I was walking along in my own thoughts when I saw him sitting alone, a small cart stood nearby covered with an overcoat. He calls himself Rabbi Eliakim Ben David. I call him Rab. He is one of the street performers downtown and is waiting for his associate to drive up with a green van carrying other items such as his piano, canopy, speakers, microphones as well as his piano bench. He is the picture of a stylish gentleman I think, and I pause to look at the ivory hat he is wearing. I asked him if I could sit with him and listen to his wisdom for a while. He smiled and graciously invited me to sit down next to him. He pulled from his jacket a worn leather wallet held together by a single rubber band. He showed me pictures of his descendants and black and white photographs of his beautiful mother and father.
Rab has done a lot in his lifetime. He studied to be a doctor, a lawyer, owned a barbershop and is quite the musician. “Darlin’ lemme tell ya’, you name the instrument and I’ve got it. I’ve taught kids how to play longer than you’ve been alive and I love it!” With every sentence his face beams with light. “Now I’m originally from Brooklyn, but live in Tacoma right now. If I’m not in Seattle you’ll find me in Tacoma. I was in the News Tribune awhile back and they did a story on me too. I’ve played in all the best clubs across the country.” He goes on to list off the names of every club he’s headlined in. What did he mean by “lives” in Tacoma I wondered? His lined face frowned for a moment and he put his hand on mine. “Darlin’, I live in a garage with no toilet because I only get $700.00 a month in social security. You see I play out here because it helps me to supplement that. Some days I may get nothing, some days I make a little more, just depends. I was in the same house for 25 years with a 30 year mortgage. You would think after all that time they would’ve given me some kind of consideration but they didn’t.” He shrugs and tucks his wallet back into his jacket.
His old eyes look out across the plaza at Westlake, searching for the green van. “If it weren’t for the garage, I don’t know where I’d be.” Rab turns to me and chuckles. He leans in close and grins. “How old do you think I am, darlin’?” I smile back and say “Eighty.” He sat up straight and replied “Now what made you say that?” I had to think about it. “I don’t know, it just felt about right.” Rab gave a hearty laugh. “Sweetheart, next month I’ll be 85 years old.” His toothy grin reflects pride in his age.
Rab is a deeply spiritual man and he has no qualms about telling you that either. “Darlin’, lemme tell you something. Do you know back in Brooklyn I was once brought before a judge because my barbershop was open on a Sunday and back in those days, it was illegal because the church was heavily mixed into politics? Well there was this man who came to represent me and his words are still with me today. When the judge asked this attorney why he chose to represent me, the man said, ‘Your honor, I feel it is an honor to represent this man even though I may not be paid much but I would represent him free of charge because of his integrity.’ You see, darlin’, that was God answering my prayer. Every day that I’m alive is a message to me that he’s not done with me yet. I talk to God the same way I’m talking to you right now. I tell him I don’t like being alone but he brings me people. My friends know that they can call on me anytime day or night. I am always available to them. I’ve been through a lot all these years but I love people and they keep me going. I like talking to the young people.”
Rab reaches into his jacket again but this time he pulled out a very worn looking pocket bible bound in black leather. He pauses for a moment and closes his eyes. “You know darlin’, I see people today a lot like those people who told Noah he was crazy because he was building an ark. They had that mindset because the bible tells us that in those days, they hadn’t seen rain before. A mist would come up in the morning to water the land so to their way of thinking, there was no reason to believe that water would fall from the sky, enough to float that monstrosity Noah was building. It took him years to build it and in all that time, the people laughed and ostracized him for it.”
Rab opens his eyes to look at me. “Where is the people’s ark now? I consider you to be a wise woman because you took the time to listen and even if I didn’t play a thing today, you have made my day. Just the fact that you were willing to listen, is all I need.”
