Homeless in the Emerald City

One of the first things I am noticing about Seattle, besides how cool the light rail is, and how the sidewalks are super wet but not slippery, and how confusing the crosswalks are, and how many hipsters are here, is the number of street people—homeless or otherwise—I am seeing. This seems an unlikely place for folks who sleep in doorways to settle; it’s 44 degrees right now, and that’s the high for today. Besides which, it’s raining. And sometimes, Seattle looks like this:

snowy seattle
(Twitter user ‏@DaveGuss/Downtown Seattle/Feb. 9, 2014)

This is my first visit to the Emerald City (that’s what the pilot on Alaska Air called it, but I don’t know why–it’s more gray than green, honestly, at least so far); I’m here for the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, an annual event that brings writers from all over the place into one giant–as one of my DH kids called it–nerd convention.

Yesterday I found a nice, warm little deli that sells goat cheese and olives, and where I could get a slice of cheese pizza and a glass of wine for under $10. I sat at the counter, looking out to the wet and crowded intersection just near Pike’s Public Market. On this rainy Saturday I found the market a bit crowded and steamy for me, though it was worth the shuffle with the crowd just to smell the flowers and frying fish and hot apple cider. The woman sitting one stool away from me was reading the newspaper. She looked up at me and smiled, and we began an easy conversation about the poetry slam she almost attended the night before, but didn’t, and how she writes a lot of poetry. When I told her I was here for a writing conference she asked if she could scoot over to the stool next to me, and our conversation continued over the best cheese pizza I have ever eaten.

Her name is Francis Emily Waldow, but everyone calls her Emily, after her grSeattle nativeandmother, who was a member of the Cowichan tribe of Vancouver Island. Emily is half Cowichan, and half Italian, which gave us even more to talk about, since I am also half Italian, and I could swear she looks an awful lot like my aunts Toscana and Yolanda.

“I think it’s the Italian part of me that kept me from being a full-blown alcoholic,” she told me.

Emily has lived in Seattle all of her life. She was homeless for over a year, living on the street, before she got to the top of the waiting list for a low-income residence called Plymouth Housing–she has lived in the building we could see from our window for ten years now. She told me she has two hot plates and a cat.

“I can use the oven downstairs, if I need to,” she said. “The other day I made a cake for my friend–he’s a heroin addict and a schizophrenic, and I worry about him sometimes. I wanted to do something nice for him. So I made this cake, and I put it on the windowsill to cool. My cat jumped right on top of it, so I had to cut out the middle part and make it a donut cake,” she smiled at me.

Emily describes Seattle as a very “homeless-friendly” city. She told me that people “find niches” to sleep.

“One of my friends is sleeping in the back of a laundromat right now–some little room they let him use. But the city helps out a lot, too. We have Urban Rest Stops where you can get a shower. And when the weather’s really bad, they open up city hall. And of course there’s all the shelters.”

The Urban Rest Stops–where you can wash your clothes, take a shower or a load off–look pretty amazing, and I counted over 20 shelters in Seattle.

I live in Fresno, California. A search for homeless shelters in my town turned up a list of six, two of which I know do not take walk-ins.

“The police look out for us, too,” Emily told me. “If they find homeless people on the street, they call non-emergency and detox comes and takes them in, where they get taken care of.”

I asked Emily what she likes most about living in Seattle.

“It’s the people,” she said. “A lot of natives, like me, and just this feeling like we all belong together. You shoulda seen it when the Seahawks won. Whole streets were blocked off. People hugging and yelling and laughing–all the open containers but no fighting. Just a lot of celebrating together.”

Emily is passionate about her city, and about poetry. She recited quite a few pieces of her own poems to me, from memory. She gave me permission to share one. You can read it below; I have the signed copy in my journal.

Emily Waldow, if you are reading this, thank you for sharing your heart and your city with me. Come to the bookfair on Saturday. Mingle with some other poets, browse the books, and breathe it all in.

And You Thought  by Francis Emily Waldow.

When I start to think,

I rake in the ink.

My feet never leave the ground.

I move without making a sound.

And now, my thoughts are your thoughts.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, Intimacy, and Legitimate Love

Yesterday morning, my friend Mel–who is living in Croatia–told me Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. It was the first thing she said, once both of our Skype screens were up and I could see her face, pale as the moon, and her enormous blue eyes.

