My ride home from Dick's

After eating my Dick's, I walked to the #60 bus stop for a long ride home, but hey, wait a minute. 

Bright idea time. The #60 route twists and turns and meanders on its way back to my neighborhood, but directly under that bus stop there's a subway station. If I took the subway downtown, I could catch a more direct bus home. It might save me ten or fifteen minutes, if I had good bus luck.

The fare reader at the subway entrance wasn't working, which isn't unusual, but after three taps with no response, it becomes a free ride. That's my rule. It's all on the honor system anyway; there's never any form of fare enforcement on Seattle's light rail.

Down the stairs, then down more stairs, down a long sloping hallway, and then down an escalator, and you're fifty feet below the surface, standing around with a hundred other people.

Lean on a wall, look at anyone interesting without letting them see that you're looking at them, and eventually you'll feel the breeze and know that a train is approaching through the tube. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

There are no conversations to overhear on the subway. It's too loud down there for talking.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Getting off at Westlake Station, I wasn't sure where I was. It's been 30 years since I last lived in Seattle, and I haven't been downtown much since returning. Everything's changed, and there was no subway then. I walked several blocks in the wrong direction before knowing it, and backtracked to find my way to Third Avenue, where most of the buses run. So much for saving any time.

Then it was another few blocks walking south on Third to find a #99 bus stop, in an almost entirely shuttered stretch of Scumbag Street where dozens of homeless people were standing, sitting, or sleeping on the sidewalk. Litter was everywhere — bottles, cans, syringes, gum wrappers, a billion cigarette butts, plastic bags, dried barf, etc.

A police SUV was parked at one end of the block, its lights flashing, but with no cops inside.

A well-dressed couple walked by, tourists I assume, but they were ignoring the sights around them and pretending they weren't where they were.

Signs suggested that there were businesses, or had been. A Subway sign was lit — the sandwich shop, not the actual subway —  but the store was boarded up. A Steak ’n Shake sign was dark, and that building was boarded up, too. A few other familiar logos looked out over the hellscape, but everything was covered in plywood, save one Asian restaurant that was open for business but had little. 

Before and after my mostly middle-class marriage, I've been mostly urban, and spent some years living in slums, including areas almost as ugly as where I was waiting for the bus. It's been years, though, and Seattle's Third Avenue has become a slice of Calcutta.

It's a neighborhood nobody wants to be in, but you know what? It's still a neighborhood, with neighbors in it. They're not the neighbors you'd want, but some of the bums knew each other, and were talking and laughing like smelly buddies. Block party, 24/7. Others were too far gone for talking.

Nobody was panhandling, though. The citizens of nowhere were generally ignoring the ordinary people, like me, waiting at the bus stop.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

It was my tie-dyed jacket that ratted me out. Sometimes someone says, "Nice jacket, man," or "I like the tie dye, dude." On Third Avenue at 9:30 on Saturday night, a bum said, "What are you, a hippie?"

I looked at him, and yeah, he was talking to me. He was leaning on an overstuffed trash can, and damn, he looked miserable — hurricane hair, a grimy face with some cuts, blue jeans with crud and stains all over, and one shoe loose and untied over an obviously swollen foot.

He was wearing a tattered t-shirt with a faded image of Leonard Nimoy as Spock, and the words "Live long and prosper." Once, it had been a cool shirt, and I briefly considered returning his compliment and saying something nice about it, but the shirt was as ratty as the rest of his clothes, as the man himself, so it would've been a lie.

"Not a hippie," I said. "I was too young, but I like hippies."

"I like hippies, too," he said. "My mom was a hippie when she was young, before my dad ruined her."

"He ruined her?" I asked.

"Yeah. Made her give up dope. Made her stay at home when she wanted to work. Made her raise me when she sure as fuck didn't want to. Beat her up sometimes."


"She divorced him, though, and got good alimony."

That was the beginning of a conversation I hadn't wanted, but an electronic readerboard above our heads said my bus was 13 minutes away, and no other entertainments were on offer. It was my longest dialogue with a derelict since living in San Francisco. He gave a brief synopsis of his life, which I'll make even briefer:

He'd been a normal man, normal life, working fast food and as a part-time mail carrier, with an apartment and a car and a 10-speed bike. "And that's what done me in," he said. He'd been riding his bike back from work, July of 2000, when he was hit by a car, crumpling both the bike and the man.

He spent weeks in the hospital, he said, and came out with this limp — he stepped on his bigger foot, to demonstrate — and enormous medical bills, and an addiction to pain killers. The state paid most of his medical bills, the hospital sued him for the rest, and the doctors ended his pain pill prescription after six months, when they decided he was faking it and/or when the state stopped paying for the meds.

"I wasn't faking it, man. It still hurts, every step." He was pacing as he talked, and when he put any weight on his left foot, he slightly winced. "I couldn't work," he said, "lost my apartment, and I've been living here ever since," he said.

"Here on Third Avenue?"

"Yeah, or within easy limping distance," he said, and laughed at his joke.

Sounds like a ploy for a handout, I thought, and if it was, that's the moment he should've asked. I would've handed him a fiver. He never asked, though, and explained that without the pain pills he'd become addicted to other, easier-to-get drugs. "It keeps the pain under control," he said, and then he started talking about football.