A green van pulled up across the street and a younger man got out of it. He hastily begins unloading equipment and bringing it over to our side of the street. Rab sees him and smiles. He folded up his dog-eared pocket bible and returned it to his jacket. “Well it’s time for me to set up but you come back around from looking for people to talk to and listen for a while.” We stand up and I put my hand out to him. He takes it and pulls me into a grandfatherly hug. I watched him pull his little cart to a spot on the sidewalk to begin setting up his instruments. He told me to take as many pictures as I wanted and I did but I also stood awhile to listen. His jazzy repertoire delighted passersby who didn’t hesitate to drop a dollar or two into an open saxophone case. I’m glad we exchanged phone numbers.
I walked west towards 2nd Avenue. At the stop light on the corner to the left of me is a group of young people. One of them stood out because she had two large dirty backpacks and a plastic green rat cage held together by duct tape. She didn’t seem to take notice of me watching her and when she stooped over to rummage around in one of her packs, I put my hand into my right pants pocket to see what loose change I had. I had two quarters and three dollars. I leaned over and said to her “Excuse me dear, may I take a picture of your rat?” Her head slowly came up and she looked at me with sad green eyes. “Do you have any spare change?” I nodded. “Yes dear I do.” When she stepped to the side of her packs to take her pet rat out of its cage, the aroma of not having bathed in a while greeted my nostrils but that was to be expected. She held her little friend in her hand and I snapped my camera at it. “How long have you been out here?” She put the rat back inside its container and snapped the lid shut. “Oh, I’ve been homeless for about six years now.” Looking at her face I’d swear this kid can’t be twenty-one yet. “Where do you go at night?” I ask. “Under a bridge,” she casually replies. I examine her face closely and as she talks I can see that her teeth are rotting and her eyes look like she hasn’t slept in days. I ask another question; “What do you do for food?” She wipes her hand across her forehead just before slinging a pack onto her back. “Oh, I “spange” (holding out an empty cup and asking strangers for spare change) for food money but if people don’t have any spare change, I just get food out of the garbage.” Before slinging her other pack over her shoulder and grabbing her rat, I ask another question. “How did you get out here anyway?” She becomes very animated at this question. “Well I’m not from here I used to live in Canada but couldn’t take it there anymore. I hitchhiked my way down here and have travelled all across the country. My boyfriend just got arrested last night and extradited to Arizona so I guess I’m going to Arizona. I’m going to see if I can spange enough money for a one way Greyhound bus ticket to Arizona.” I reached into my pocket and handed her the three dollars. She looked surprised and thanked me. “Good luck on your journey,” I say as she walks across the street.
The light is green now so I trod along and see a couple sitting down with cardboard “spange” signs. I tell them my name and what I do. The man nodded and said he thought he’s seen me walking around town before. (I was downtown last week and he probably did!) His name is Robbie and his fiancee’s name is Tiffany. They are clean and articulate and gave me permission to take their pictures. Robbie has been homeless off and on for about eleven years but Tiffany has been homeless for four years. “You know it’s funny,” he says, “how people look at us and think that just because we’re not slovenly drunks or drug addicts that we’re not homeless but we are. It’s hard to keep a job if you can’t shower every day or prove your address. I don’t give up though. I take temp jobs when I can.” Tiffany nods in agreement. “So what are you spange-ing for?” I ask. Robbie answers again. “Well we’re just trying to get enough money for a cheap motel room for the night. It’s safer than under the bridge we’ve been sleeping under on Yesler. We can’t go there every night because the police show up early in the morning to move us out of there and every three days we have to stay away from there.” I wondered if they were the only couple sleeping under that bridge and Tiffany said they weren’t. “We know about six other people who go there but they’re cool. We all kind of look out for each other because there are nuts out there that try to bother us once in a while, it isn’t great but where else are we to go?” Tiffany shakes her head. “They chase us out wherever we are but aren’t doing anything to get us out of being homeless so what are we supposed to do?”