“What? Wait. What did you say?” I thought, or perhaps hoped, I had heard her wrong.

“Oh no,” she curled her brown hair behind her ear. “I, think–I think it’s true.”

When a celebrity–or otherwise famous person–dies, a strange phenomenon occurs: millions of people who never ever met a person experience a legitimate sense of mourning for that person. We feel it, in a very real way. Which is a sort of strange phenomenon.

When Richard Harris died, my husband heard about it before I did, and casually mentioned it while eating his Panda Express on a lunchtime phone call. I was so angry with him for, I don’t know, three hours, I suppose, for just blurting it out like that, with no warning. Richard Harris, who was none other than King Arthur in Camelot (a wonderfully surreal and cheesking  arthury 60’s rendition with Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and the Italian actor Franco Nero as Lancelot), the white guy turned Indian in A Man Called Horse, the rugged survivor in Man in the Wilderness, and in later years, Dumbledore and Marcus Aurelius and the pathetic yet endearing Frank in Wrestling Ernest Hemmingway. I can almost hear myself saying “I love Richard Harris,” and know that I meant it when I said it. But isn’t that a strange thing for me to say? That I love a person I have never met? I get it, as an English speaker I am in the habit of using the “love” word liberally, using it to describe my feelings regarding my daughter or my husband, but also my fondness for banana ice cream. But still. It’s a crazy thing we do.

Today as I am going through my day, studying and having conversations and building a fire and folding laundry and petting my dog, that sad little bruise I felt on my heart, the one for Philip Seymour Hoffman, occasionally feels tender again.

I’m not solely hurting because, as Dana Stevens said in Slate, “He could do anything, and he was just getting started,” though that is certainly part of it. And it isn’t solely because he was young, and he has a wife and three kids. There’s something else, and I’m trying to get a hold of that something else in my brain, to find a way to understand and describe the feeling of loss when an actor is taken from us. What is it about Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Richard Harris, or Heath Ledger that causes us to feel personal loss when they are gone?

Maybe it’s similar to that thing in pornography, where ( typically) the posing woman is looking straight into the camera, giving the viewer the feeling she is looking at him (her)? So because I have watched PSH become Capote before my eyes, get bludgeoned by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and get blindingly high on gasoline in Love Liza I feel a certain closeness to him? He has, perhaps, been vulnerable in front of me (and millions of others, but still) and this evokes a certain feeling of intimacy. For some reason it appears to mean I can legitimately say, “I love Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

Maybe we need a new label for celebrity love, for that false intimacy we feel. I’ll admit I can’t think of an appropriate phrase. I’ll also admit I spent a fair amount of time yesterday pulling up pictures and interviews and film clips of PSH. I think It was a bit of a private memorial service I performed–a day of observance for this gifted man who chose to leave us.

In our Skype conversation, my friend Mel and I spent the first few minutes lamenting his death together. From here to Croatia, on our little screens, we shared some moments of sorrow for a man neither of us have met before we plunged into the detritus of our own lives. And perhaps that’s part of the debt we owe to Philip Seymour Hoffman–in his films, he took us away from our own lives before he took his own. And for that, I suppose I do love him.


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Fear for the World: A Drop in the Bucket


the bucket fresno state

I had one of those moments this week. A moment where I snapped. On a total stranger.

This rarely happens to me. (Notice how I say happens to me? This shifts the blame off of myself and on to some unknown yet inferred entity.) I think I may have verbally snapped on, maybe, three strangers in my whole life. And I’m pretty old, so that’s not bad.  One time I know my verbal assault was aimed at a woman abusing her child in the middle of the grocery store. It was all too much under those fluorescent lights; I couldn’t stop myself.

But this time, I was in The Bucket–a little spot at Fresno State that serves food and beer. It’s right in the middle of campus, and is–surprisingly–a pretty good space to study if you are also hungry, because they have great fries. And sometimes a woman just needs to eat some fries on a cold day after a sleepless night with a night of study and class facing her.

I like the little tables, the near abundance of electrical outlets, and the steady hum of noise that is a cacophony of students talking, food order numbers being called out, and bad piped in pop music; it all blends together to make a sort of–if not white–perhaps a beige noise. I have been studying (and eating fries) there for years.

