This is the last segment to be shared online. I’m planning as of now to release the full non fiction novel in September of 2018 if all goes well. Thanks to those of you who took the time to read it.
Her voice trails off and she wipes her eyes. “I’ve got to wash my face and get a smile going. No one wants to help a sad little pitiful girl crying all over herself.”
Disability accounts for nearly half of Seattle’s homeless. Even among those, many work part time or seasonal jobs. Susan’s husband, if he gets disability, will collect between $1,000 and $1,200 dollars per month. If she works full time they would still be using half their collective income on rent. At one time people on disability or social security could afford housing in Seattle. Now it’s not possible.
We approach her camp. The first group gathered nearest the fence is Susan’s. She tells us to check in and let them know she sent us there.
Susan and her husband have their tent near Jesus and his adult son who is also disabled after a car wreck left him with chronic pain and brain damage. They lost his mother to cancer a year ago. “I get survivors benefits and he has disability but it still doesn’t get us to rent. After my wife died the landlord told us we couldn’t afford the place anymore. He didn’t ask, he just gave us notice. All I’ve got left of our life is her ring and some pictures. I sent the ring to my daughter in Florida so it doesn’t get stolen out here. “
He is sitting in a camp chair next to his son and Susan’s husband. “I’m kind of guy sitting today. She and I take turns so that between us maybe we’ll come up with jobs.”
He gets up and hands his son a snack. “If I don’t keep him fed, he’ll forget to eat.”
Jesus is 60, wearing a flannel shirt with a pair of work jeans and hiking boots. He’s fit and working with his hands. Today’s project is trying to suspend a water jug from a rope. “I got a smaller tent I figured we might use to rig up for some kind of showering station. I hate how dirty we get out here. If you let yourself stop caring you’ll never get out.”
His dream is to get a job, save up and move he and his son to Florida to be near his daughter. “We couldn’t live with her. She lives in a trailer with her husband and kids. It’s a struggle for them too. But if we’re nearby maybe she could help with him and I could get a good job until I can collect full social security. I used to manage construction sites. I still got it in me.”
Susan’s husband is bundled up in a winter jacket. “I got to get down to Food City, I hear they might be hiring. I was over at Bojangles but they kept cutting my hours. I figure if I can get full time even stocking shelves, that’d be good. Susan and me are saving up to move to Seattle. She’s going to go back to school and get one of the big tech jobs they have out there. Her mom used to live out there and she’s always saying how nice it is.”
Jesus doesn’t remind him he’s not in Pigeon Forge anymore and, perhaps mercifully, he doesn’t remember that Seattle isn’t working out the way they’d hoped. Jesus hands him a cup of coffee from a pot sitting on a camp stove which is propped up on a small table made of scrap wood.
Jesus continues his story. “ I never pictured it going this way. My wife had a good job, I did too. But when he got in his accident someone needed to take care of him. We figured she made more money, steady money, so that would be me. But between his medical bills and me not working we had to sell our house and downsize. Then when we lost her, that was it.”
He flashes a picture of her on his cell phone, a blonde woman in her fifties wearing a dress suit and smiling from her desk. “She did HR. When she got sick they kept her job open for her but there wasn’t a check anymore. I tried going back to work but it was too much. She needed me there. By the time they found the cancer it was too late. Ovarian. Took her in four months once they found it.”
Jesus stares down at his phone. “They call them Obama phones out here. It helps with getting jobs and down at the bus station there’s wi-fi.”
He’s back in motion setting out a dog dish for a brown pit bull who sits quietly by his son’s feet. Jesus rubs the dogs belly as she rolls over, tongue hanging out of her mouth comedically. He kisses her wet nose.
“We fell all the way to here-this piece of dirt under the freeway we used to take to work. He was hit by a truck who pushed him into another lane of traffic probably not ten miles from here. It’s like our whole lives boil down to this damn freeway.” He apologizes for his language. “I’m a believer in God. I never used to talk like that but where is all that now? Maybe even God doesn’t bother with the homeless. That’s how it feels sometimes. But I got to try to stay positive. If I lose faith then nothing will change for sure.”
A young guy passes by with his partner. They are loaded down with suitcases and bulging backpacks. They are smiling. “We’re out of here. Our number finally came up. We got a place out on 6th. Our voucher will cover half of it and I figure I can pick up a second job now that she’ll be safe at night without me.”
