Friday, November 30, 2012

Nonfiction - Wallingford, Seattle - Real Change

Outside the grocery store, the woman was huddling under a pink umbrella holding out her cardboard sign. I didn't read it. I don't need to, to know what it says. Seattle is a hell of a place to be homeless. Your socks are never dry and your clothes rot off you.

"I don't have cash on me," I say to her. This is a lie. I have twenty-two dollars and change, but since I just barely squeaked into being able to pay December's rent I'm not feeling generous to passing out cash. A twenty is insincerely generous, I think, and I need the two dollars for the bus. "Could I buy you something on a card?"

"I've already had dinner," she says.

"Well, maybe something else," I offer. "Toiletries? Cleaning products?"

"They sell gift cards in there," she says. "You can even use them at Starbucks. The minimum amount you can put on it is $1.50. Any amount would be fine."

I think I can do that for her, and make to go into the store when someone shouts my name. I look over by the trash can where a girl puts down a bag of cheetos she was picking out of on the rim, and then offers out her left hand for a shake.

"I forgot how to say your name. Did I say it right?"

She hadn't, but I think it's considerate she asked. She's not a friend. Well, she's close enough to be a facebook friend, but not someone I have been hanging out with. A few years ago we often bumped into each other at the same parties, then drifted into different cirlces for awhile. I've only recently drifted back, so I ask if she lives around here.

"I live over in Shoreline," she says. She has a stack of newspapers under her arm. "The vendor who's usually here texted me today to say that he couldn't make it so I could have his spot for the day. I got here this morning around 9."

I look at the newspaper she's selling. It's one of my favorite in Seattle, and I haven't bought this week's copy yet, but I don't buy one since I told the other woman I don't have cash. But I'm surprised. She's selling Real Change, the regional street sheet put out by homeless. While I'm not sure if one has to be homelessto sell it, it's generally the second to the last step down to destitution, or the first one up depending on direction.

I look at the paper but am too confused to take in the cover or what she's telling me. All I can think about is that she's been out here since 9 in a hoodie, it's been raining since noon, and it's now almost 5:30.

"Do you have an umbrella?" I say. Do you have a dry place to sleep tonight is really what I want to ask, but in one of those daily acts of cowardice, I leave this unsaid.

"Yeah, I gave it to her," she says, pointing at the other woman, "and I got another one that's kinda busted." She looks next to the trash to a black umbrella with a bent spoke.

We make some slight pleasant talk, just enough for me to hear when and if she'll be back there so I won't be so emotionally unprepared next time. I did have to leave, not just to buy a gift card, but also to meet with the renter I would be subletting from for December. When I came out of the grocery store with a gift card for the woman with the pink umbrella, the girl was still there, though I didn't buy a newspaper. I didn't want my concern to come across as the pity it really was.

You don't think you'll see your friends on the streets, even your facebook friends.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Portland, OR - Fiction - 500 Words or Less

The morning after, the bartender sweeps dust out the doorstep. He looks at me as I open my umbrella in passing, just as the rain starts. The sidewalk is covered with leaves and the ghosts of leaves. Marks like little brown hands ground into the pavement. The door shuts and some object slick with new rain turns a leathery wetness. A wallet forgotten from the night before. I pick it up, open it.

Some bills and change, plus shopper's club card, bank card, credit card, trojan, and a Pennsylvania driver's license for a pimply-faced college kid with a last name I'm too Anglo to pronounce. Joshua K-something.

I look around, experiencing finder's guilt, the suspicion I'm being tested to do the right thing before I can even figure out what it is I want. I count out the money. Seventeen dollars and twenty-three cents. Three fives, two ones - both minted in Chicago - three nickels and eight pennies. I put the money back. I try the bar but the door is locked. I could hold onto it and bring it back at three when the bar opens, or turn it into the police, but there's only so much loyalty I feel towards Joshua K.

I open the wallet again, take out the credit and bank card, and throw the rest of the wallet back in the leaf pile. Let someone find it who is more desperate for the money than me, or who has an excuse to use the condom, or some samaritan in need of the satisfaction of a good deed, or Joshua K himself, who after mentally retracing his steps of the night previous, rises from bed in panic, searches the walkway, then crawls on hands and knees outside the bar, praying and believing in a protective mystery if not God as he finds his own pimply self. My soul has done enough good. I slip the cards in my jeans and go on with the day.

That night, I light the woodstove and burn them one by one. Black smoke rises from the spitting plastic and the DNA code of Joshua K's finances bubbles, melts, and is forgotten and the karma fllows on.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Seattle : Industrial Musculature

There are plenty of people who call Seattle a beautiful city. I think they're mistaken if they are considering it as itself, especially if it's being measured against San Francisco or Chicago, cities where architects actually made an effort at intentional structural beauty. As for Seattle, all the really good architecture is outside of it. The Olympic mountains, the volcanic cascades, the islands of Puget Sound, Mount Baker fleeing fugitively behind the downtown as you draw north.That's the best stuff.

The next best stuff is the shipping yards. This is the element that San Fran pushed across the bay to Oakland, that New York forced upon Jersey. But in Seattle, if you're approaching from any route but the north, you see the rows of containers, a corridor of hydraulic cranes lined up like heiroglyphs at attention on either side of canals, the freight yards which cuts deeply and visibly into the city. This is the part that I love, the musculative of cable and steel tressles lifted for tug-boats belching diesel fumes up the Duwamish waterway and the cap of Rainier 60 miles away but still present as moonrise behind it all. It puts me in mind of Hiroshige's woodblock prints of Edo.

Then for the city itself, all the best views are from overpasses - the West Seattle Bridge, Alaska Way viaduct, the 45th street overpass of the I-5 - with a few good ones from former industrial areas turned public parks - Gasworks. But it's still not a particularly inspiring view. Sights of colorless buildings rising as though cut from blocks of obsidian and galena. Shiny, but indistinguishable from the mass of North American structural achievement. Nothing that when traced in outline would suggest to an outsider anything of the city of Seattle.  Well, there is the Space Needle, I suppose, though that doesn't mean very much. It's a show-trophy, a vanity piece, ballhoo. It's hard to form a city-identity off an elevated restaurant, unless you're Paris. The body of Seattle is all simple grey boxes with a few greyer boxes which are a tad pointier than the others.

I'm still trying to convince myself I want there to be more color in my life, and every so often will put on a bright shirt, or buy a pretty candy at a service station to admire it, but the fact is I'm a drab bird, and I like my nest to be feathered in my own muted palate of various shades of charcoal and soft blue. So I like Seattle, and cities like it. Northern ones of rust and grit and soot. Anthracite metropoles that seem pressed between a slate grey sky and slate blue water that parallel one another so far into the distance so they merge into one. Coming back feels each time like coming home.

Sometimes, having moved, and so frequently moved back, wherever I left off in the narrative of my own life is exactly the place where I pick back up, so that I come to feel that I have led multiple lives. As though there were volumes I opened and replaced for all the towns, who keep separate titles but still leak parts of themselves to each other, like authors across ages. It feels like time travel, that I'm coming and going and crossing paths with myself, and I come to wonder if I really ever left anywhere, if I am living someplace else simultaneously, and do I fall in love each time from scratch, or is it always with the same person and only the face which changes.