Saturday, September 9, 2023

Our Stuff (A homeless in Seattle Tale)


We all have it. I think we all have a love/hate relationship with our stuff. We must have loved it at some point or why would we have it. My weakness is books. I get a fresh shot of dopamine every time I see a small rectangular package in my mailbox. But over time some items fall from grace, and I merely like them, and some become much like unwanted relatives at Thanksgiving, we’ve just come to accept they are part of our lives and the disappointment in having them is not as much as the pain of getting rid of them.

But what really changes the view of our stuff is needing to move it. Moving can make prize possessions become ball and chains. We even begin to have dreams of it all going up in flames. But most days when we aren't getting that new package, or having to move, we sit somewhere in the middle mostly ignoring the piles and piles of stuff in the garage, bookshelves, and closets.

Stuff balancing is a game we go through in those moments when we are forced uncomfortably to face our stuff. Much like when that relative hasn’t left a week after Thanksgiving. Perhaps we need more space for the new stuff. Or it’s the dreaded weekend when we decide to clean out that closet or garage (that was how we celebrated July 24th every year as a child).

The time I am most often forced to perform stuff balancing is when packing for a trip. I pick up that extra pair of shoes and pajamas. I can hear that boy scout voice in my head, “Be prepared.” After all you probably do need both your nice shoes for when you present and comfortable shoes for walking. And if you have a nice view from your hotel, do you really want to walk around in your shirt and tie, no you need pajamas. But then I look at the size of the carryon bag. I could check a bag but the thought of waiting at baggage claim allows me to cast the shoes and pajamas back into the closet.

But let’s be honest, it’s not just the thought of standing at that carousel as you wish you had painted your bag bright pink as the 10th nondescript black bag rolls out of that magic black hole. It’s also the walk up to the airport. Even getting a bigger carryon bag is annoying. You have to take it with you into the bathroom at the airport. And then in big cities if I plan to take the light rail or the subway to my hotel, I have to drag that big bag with me all the way to the hotel. Whatever, stuff I take has to be my constant companion. Only after I’ve checked in can I drop it off and be free. We call it baggage for a reason.

I skipped down the 30% incline from my hotel to the bay in Seattle, finally completely free of my baggage. A shiny glean in the dusk only feet in front of me makes me stop. I see it thrust to the ground underneath the shadow of a large man. His arm raises above his head, and I see the sheen again, the gleam of a small hatchet. I move forward trying to not look like I’m avoiding him but still be at least the distance of an arm+hatchet from him. I am only a few steps beyond him when he raises up and says, “Can you help me?”

I can now make out what he is hacking at, it’s a long aluminum cable. Is he going to ask me to hold the cable while he hacks? I question my courage and stalling ask, “Sure, what are you doing?”

“Removing the sheathing and then cutting it into 2-foot lengths to make it easier to carry around.” My eyes open a little wide thinking of the hatchet trying to work its way through 1 ½” metal cable, but one short segment already wrapped sits next to him testament to the hatchet's abilities. I begin to roll up my sleeves, assuming I am as qualified as anyone to help when he says, “I’m just really hungry.”

I smile, “Oh, I can definitely help with that. I’ll take you to dinner. Let’s go.”

“No.” He points to his clothes. “Look at me.” He’s wearing a soiled grey t-shirt with a white dress shirt loosely unbuttoned over it. He then gestures to his wheelchair. Where there should be space for him to sit is a bag of clothes, papers, an old food container, and on top a hoverboard. “They would never let me in with all my stuff.”

“Oh, sure they’ll let you in, come on.”

“No, they won’t, just give me a few bucks, I’ll get something later.”

“Trust me if you're with me they’ll let you in.”

“I appreciate your optimism, but they won’t, and do you blame them? Like I said, I don’t have anywhere to put my stuff and they won’t let me take it in.”

“Okay, then let me go buy you something and bring it back.”

“That’d be great. By the way, my name’s Alex.”

“Mine’s Nathaniel. I’ll be back shortly. Any requests?”

“There is an Italian place around the corner, I’d love veal parmesan.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Wanting not to leave my friend too long I try to find something close. He must have gotten his blocks mixed up because the nearest Italian restaurant was a half mile away. The only thing for a few blocks was a place right around the corner literally 30 feet from Alex, “All Water Seafood and Oyster Bar.” I walk up and down the block and resolve it is really my only option. I walk in and take a glance at the menu. No veal parmesan. The only item priced remotely like they expect people besides Jeff Bezos to buy it is a burger, comfortably listed at only three times what you’d expect to pay.