His partner is pregnant. She sets down her suitcase and leans against the handle. “ It’s really small, just a studio, but I can fix it up. I know how to find cheap stuff and make it good. I can’t believe it. I can cook, take my shoes off, take a long, hot shower…” She stops, realizing Jesus is still in the camp. “You want any of this ? I got a clean tarp and some other stuff.”
Jesus jumps up and hugs her. “Oh My God. Just in time. I’m so happy for you guys. Yea I’ll take that tarp. You got any propane tanks?”
“We used the last of it this morning for coffee. We gave our camp stove away already. We figured you had one. Listen, we’ll come back and see you and if you want to come get out of the cold, cook some food or grab a shower—we’d be cool with it. We got to stick together, right? That doesn’t change.”
Jesus stares in her twenty something face for a few minutes and hugs her again. “You’re a good girl. I’m just happy for you. Go on, go do good. “
Subsidized housing in Seattle still runs in the $1,200 dollar range. Without a housing voucher his 28 hour per week job at Walmart couldn’t get them in. It would be his entire paycheck. As it is, even a second job may not be enough if they lose their voucher. They will no longer qualify for food assistance.
“It’s okay, I can go to food pantries and free meals at the churches. Eventually, after the baby I can go back to work too and we’ll get all the way back on our feet. But this is a start.”
The couple lived in his parents house while he was going to school to become a teacher. Neither of them are yet 25 years old. They have an energy about them, discouraged but not accepting. He’s telling their story. Jesus gets up and offers my mom his chair. I’m standing, taking notes on my phone.
“We were getting along okay. My little brother was still at home in high school and my parents both worked at Microsoft. It got crowded sometimes but we were all on track until Microsoft laid off both my parents in the same year. They lived off savings for awhile but eventually they had to sell the house and move for jobs. They had my brother and about half the income—I couldn’t see going with them.”
He had to cut back at school and take any job he could get. At first they figured they’d live in their van and save up for a place but they kept getting tickets for parking in their old neighborhood. One day they came back to the van and it was gone. “It got impounded and we couldn’t afford to get it out. We had to beg them to let us get our stuff out of it. That’s how we got to the camp. And that’s where we found out we were pregnant. If something didn’t happen soon for us I was going to call my parents for help but I was hoping to pull ourselves out without stressing them. They’ve been through a lot these last couple years.”
He still hopes to finish his degree and she’s planning on becoming a preschool teacher so she can work a schedule around parenting. “I can’t start now because I need some classes and we can’t afford it but soon enough.”
He interjects, “Once I get my degree and a job, then it’ll be her turn.”
She picks back up on the story. Her feet are in striped socks and she’s leaning on the insides of her feet like she might have as a little girl. “It’s just crazy that things are like this now. We grew up here. We met in high school. All of our family had to move away. My mom had to transfer with Starbucks or lose her job before I even graduated. She let me move in with his parents. Now his folks are gone. We live here and we love it but everything is so out of control—-rents are insane and that’s if you can find a place. We got lucky getting into this apartment. When I got pregnant, and it’s complicated because I got high blood pressure with all the stress and crap food, it helped us move up in the line. That sometimes makes me feel bad for other people waiting.”
They walk all their bags to the nearby bus stop and give a final wave to Jesus before getting on. “Honestly I hope I don’t see them again. They should forget about this place if they can.”
Jesus sits down on the top of his thick cooler. “Susan should be back soon. I got to go to the soup kitchen and feed these guys some dinner.”
The Seattle where Jesus lives barely resembles the blue collar middle class enclave which developed during World War II. Boeing hired some 40,000 people to make planes for the war effort. They flew over Mount Rainier to bases all over the world until the war ended. When it did, so did many of those jobs. But Boeing’s history and Seattle’s followed a story line of boom and bust and people hung on. The jobs eventually came back. There were other places where a person could work even it meant going to Pierce County to scout out the lumber mills.
And then, a family could live on one job without having to go to college. Black folks poured in from the south and formed the Central District and the mostly white guys working the docks settled in Ballard. West Seattle and the south part of town scattered its houses around scrappy little neighborhoods with pale pink clapboard houses which went for 30,000 to 50,000 dollars in the 80’s and beer joints served Rainier and Olympia in cans.
