Homeless/Spring

Before work the other day, I walked to the grocery store to buy a breakfast sandwich. I noticed that for the first time since the riots last year the plywood had been taken down from the store windows. The Urban Outfitters that had been next door for as long as I’d been in Seattle is gone now, and in its place a salon and spa is being built. I was noticing the mural on the walls in swirling, pastel rainbow hues, and was only peripherally aware of the homeless man walking toward me.

I heard him before I saw him, yelling incoherently, and skirted around to the edge of the sidewalk to give him a wide berth. Apparently not wide enough, because he veered toward me and shoved me against the brick wall of the grocery store. I walked quickly inside the store, pulling my jacket more tightly around me for comfort.

“Are you okay?” The security guard asked me. He’d witnessed the whole thing.

“Yes.” I said, and kept walking before he could engage me in further conversation. I wasn’t hurt, just startled. I was already running late, and was afraid of some kind of conversation that would cause me further delay.

The security guard moved past me, out the door, his phone in his hand, shouting after the homeless man who had already shambled up the street by then.

They were out of the kind of breakfast sandwich I’d wanted, with sausage, egg and cheese, so I got an omelet with Swiss on a croissant instead.

I grew up in a small rural town in Texas with only a few hundred people, none of them homeless. So it was a shock when I first moved to a city and realized how widespread homelessness is. And how seemingly unwilling cities are to solve this problem. Back then I still made eye contact with people, and if they asked for change I gave it to them and didn’t just walk quickly past, ignoring them.

One evening, not long after I’d first moved to Seattle, I was walking back home from having eaten out, and a homeless man asked for my leftovers. We were on Pike St, the purple and blue neon signs of night clubs casting carnival spotlights, as throngs of skinny-jeaned hipsters walked from bar to bar. I handed him the white, cardboard box of leftovers without thinking.

The homeless man opened the box, and as soon as I saw his look of confused disgust, I realized the mistake I’d made.

“What is this?” He’d asked.

“Tofu and vegetables.” I’d said, embarrassed.

The homeless man turned the box upside down and let the food splatter to the concrete at our feet.

I made an audible gasp. I was poor, myself, and that food was going to be my lunch the next day. If he hadn’t wanted it, he could have given it back, I thought.

After that my compassion toward the homeless was diminished somewhat. I learned to not make eye contact. To not pause. To walk quickly with purpose. Then I catch myself and feel guilty about my own heartlessness. A lost job, a large hospital bill, the lack of a parental safety net, and I could just as easily be out there myself. But as badly as I feel, my change remains in my pockets, and my leftovers remain firmly in hand.

Last week it was sunny and warm. I took long walks in the evenings after work in shorts, down residential streets overgrown with flowers and green plants. The sidewalks were littered with the pink petals of cherry blossoms. Looking downhill, you could see sailboats on the lake, fluttering white sails trailing a shimmering gold wake.

Young men jogged by, their chests glistening with sweat and heaving with the heavy breath of exercise. I smiled beneath my Dr. Who face mask. The pleasures of spring. More from nostalgia than any kind of lasciviousness. Everyone looks so young to me. If someone is under 35 it’s impossible for me to see them as an object of desire.

Last Saturday I had dinner with Sassy Bear. We were going to grab some burgers, but the burger place wasn’t doing indoor dining yet, so we had Thai. His hair was orange that week. A blue haired girl complimented him as she walked past and returned the sentiment. We scanned a barcode with our phones in order to see the menu.

I had pork belly with basil, and a runny fried egg adorned my sticky mound of jasmine rice. We talked about books and movies and our jobs. My job has been especially busy this past year, a stressor tempered only by the fact that I mostly do it from home these days.

Aside from this little divergence, I’ve mostly continued my anti-social, isolated existence. I’ve had the first dose of my Pfizer vaccine though, so I’m hoping that by later this year, we’ll have veered slightly closer toward what used to pass for normalcy. That said, I think the days of dance clubs, and crowded bars are now behind me.

After a week of sunshine, the sky has turned gray and it’s cold and rainy again. I don’t mind the backsliding. The dreary weather and the rain is the main reason I moved to Seattle in the first place. Still, it’s reassuring to see promises of spring, and the hope for better, brighter days ahead.

