Drive-by People

drive_by_people_5I call them drive-by people because that’s what I do. I drive by them, unsure of how to help or even if I should at the individual level.

They stand at all the freeway off-ramps in my neighborhood with cardboard signs. They haven’t always been there, but they are now. Evidence, I assume, of the growing humanitarian crisis in Seattle and King County: the Homelessness Epidemic.

One man sits all day at the exit from the Starbucks parking lot. He has a large backpack and a few plastic bags; I don’t know where he goes at night. I’ve seen him decanting cans of Coors Light into a Nalgene bottle. I’ve seen him asleep in the planter bed next to the sidewalk. Yes, I admit, I am made nervous by his presence. If that was me in the situation he’s in, I would want people to see me as more than homeless, I would want them to treat me with humanity and not to be nervous. But they would be nervous, despite themselves, just as I am. The visible fraying of social fabric puts a person on guard.

At the grocery store, yesterday, as I was waiting for the light to turn green so I could leave the parking lot, I watched an old man in a dirty winter coat standing at the curb with a cardboard sign declaring that he was a homeless veteran and anything would help. Behind him another man wearing several sweatshirts, two stocking caps and sitting in a wheelchair berated him. I don’t know why. Had I stumbled on a turf war of some kind?

Driveby_peopleIn Woodinville, the upscale, Washington-wine-country, shopping village not far from my home, there is one man I have seen many times. He paces back and forth along a 20-yard stretch of sidewalk at the stoplight next to the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant across from the athletic fields. One day when I was at the fields to watch my 8-year-old son play a Little League baseball game, I watched the man from across the street. He walked as though his legs were broken, knees knocking together, ankles collapsed–to call it walking is to overstate it, it was more of a scuffing back and forth over that stretch of sidewalk next to the cars stopping at the light on their way to Top Foods, Panera, Ross Dress for Less, PetsMart, the movie theater, the wineries. Like all the drive-by people, he held a cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance.

No one gave him anything. He was pathetic. I don’t mean that as a put down or a rejection. I mean what the dictionary tells us pathetic means: “Adj.– Arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.” I was moved to pity (strangely, I am hesitant to admit to you that I acted because of pity–we live in an age that, I fear, has politicized pity so that when it comes from the “wrong” groups or individuals it is seen not as an act of selfless compassion, but, too often, as an act of judgment, as an act of patriarchal imperialism…or maybe I’m making that up…but I don’t think so). So, anyway, I pitied the guy and I wanted to do something for him and I was standing there with my older son while the younger one played baseball and I knew my older son was watching the guy too and he could see that no one was helping and I wanted him to learn that, when you can help a person in need, you should. So I told him to come with me and headed across the street and approached the guy as he scuffed back toward the crosswalk.

His face had been ravaged by some skin disorder, a good portion of his nose was gone. He had a scraggly red beard. Under the beard his skin was red, flaking, looked infected. Honestly I thought the guy looked like he was probably going to keel over dead sometime in the next 30 minutes or so.drive_by_people_3

I do not know how to help homeless people, I’ll admit it. I want to help, but there are too many voices in my head debating what is the right and wrong thing to do — one group of voices says don’t question, just give. Whenever you can, wherever you can, these are the socialists in my head; another group of voices says don’t give money directly to the person on the street, they’ll use if for drugs or booze…they’re not really in need anyway, they’re faking to take advantage of your compassion or affluent guilt, these are the country-club Republicans in my head, I try to shut them up because they discourage compassion and I can feel they are one breath away from asking are there no poor houses, are there no prisons to handle the surplus population or from declaring Let them eat cake.

In this instance, I listened to the moderate in my head and I split the difference. I decided not to give the guy money, but I asked him if I could buy him some food from the Jack In the Box next to his sidewalk. He paused and thought about it for a few seconds and then said, “Maybe an egg and sausage breakfast croissant?”