On this day I had a lovely window seat and a stack of essays to critique. Homework is often about creating an environment that you want to be in, so you’re less likely to bail. I’ve gotten pretty good at this after all these semesters. I’d only been sitting there a few minutes when a young man approached my table. He was a tallish, thinnish Caucasian guy with small plugs in his ears and a flyer in his hand.

“Excuse me, may I bother you a moment?” he asked.

I put my pencil down and looked at him. He was swaying a little and smelled pretty strongly of beer. Before I could answer him he held the flyer in front of me and said something about his fraternity and then asked if I eat Panda Express, because–and this part is a little fuzzy, because to be honest I had sort of stopped listening very carefully at this point, having zero desire to eat at Panda Express. But I know people who love that place so I smiled at him and said, “I’ll give it to someone who will use it. Thanks.”

He thanked me, went back to his table–which was just one table away from mine–and I went back to my essays. A couple of guys joined the guy with the plugs a few minutes later, and the noise level began to increase, which doesn’t bother me because I always have my earphones with me as backup. I was digging through my bag looking for them when my daughter sent me a text saying she’s on break at work, do I have time to talk? I decided I would relocate my studying to the library after my conversation with my daughter–walk a bit, breathe the outside air first.

So I was packing up my laptop and whatnot, not wearing my earphones, when the following conversation went down, very loudly, at a table maybe three feet to my left. The guy with the plugs was talking about some crew he had worked on over the summer. One of the guys asked if there were any women on the crew.


“Hell yeah, we had ’em. And I mean that. {laughs} We really had em.”

{all the guys laugh}

“But yeah I mean the girls never made it longer than, like, three months. That was long enough to fuck ’em, though.”

{only the guy with the plugs laughs}

“We loved it when they were there, though. {laughs} Because they have pussies and titties. {laughs really loud} But that’s all they were good for.”

A lot of things in life are all about timing. At this particular moment I had just thrown my messenger bag over my coat, with all my books and notebooks tucked away; nothing was left on the desk but the flyer inviting me to support this guy’s fraternity. I picked it up, too hard, and walked over to the table where the guy with the plugs was sitting, leaned back in his chair, just those two back legs supporting all of his weight. I flashed on the sight of him falling straight backwards after I knocked those legs out from under his misogynistic ass. But I don’t really do that sort of thing. I never have. Too cowardly, I guess. I really don’t want to get hurt, so the fear of physical retaliation likely plays into it. I’m a small woman and I don’t know how to fight at all. I did kick some major ass in Indian Leg Wrestling once, but I think that was just about hip momentum, which I think is not all that helpful in street fighting.Or bar fighting, which technically applies here. Anyway, I’d probably feel so crappy later about doing it that it wouldn’t be worth that one glorious moment when the tile floor shut his mouth up but good.

What I did instead was slap his flyer down on the table in front of him and say, “Hey. Next time you want to raise money for your fraternity, you might wanna think about how you are talking about women.”

I know. It’s weak. But the element of surprise worked in my favor. All of the guys sort of froze and just looked at me. The guy with the plugs held his arms out wide, which almost caused his chair to tip back and my dream to come true all on its own. He was pretty drunk.

“Awwww maaaaan,” he bellowed out as his chair slammed down. “What the fuck?”

I was walking towards the door by this time. People were looking over at the guys, and at me. The guy with the plugs yelled out, “Yeah? So what I’m talking about women? What about it, huh? What about it?”


I didn’t say any of that, though. I just stood there for a moment and then turned and walked out. All of a sudden I saw myself standing in The Bucket confronting this young guy, a kid really, and I looked a little silly, honestly.I just wanted the moment to be over.

When I pulled out my phone to return my daughter’s call, my hands were shaking.  I sat in the sun and told her what had just happened. “Good for you, Mama,” she said.

But it wasn’t good for me. Because I don’t like the way that encounter made me feel. Lashing out isn’t nearly as fun as it ought to be, in my opinion. And sometimes I think I would just enjoy walloping someone, and I wonder what that says about me.

The library turned out to be a much better place to study that day. I found a quiet room with no one around and lost myself in reading–in ideas and words and thoughts. That night after class, when the campus was cold and nearly empty, with a mist settling around the lights of the library, I passed by The Bucket. I felt the anger start to rise up in me again as I remembered the guy’s words, and my brain went into hyperdrive as I imagined him raising a daughter someday or doing whatever he’s here attending college to learn how to do out there in the world and I realized my anger just comes from fear: fear for the world, and all of us who are in it together.

