st Street. It will be on your right, just past Stevenson. 42 1st Street.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, and he began to walk away. I watched as he left. His walk was more of a partnerless shuffle. The occasional passerby, striding along in their afternoon rush, would glance up and then quickly away as he walked by. And back again as he passed. I saw this repeat, again and again and again and, after a minute, I lost sight of Ryan.

I rode on… for a block.

And, I thought, why not change my itinerary this once?

So I rode back.

I found Ryan a block away, still on Market Street. He was sitting on the pavement across from a woman on a mat, leaning up against a shopping cart filled with raggedy clothes, bags, and water jugs. A cardboard sign asking strangers for a few bucks rested against the cart to the woman’s immediate right.

Ryan seemed as comfortable as if at home as they quietly talked.

“Hey!” I said as I rode up to them. I came to a stop, and realized I had nothing to say. “Um, I thought you were going to Jack in the Box?”

“I found my friend, Penny, along the way” Ryan said.

“Oh,” I said. I offered a sheepish hello to Penny. And I introduced myself to Ryan, “I’m Kevin.”

“Ryan,” Ryan said.

The three of us talked—more like Ryan and Penny talked and I asked a question here and there. Penny talked about her broken ribs, and Ryan described the ones he had that never fully healed. Penny talked about the cold. Ryan told Penny that another kid he knew had died on the streets, the sixth this winter. Penney told Ryan her body was hurting. Ryan told Penny about the free health clinic he had recently found, and told her to take care and keep warm. Ryan told me he was from Iowa.

After about fifteen minutes, Ryan rose. “Well, let’s let Penny get back to work” he said. Penny reached for her sign.

We left our separate ways, Ryan right toward Jack in the Box on 1st, me glad I had taken a minute to spare for such a major kind of fellow as he.


*A different Ryan. Maybe his last name was Seacrest, too.



Photo: Flickr/macinate

About Kevin Adler

Kevin F. Adler, founder and CEO of inthis (a social invite platform for connecting people around their shared experiences), is an entrepreneur and applied sociologist who works to empower people, businesses, and governments to find strength through vulnerability. His first book, The Great Catalyst, will be published by UPA this year. Follow him and say hey at @heykfa.


  1. Kevin it is great that you took the time to stop and make friends with Ryan and Penny but why not take the time to actually go into the free clinic or the homeless shelter or the free Ged programs and really get to know some of these faceless voiceless people. You will be surprised at what you can do and how just you can make a difference to even one person. Think if all of us gave just a minute of kindness to our fellow man how much better of a world we could have!

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