Jobs at mills and docks paid a living wage and stay at home moms rode the bus downtown to do their grocery shopping. Seattle was not sophisticated nor trendy and few could imagine a time when it would be.
The University of Washington was a well regarded regional school but nothing fancy. Bragging rights consisted of the Super Sonics and airplanes, snowy mountains and the blue of the Puget Sound. In those days no one could have imagined an REI outdoor gear wearing tech professional motoring his three thousand dollar bike around town, stopping for a Starbucks on the way. Starbucks sold bulk coffee beans out of an old shop with creaky floors and dusty ceilings to local restaurants and coffee lovers. But most folks still kept Folgers in the kitchen.
Microsoft’s arrival in 1986 changed the nature of business, jobs and life. The little blue collar town became a San Fransisco north. And with that also came Amazon’s corporate headquarters.
Now locals describe it as “Amazon’s Company Town.” The two giants of Microsoft and Amazon appear locked in a battle of how many acres they can develop for their campuses and how many high tech employees they can lure to the north. With them comes higher priced homes, more traffic on the freeways and moving the non tech sector further and further out. For those who drive buses, clerk at stores, manage restaurants or wait tables, it’s easy to see how one thing going wrong could throw you out on the streets and into a tent.
In the past the only homeless Seattleites who existed slept in the Gospel Mission. Mostly older men who struggled with an addiction of one type or another. But now the new Seattle has an entirely new brand of people who find themselves unsheltered: working people, retirees and the disabled.
It was nothing like the town where my mom and her mom lived when she was a teenager. I look at her and she is tired.
The camp confused her. “Im not sure I want to stay here tonight.” I assured her we’d be going back home. “Oh good. Nice folks but I need to see my dog.”
We drove mostly in silence before stopping for a quick bite. I wanted to sit out the afternoon rush and take mom somewhere nice after working.
She met me that morning dressed up in slacks and heels. Her purse on her wrist and her platinum hair pulled back neatly with glass earrings dangling at her jaw line. She modeled her outfit for me, her face glowing at the excitement of going to work with me, although she didn’t know what that meant.
She suggested we stop and see her sister who had an “office downtown.” That was twenty years ago but to mom every moment was now.
I couldn’t disappoint her fully, even though I had failed to provide her with the outing she had in mind. The day was not the swanky sort with teas and shopping and visits to sisters now gone so I treated her to a triangle shaped bar and restaurant we’d visited before when I was in town, The Matador.
It’s long lines of tables and huge windows framed in iron, we had margaritas and tapas as if nothing we saw that day was fully real. We spoke of Madrid: wide streets, dining with walls of sliding doors opening to the streets, Cervantes apartment and beautiful people. The Prado, the art, the public plazas and streets humming with urban, European life.
Tight rope walking between that life of travel and this one, dementia and clarity, loss and the unknown future created a brokenness in me. Zen Buddhist Zendo’s deliberately leave cracks in their entry beams in otherwise perfect temples to send the message that all insight comes from this experience of breaking. Knowing that helps but it does not end the pain caused by it. I had no right to worry about my own despair, but rights and feelings don’t always match. Empathy can spill into all sorts of places that make you forget what’s yours and not yours.
Will Susan ever make it to school? Will she watch her husband die day by day for years until one day she finds herself caring for a total stranger ?
Interviews can only go so far and I can only know what is true in the moment of speaking with people. I see them cast in those hours, not the time before nor after. Perhaps she was a happy kid with loving parents and sleep overs with friends. Maybe she ran through the Smoky Mountains all summer long happily playing in its rivers. Maybe she would return there and be happy in that way again or perhaps she’ll find a way off the street and into a rewarding life in Seattle.
I almost never get to know what happens next. I am gifted only so much time and then it’s over. It is time to drop into another person’s life, to find the intersections in their story and hope it adds up to something which is coherent and tells a larger truth.
Soon, I will kiss my mother goodbye not knowing if this is the last time. I will leave Seattle heading south again to more stories, chasing this thread.
I left early in the morning before mom awoke and felt that familiar ache of loss. The phone rang, “Hey Judah. What up? What up?”