A Different Kind of Class Struggle

I was driving home from work at 11:40 pm, and it was bitterly cold and raw outside. Frost, glittering beneath the street lights, was already covering the grass and the pavement. I looked forward to getting home.

Almost to my destination, I noticed a car in the dark parking lot of the city park down the street from our house. The windows were all fogged up. Someone was inside.

“Please let it be lovers,” I thought. But it was midweek, and the weather was hardly conducive to romance. The car wasn’t exactly date-worthy, either.

I went home to my warm house and my loving husband and my well-fed dogs. There was a fire in the fireplace, and warm food waiting for me. Before bed, we luxuriated in the hot tub as the freezing fog surrounded us.

As I took my hot shower and then tucked in beneath my warm comforter, belly full and feeling safe, I couldn’t get that car out of my mind. I drifted off to sleep, thinking about how lucky I am.

The next morning I woke up at 5:20 am, because on that day I work the day shift, not the swing shift as I had the night before. The fog in my head was as thick as the fog outside. I stumbled about, preparing for work, too tired to complain about my usual less than 5 hours of sleep on this day of the week.

I stepped out into the 35 degree wall of grey and wondered about that car. “Please let it be gone,” I thought, as I started the engine and cranked up the heat.

But no. There it was, still at the park. The windows were still fogged, so the occupant was still breathing, at the very least. But man, it was so cold.

How do you face the day, struggle to improve your lot in life, manage to get clean and find food, after a night like that? How do you cope? What do you do next?

What could I have done? Invite this person, this stranger, this (let’s face it) potentially mentally ill drug addict, to stay in our guest room? Is that person’s life worth my own? But what if it was a single mom with a baby who was running away from spousal abuse?

Should I have entered that dark, deserted parking lot and offered that fellow human being money or blankets or food or… something? Anything? And then, what about the next person? And the next?

What should I have done? What would have been enough? What would you do?

I hesitated to write this post. I hate to sound like a bleeding heart liberal. I hate to reveal that I did nothing, as I almost always do. I did nothing but take my white, overly-privileged butt home to my hot tub, where I wallowed in my ineffectual guilt.

The worst part about it is that I guarantee you that that’s what I’ll be doing next week, too. Yes, I’ll throw money at causes. I’ll vote. I’ll blog. But what good does that do for the thousands of people sleeping in their cars or, worse yet, on the streets, in my city each night?

Fog

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

People Have to Live Somewhere

Every single day, I commute past tent encampments for the homeless here in Seattle. When I first came out here, I found this shocking. I came from Jacksonville, Florida, and I had never seen anything quite like this. You’d think the Florida climate would be more amenable to homelessness, but no. The West Coast experiences much more of it than the East Coast does, according to most homeless counts. It disturbs me greatly that I’m getting used to the sight of these encampments. The shock is gone. The sadness remains.

I’ve got a few theories, now, as to why there’s such a difference from one coast to the other. First, of course, is that living out here is about 3 times more expensive than it is in Jacksonville. A lot more of us, here, teeter on the brink of financial ruin. Second, there are fewer places to hide such encampments. While Seattle has a much lower population than Jacksonville, it’s much more densely packed. There are not huge swaths of woods in which one can disappear. Third, I suspect we’re a good deal more tolerant out here. I know for a fact that the Jacksonville police tend to drive people out to the county line and dump them, making them continually walk the 20 or 30 odd miles back to civilization in the oppressive heat, without food or water.

That county line solution is just cruel. People have to live somewhere. Every creature on this planet does. It’s not a homeless problem. It’s a home problem. And it isn’t new.

A friend of mine shared with me this photo of Seattle’s Hooverville from the 1930’s. After reading about it on historylink.org, the amazing free online encyclopedia of Washington state history (specifically here and here), I discovered that this photo only captures about half the shantytown that existed there at the time, and there were others scattered about as well. The conditions were appalling. People built shacks out of whatever they could find. The city burned them down twice before they recognized the futility of it all. People have to live somewhere.