I was surprised by that. So very specific. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t the first person to offer to buy him food at the Jack In the Box. My son and I went in. I bought him the croissant. We took it out and handed it to him. He said thank you and pushed it into the deep pocket of his oversized coat. He said thank you, but he didn’t act like I had done him much of a favor. I have to be careful that the pursuit of appreciation is not my reason for helping when I do.

“I don’t know if that was the right thing to do,” I said to my son as we walked back across the street. “But doing nothing didn’t feel right either.”

drive_by_people_2That was last spring. I’ve seen that same guy on the same street corner in Woodinville almost every week since. Others have come and gone, but he’s always there. I’ve wondered if there is a homeless camp somewhere in the trees at the edge of the Sammamish Bike Trail. I’ve wondered how even an affluent town like Woodinville can now have a problem with homelessness. Then last week I rode the bus into downtown Seattle–a 20 mile trip one way. I went to a business meeting and then I rode back. In the front seat of the bus heading out of downtown and winding its way 20 miles to the moneyed suburbs sat the man from the Jack In the Box corner. He wore the same oversized coat, his beard was scraggly still, his skin flaking and red. He held on his lap a plastic milk crate and on top of that his cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance. Does he commute? Maybe his strategy for survival is to go where the money is. My question is how do we get money–enough money–to go where he and others like him are? Clearly that’s not happening yet.

Homelessness is not something I’ve seen a lot of in my life. I’m naïve and sheltered. It’s always been at the periphery of my experience. If I went into the city, I encountered it, but I could always drive away from it, back to the suburbs and there I could stop thinking about it. And I did. But the suffering went on. Homelessness is spiking in this region and now the problem has grown to the point that the suffering is visible in neighborhoods where we used to think of it as someone else’s problem. I don’t yet know how best to help.

But doing nothing doesn’t feel right.

Knocking at the Door In the Middle of the Night

I was sixteen and out of gas on the side of Van Lanen Road and it was 1:3o in the morning. This was long ago in the 1980s when the world was new, before cell phones, when if you ran out of gas there was no easy way to contact anyone and you had to save yourself with just your wits, of which I had few. I had miscalculated how far the 1972 Chevy Impala station wagon I shared with my brother could travel with the needle on E. I thought I could make it all the way home, park the car in the driveway, go to bed, let my brother discover its need for fuel tomorrow on his day with the car. I was fifteen miles short. And now I was on the gravel, sitting in the dark, beside a fence, a farm, fields running off in every direction leaving me alone under a very big, black sky.

It didn’t occur to me to be worried. I got out and started walking. I knew where I was: when I was very little, my father would put me in a tiny seat on the back of his bicycle and ride up this Van Lanen hill I was walking down at 1:30 in the morning. He huffed and puffed and called it heartbreak hill.

I got past the farms and their endless corn fields and I saw a few houses. But they were all dark, shut down for the night. Back then I was very careful not to believe in God, but I suppose I was making some requests of the night and whoever or whatever might be listening: thanks for the houses, but could you show me one with a light on? And then there was one: a little place, rambler, one of the first of what would become many new suburban houses built on a tiny piece of what used to be cornfield. One window was lit.

Middle of the night, on silent feet, out of the darkness I stepped to their door and knocked. At the time I thought nothing of it, other than to hope I was knocking loud enough, hoping they could hear me. Now, thinking back on it, I wonder what I would do if I was the one inside the door at 1:30 in the morning and suddenly comes a stranger knocking out of the darkness. They opened the door.

They were a young couple. He stood at the door. She remained on the couch under a blanket. The light I had seen was somewhere in the back of the house, the living room was lit only by the television set, her face was blue in the glow of a paused VCR tape.

I explained the situation. He offered their phone, led me to the kitchen where it hung on the wall above the counter. If he suspected me of anything other than the truth, he didn’t let on. He watched me dial, listened to me tell my brother he had to come get me, then left me sitting at the counter alone in his kitchen while he went back and got under the blanket with the woman and started the VCR tape again. Sometime later my brother arrived. I said “Thank you,” they said “OK”. I walked out the front door into the future.

