Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Screaming streets

I work in a colorful part of downtown Seattle, in a neighborhood that straddles the International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods. It is generally an okay area to walk around during the day, especially if you make it to the more touristy parts of the International District and it's variety of foods and tourist shops. And Pioneer Square has been taken over by more trendy restaurants and condos.

But still the area has an edge. Our work campus has expanded over the years, so meetings can take you outside of your own building to run the gauntlet of street people, crack heads and Jehovah's Witnesses. I generally go out with my headphones on playing Spotify. It helps shut out some of the street noise.

It's an area where you pretty much always need to be aware of your surroundings. Today I was waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change and watched a very angry and agitated man across the street screaming and waving his arms. He had that erratic behavior either brought on by drugs, lack of drugs or voices in his head. I feel sorry for these people, but I still plot my path to avoid them as much as possible.

Fortunately the man just paced back and forth for awhile screaming at people passing by, threw what appeared to be an apple on the sidewalk and moved on down the street. I could still hear him as I scurried across the crosswalk and through the plaza over the International District bus and light rail tunnel station. I avoided eye contact of the Jehovah's Witnesses who stand there every day with their signs and literature racks. I have to admit that I prefer them standing passively on the sidewalk with their PR for god materials over them coming to my door trying to force me to take a Watchtower brochure.

I dodged this tall, bearded homeless guy who approaches me regularly asking for help getting something to eat. However, he never looks as though he has missed a meal. I don't carry any change or cash anymore so I just mumble, "Sorry," and keep moving with purpose.

I noticed that the small store across the street from the station has been closed. It had been site of a couple of murders and robberies over the past few years. So I'm not sorry to see it close. I imagine it was the opening of a Bartell's Drug Store on the corner of my block that actually closed it down. It has become the magnet for the street life now. A few months ago I was walking past it when a man dragging a pilfered carry on suitcase burst out the door followed by a short security guard with a taser out trying to stop the man. He couldn't quite reach the alleged shop lifter with his taser and he made it across the street dodging traffic as he dragged the contraband suitcase after him.

Every morning I walk from my commuter train, past the same Bartell's to get to my office. And every morning the building facilities staff are hosing off urine from a homeless person who uses the spot in front of our building as their toilet. I imagine it is their way of marking their territory. It kind of reminds me of when I first moved to Seattle to go to college. I was walking downtown from my First Hill dorm room on a Sunday morning and passed through Pioneer Square on my way to Pike Place Market. I walked past an elderly transient man collapsed in a doorway in a puddle of urine. Having just moved to Seattle from Boise, I was a little shocked and admittedly stopped to stare. The man opened his eyes, smiled and raised one hand with the middle finger extended. I quickly moved on.

That was about 37 years ago. Since then I've walked on the streets of many big cities including New York, New Jersey, LA, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Miami, New Orleans, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Atlanta and Dallas. I have never got used to the screaming streets of the homeless with lost souls huddled under dirty blankets and cardboard shelters. And as I age, I fight the feeling of vulnerability as try to move with purpose through the throngs of people asking for money or shouting obscenities at their demons.

It's worse when I my wife and children come downtown for lunch or to visit the aquarium on the waterfront. Whereas I have become numb but cautious to the street scene, my children ask about the people sleeping in dirty sleep bags on benches or under overpasses, or shoeless men pushing shopping carts filled with garbage bags containing all of their possessions down the street as they mutter and occasionally scream. We try to respond with compassion that these are people who have no place to live. But when my children ask us why, we struggle for an answer.

I know intellectually that there are many reasons people live on the street: mental illness, substance abuse, physical abuse at home, loss of jobs. And I count myself lucky that I am not there and my children have a home, clothes, food and a future. But still I don't really understand it. And I am at a loss to know how to change it.

So, I don my wireless headphones, crank up Spotify and try to tune out the screaming streets.


Helen Baggott said...

Interesting. And sad. I guess it's the same in any city or large town.

Time said...

Yes, it is sad. I did forget to mention I have also walked the streets of London many years ago. I don't remember seeing homeless people, though. I do remember being asked for directions and the look of disappointment on faces when I began speaking and they realized I was an American.