The couple tells me that there’s a few places ran by local churches that they can go to for showers and an occasional meal. I ask them if they’ve ever heard of PSKS (Peace for the Streets by Kids) as they serve young adults besides kids. Tiffany said she’s heard of it but never went there. I ask them what they do for food and Robbie said that they spange for it or get food from Chinese restaurants after the owners close down. “I’m sick of Chinese food,” says Robbie, “but its food and I can’t complain about that.” A thin short man rolled a cart down the sidewalk and stood next to Tiffany. He reached into his cart and pulled out a baguette covered in plastic wrap and handed it to Tiffany. “Phillip! Thank you so much!” Phillip nodded to Tiffany and grinned. Philip continued on his way and stopped his cart a few yards from Robbie and Tiffany and began setting up his own spange-ing station. I followed Phillip and asked him if I could take his picture. He smiled and nodded. I asked him how long he’s been homeless and he said for nine years. I get the impression that Phillip might be disabled because he hardly talks and sometimes stands in front of store windows watching his reflection on the glass as he strikes various poses. I asked Robbie and Tiffany about him and they said they think there’s a slight disability going on as well but Phillip mostly keeps to himself and hangs out with his own group of friends but even then he doesn’t talk much. I thanked Phillip for letting me take his picture. He grinned back at me and went back to shuffling paper bus schedules littered about him and in his lap.
I continued west up the block to catch the bus to Fremont. Once there I walked about a half mile to the Ballard Fred Meyer’s and cut through their parking lot, heading north. I took this route because one block from this Fred Meyer’s store is a Department of Social and Health Services building and on any given day it is surrounded by people living out of cars, vans and run down old motor homes. Today for some reason, the entire block was bare. Where had they all gone?? Did the police move them all off? Another block northbound and there they were, interspersed along side streets and the parking lots of abandoned buildings. I counted over a dozen motor homes and 15 vans.
On the opposite side of the street I watched a white-haired man scooting himself along the sidewalk in his wheelchair. Mixed in with these vehicles were cars with people sleeping in them and a few cars looked abandoned because they were filled to bursting with trash. Once I got to McDonald’s, I waited at the corner for the light to change. Just up ahead I saw a few van people mulling about their vehicles. Once I got to them, I met two men, Cruz and Mike, cleaning out their vans and tidying up the interiors. These two didn’t smell of alcohol nor did they look like they were tweaking out.
Mike is a mechanic going through a divorce and Cruz works various jobs while travelling around the country in his van. “I like the nomadic life,” mulls Cruz, “I’m not tied down to anything so I’m free to go wherever I want, you know?” I watch as he sorts through food items and puts them into a trunk he said he found near Greenlake. He tossed an empty bag out onto the sidewalk near a cardboard box. He noticed my eyes following the various items he tossed from his van and chuckled. “Oh don’t worry, dear. I won’t leave all that stuff on the sidewalk. That’s one thing you learn real quick out here, don’t advertise your presence by leaving trash all around, that’s how you stay invisible.” I smile back at Cruz. “Tell me about it,” I say, “I live out of a mini-van myself with my two kids.” Cruz stops what he’s doing and frowns. “Awwww noooo, not with kids,’ he sighs. Mike shakes his head from side to side while shoveling watermelon into his mouth that he scoops up with a Bowie knife. These two didn’t want their pictures taken but were comfortable talking to me. Mike finished off his watermelon then returned to his van to clean off his knife and wipe his hands and face.
I look around the area and around this corner of the block, a large depression stands in place of what was once an old bowling alley surrounded by portable cyclone fencing. East of where I’m standing, I noticed two old Dolphin motor homes and two trucks parked between them. Mike sees me staring at them and laughs. “You see all those cars on that strip? All those belong to one guy, last name is Wilson. This guy has about ten vehicles out here that he lets homeless guys sleep in plus he uses some of those cars as trash cans. Thanks to him the city complains, I mean, who wants to look at all that?” Mike turns my attention towards the Safeway just south of us on the next block. “Ha ha..You know that street that runs parallel to Safeway? There’s a green van over there with an old guy in it, again that’s Wilson’s way of “helping” the homeless and now he’s saying he’s gonna get ten more cars and put more people in them to spite the city.”