Incidentally, that Hooverville is not far from where Starbucks corporate headquarters now stands. Irony, anyone? And as long as REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) are allowed to exist, giving the richest among us the ability to make huge profits from housing, thus artificially inflating rents, this problem will only get worse.

When I get off work at 11pm, on my way home, I often see an old man with a walker standing by the stop sign at the end of my highway exit ramp. He holds a sign that says, “Homeless veteran. Please help.” The cynical side of me thinks about all the stories one hears about people making very good money through panhandling, and the stories about how some people want to be homeless. But this guy… I’ve seen him out there at midnight, in the pouring rain, in 35 degree temperatures. No financial return or lust for a freewheeling life can explain that.

The man needs help. And I feel very inadequate to the task. I couldn’t even help one person for more than a few days. And there are just so many out there. I don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I resent this man. He doesn’t let me forget. He doesn’t give me the peace to drive home to my nice house at the end of my shift and climb into my hot tub and forget.

But then I realize that he probably would like to forget, too.

Seattle Hooverville

Check out my refreshingly positive book for these depressingly negative times. http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Pillows

Recently I wrote that I got to go to see the storytellers of Snap Judgment Live. One of them discussed his experiences with being homeless, and how it makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do, such as apply for demoralizing jobs. Amen, buddy. Been there.

But one of the aspects of homelessness that he brought up was something I had never even considered. You never have a pillow. You can’t get comfortable. Which means you can’t rest. Ever.

Wow. Even when I lived in a tent, I always had a pillow. I can’t imagine life without one. Pillows help you sleep, yes, but they also give you something to hug when you’re all alone, and something to cry into when you’re sad. They are comfort in material form. They are also the only acceptable things to punch when you’re frustrated. Unfortunately, like humans, they need a clean, stable environment in order to thrive, so they wouldn’t handle homelessness well.

Even in your darkest times, may you always have a pillow, dear reader.

pillow

Like this blog? Then you’ll love this book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

How I Live Now

There was a time, not so very long ago, when I could have told you the exact amount of cash I had in my wallet, down to the penny. I’d wake up in a cold sweat, wondering how I’d pay my bills, or what on earth I’d do if I became seriously ill with no health insurance. For most of my life, I was about one flat tire away from utter homelessness. It was exhausting.

I learned to add rice to a can of soup to make it a meal. I was the coupon queen. I wore clothes until my meager sewing skills couldn’t keep them together anymore, and then I’d replace them at the thrift store. My shoes would all but disintegrate on my feet.

For entertainment, I’d play with my dogs, or take a walk, or watch PBS. I checked out mounds of library books. I knew when all the museums and galleries were free.

I’m not saying that all the joy in life is brought about by money, but life sure has improved now that the financial pressure has eased considerably.

I still keep a tiny bit of cash on hand for emergencies, but I couldn’t tell you how much. Mostly, I sleep through the night, and while I still avoid extravagant, unnecessary bills, I don’t worry about my ability to pay the ones I do incur. My health insurance is probably better than what most people have here in America. (Which isn’t saying much.) And recently I replaced all four of my tires at once without batting an eye. (Okay, maybe I swallowed hard for a second, but there was absolutely no eye batting.)

I still don’t eat at five-star restaurants, but I actually buy organic fruits and vegetables without considering them a splurge. And if I really want something in particular to eat, I figure out a way to get it. I can’t remember the last time I even opened a can of soup. I still use coupons, but I’m not ruled by them. I still shop at thrift stores mostly, but every once in a while I’ll get myself something really nice to wear. And my shoes are in good shape.

I have a lot more fun than I used to. I can afford to get out there and engage with the world. I eat out. I see the odd movie. I pay admission fees without perspiring, and occasionally donate a little extra to museums. I still love library books, though.

Sometimes I’ll look around and wonder how I got to this place. It was a long, hard struggle. It doesn’t seem real to me. I doubt it ever will. I keep expecting to wake up to another can of soup. And I doubt I’ll ever be able to retire. Because of that, I’ll always appreciate how I live now. I’ll never take anything for granted. I’ll always feel as though I’ve taken off a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small. For now, it really feels good to wiggle my toes!

