Under the fourth street overpass in Seattle there are half a dozen tents, older two-pole dome tents pitched on the sidewalk just off the main walkway. Occasionally someone has spread out a bed role as well, a pile of blankets in a dimly human shape. I see these as I run by on the way to my therapy appointment. The people who live in them, and I can’t really tell who lives in them and who just hangs around, look uniformly haggard. They wear baggy clothes, jeans, cotton sweatshirts, all of it dun colored. Their faces are lined but not gently like those of your grandparents, they look like those photos you see of peasants from Central Asia, like the kind of people character actors play. A black man in an enormous translucent yellow poncho asked me for a cigarette as I was leaving a bar, I had turned onto the sidewalk and he was behind me, maybe 40 feet, I looked over my shoulder but didn’t stop walking, said nothing. A native woman asked me for a dollar to get a cup of coffee, I had no cash and told her so.
When I applied for food stamps the interviewer asked where I lived and I told him that I was technically homeless. I felt I had to qualify it. I lived in a van, houseless, I had a mailing address but I didn’t live there. I felt odd even applying, like I didn’t really need their help, and to claim the same status as the people who lived in those tents, it felt dishonest. I have a car and they don’t. I have a full time job and several bins of climbing gear at a friend’s house and a laptop computer and seven pairs of shoes. I have a gym membership and three or four couches I can crash on if I need to. I don’t know what they have, much less I suppose. I have a college degree and thirteen thousand dollars in student debt, the payments of which I have gotten deferred by demonstrating financial hardship, this was before I got my current job, the same time, actually, that I was applying for food stamps. I can’t tell whether I’m slipping through the cracks of our society or floating on the margins. Whether I am living in some weird loophole or helping to forge a new path entirely.
I have until the tenth of this month to report the change in my projected income to the food stamp people. The wage I make will soon be Seattle minimum wage and with it and forty hours a week and no dependents and no bills I don’t qualify for a thing. When I was in the waiting room at the CSO place it was worse than the DMV. There was a little Latino kid, maybe four years old, who was rolling around on the floor crying for going on two hours and every now and again he would get up and try to sprint out the door and his mom had to chase him down. The whole thing was like a building-sized, beige-colored, birth control ad with uncomfortable seating. If they had been distributing condoms on the way out I would have taken a hand-full and put one on right away, just to be sure.
If someone offers you a bag of groceries or a place to sleep or a college education or a job, you take it. You don’t ask them why they are offering it to you, whether you deserve it, how it’s going to be paid for, in what sort of injustices you are making yourself complicit, you just say thank you and try to make the most of it. I am not sure about the ethics of this. My therapist said that we needed to begin by getting on the same page philosophically, and then explained how I had rights and I could not be blamed for pursuing my rights before worrying about other people’s. He meant that I shouldn’t feel bad about taking care of myself and going after what I want and I spent the hour arguing with him about social justice. I said that there is no such thing as an innocent other, that we are all interconnected, that whatever is mine is so my virtue of not being someone else’s. I have what I have because outdoor retailers pay enormous sums of money for high quality large format printed graphics; they do this because their production costs are low and their income is directly proportional to the effectiveness of their marketing, which implies that no one, in actuality, needs their products. That is the difference between me and those people who live in tents. I have done nothing but take what was offered, and what was offered to me and what was offered to them was wildly different. If I choose to live in a van on the side of the street a few blocks from where they camp each night, I do this because of frugality and other neuroses, not because I have no where else to go. Voluntary poverty is much more about the voluntary than the poverty.
One of my climbing partners grew up in Arlington and got a job at Boeing right out of high school. He has worked there ever since. His dad works there too. We did a trip a couple years ago with some high school friends of his who had also started working at Boeing right out of high school. Around the campfire at night I jokingly asked them if that was what you did when you were from Arlington, you got out of high school and then worked at Boeing. They said pretty much, that or the army; or heroin, one of them added after a pause. We all laughed but it was the kind of humor that isn’t really untrue. My friend, he has a house and I keep my climbing gear in his garage and I sleep on his couch often. It seems, sometimes, as if I’m regressing in class. My dad is white collar, a salesman, formerly a photographer, his dad owned an ad agency. I have a four year degree, which my dad doesn’t but my grandfather does, but I’ve worked nothing but blue collar jobs and there’s not much sign of that changing. All my friends work manual labor: construction, manufacturing, grocery store produce; not one of us is incapable of something different, what our parents would call something better. We seem ambivalent on the question of wealth. We’d all like it, but none of us have any real faith in our ability to grasp it. We all dream of some mythic someday when we’ll be comfortable. For one guy it’s rental properties, for another it’s an exotic pet breeding company, or glass blowing, or the music recording industry; for me it’s a book deal, royalties, advances, film rights.
For years I’ve been telling my parents that the normal life was never the plan. I didn’t want a job and a church and a hobby. The banal life, I was sure I could find something better. Now I wonder about giving up. I think about an apartment, a roommate, budgeted expendable income. I’ve spent the last ten years waiting for greatness to strike, to wake up one morning and be ushered into glory. I had this belief, all through my childhood and youth, that I was being prepared for something great, that I was going to change the world, that I could not help but be extraordinary. I am sure there are many older people who would laugh and tell me that the fading of this conviction, the resignation to where I find myself, is called growing up; I’m not so sure. When I was eighteen there was a very real chance that I was going to end up as one of those people living in tents under the freeway. I’m not entirely proud of the distance from that fate that I’ve achieved and I wonder if it’s been a process more of loss, of dropping little bits of myself as I go, than of growth; like I’m trying to live on locusts and honey and I keep being offered Burger King and more and more this industrially processed murder meat looks tasty; but I don’t know, I’m no voice in the wilderness.
This piece was written in December of 2015. In March of 2016 I moved out of my van.