Volunteers try to lighten pre-work day mood

By Kelly Davis Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 13, 2000

Downtown San Francisco was a friendly place Wednesday morning. At 7:30 a.m., more than 300 volunteers, wearing fluorescent green hats and vests, stationed themselves on street corners and cheerily waved hello to passers by. 

“Good morning, sir, have a nice day,” said Joan Heberger, 25, to one man. He gave her a quick smile, then looked down as he walked away. A moment later, Heberger grinned, jumped up and down, and waved her arms at a busload of people. 

“People walking and people on bikes are generally pretty friendly back,” Heberger said. “But the people on buses look at you like you’re nuts.” 

Heberger was part of the Affirmation Project, an event aimed at lightening the city’s mood. The event was planned by Foolsforhire, a group of four Bay Area teachers. The project consisted entirely of volunteers. They had nothing to sell. 

Volunteers ranged along Market and Powell streets, mostly in groups of two to four. They covered over sixty street corners. Some handed out lollipops, some blew bubbles, some gave out compliments. 

Heather Clisby, 34, said most passers by smiled back, and a few even stopped to talk.  

“A lot of people come up and expect you to give them a pitch, like you’re selling something,” she said. “And then when you tell them you’re not, they’re confused.” 

Bob Benson, a member of Foolsforhire, said that kind of confusion is part of what they’re trying to change. He said he wants to see a San Francisco where people aren’t suspicious of a friendly stranger.  

“People are tired of being treated like a commodity,” Benson said. “We want to create a sanctioned place where it’s safe to be friendly. We need to re-establish that human bond.” 

Foolsforhire’s mission is to help people break out of their inhibitions and create that bond. They regularly put on jester’s outfits and walk around the city, striking up conversations and posing for pictures.  

“We make people laugh,” said Benson.  

“But it’s not that we’re funny. We represent something that does not fit, and the way people perceive us allows them to express their own feelings of freedom.” 

For Wednesday’s event, Foolsforhire brought along around 200 high school students from Marin County, where two of the organizers teach.  

Other volunteers had heard about the event through an e-mail events bulletin. David Winstein, also of Foolsforhire, said around twenty passers-by joined their ranks that morning. 

Around 11:30 a.m., most of the morning traffic had died down, and the group crowded into Union Square.  

Organizers had brought in a sound system and many danced, still wearing their bright hats and vests. They ate soup, they cheered for themselves, and they did the hokey-pokey. 

At one point, a homeless man starting dancing with them.  

“Excellent,” Winstein said. “That’s exactly what we’re about.”