Disconnected

I deleted FaceBook on a whim.

Later, when asked by a friend about my sudden disappearance, I’d vaguely alluded to concerns about privacy or the way users’ information is shared. To be fair, I had seen a pretty disturbing documentary on Netflix about this very thing. But if that played any role in my decision to delete my account, it was only a small one. Let’s face it, there are pics of me in my underwear on my Instagram. How concerned about privacy can I actually be?

The truth is, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with my so-called “friends.” Back in it’s nascent stages ten years ago, when we’d all collectively left MySpace for the newer, cleaner site, it was mostly pictures and updates from my friends about their lives. Since I’d moved around so much in my twenties, I thought it was a great way for me to stay in touch with my friends from out of state who I could no longer spend time with IRL.

Fast forward a decade, and most of my actual friends had either deleted FaceBook already, or rarely posted anything. Those that remained were mostly people I’d worked with, minor acquaintances, and people that I’d never met at all. My dad and my aunts were on FaceBook. I was getting friend requests from cousins that I hadn’t seen in twenty years, and from people who hadn’t liked me in high school.

Scrolling through posts had become a daily ritual. I was in the habit of waking up in the morning, reaching for my phone and thumbing through bland memes, snarky observations, and far more political commentary than I could stomach. I was quietly horrified by the weekly alerts from my phone letting me know by what percentage my screen time had gone up from the previous week. I spent hours a day sifting through posts from people who I largely didn’t know or care about. I looked at it on and off throughout my work day, in the evenings on the couch, and in my bed before I went to sleep.

I’d become dependent on “likes” for validation. If a post didn’t receive many, I’d delete it in shame. But that was the draw of FaceBook. It was a reality you could curate. The selfies I posted were all flattering. (The ones I was tagged in never were). I posted pictures of meals and cocktails in nice restaurants, and never the fast food at home alone in front of the TV. In FaceBook reality I was surrounded by smiling friends, vacationing in lovely cities, and my jokes always landed.

In the month or so after it was gone, only three friends messaged me to ask about it. For a while I’d still find my finger searching for the app when I opened my phone. There were times when a funny observation would occur to me, and I’d reach for it, and remember it was gone, along with my perpetual affirming audience.

I texted C and said, “I deleted FaceBook, and now I don’t have any friends.”

He responded, “Those friends were an illusion.”

And he was right.

After a while I realized that I suddenly had more time. I was paying more attention to my real life instead of trying to nurture a persona. I was more present, and I felt better. I wasn’t comparing myself to others as much, or feeling some nagging longing for a more real and substantive connection.

Now if I could just ween myself off of Reddit, I might actually have time to work on my supposed novel.

 

When the Snow Melts

When the snow melts, the sidewalk seems cleaner. Washed free of clumps of rotting leaves. I go for a walk through the neighborhood, partly to take advantage of the brief splinter of sunshine that creases the clouds, but mostly just to get out of my stuffy apartment and be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A woman dressed as a harlequin in black and white, with face paint and black dimples skips down the street smiling. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her, and I find myself grinning goofily beneath my black face mask. She represents the quirky city that I fell in love with. Seeing her skip past me is like the promise of spring. But she also evokes the memory of dancing in crowded clubs, when social diseases were the only ones I was concerned with catching.

Hard to believe this disease, and the isolation that defines these stillborn days, has been lingering for a year. It started like the punchline of a joke stuttered by a thrift store god. I called it an apocalypse of inconvenience and we thought it would last two weeks and disappear. But it didn’t go away. It doesn’t go away. And the joke is no longer funny, if it was ever funny.

For a while I missed my friends. Then isolation became grooved in routine. Then I found myself shrinking away from invitations to safely socially distance in some outside bar, not because I’m concerned for my safety, but because I’ve trained myself out of the need for human contact. Spend asexual nights wrapped in a comforter on the couch watching true crime documentaries on Netflix.

When the snow melts, everything that had been hidden beneath a glittering, white glaze becomes visible again. Brown and trash littered. I mark the passage of time in the number of tents erected by the homeless in the parks and little patches of green that dot the city. In the little park at the bottom of the hill, first one, then three, then eight. Misery multiplies and it’s the same all over town. Buildings are boarded up and homeless tents continue to pop up like bandaids in a swimming pool.