A lot of that future has become the past. I think of that couple. They might have been 30. They let me in and we paused together briefly in that house of theirs like strangers waiting at a bus stop for our different busses to come and take us wherever we were going.They lived their own lifetimes while I lived mine. If they made it this far, that young couple of my memory is in their sixties now. They were just starting out, now they’re starting the wind down. An old couple. Maybe sitting together on a different couch. Maybe not together anymore but thinking of one another sometimes. Maybe gone altogether.

 

 

The Dream

chocolatepuppy

The man’s son is 11 and dreams about a puppy.

He tells the man about his dream one morning. The man is drinking coffee before work, paging through a magazine. He pauses on the perfume ads and traces beautiful people with his eyes. His hair sticks up and his stubbled beard is gray.

His son says, “Every night I dream we are looking at puppies. One of them loves me so much and wants to go home with me. Then I ask you and mom if we can keep it, and you say yes and then I’m so happy. But then I wake up and I realize it was just a dream and I say ‘Oh’, and I just have to get up like every other day.”

The man nods his head and turns the pages of his magazine. Beautiful people have found blue water and sunshine; they put their hands on each other with their eyes closed and they have never known loneliness.

He looks, then, at his son. The boy is smiling, still tuned to the joy of the vision even though there is no puppy and he’s perched here with the man on the cold gray granite surface of this day. How much should he tell his son about what is to come? When is the time to start breaking his son’s heart, just a little, for his own good?

He turns a page. Beautiful people kick water into diamond droplets with the sunshine in their eyes.

“I’ll tell you, son,” the man says and his son’s eyes grow wider and hope flares in them like a beach fire, “that is a good dream.”

Books and Blasphemy

For a few years I kept all my books in the garage. They were on a bookshelf, not stuffed into boxes. But, yes, they were in the garage.

My mother gave me grief about it. I was raised in a household that respected books. We weren’t allowed ever to throw books no matter how angry we were. Once my cat killed my goldfish and I threw the cat across the room. Nobody said anything about it. But throw a book and I’d end up getting a real earful and I’d have to apologize for my error in judgement.

Our home was dominated by an eight foot wide, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that held hundreds of volumes. A walk through our house was a slalom course around piles of books, all of them in various stages of being read by someone.

Books, literacy, these were our religion. We did not blaspheme against books.

Once at Waldenbooks in the mall the cashier was one of my father’s students. When the cashier saw his professor standing in front of him, he wanted to win favor. He told my father that if the book he was buying was damaged the store would have to give it to him at a discount. It wasn’t damaged, my father pointed out. The cashier, his student, took the book from him and ripped the front cover off. “Fifty percent discount,” he said.

My father walked out. Blasphemy.

Which is why I’ve never forgotten this and can’t figure it out, even 38 years after it happened: My brother, my mother and I went to Seattle that summer. My father stayed at home. I don’t know if he wanted to go but couldn’t. I don’t know what conversations may have occurred between my father and my mother before we left. I don’t know what other adult sources of stress or disappointment might have been happening in their lives at that time. All I know is that we three left for Seattle, and he stayed. And when we got back three weeks later, one night I looked at the giant bookshelf and some of the books looked different. When I pulled them down I saw that they had BB’s stuck in their spines. We had gone, he had stayed. At some moment, for some reason, he had sat on the couch and shot his own books full of BB holes with my BB gun, or my brother’s. We didn’t keep any BB guns next to the couch. He’d have to have gone to get a gun from our bedroom, then take it downstairs, sit down on the couch and take aim at the books. What did those books do to warrant being shot full of BB’s?

I don’t know.

My Agreement with My Mind

One day my mind came to me and asked if we could talk.

I hate when people ask if we can talk. Nothing good ever follows that question.

But my mind looked worried and I do care about him. So I said, “Sure. What’s up?”

My mind wrung his hands. He looked at the floor. He started organizing things on my desk. “OK,” he said. “You know I love working here.”

Here it comes, I thought.

“No, don’t do that,” my mind said. “Let me finish.”

“OK,” I said. I stopped thinking. “Say it.”