Life. It’s so fragile, so precarious. Enjoy it as much as you can, while you can.

Financial Stress.jpg

Claim your copy of A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude today and you’ll be supporting StoryCorps too! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

 

Salvator Mundi Indeed

So, yeah, this happened: Some anonymous person paid 450 million for Salvator Mundi, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. A painting of Jesus, Savior of the World. How outraged he would have been.

To put it in context, that’s more than the annual gross domestic product of Tonga, Micronesia, Palau and Kiribati. If it were francs, that would be more than the value of all the Jewish property confiscated in France during World War II. Just one of the World Trade Center towers, if it were still standing, would weigh 450 million kilograms. The average American will earn less than 0.25 percent of that in his or her lifetime. That many years ago, the earth was seeing the first transition from vegetable to animal life.

But here’s the statistic that upsets me the most. For 1/5th of that price, we could entirely eliminate homelessness in America. Which means we could eliminate it here, and in probably a dozen third world countries as well.

Instead, some anonymous person bought a painting. 468 square inches of canvas. That’s $961,538.46 per square inch, on a planet where 795 million people are starving, 21.3 million are refugees and half of Puerto Rico is still in the dark. If there is a hell, this person should go there.

Any civilization that allows this level of income inequality is circling the drain. There is absolutely no justification for this, and I’m saying this as a person who thinks the arts should be supported. There are limits. Or there should be. When the world deteriorates to this level, we certainly could use a savior.

The only thing that would make this situation more outrageous and insane would be if it had been a painting of Jesus expelling the money changers from the temple.

Salvator Mundi

Read any good books lately? Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Your Stool is Worth HOW Much?

My doctor was running late. (Aren’t they always?) So I found myself sitting in a waiting room with nothing good to read. Out of pure desperation, I began flipping through a fashion and style magazine. I figured that would be good for a laugh, and I was right.

It never ceases to amaze me how much people are willing to spend (read: waste) to be on the cutting edge of fashion. I’m sorry, but there are really only so many ways to make pants and shirts and shoes. It’s all been done before. A famous label added to a time-honored tradition of clothing doesn’t render it superior. You can pay a fortune for clothes, unless, like me, your priorities lie elsewhere.

To a certain extent, I feel sorry for people who think “stuff” is important. I inwardly chuckle at people who say, “He who has the most toys wins.” Actually, no. He who has the most toys has less money to spend on life experiences.

Life experience. That’s what’s really valuable. Making memories with people that you love. Seeing new places. Doing new things. Learning. Helping others. Making the world a better place. These things may not take up space in your closet, but they are priceless.

Stuff, on the other hand, wears out, gets outgrown, falls out of favor, takes up space, and will become one more thing to add to the Goodwill bag when the people who survive you are left with the unpleasant task of sorting through your mounds of crap.

While skimming that magazine, I was thinking that I pity those people with their priorities skewed toward accumulation. But then I flipped the page and saw an advertisement for a 3 footed stool. Granted, it was a beautiful stool, but it costs $1,900.00.

That’s when I nearly lost it, right there in the waiting room. In what world must you be living that you think a foot stool is worth throwing away 1,900 US dollars to obtain? It’s. A. Stool. A stool! Come on, people!

How can you be that selfish? How can you buy a stool like that when people are sleeping in the streets? How can you say to yourself, “I know that many children only avoid total starvation because they participate in a school lunch program, but hey, I need a stool.”

And when all is said and done, that stool will wind up in the same place your other stool does: in a landfill somewhere. Let’s face it: you can’t take it with you. That’s all stuff is, really: garbage that just hasn’t reached its final destination yet.

Wake up, people. Please. I’m begging you.

stool

Buy my book. Enjoy it. Then donate it to a library. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

What Makes You So Special?

One night at the end of December, I went with a neighbor and her son to a tent city to feed the homeless. It is within walking distance of my house, but it’s hidden so well that I never noticed it before. And it’s an amazing place.

