The body under the blanket

I was busing to the diner for breakfast, and on the way, I glanced out the window and noticed a bum sprawled the long way across the bench in a bus shelter. That's gotta be uncomfortable, because like most public benches, it had bum-preventers.

They're one of the grandest inventions of American cruelty — metal bars every few feet along a bench, intended to prevent anyone from lying down for a comfortable nap. Of course, only the homeless would want to sleep on a public bench, so they're bum-preventers.

And yet, a man was defiantly sprawled the long way, across that bench at that bus stop. Silently I saluted his stubbornness as my bus rolled on, though later I learned later that I'd assumed her pronoun incorrectly.

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Breakfast at the diner was delicious, as it always is. Eating alone, I made a full chapter and a half's progress, but accidentally syrupped a page of the book I'm reading. 

♦ ♦ ♦   

On my return ride, I rang the bus-bell to get off at my credit union, to deposit a paycheck and replenish the twenties in my wallet. The credit union is at the same corner as the sleeping bum I'd noticed earlier, and as I stepped off the bus, he was still there, under a stained blanket, sprawled across the bench. 

The bus pulled away, and I sorta marveled. In all the time it took to devour an omelet and a stack of flapjacks, this bum had not moved. He was in the same excruciatingly zigzagged position, up and down over the bum-preventers, as an hour and a half earlier.

"You doing OK, old timer?" I asked. His face was weathered like he'd been sandblasted, and his eyes were closed. He didn't stir, so I said it again a little louder. Still no reply, not a mumble or a shrug. He was a remarkably sound sleeper, or comatose, or dead, and I didn't like where that thought was leading.

I was headed to the credit union, darn it. Into the building I walked, and took care of my business, hoping the bum would be gone, or at least have moved an inch, before I returned.

Nope, he was still there, stiff as a statue. Stiff as a stiff, with one bum-preventer jabbing into his thighs and another around the armpits. You'd have to be dead to tolerate being in that position.

Watching someone die, or watching a body rot at the bus stop wasn't on my agenda for the day, but I stood there, focusing my attention on the man's chest. Was breath going in and coming out? Under the icky blanket that covered him I couldn't tell, but nothing about him seemed to be moving or alive. A fly crawled on his eyebrow, and the man didn't even twitch.

I wondered, what's the city's protocol for clearing away dead bums' bodies? It can't be uncommon, probably happens a lot. Do they simply send a guy in a pickup truck to haul 'em off? And where do they haul 'em?

My bus was coming, only a few blocks in the distance, and there I was, waiting at the stop with someone either dead drunk, or dead, or dying.

It was an unexpected human decency test, and I hate those: Do I get onto the bus, ride toward my connection to the #99 bus that'll take me home? Or do I stay at the bus stop, perhaps call for help, act like I give a damn?

"Hey, old man!" I shouted, loud enough to wake the dead, but the dead didn't budge. The traffic light had gone green, and now my bus was close enough that the driver had the flashers on, but he hadn't yet begun steering the bus toward the curb.

I looked at the bus, established eye contact with the driver, and emphatically shook my head no — meaning, you're not the bus I want, so keep rolling. The driver nodded, accelerated, and drove past.

As the breeze from the bus hit me, I reached out and poked the body's nearest leg. No response. I poked the leg again, much harder, pushing it against the other leg, nudging both legs back a few inches.

"Fuck you," said the body, and with a woman's voice — two surprises at once. Under the blanket the body had no gendered shape, and there was nothing about her face that hinted at femininity, or masculinity for that matter. Just oldness, wrinkles, a scar on her chin.

I was equal parts glad she was alive, and angry that I'd let my bus go past. It would be ten minutes until the next bus, maybe half an hour before I'd be home, and already the diner's coffee and refills had me wanting to pee.

My whole gosh-entire morning had been delayed, for the sake of a random bum asleep on a bench. 'Fuck you' she'd said to me. If I'd replied it would've been "Fuck you, too," but a wailing siren and flashing lights distracted me.