One morning I walked by to see one of the tents had caught fire in the night. Was reduced to a black circle of ash that was covered for a couple of days by the snow.

One morning I walked by to see one of my neighbors, an old man in a rumpled jacket, smoking a cigarette in the rain, his blue surgical mask around his chin. He used to smoke in the stairwell, but people complained that it was a fire hazard, and voted to make the area a non-smoking zone. I voted for it, myself, because in the summer with my windows open his smoke had left my bedroom smelling like an ashtray. Then he moved to the front steps, until people complained about that too, and he was forced to stand out in the rain. I feel guilty and make a habit of telling him good morning as I walk past.

“Good morning.” He mumbles back, gruffly.

I never stop for further conversation. Good morning is pretty much the extent of my ability to make small talk.

When the snow comes, the old man is outside smoking in the snow. I wonder about the homeless people shivering in doorways, and I wonder about all the people in the multiplying tents and what their daily lives are like, and what they eat (or don’t eat), and if they’re warm enough, and how can we allow people to sleep in tents, or in doorways, but I know my compassion is just a thought that flits across my eternally guilty conscience. And when a homeless man asks me for change outside the 7-11, I only say, “Sorry.”

Think, I can’t solve the worlds’ problems!

Go home and obsessively order running shoes, and books, and moisturizer from Amazon.

For months I didn’t sleep. I’d doze for thirty minutes or an hour, then would wake up mind racing. Eventually waking and sleeping both seemed like the same hysterically gray daze.

I went to a pot shop to get something to relax me and help me sleep, but then I got intimidated and walked back out again.

All my Facebook promotions became ads for eye-bag concealer. I stayed home and obsessively ordered eye-bag concealer from Amazon.

I talk to my mom back in Texas. The winter-storm has left them without water and with spotty electricity. She and my dad camp out in her kitchen with a little propane heater he uses on his hunting trips. One of my cousins stops by to check on them, and I feel guilty for living 1,800 miles away and not being able to check on them myself.

When I call my dad on his birthday he complains that Biden is taking away jobs. He works in the oil industry. I tell him he should retire anyway.

“What will I do if I retire?” He asks. He’s a person who has to DO something.

“Nothing!” I tell him. “If I could retire right now, I absolutely would.” All I long for in life is the time to do absolutely nothing.

“I know you would.” My dad says. They are both convinced that I’m the laziest person who has ever existed.

I want to explain that if I was ever imprisoned, I’d do anything I could to get placed in solitary confinement. To me it would neither be cruel, nor unusual. To be alone with my thoughts, without stress or obligation seems like a heavenly existence. A reward for putting up with all the injustice, the nonsense and bullshit that permeates our waking days. Then I think that quarantine has been akin to solitary confinement for me. Days spent alone in my apartment, punctuated by Zoom meetings at work, and the errant Amazon delivery.

“Did you see those fools at the Capital?” My mom asks, referring to the fur clad, shirtless insurrectionists.

“Yes.” I say.

“Someone should line them up and shoot them all.” She says. She is not exaggerating. My mother hates disorder more than anything. She has no political affiliation and no ideology. She just wants people to behave civilly, and becomes disproportionately angry when they do not.

I have inherited her anger. Find myself reading the headlines of articles on news aggregates smoldering like a butted cigarette. Parcel memes through slitted (and apparently bagged) eyes. I feel like I spent four years waking each morning with the query at the forefront of my mind, “What are we angry about today, hive mind?”

That anger that held me like a balled up fist for four years, seems to have largely dissipated with a single election. Or maybe I just became too tired to be angry. Or maybe all of my emotions are flattening out with middle age.

When it snowed this year, it piled up more than a foot outside my window. I watched people in fluffy, orange jumpers shuffle past on skis, and I watched people dragging children on the lids of garbage cans, and sliding down the steep hills in makeshift sleds. For the most part they were wearing their masks, and keeping their distance, but there was a feeling of sudden, unexpected freedom after a year spent confined.

I did not slide down the hill on a garbage can lid, even though one of my neighbors set some out in the foyer for anyone to use. Other people saw snow dappled thrills, and I saw broken bones and hospital bills. My back hurt just thinking about it, and I took some Ibuprofen in quiet, middle-aged protest.