First of all, it’s not some conglomeration of drug addicts and the mentally ill. This is a family place. Children were running everywhere. It’s a community with a security tent, a communal storage area and kitchen, and even a place to gather to watch movies and have meetings. It’s not the ideal place to live, by any means, but if you’re down on your luck and have limited options, it’s much better than many of the available alternatives.

Aside from my neighbor, I didn’t know any of the other volunteers who had gathered to bring food on this bitterly cold night. And that made the experience all the more interesting, because in most cases, I could not distinguish the residents from the volunteers. What a concept.

These were good people, just like you or me. Most of them have jobs. They have the love of family. They are doing the best they can with whatever unfortunate cards they have been dealt. Having spent part of my childhood living in a tent, I know what that’s like. And I know how frustrating it is to have people make assumptions about you based on that tent.

And yet, through it all, they remain grateful. One charming gentleman said to me, “You know, they say that if you do good things at the beginning of the year, it sets the tone for the rest of the year. So if you are being this kind at the very end of the year, I would have loved to be around at the beginning of the year to see what you were doing then.”

That brought tears to my eyes.

At the end of the evening I went back to my warm house with my fully stocked refrigerator and my empty guest room, and I felt really, really guilty. What makes me so special that I get to spend this cold night with a solid roof over my head? What sets me apart from those people, shivering in their tents?

The answer is: nothing. Not a thing.

And that’s something we should all think about.

tent

Start a gratitude practice today. Read my book. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

Empathy vs. Boundaries

The other day, in advance of what was expected to be a catastrophic storm, I saw a woman standing on the sidewalk on the south end of my bridge. She was moaning quietly to herself, and rocking back and forth. I was coming back from doing some maintenance nearby, and was due to walk right past her.

This put me on the horns of a moral dilemma. Everyone should have been taking shelter at this point. And clearly this woman was in distress. But we have a history, this woman and I.

Due to the tragic underfunding of mental health services in this country in general, and in this state and city in particular, more and more mentally ill people roam our streets. And for some reason they often are attracted to our drawbridges. This woman is one of our regulars.

We call her the suitcase lady, because usually she has two large, unwieldy suitcases in tow. Oddly, this day they were not in evidence. But she was. And she scares me. She has cursed me like a sailor in the past, and lunged at me. I had strong reason to believe she wouldn’t welcome any offer of assistance from me.

So I walked on by, giving her the widest possible berth. And then I went into my warm, dry tower. And I watched her from the window as the rain continued to fall on her ragged raincoat.

What to do. Should I call 911? I’ve done it before. Several times. They have made it abundantly clear that such calls are not appreciated. She was not breaking any laws. And while she may pose a danger to herself, she is just one of the thousands who wander around Seattle, posing a danger “only” to themselves every day. Usually by the time the police get around to responding, the person in question has moved on. I suspect that’s intentional.

While I was contemplating my next move, a jogger came by and stopped to talk to the lady. They talked for quite some time. Then the jogger put her arm around the woman and they walked together off the bridge. I’ll probably never know what happened next. I hope it ended well for all concerned.

So which of us did the right thing? Me, or the jogger? I struggle with this on a daily basis. I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps both of us got it wrong. Surely there must be a point where compassion and self-protection can intersect in a healthy way. But how does one find that point?

I would love to be able to save the world, but it’s also important to set boundaries. I’m pretty much all I have these days. It would be foolish to put my life at risk. But I ache for the human condition. I feel helpless to hold back the tide. I want to make a difference. I just don’t want to die trying.

boundaries

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book. http://amzn.to/2cCHgUu

Tent Life

Every day here in Seattle I drive past little homeless encampments. They seem to be everywhere. They gather under the overpasses, in the little clumps of forest, and even on the sidewalks. Their tents are ragged and dirty, and usually they sit amongst a field of garbage. It’s heartbreaking to witness, especially during a pervasive harsh winter drizzle.

This always stirs up a complex stew of emotions in me because I spent a good portion of my childhood living in a tent. Yes, we were that poor. From an adult perspective it astonishes me that we as a family managed to sink that low. But often you can only deal with the cards with which you have been dealt.

There are many aspects of tent life that people don’t even think about. Here are some.

