You see them standing at the foot of a freeway off-ramp. Sad, worn men and women holding signs, usually made of cardboard, telling of their homeless and need.
Some stand out more than others. One, a young man of maybe thirty, was standing on North East 8th Street at the foot of I-405. His sign said he was the father of two and in desperate need of money lest his family be dispossessed. He could find no work. The poor devil looked strung out. He was there for about a week, then gone.
Another, a woman who looked about six months along, stood on the off-ramp of SR-520. She earnestly looked at each passing driver, trying to make eye contact the better to ask for alms. Her clothes were ratty and she wore the same outfit for days on en . . . No, now that I think about it, she wore it every day. One afternoon, she seemed to be at the end of her tether for she just sat there on the dirty macadam, clutching her little sign and sobbing her head off. I should have called 9-1-1 but didn’t think to do it. She too has moved on.
Our ravaged economy and two wars are responsible for this — by which I mean the practitioners of Wall Street jiggery-pokery and the jingos of the previous administration. If I ran things, I’d round-up all the broken people these horses asses created and take them out to the estates of hedge fund managers and war profiteers. There they would be allowed to squat as long as they pleased. They would spend their recovery eating the food, wearing the duds, and seeing the doctors and dentists of their hosts.
A few decades ago, such homelessness was caused by the Viet Nam war’s ejection of unprepared veterans back into a nation become viciously hostile. Many of these good men and women were discharged from the military without so much as a by-your-leave and with heads full of snakes. “Baby killer” was the epithet greeting so many soldiers as they stepped of the airplane.
While taking yet another stab at higher education, I did some spot-labor during class breaks. One such place was a recycler of car batteries — a hot, filthy and utterly dangerous job if ever there were one. Standing around a vat of boiling lead in our haz-mat suits, we were instructed in the finer points of the job. We were looking from one to the other, passing looks that said Do you believe this? when I locked eyes with a fellow on the vat’s far side. We seemed to have an instant rapport and camaraderie. After work, he and I went for beers where he and I became friends.
During our conversation, it came out that he was a former US Marine who’d fought in Viet Nam. He’d come home to a life he no longer understood and soon left his wife and kids to travel the country as a mendicant and doing some stoop-labor when possible. On this day, he’d stopped in Seattle and ended up at the recycler. His name was Dave and he told me he was living in his car. At the time, Jo and I were living in the Shit Hole, which was hardly bigger than Dave’s little Vega, so I could empathize.
For many years, I’d been a salesman. As such, one gets to read people pretty well and you can a spot a bad hombre miles away — and so is the corollary; you can also spot the good ones. It’s almost an instinctive thing. In any case, Dave was a good one so I called Jo and asked if we could have him in for dinner. Jo said yes, so Dave followed me home.
Long story short, as small as the Shit Hole was, we invited Dave to stay. And so he did. The three of us enjoyed each others company for six weeks. During that time, Dave mad a few calls home and, from what I could hear, seemed to be working on a rapprochement with the wife.
One afternoon, on our way home from another foul and nasty job, Dave pulled into a parking lot, stopped, and with an anguished face, looked out the windshield for a long moment. Then he turned to me and said there was something he’d like to tell me. He paused, evidently deciding whither or not he really should. After a few seconds of indecision, he put his Vega into gear. “Maybe later,” he said as we rode off. He never did tell me what was on his mind, though I pressed him a bit. Some dark and terrible thing from the war, no doubt.
One afternoon when the first hit of Fall was in the air, Dave said it was time he left. He asked if I’d help tune a few things on his car and get it loaded with his bindle, and so I did. I then suggested going to our favorite Chinese for a last supper, and so we did. We had become fast friends by that time so I urged him to make Seattle his home. Dave declined, saying it was time to maybe go back to his family, or maybe do some more traveling. “Whatever,” he said, “it’ll emerge.”
We awoke to a gray Fall morning, which fit the mood. We had a breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, jam, hot cakes, milk and coffee. Then Dave pushed back from the table and said, “Well, I’d better be off.”
Jo and I walked Dave out to his car where we had some last hugs and handshakes. Dave climbed in rolled down the window and made ready. After starting the engine, Dave turned to us and said, “It’s been great. Thanks, guys,” then put it in gear and was off. We stood in the street watching as Dave drove up to the intersection. There he stopped, gave us a final wave, then turned onto Greenwood and was gone.
We haven’t heard from him since. I hope things have gone well.
So, then: Not all those people you see at off-ramps are shiftless, worthless criminals out to fleece you out of $5, $10 or $20. Nor are they all psychotics who kick dogs and murder small children. Indeed, most of them were quietly living the American Dream when they got clobbered by something they never saw coming — nor could see coming. In their destitution, we see our vaunted country has failed them. Now, with the churlish and mean-spirited mood sweeping the land, it looks like America will go on failing them a while longer.
Perhaps, though, might not our experience serve as an inspiration?
I’m sure, dear reader, you’ll think of something.