“Yeah,” chuckles Cruz. “and you see these brand new signs posted that say no parking between the hours of two and five am? The city did that to keep people from sleeping here and we all know it’s because of Wilson. The guy is nuts.” Mike laughs with Cruz. “Wilson has wild hair and is in his forties. Trust me you can’t miss him if you see him.” Mike lights a cigarette and thinks for a moment. “You know one time I told Wilson that he’s gonna get us all into trouble because of his trashy vehicles but he just doesn’t get it. I even pointed out to him the new signs the city put up and he walked over to one and kissed it. Then he yelled ’Yeah! I’m stickin’ it to the man!’ That’s when I walked away and said ‘Okay this guy is stark raving mad.’ Ha ha ha ha!”
Cruz steps out of his van and begins picking up the trash he threw out and stuffs it into the cardboard box. “Hey, you need some rubbers?” Mike spun around on him and gave him a dirty look. Cruz is holding up a handful of black rubber bungee cord straps. “Oh my god, I just realized how wrong that sounded. I am so sorry, ha ha ha!” Mike laughed. “That’s like that time I was helping you with your van and right when some ladies walked by you asked me if I wanted to hold your nuts.” Cruz laughed again and said “What? I was holding nuts and bolts in my hand and didn’t want to throw them on the ground.” Mike shook his head at Cruz then took a long drag off his cigarette. “You know what? You should talk to Steve.”
“Who is Steve?” I ask.
“He’s a retired guy in a wheelchair that sleeps in a dugout at the baseball park.” The old guy I passed on my way up here was in a wheelchair! I asked Mike to tell me more and he gave me directions on how to get to the park as it is only two blocks away. The sky was almost black now. “So you gonna bring your van down and park with us?” asks Cruz. “I don’t know man, the engine needs work so I can’t drive it too far for now but you never know.” I thanked these two men for their time and stories and headed off in the direction of the park in search of Steve. I rounded one block and headed east. Halfway through the block I noticed an older woman to my right wearing a nice coat and dress picking up a sheet of cardboard from the ground. At first I thought she was just cleaning up the area but when I saw her taking the cardboard to a small hole in some blackberry bushes I turned to approach her. “Hey, are you alright?” I asked. The woman turned to me and smiled. “Yes I’ll be alright,” she replied in a soft voice. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked if she slept here. She nodded and spread the cardboard on the ground next to a light-colored comforter and hand bag. She used her hands to push away piles of trash and stood up. “Mama, what are you doing out here? How long have you been sleeping here?” The woman told me she had been out here for five days now and no longer had the money to stay in a hotel. I asked her where her family was and she began shaking her head emphatically. “No, I can’t go to family.” She tells me her name is Victoria and I shook her hand warmly. “Are you sure you’re gonna be ok?” I ask again. “Oh yes, yes. I’ll be alright.” I said I’ll be back to check on her.
I continue eastward and in the dim light I see the baseball park. I circle slowly looking for the dugout. I passed a grey haired woman rolled up in a fuzzy blanket on the ground with her bags of belongings placed above her head. I didn’t see anyone in the dugout but noticed two women with kids at the playground saying their goodbyes to each other. One single mom and her toddler walked by me and I asked her if she saw an older gentleman in a wheelchair. “Oh yes, he’s behind the restrooms talking to another guy.” I walked with her towards the restrooms as they were on the way to the parking lot. I told the woman what I was doing and her face lit up. “You know, I was homeless once too and I just got housing not too long ago. It’s only a one bedroom but I’m thankful for it.” I thanked her for her time and walked to the restrooms.
I waited for Steve to finish his conversation with another man before approaching him. “Hello Steve, I suppose you’re wondering how I know your name and what I’m doing here.” His eyebrows went up but he smiled nonetheless. I explained to him what I was doing and he relaxed. Steve is 65 years old and has been homeless for around 6 years now but admits that he is to blame for where he is now. “I take responsibility for my situation and I don’t do too badly. It’s quiet and safe here and you just have to know how to handle yourself out here. Don’t lend and don’t borrow anything from anybody and you’ll do alright.” He takes a swig from his beer can and continues talking. “I see all kinds out here, the only ones I worry about hanging around are the drug addicts. You never know what they’ll do.” I asked him if he knew Victoria. “Oh her? Yeah she’s a stellar person. In the morning when we’re at McDonald’s drinking coffee, she always places three dollars on the table in front of me and I tell her she doesn’t have to do that but she keeps on doing it telling me she’ll be alright. You know the park ranger here is real nice and she told us that she doesn’t mind us being here as long as we’re not a problem for her. We don’t leave trash around or make noise to bother the neighbors. Even the park ranger said she doesn’t know why Victoria is out here but I suspect it’s due to these loser men in her life. All they do is take her money, they don’t care about her. I saw them push her around and if I could get out of this chair, I’d punch their lights out.” I told Steve I’d like to come back to check on him from time to time and he liked the idea. I shook his hand and walked back to McDonald’s to wait for the bus.