A friend from Texas, now living in Portland texted me in his excitement at the winter wonderland. I admonished him that there was nothing wonderful about snow. It is cold and wet and inconvenient. It’s basically sky garbage. There is nothing romantic about it!

Later, after he texted that their electricity had gone out, I responded that I was too good a person to rub it in his face that he’d wanted the snow and would now have to deal with the repercussions.

Despite my contrarian words, I find myself taking pictures of the snow covered neighborhood. The evergreens dusted in white, and the glistening powder covering the hills, the cars, and the rooftops of houses. The beauty is irrefutable. Even for a curmudgeon like me. I post a pic on Instagram in a desperate bid for likes.

When the snow melts, it feels like the past is dissolving with it. The years of stress and solitude, the pent up anger and sleepless nights break into crystalline particles, spread and disappear. When the snow melts there is green beneath, quiet as a promise, and it feels like an ending. And a beginning. Then again, maybe it was just frozen water that had nothing to do with hope or renewal. But I’m my mother’s son, always looking for order, for poetry in the littered gutters. Whether it’s routine or stark stupidity, I look forward to the melting snow, and the opportunity to venture out again, to walk the streets and find the fragile beauty of another of the Earth’s finite revolutions. To catch it on my tongue, crisp and disappearing. Always too quickly.

An Apocalypse of Inconvenience

IMG_9580Then things got worse. Shelves in the stores were empty. The bars and restaurants all shut down. No one was out on the streets. The stock market was crashing. There were terrible people who hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and even worse people who stockpiled it so they could re-sell it at trumped up prices for a profit.

But there were good people too. Healthcare workers who put themselves at risk, working long hours to help others. Strangers who bought groceries for the elderly, and volunteers who got together to make sure that poor kids got enough to eat outside of school.

As usual, I fell squarely in the middle. Of course I don’t want anyone to get sick (well, maybe old, straight, white, male republicans), and I recognize that social distancing can at least slow things down enough so that our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, and the most vulnerable people can be protected. But mostly I’m just annoyed that I can’t get Thai food when I feel like it, and concerned that with the gym closed, my chest is going to deflate.

On Sunday I met with the Co-op board about my condo. The president (a self described drag queen real estate agent) held out his hand for me to shake. I was mortified, but I shook it anyway, because I wanted to seem friendly and agreeable…and I really wanted the apartment. I was relieved when the other board members bumped elbows with me in greeting, and spent the whole meeting reminding myself not to touch my face until I could go home and douse my offending hand in bleach.

Afterward, I went to the grocery store to pick up some frozen dinners for the week ahead. Standing in front of an empty aisle of cleaning supplies, a fellow shopper caught my eye and said, “This is crazy!”

“Yeah.” I agreed.

It is crazy.

It is absolutely insane.

My mother called from Texas and told me to stock up on bottled water and canned soup. To not leave my apartment.

“Don’t go to brunch.” She said. “Talk to your friends online.”

I did not explain to her that I’m already basically a shut-in, and that social distancing is par for the course for me.

At work things were getting really tense. Employees who were at risk were justifiably angry about having to take public transportation and go into an office when they could just as easily work from home. They were worried about themselves, and about their families. I didn’t blame them. I was worried too.

When management finally gave us the go ahead to work from home yesterday, the team was still ready to riot. I think the anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen just has everyone on edge, and it burst out during a shouted and incredibly awkward meeting that left everybody dazed and uncomfortable, but which I voyeuristically enjoyed.

Today I worked from home, cozy in fuzzy slippers. I watched videos on YouTube and wept a little at clips of Italian and Spanish people playing music and singing together from the balconies of apartment buildings. It was endearing, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge that if my own neighbors started doing that, I’d yell at them to knock it off.

The one great thing about being home was that I’d be there to accept a package I was expecting from FedEx. Or so I thought.

I watched the tracking all morning, and then half past noon it said my package had been delivered. Supposedly someone named R. Barnes had signed for it. I’d been home the entire day. My buzzer never rang. There isn’t even anyone named Barnes in my building. I looked outside and there was no package to be found.