“You know I love working here,” my mind said again. “You’re great. The work is really interesting. It’s just — ” my mind paused and then went on “– there’s just so much of it,” he said. He looked at me, cringing a little. I knew he was watching to see how I would react. I can always tell what he’s thinking.

But he was right and I knew it. “We have been going pretty hard lately,” I said.

“Yes,” my mind said.

“You know I appreciate everything you do,” I said.

“Absolutely! Without question!” My mind said. “That is not what this is about.”

“Are you asking for some time off?” I said.

My mind nodded. He looked hopeful now and I really felt my heart go out to the guy. I had been asking a lot of him. And not just during business hours. All night sometimes and I’m sure I hadn’t properly thanked him (although, between you and me, I have to say that sometimes I was ready for him to stop, to shut off, but the guy never shut up, he never cared that it was 3 AM, but that’s petty, I don’t want to get like that, he’s great, great). We had been getting on each other’s nerves. It might do us some good to spend some time apart.

“Alright,” I said. “Look. We don’t have any deadlines. You’ve been going really hard. What would you think of a week off?”

“A whole week?” My mind said. I could tell he wanted me to say yes. And he knew I was going to.

“You deserve it. Take a week,” I said.

“If you think you can do without me,” my mind said.

“Hey,” I said. “I appreciate you. But don’t let it go to your head.”

“No! Of course!” My mind said. “I’m just so glad you understand.”

 

My mind left while I was sleeping. When I woke up in the morning, I only had one thought. It’s so quiet I thought.

It was quiet. My mind’s a great guy, but, you know, the guy talks a lot. I mean A LOT. Constantly: “What if we this? What if we that? Hey, I wonder what the chemical process for x,y,z is. Did you ever notice it’s always the same birds that sing first in the morning? Don’t forget to get the propane tank filled. Does this sound like a British accent? Who was the first idiot who thought to eat an oyster — it had to be a dare, right? Do you remember when Mrs. Holloway’s dress got caught in her pantyhose when you were in the 5th grade and only Carrie what’s-her-name told her while you and the rest of the class just giggled? It’s its, right? Or is it it’s?”

And on like that.

But now he was gone and it was quiet. It’s so quiet, I thought. I realized I had already thought that. It is quiet, I thought.

 

I had big plans for the week. It was so quiet. I was going to work on my novel. But I couldn’t figure out how to move the plot forward. I decided to read a book. I pulled one off the bookshelf at random, but I couldn’t get into it. I read the first page of another one. It didn’t hold my interest. I ended up in front of the TV. I switched it on and right away I found a Kardashians marathon. This was a show my mind would never sit still for if he was here. But my mind was gone. So I watched.

I couldn’t keep up with it. Maybe I haven’t given those girls enough credit. I switched to the weather channel. I liked the way the maps moved.

 

My mind was gone for more than a month. When he came back, I was still watching the weather channel. He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. I wasn’t happy that he found me on the couch, staring, in the quiet, at the high pressure system circulating over the Northwest. And I could tell he didn’t want to tell me where he’d been.

We’ve agreed to focus on the future.

We got some work done on my novel today. My mind helped me figure out there’s a connection between the story about the dog and the story about Martin’s sick mother. It’s not an either/or proposition; the novel only works if I tell both stories. That means a lot more work for me. For us. But he was right. He’s always right. “You keep coming up with solutions like that, I might never let you leave again,” I said.

“Oops, I’ve done it now,” he said. But he smiled.

“Its good to have you back,” I said.

“It’s it’s,” he said.

Chairs

Cameron had his own easy chair in the front room. It was covered with a wool blanket. Nobody else ever sat in that chair, but it was always as if he were sitting there, anyway. His spirit had taken command of that chair. Old people have a way of doing that with the furniture they end their lives sitting in. — Richard Brautigan, 44:40

There was the chair in his study upstairs. Surrounded by books. Piled on the floor, piled on the desk, bending the shelves. To us it was for spinning. Round and round. A winter merry-go-round. Faster, faster, the room a blur, til we were so dizzy we stood and fell sideways across the sloping floor.