While riding the bus out of Seattle, I felt an overwhelming cloud of grief come over me. What kind of society do we live in that lets old ladies sleep on cardboard among trash under blackberry bushes? A little over an hour and I was in Federal Way. My friend was en route to pick me up to take me back to her place. I can’t explain it but I got this strong compulsion to walk across the street and wander around the bus station. I stopped to look at the shiny new buses just put into place today for a new service run. The conversation between two women standing at one of the bays caught my attention. “Where is our bus? How are we going to get home?” I grabbed my cell phone to check the time. It was eleven pm. I moved closer toward the ladies and realized one was blind and the other was almost blind but she could see me. They could not however, see the announcement on the pole next to them declaring that the 174 was discontinued as of today. I related this to them and how it was designed this way to get people to take the light rail into the city but in addition to bus fare, they would have to pay $2.50 per person to ride it. The taller of the two said, “What?! And how were we supposed to know that? How are we gonna get home now? We have to connect to the 124 to Seattle. We can’t afford to take the light rail! We need nothing short of a miracle now!” I couldn’t stop staring at them. There were other people waiting for buses here so how come they didn’t bother to tell these two that the 174 was discontinued?
I saw the headlights flash across the parking lot of the station and patted the taller lady near me on the shoulder and said “You wait right here. I just may have your miracle.” I ran across the street and asked my friend if she felt like being a miracle worker tonight. I pointed to the women across the street. “You see those two over there? They’re blind and no one bothered to tell them that the bus they’ve been waiting for was going to be discontinued today and they have no way to get to the next bus so they can go home.” Without hesitation my good friend got out of her car and started opening doors and lifted the rear hatch. I tossed my backpack into the front passenger seat and ran back over to the women. “Okay,” I panted. “Will you accept a miracle from two strangers? We can get you to the 124.” The tall one gasped. “God is truly here today! Do we need to give you any money for this?” she asked. “No, you don’t”, I answered. She put her hand on my arm and the two women followed me across the street to the car. I led the woman who was completely blind to the other side of the car and helped her get in while my friend helped to get both women seat belted in. I folded up the other woman’s walker and loaded it into the rear and closed the hatch. I introduced myself and my friend to the ladies and they introduced themselves back. “I’m Julia” said the completely blind one. “I’m Maria,” said the other.
As my friend drove down Pacific Highway, I got to know both ladies a little better. Turns out they used to be homeless but are now staying at Opportunity Place downtown. Julia told us that she was very angry at how the light rail system is not accessible. She actually sat in a meeting with the planners to discuss what could be done to make the light rail system accessible for the disabled but turns out the city already bought the trains and system that came with it. Julia says that meeting her was just a big front because they were already going forward with a non-accessible system.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the Tukwila rail station where the 124 was in park mode. We made it! After helping Julia and Maria get out of the car, I walked them over to the bay where the bus they needed would take them home. Julia thanked me over and over. She couldn’t believe that anyone took the time to help them out because the last time they had missed a bus, she and Maria were stranded at the bus stop for five hours until the first daylight buses began running again. I checked the time, it was 12:02. The bus schedule posted on the pole said that the 124 would leave at 12:12. I advised Julia and Maria that the bus would be leaving in ten minutes. I wished them well and returned to the car. My friend and I drove away and even she couldn’t believe that people would just let two blind women fend for themselves. Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.
What kind of society are we?