Chapter Five: Susan and Seattle
Two blocks from Safeco Field where the Seattle Mariners fight for baseball supremacy, across the street from a Tesla dealership under the soaring ramble of freeways carrying 57 thousand people rushing to and from jobs in Seattle is a strip of grass which floods in winter and hatches mosquitos in spring. It’s near an Art Deco style Greyhound bus station and home to the homeless who pitch tents on the tenuous dirt and grass. Surrounded by a tall chain link fence for what purpose is unclear, there are tall metal trash cans posted at both sides of the entrance. There is a line of green portable toilets outside shared by confused game goers who don’t want to brave the ballpark lines and the homeless who have no options.
I walked there from Pike Place Market with it’s rolling grassy mounds and park benches leading to a Puget Sound walkway where musicians play and tourists stroll. There I found coffee shops and wine bars, pretzel makers and the hungry saying “anything helps” on drab cardboard signs.
My mother came with me on this day. A woman in her eighties, a former social worker, mom was lost inside her childhood, a second time around due to Dementia. She was closer to eight than 80 as she held my hand tight while we spoke to strangers, a thing she had warned me not to do as a child. But now she was a child herself and excited to “meet new people.”
We began by speaking with a woman who holds a sign. She is out trying to get money for gas. She needs to get to Tacoma for a job interview. It’s 33 miles but with traffic it can take an hour or more and all the start and stop traffic burns gas. She stays in a tent under the freeway with another woman. Her friend got a job. If she can too they may, over time, be able to get an apartment.
“They’re $1,800 a month around here now. But we really want to get under a roof.” She looks at us and pauses, “I used to take care of my mom too,” My mother introduces herself, “I’m Mary Ellen. It’s wonderful to meet you.” My mom still has her social worker voice and gestures. She leans in and gives a warm smile.
The woman, in her early thirties explains, “My mom died after years of fighting MS, Multiple Sclerosis. By the time she was gone I hadn’t worked in years, there was no money. I had about four months where I could pay rent and then it was over. No one cares if you did the right thing, it’s not about that. I applied for jobs as a caregiver. I got a few clients but not enough to keep me going.”
My mother jumps in, “I care that you did the right thing. Don’t you care Julia Anne?” she looks at me so childlike. Then she hugs the woman. “Your mother is proud of you. What is your name?” She answers, “Tanya. I hope my mom is proud. That’s a very nice thing to say Mary Ellen.” My mom then explains that she must be Edna’s girl. The young woman and I smile. Tanya has no idea who Edna is.
She continues, “If I get this job in Tacoma, they might have a spare room for me to stay in. I’d do it. I’d feel bad for my friend but maybe I could help her too.”
My mom began inviting her for holiday meals, asking how she’s been and saying it had been so long since they had spoken. Tanya smiled and answered back. Mom got so attached that she held the woman’s hand and followed me as I conducted interviews with others—a street musician who after more than ten years homeless finally got into a subsidized apartment, a teen who ran away from an abusive father, an older man who said, “I’m not a good story. I’m just an old drunk,” and smiled sweetly while asking if I had beer money. And all the while mom hanging on to the woman’s hand.
Finally when it was time to go I realized Tanya, had been carrying my computer bag with my laptop, my wallet and my mom’s purse. Mom tried to give Tanya her wedding ring but she declined, “No, now you hang on that Mary Ellen, you’ll want it later.”
My mother spent the next hours inviting people to lunch, asking them to come to her “home for dinner soon,” and trying to give them everything from her wallet and her jewelry. She would tell them it was “so nice to see you again. Be sure to say hi to your folks for me.” Tanya watched her while I worked. We didn’t have a formal arrangement, just an understanding that came about naturally.
At one point they sat smiling next to each other watching musicians play while I sought out more interviews. My mother was a great social worker. She loved people and they loved her back. Even though her rational mind was not working as it had, the parts of her that knew how to reach people remained. I came away with interviews but my mom made friends. She became the mom to every person she met and they took care of her, declining her invitations to take her money or credit cards, or buy them all lunch at the Space Needle.
Tanya did eventually accept a lunch invitation and we chatted over soup and salad and mom insisted we each have a glass of wine. “We’re all adults here and how often can we get together like this?” We couldn’t disagree.
When we needed to move to a new neighborhood and see one of the city’s camps, Tanya finally let my mom slip her 20 dollars. Suddenly lucid, mom said, “I wish there was more I could do. It shouldn’t be this way.” Her eyes were clear, her smile gone, she was the person I had known all my life. It made me miss her. On a project like this she would know exactly what to do, how to handle the grief of it all. But then she was gone again.
“Well, it was nice to see you. I’m sure we’ll catch up again soon.”
Tanya and I looked at each other. We understood that place in the fog where you know your mom is dying and there’s no clarity. That’s a loss that can’t be properly categorized.
Beyond the baseball stadium we notice a young woman, pretty, petite but strong looking. She is 19, holding a cardboard sign across her chest just under her chin. She smiles as crowds push to the left, right and sometimes through her. Few if any stop to read her sign. “Stranded; please help. Will take most any job.” Susan is wearing a grey hoodie and jeans, tiny in stature she keeps her sign as high as she can for prolonged periods of time. Her curly dark hair falls around her wide open face as she strains to keep her smile.
We introduce ourselves. “Hi I’m Julie and this is my mom, Mary Ellen. I’m a journalist interviewing people on the homeless spectrum for a project about the growing issue on the west coast. May I speak with you and, if you agree, take your picture for the project which I’ll share on line and in stories?”
The approach is becoming established by now and she agrees to tell her story.
“My husband and I came out here from Tennessee hoping to get better paying jobs. We were were both working in fast food and thought maybe we could get restaurant work out here and start building something more long term than what we were doing. But there are some things we didn’t figure on when we thought about it back home.”
Among those things is the price of housing. The lack of affordable housing or even housing at all has 4,000 or more people sleeping on the city’s streets unsheltered even in the dead of winter. Most of them are longer term residents with connections.
“Me and my husband out here with our accents and all, it’s even harder.”
And just when she thought it couldn’t get worse-it did. Susan’s young husband of 30 was diagnosed with a terminal illness; early onset Alzheimer’s. She recognized it in my mother and opened up.
“At first, we couldn’t figure out what was going on. We thought he was just stressed out but he seemed to be getting worse, forgetting things but also getting angry in a way he never had before and being afraid of stuff. It was like he was seeing things that weren’t there. He takes medicine to slow it down but they say there’s nothing they can really do.”
Susan is afraid. They sleep in the tent encampment under the freeway. “I’m scared even being out here with my sign while he’s back at the tent. I worry that he’ll walk off and get lost.”
Adding to her list of fears- it’s dangerous there.
“I’ve personally seen a stabbing. I’m a small town person and I never saw that kind of thing before. Criminals come in there to steal people’s ID’s and disability money. You can’t do anything but keep your stuff on you but even then they might take it. You can’t take your shoes off even. They get stolen.
The police told me we should find a different place to stay but we don’t know where that would be. We don’t have money and we don’t know anybody. We’ve applied for disability but whenever we were in the office they told us it could take up to a year. I can’t just let us stay like this. I’m hoping someone will see me, maybe either help me find some work or get us a ticket back home. We don’t want to go but it maybe the only thing we can do.”
In her small town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee there were poor people but nothing like this. “We were barely getting by but we were kind of making it. We just thought we’d come out here and both get good jobs, maybe become managers at a food place and work our way up. I wanted to be by the water and the pictures looked so nice. I even thought maybe I could go back to school. I’m good with computers. But now all I want is somewhere to keep us safe…”