There was the one in the living room in front of the TV. The black leather recliner surrounded by pipes and tobacco pouches, books on the floor there too, watermarks on the side table from the highball glass. Bourbon on the rocks with the evening news. Here we lay on his chest when we could not sleep, breathed the warm smells of him with the sounds of Kojack and Columbo and Rockford in one ear, his breathing, his heartbeat in our other.

There was the chair that started the argument. Too big. Too ugly. Brown, teddy-bear soft, a fat throne for the king of the room. That chair started badly, but from that chair he read to us. And soon it was not his chair alone. It was Frodo’s chair, Gandalf’s chair, Bigwig’s chair. Huckleberry Finn, The Mad Hatter, they sat there too.

Sitting in the mother-in-law’s recliner on Mercer Island, WA he read his own future from the Seattle Times. Atomic veterans. Cancer. Thirty years after exposure. I sat on the floor beside the chair, listened as he read the article. I watched him as he ran the numbers on himself: Twenty-four years at that point.

There was the chair at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Green pleather in the shadow of an IV stand. He drove himself to sit in it. But after the IV bags emptied into his blood, he still had the pride, but not the strength to drive himself home.  I had a learner’s permit then. I took the wheel.

Then another brown chair. Fat recliner in his study in the house beside the bay. That chair didn’t match the décor, but no one cared. It was chosen for comfort and hope against hope. The chair never moved, but he slid away. That was the last chair.

Me and The Russian Guy

Russian GuyI walk my children to school. Every morning after I say goodbye to my kids, I cross paths with a Russian man who is walking his daughter to school. I don’t know that he’s Russian. I’ve never asked. But when he says good morning he sounds like all of the villains from the movies of my Cold War childhood. So. He’s the Russian guy.

This morning I saw him coming toward me along the sidewalk. His daughter, no taller than his hip, scurryied along beside him under the weight of her heavy backpack. She was talking and smiling and the Russian guy was listening. He’s usually listening to his daughter when I see him. I think he does it because he loves his daughter and is truly interested in what she’s telling him. But also it gives him somewhere to put his attention as we draw closer and closer to one another, walking toward each other on the narrow sidewalk. He knows I’m going to pin him with eye contact and say good morning. He knows I’m going to expect a response. I give off a vibe of expecting you to say good morning when I say it to you. I don’t think he speaks much English and our daily moment is, I think, a source of stress for him. I understand. If I lived in Russia and had to see him every morning walking along, confident in his own language, I’d sweat and fret too. I’d try to find something else to look at, some other thing to be engaged in so I wouldn’t have to say the words I wasn’t good at saying in a language I didn’t yet feel comfortable with.

The Russian guy was walking toward me. His daughter was jabbering. We made eye contact thirty yards apart. I loaded up a smile and a demanding good morning. I got ready to toss them to him when we passed and see what he would do with them. But just as we came together and the words were in my throat, a small Nissan station wagon buzzed down the street toward me and screeched to a halt against the curb. The passenger window was open. The pretty young woman in the driver’s seat leaned across the car toward the open window and as I looked she held out toward me a giant bouquet of pink flowers. This was the first time a woman had ever presented me with flowers while I was walking home from taking my kids to school. This was the first time a woman had ever presented me with flowers for any reason.

She wiggled the bouquet toward me.

I was dumbfounded. Speechless. My mouth fell open and I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

Then the flowers disappeared. Snapped back through the window like they were attached to a bungee cord. And the woman’s pretty face now bore a look of shock.

“Oh no!” She said. “Is for…” and she sounded like the wives of all the Russian villains from all the movies of my Cold War childhood. And she pointed at the little girl standing behind me now with her father, the Russian guy. dad-and-daughterAnd it occurred to me then that this morning was Teacher Appreciation Day at the school and all the kids had been asked to bring flowers for their teachers and of course this woman had not rushed down the street in her Nissan to deliver flowers to me.

I dropped my eyes, bent my face toward the pavement, got out of the way so the little girl and her father could get to the window and collect their flowers. I tried hard to avoid eye contact and hurried home. Tomorrow I’ll find a different route.