I walk around the corner and see Alex wrapping the next section of wire he has cleaned and cut. “A burger okay?”

“You came back?”

“You surprised?”

“Yeah, I thought you were gone for good.”

“Well, I’m back but no veal parmesan. They do have burgers. That okay?”

“Sure, that’d be great.”

I head back to the Oyster Bar. Once in I take a closer look at the accommodations. I would have liked to sit down and enjoy a meal with Alex and learn about his life. His comment about where they would put his stuff was a good one. My guess is the place was technically accessible for a wheelchair. For it to work however they would have to slide back the greeter's podium and the tables were set up in such a way that there really was nowhere for him to put his stuff. I ordered a burger to go. “I’m just getting this for a friend around the corner. He said you wouldn’t let him in. I told him that was ridiculous.” I say with a slight laugh.

Straight faced the man looks down, “The burger should be ready in 15 mins.” Maybe Alex was right.

I walk back to get to know Alex while I wait. I ask questions while he continues to lean over his wire, hacking away. He’s 50 and from Brooklyn, New York.

“How long have you been on the streets?”

“Since I was twelve when my stepmother kicked me out.”

“What have you done for money?”

“My father let me work with him and I became a master carpenter. I can build anything. You give me a bare piece of ground and I can build you a house, framing, plumbing, electrical. I can do it all.”

“When was the last time you worked?”

“Been years. Noone will give me a chance anymore.”

“You have any kids?”

His smile grows wide, “Yeah, When I was making good money, I got married and had twin daughters. Cutest little girls you ever saw.” His smile drops. “When they were four their mom ran out on me and took the girls to Mississippi. She said she was afraid I would kill her.”

Before I ask, he adds, “Probably because I said I would. I mean I told her if she ever took the girls away from me, I’d kill her, but I didn’t mean it. I’d never hurt anybody.” He takes a hard swing with the hatchet slicing into the cable. “It’s just one of those things you say when you're mad. I don’t think I ever got over that. 10 years. That is how long I spent mostly drunk and depressed after that. They’re 21 years old now. I call them once and a while, but I can’t go see them. A dad doesn’t want to show up with nothing.”

“So, what brought you to Seattle?”

He looked me in the eyes, “You want the truth?”

I shrug my shoulders, “Sure, why not?”

“Mafia, I had written a book, here I’ll show you a picture.” He stands up, sets his hatchet on the wheelchair and pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through pictures. He gets to a picture of a journal, open in a park and full of writing. “I wrote so many stories in that journal. For example, you know the real reason Nixon resigned?”

I was about to mention that there was that Watergate thing but before I could he said, “same thing that got Clinton in trouble except it was with a man. Well one day I get knocked out and when I come to...” he pauses for dramatic effect. “The journal is gone and a guy walks by me saying that I should be more careful. I got the message; the mob doesn’t give a second reminder. So, I came out here. Stupid Greyhound took weeks, and the driver was all over the road, took me a whole bottle of vodka to live through it. And then I was only here for one week when I got shot in the head.” He pulls his hair back on one side and shows a scar. “The bullet just grazed me, but it bled like crazy. Young black kids ran up to me after shooting me and then when they got close said, ‘sorry man, we thought you were someone else, all you white people look the same and then went off laughing, just left me there.’

“What did you do?”

“I got myself to the greyhound station. Didn’t know where else to go. They got me to the hospital. They said, I was lucky. I’m okay now.”

It’s been at least 15 minutes and I excuse myself to check on the food. It’s ready. I pay for the burger and head back to Alex. He is grateful. I debate sitting there but decide it would be awkward for me to just sit and watch him eat, so I wish him well and head back down to the bay.

An hour or so later I walk by the spot where I had run into Alex, he’s no longer there, but a remnant of our meeting is. Clearly, he didn’t have space to haul around any more stuff because smeared on the sidewalk is the leftovers.

I clean up the leftovers and walk another couple of blocks and I run into Alex again. It’s been over two hours since we last ran into each other, and he is only a few blocks away from where we first met. He’s made a really cool looking tree out of one section of wire.

“Take it man. It’s for you. You can use it for a Christmas tree.” I’m honored and frankly tempted to take it, but as honored as I am I realize, what would I do with it? After all, there was no room in my baggage.