As he talked, pacing, he took a bad step and looked like he might go down, so I reached out my hand and he grabbed it — strongly. He said thanks, righted himself again, and it occurred to me that for a bum, this man was in good shape. Even with poor footing on his lousy leg, he could probably level me with one punch, or a stab if he had a knife in his pocket, and he was usually within arm's lunge as he paced.

When a bum is dangerous, he can pretend at being not, but the eyes are a giveaway. This bum had sane, steady eyes, and my urban safety sense assessed the risk as minimal. He was standing and pacing kinda close, and infectious disease seemed more likely than sudden violence, but I was masked and he was interesting, so what the hell. 

He asked me a few questions, the way strangers do in a conversation, so I said Wisconsin and out of work and a few other bits about me, but let him do most of the talking. He was happy to oblige.

He said he'd grown up in Seattle, and gone to Roosevelt High. Whitebread middle class upbringing. His parents are dead, and his brother wants nothing to do with him since the accident, and the drug addiction. "Far as I'm concerned," he said, "I'm an orphan."

Again, it was the perfect moment for a sales pitch. Got any cash you can spare, mister? But he didn't say it. He turned and said a few friendly words to a bum walking past, and I looked for my bus. Two minutes, said the readerboard.

Then we were talking again, and we came to the obvious topic, where we had our major disagreement. Despite his t-shirt, he didn't think much of the original Star Trek, or even Next Generation. "I'm a Janeway man," he said. "Voyager is the best of the Treks."

"I liked all of them," I explained, "but my heart is still with the original, and anyway, Doctor Who is more fun."

"Oh, I love Doctor Who!" he said, but then my #99 pulled up, and while a few other people climbed aboard we very quickly shook hands and traded names. "Nice talking to you, Anton," I said, and got on the bus. As I flashed my fare it flashed on my mind that he'd never asked for a handout and I hadn't given him one.

I regretted it. I give bums $5 as a habit these days, and if any bum deserved it, Anton did. He got nada from me, though, except a handshake and a hurried conversation. Hard to imagine we'll ever see each other again, but if we do, I owe him five dollars.

Sitting down on the bus, I pulled a wet wipe from my bag, and sanitized my hands.

♦ ♦ ♦

As the bus rolled a few blocks farther on, the homeless situation out the window grew worse. Ah, yeah, I remembered reading about this: It's a few blocks in the heart of downtown where hundreds of homeless people live in tents on the sidewalk, and the city's only response, a few months ago, was to close the bus stops along that area. 

Man, it was bleak out the window — tents and trash and bums, all the businesses boarded up on a block or two of the city that's been simply ceded to hopelessness. It was still well-lit, though, and one of the riders on my bus held his cell phone up, taking video like this was a Halloween attraction.

One of the buildings we rode past is a city or county courthouse, and I wondered what it's like working there, wading through the piss and garbage and needles and vagrants every morning, and again after work every day.

♦ ♦ ♦

Half an hour later I was home. Roof, refrigerator, carpet, cat — all the things nobody has on Third Avenue. 

All that misery, of course, is preventable. It wasn't like this at all, as recently as when I was a kid. There was assistance for people who needed it. There were places to go, for easily accessible help. Once, there was a civilization here.


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  1. It wasn't like that when I lived in Seattle, either, just 15 years ago. My daily bus to and from work utilized that same stop, and it was mostly gutterpunk kids (several of whom worked where I worked,) a few transients, and the occasional sociopathic office worker. One time a presumably homeless, presumably gay black dude just walked up to me and started "styling" my Value Village blazer, explaining how it was more dashing to leave the lower button unbuttoned, do this or that little thing with the collar, etc. My "personal space" has a minimum radius of about 25 feet, so I was a little startled, but when you're right, you're right, and he was.

  2. I read, and I've rarely read a piece that captured down and out downtown America in the 21st century as well as you did in this entry. The key, of course, is the first person voice: as long as the down and outers are "they" there is judgement attached -- when the pronouns change to "I" and "he", without judgement, you're writing about people -- about "us". We create these unlivable situations, then move to the suburbs or high-rises, and the horrible conditions become the fault of the victims.

    Sad piece of writing, but bordering on brilliant in its modesty. It's a "we" perspective rather than a "them" -- professional, well written, well edited narrative about life barely being lived in the cities the Chamber of Commerce brags about. This is our shame, well-described. This is your writing at its best.


    1. Thanks, both of you.

      I've been closer to the homeless than most people, and longer, and I don't understand why society has decided to hate them.

      Everything about America *manufactures* those lost souls, and with the tinyest turn of bad luck any of them could be any of us at any time, and all we do about it is a nationwide fuck you.

  3. I live in San Francisco, and we have homeless everywhere too. I don't know what a real solution is, but here we had a five-year plan called Tipping Point, it was supposed to cut homelessness in half. Instead it went up of course.

    1. I moved away in 2014. Doug moved away in, maybe... Jeez... 2004? Homelessness was horrendous. I remember an entry he made in Pathetic life, from BEFORE I arrived (1996), saying that the city had "determined" that there were about 3000 homeless in the city. He opined that there were ten times that. And based on my later observations, he was absolutely right. And all signs point to it being worse now.

    2. Like most problems that are ignored, homelessness keeps getting worse. Check back in a few years, and 2022 will be the time before homelessness got really bad.


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