While I recognize that there are people with real problems. People in the service industry who can’t work from home, and others who have lost their jobs altogether. People who are struggling to make ends meet. People who are literally dying…for me personally, this has all just been an apocalypse of inconvenience.

Packages not delivered. Brunches canceled. The gym closed.

I try to remind myself that this is only temporary. New cases are already going down drastically in the regions that were first hit. People are recovering. But I worry that things are going to get worse before they get better, and that many of the businesses that have had to temporarily close down may never be able to recover. I wonder what the long term effects are going to be.

For the time being, I’m glad that I’m still gainfully employed. That my apartment purchase is going along smoothly. That my family and friends are healthy. That there are people in the world who are kind. That FedEx is still delivering…just not to me.

 

 

 

Super-Connected

superstarYesterday I received a friend request from a friend of mine who died three years ago. It was unsettling. A few weeks ago I was whittling down my friend list to include only people that I actually care about, or people that I find entertaining in some way. When I came across her profile, I thought it was time to un-friend her.

I don’t know what the etiquette is, in these strange times when everyone has a presence on social media. Do you remain “friends” with the deceased forever, or do you let them go? She and I weren’t besties. She was a person who I used to know, who belonged to a group of people who spent time together. And then she moved to Detroit. And then she died. And then three years later I un-friended her.

And now there’s a new request in my inbox telling me she wants to be my friend.

I can only assume that she faked her own death. She’s been living in Aruba, drinking exotic drinks from coconuts with little paper umbrellas. I’d like to imagine her lying on a beach somewhere, and not cancer-riddled, decomposing underground.

I’m guessing the reality is, that whoever maintains her page, somehow noticed my absence and invited me back into the fold. Is the number of friends that we have on Facebook still important, even after we die?

After work, I met up with a former co-worker who was in town for a conference. We hadn’t seen one another in 15 years. He looked exactly the same, and I felt shabby, bald, and chubby by comparison. He had access to the Executive Lounge, so we sat across from one another catching up with complimentary finger foods, he in his suit and tie, and me in an embarrassed sweater.

After we both got fired from our former job back in 2001, he went back to school and got his doctorate while I wandered aimlessly from city to city. We asked one another if the other still remembered so and so, but neither of us remembered any of the same people. Still, it was nice to spend a couple of hours reconnecting.

He and I had never been friends outside of work, and if it weren’t for Facebook, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch, and we wouldn’t have found ourselves 15 years later, sitting in a hotel in Chicago, talking about the horrors of the presidential primaries, racism, and Postmodern Jukebox.

We hugged goodbye as he left to go see the Keynote Speaker, and I walked through the snow to catch my train back home. I was struck by how beautiful the city is at night, the ornate buildings near the Magnificent Mile lit up against the black backdrop of sky.

He is an awesome guy, and, under other circumstances, we could probably have been good friends. But as it was, we were two people who used to work together, who are still connected by the tenuous tether of the internet. I can’t help but think that all this connectedness is unnatural.

The train is still crowded, long past rush hour. I stand as the commuting zombies sit in overstuffed coats and scarves, gazing, hypnotized into their tablets and their phones. When I see someone holding an actual book, I immediately warm to them, even if the book in question is a terrible pulp novel. Especially if the book is a terrible pulp novel.

At home C is sitting on the couch with a close-captioned Futurama re-run in the background, his face blue lit by the rectangular screen of his laptop. He has this guilty expression that I’ve come recognize all too well.

“What have you done?” I ask.

“How can you tell?” He no longer bothers trying to deny it when I’ve caught him up to something.

He’d been doing research online and has changed his mind, again, on where we’re going to move next. This time I’m on board, though he’s sworn me to secrecy regarding our prospective plan. We never seem to stay in one place long enough to really connect to it.

Another city. Another set of ghosts to haunt. Of memories typed into an electronic page to try to make our lives seem somehow better than they are. The past is never out of sight and out of mind, because it’s always Throw Back Thursday, and the older you get, the more dead friends you collect.

C sticks his head inside the door.

“Are you busy?” He asks.

“No.” I say. I’m never too busy for him. He keeps me in the present, always pointing forward.We never dwell on the past, just focus on the future that we want to make together.

So when my friend who died asks to re-friend me, I do not accept the request.