One of the Seattle Fire Department's familiar Medic One units was roaring down the boulevard, and then it slowed, and a right turn brought it into the credit union's parking lot. Two men got out, masked up, scurried around getting some things together, and came toward me and the bum not quite jogging, but walking with intent.

A better citizen than I had called 9-1-1, and I wasn't sure how this would go. To the almost corpse, I said loudly, "Hey, the fire department is coming. I don't know whether they're good guys here to help, or going to make you miserable."

"Ah, fuck," she said, "I don't need any—" and then the men were there, putting their kits on the sidewalk and pushing a stethoscope at the lady, and a different device I didn't recognize.

Too many times I've seen paramedics interacting with bums, but never before had I been close enough to hear it, and I was afraid it might be like a cop encounter. They would treat her, medically, of course, because that's what paramedics do, but how would they treat her, personally? Brusque and demanding, threatening, with a cop's anger and annoyance always implied, their primary concern being to get her out of public view as quickly as possible?

After watching for a few moments, I probably smiled in relief. Gage and DeSoto were kind and respectful, ending every question with "ma'am" until they'd gotten her name, and then asking, "Would you prefer 'Deb' or 'Miss Clark'?" 

"Aw, fuck," she said, "call me Deb if you gotta."

They called her Deb, took her vital signs, and asked all the medical questions you'd expect of a $200 office call, only with more genuine concern in their voices than you'd hear from a doctor.

"Fuck, I'm OK," she said a few times, but she answered their questions, one of which was, 'Do you have any pain or injuries?' so she pointed them to her leg, rolled up the pant and pulled down a sock, revealing an ugly bruise. She said she'd fallen the night before, and landed on a big rock. I was watching (HIPAA does not apply at bus stops), and the bruise was right where I'd nudged her earlier. No wonder "Fuck you" had been her first words to me.

By the time the next bus approached, the paramedics had taped a soft bandage over the bruise on her leg, and they'd gently pulled her up to a seated position on the bench, free at last from the bum-preventers. One of the men asked, still very nicely, "Deb, do you need a shelter?"

"Fuck, you think I'm homeless?" she said, and she insisted she wasn't. She said she's staying at her sister and brother-in-law's apartment, helping them look after the newborn. "Had too much to drink last night, that's all," she explained to the paramedics, as I stepped onto the bus, in a hurry to get home and pee.

On my ride, I decided she'd lied. If she'd had so much to drink that she couldn't find her way home, maybe she'd sleep in a bus shelter, but where would she have found the blanket she'd been sleeping under?



  1. You deserve some kind of reward for writing so many pieces like this, about the homeless, over the last thirty years. No one else is doing it.

    Sure, some online rag like Salon or Slate, or some corporate shit TV news channel might feature some "special report" about bums, or we'll get some patently false mainstream book from someone who claims to have lived in their car for a few weeks... even Phil Collins wrote a dumb "homeless song."

    I suspect you might embellish or consolidate these experiences, but it doesn't matter. These bits you write are prosaic and real, without unnecessary urgency or agenda, the kind of empathetic and reflective thoughts everyone who passes bums daily would or should have if they stopped to think about it for five minutes.

    But who has five minutes? I wonder what the bums think about all day, with so much free time?

    1. Thanks, Claude.

      Wish I could find a job in the "homeless industry," but I'm suspicious of most of the agencies that help.

      One of the local agencies, I tried applying for a job, you know, washing dishes or changing sheets, whatever. On their website, all I could find was listing after listing for jobs with manager or executive in the title, and wages that started at $70,000 p/year. These were jobs I'm clearly unqualified for, but I couldn't find the grunt worker listings at all, and if your agency has thirty openings for jobs that pay $70K+, well, like I said, I'm skeptical.

      Re "embellish or consolidate," suffice to say it's a temptation, but usually only to squeeze in a laugh.

      This post is as it happened, except I also walked from the credit union to a nearby burrito shop, while I thought the lady was dead. The burrito errand got chopped because the article was too long already, it added nothing, and also going for lunch right after eating breakfast and while a dead lady was waiting would kinda make me look like an ass.

  2. Replies
    1. Did you think? Dark along the way maybe, but I thought it was kind of optimistic by the end.


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