Jeff and I are in the midst of a trip to the northwest. We started with a short visit with my youngest brother Hugh and his wife Theresa in the farmland area of Richland, WA.
The next day we spent almost the whole day driving,/ferrying to Olympic National Park. Breathtaking scenery, FUN hikes and interesting flora, (we didn’t see much fauna, (ducks, deer, and a cougar track ). Then on to Seattle where we tried out our very first Air BnB. I’m not sure what the concept implies, but the second ‘B’doesn’t stand for ‘breakfast.’
We found a place in Capitol Hill, not knowing that the area is known for it’s “colorfulness”. I’ve never seen so many same gender couples in my life! Even more distinct is the hoard of beggars. Every block has several actively begging and more sleeping on the streets and parks. Camping tents are in the medians, on the shoulders and in parks.
We rode the monorail from downtown to the Space needle, (More later, I’m going to write about the Space Needle and the Chihuly exhibit in Americana columns) and after those tours, went into the armory to get something to eat.
Food is typically expensive and after our ‘meal’ we both wanted a little more. We were scouting around the food court area. My mind was on ice cream and I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. I stumbled against a chair that had someone sitting in it and I mumbled, “excuse me,” as I moved away.
But that stumble set off the fellow’s table mate. He jumped up and started yelling at me for disrespecting them and the man in the seat (who I jostled but didn’t even touch). Soon his language turned vile and he followed us toward the exit. He insisted that I had no respect for other people because they were poor. “You think you’re so much better than us, just because you’re rich and we’re poor!” he yelled. “You MUST respect me, you !@#$%^&*()_+!!!! I’m an AMERICAN!” (Does that seem like a non-sequitur to you?)
I was utterly baffled how to respond to this man. His behavior told me that he was mentally ill. It struck me as so extremely strange to be accused of disrespecting him because he was poor, when my true sin was that I hadn’t noticed him at all before he started cussing me out. I had been thinking about ice cream when apparently this man needed me to acknowledge him (in a louder voice than my mumbled, “excuse me.”)
At last I said quietly, “That’s not true,” and walked away.
He continued his tirade as we headed out. I found myself considering what was truly the best way of handling such a situation. I decided that walking away was probably best after all.
The next day, we packed a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, apples and trail mix. I made some extra sandwiches to share if asked.
Within 10 minutes of walking toward the downtown and Pike Market, a man accosted us. “Will you give me some money so I can get something to eat?”
“I don’t have any money,”(which is true, I don’t carry cash) ” but I can give you a sandwich.”
The man scowled. “I don’t want a sandwich. I want money.”
We walked on. We passed a park that had at least a dozen men sleeping around the perimeter. A man and woman were wrestling and the woman was getting the best of the fellow. A few cross-dressers simpered past us.
Another beggar was just setting up. As we (RICH FOLKS) approached, (not so fresh after camping) He started rocking violently back and forth, eyeing us and positioning his sign so we could read it. As we passed by without speaking, the rocking stopped and he mumbled something ugly.
As we progressed down the street, beggars continued to ask for money. Many had a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
One man held up a sign advertising himself as an ugly prostitute.
Female beggars use a universal, distinct voice. It’s high, quavery and weak. But if you hear them address a friend, they speak normally.
I began to realize that begging has become theater. The best actor wins.
Late in the day, we gave a little change from our supper to this street performer.
It’s tricky to know what to do. I’m unwilling to buy a junky drugs. Begging has become a scam business that replaces honest employment. I’m supposed to feel guilty for not assisting them in their dereliction.
As I sat in church in a Seattle ward today, I thought about the dilemma. We had ended up carrying both sandwiches home to our lodging. Once beautiful Puerto Rico has been destroyed. Huge earthquakes in Mexico are causing grief and loss on grand scale. The more I thought about the world today and how to do the most good I can, I realized that there are many far more needy and more innocent people within reach of my pocketbook.
Seattle itself needs to figure out a way to help these people get off the streets. A little tough love might go a long way.
The term ‘skid row’ or skid road actually started in Seattle, referring to the skids that slid logs to the water/wharves. The sailors/longshoremen/gold prospectors that frequented the docks also attracted pickpockets, drunks, thieves and prostitutes to the neighborhood.
We passed dozens of help-wanted ads posted in business windows. Apparently there’s a shortage of cooks, janitors, cashiers, etc in Seattle.
As for Skid Row beggars, I hope that by NOT giving them money for NOT working, they’ll move on to finding something productive that will give them what they need as well as self respect and respectability. But I’m also going to make it a policy to carry an extra sandwich when we’re tourists, just in case I meet someone who genuinely needs food.