-You never know when you’ll have “company”. My sister once crawled into her sleeping bag and was hit in the knee by a scorpion. We had to rush her to the hospital. My other sister accidentally stepped into a fire ant hill and had such an allergic reaction that her throat closed. Another hospital visit. Since our tent experience was in Florida, we also had to contend with snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, lizards, mice, and cockroaches.

People will accuse you of being lazy. There was a complicated set of circumstances that caused us to live in a tent, but laziness wasn’t one of them. I have worked since I was 10 years old. There wasn’t a single member of my family that wouldn’t have moved heaven and earth to get out of our situation. It’s just really hard to focus on shelter when you are struggling to obtain adequate food and clothing. This pervasive attitude that poor people need to just snap out of it and get with the program has got to change.

None of your possessions are safe. Ever. I’ve yet to come across an efficient way to lock a tent. I never knew when I was going to come home from school to find that things had been taken from me.

It’s impossible to stay healthy. I had bronchitis for, literally, years. My lungs are permanently scarred. You’ll also be exposed to ringworm, scabies, lice, colds, flu, athlete’s foot, sunburn, heat exhaustion and hypothermia.

There’s this constant state of shame. As a child, you’re self-conscious enough without having to hide the fact that you have substandard living arrangements. You don’t invite friends to visit you. That would be totally out of the question.

It’s nearly impossible to stay clean. Sweep and scrub all you want. You’re going to track in sand and mud and bugs. Think of it as camping times 1000. And your shower and bathroom facilities are going to be 100 yards away if you’re lucky, and that fact isn’t going to change if you’re sick or it’s raining or you have to pee in the middle o the night or the temperatures are in the low 30’s.

You have no privacy. Forget about having a room to yourself. You have nothing to yourself. And you are most likely surrounded by other people who live in tents as well, and just as with the general population, a certain percentage of them are bound to be predators. And again, tents don’t lock.

Nothing in your life will ever be dry. Try storing clothing long term in a tent some time. Now throw in your school books, your food, what few worldly possessions you manage to keep from getting stolen. Then mix that with a thin wall of tent fabric between you and every torrential rain. Toss in humidity for good measure, and the added threat of mold.

Expect to battle depression. As if the constant anxiety of worrying about where your next meal will come from isn’t enough, now cover yourself with a wet wool blanket of gloom so that everything seems to take ten times as much energy as it should. (And it probably does, because you’re constantly sick.) Then multiply that by years on end and tell me how easy it would be for you to maintain a positive outlook.

Most people drive past these homeless encampments and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not me. I think, “Please, God, never again.”

 Tent

It’s a Jungle Out There

When I moved from Florida to Seattle, one of the things that shocked me the most was the number of homeless people in this city. You’d think that Florida would have cornered the market on the homeless because the weather is so much warmer, but apparently not. I have no idea why that is.

Here they are everywhere. Not a day goes by when I don’t see dozens slogging through the rain or huddled on street corners or begging at the exit ramps. It’s truly heartbreaking, and it’s a constant reminder of how fragile financial security truly is in a city where the cost of living is completely out of control.

Ever since I volunteered with Operation Sack Lunch, the homeless situation has been in the forefront of my mind. Recently the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency on homelessness, and even as he was giving a speech about it, 5 homeless people were getting shot in the Jungle.

The Jungle is a mile long stretch under Interstate 5 in the South Seattle/Georgetown area. It’s a lawless, dangerous area where hundreds of homeless people sleep each night. There’s no sanitation, rats and garbage are everywhere, and you can’t sling a dead cat without hitting a dilapidated tent or a used syringe.

On the night in question, the police suspect a drug deal went wrong. The result was a 45 year old woman and a 33 year old man were shot dead, and 3 other people were severely wounded and taken to the hospital.

I can’t think of a more horrible way to end your life than to bleed out in a fetid, disease-ridden no-man’s land in the middle of one of the most prosperous cities in the richest country on earth. It’s just not right. It’s an outrage. I don’t know what else to say.

Jungle
The Jungle, Seattle. [Image credit: kuow.org]