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I met Sam in the City

SF starbucks

I met him in front of the Starbucks in San Francisco where my daughter works—the busiest one in the city, where tourists and sight seers wielding shopping bags and cameras and cell phones make up a snaking line that never goes away.

He was a small man, not much bigger than me. His wispy, fair hair brushed the sides of his cheeks when he looked down; he tended to look down a lot, at the dirty sidewalk in front of him, so his hair fell like feathers around his jaw. He told me his name is Sam.

“I’m almost fifty and I’m standing on a corner with a cup,” he told me. “I’m so embarrassed.”

Repeatedly he apologized to me: “I’m sorry I’m so messed up,” Sam said to me five or six times during the half hour we spoke.

It was hard for me to know what to say to him. “Life is really really hard sometimes,” is about all I could come up with.

“Yeah but, the reason—it’s my own fault,” he said. “I did a lot of stupid stuff. I had a job and a wife and kids. And now I don’t.”

Sam told me that two wives have left him, and his daughters—17 and 22—don’t speak to him at all. “I can’t blame them,” he said. “But it still hurts.”

“I guess everybody has stuff they wish they could change about their past,” I said.

Sam looked up and right into my eyes; his were light blue, very round, with little folds of dark flesh around them. “People make it, though. They do.”

He looked across the street where a woman was yelling at another woman, and then he looked back at me.

“I’m gonna make it,” he said, after a long pause.

When I saw Sam again this morning, in front of the same Starbucks, I almost didn’t recognize him. His face was bashed in: one cheek was sunken; one of his eyelids was drooped and red. He had blood all around his lips.

The barista called my name; I turned around to retrieve my latté, and by the time I turned back again, Sam was gone.

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I spent an evening with

an Irish-American pair of siblings

he in his forties and she a decade older.

Two of nine siblings

they had a language of gestures:

eyebrow positioning and chin tucking

and a leaning of their heads

toward one another.


He I’ve known for a decade

and never met his family about which I’d enjoyed

old stories told on late, drunken nights

without his eyes ever meeting the listener’s.


And now here was his big sister

whose fleshy white arms extended wide and

when she said “Oh I’m just so happy” and “I am so blessed”

I knew she meant for

this evening by the creek in her brother’s cabin

but also for her life,

even its sorrows–of which I knew she’d had many,

and I also knew when she raised her glass

and said those grateful words

she meant them.


And he, her brother, our old neighbor, our good old neighbor

who most often would shift restlessly on his feet

and busy himself burning high dusty piles of pine needles

had a glint in one eye I’d never seen

and a loose arm flopped over his sister’s broad, soft, shoulders.


I fell asleep remembering the way

her cheeks lifted

and her eyebrows shot up

when I showed her the berry pie I had baked,

the way she’d clapped her

pale, plump hands together.

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Sometimes Just the Freedom

Sometimes just the freedom

of eating alone

in a restaurant

and having a drink

without the cumbersome duty

of looking pretty

or being charming

is like flying

or what I’ve always imagined

flying would be.

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“Why are there so many dead fish?”

I asked the first person I saw–a short woman with shorn, gray-speckled hair, walking on stiff legs along the water’s edge. I’d never been to Florida, never seen a beach piled with shells of all sizes on the flat matted sand. I’d also never seen so many dead fish, bloated and bug-eyed, stretched out on the sand as if they’d plopped down for a nap.

“I don’t know,” she said to the water. She turned to me, “I don’t have any idea. I’m just glad to be out of there. That’s all I really know.”

“Out of where?”

“New Jersey,” she said. “Or what’s left of it.”

We stood on the shells that crunched under our feet every time one of us shifted. She placed her hand on my arm. “My son is still there. He’s a first responder. My friend’s house is filled with water. Our beaches. All gone.”


“So terrible,” she said. “I had this trip planned. I couldn’t wait to get out.”

Her raspy voice faltered and her grip on my arm tightened a little. “Should I have stayed?”

Life will sometimes bring you a moment in which–though you wish to your core you knew what to say–you don’t.

Suddenly the woman pointed out to the water. “A dolphin,” she said. “No–two!”

We stood side by side watching a mama dolphin and her baby play in the surf. The woman looked at me with red and watery eyes.

“Sometimes life gives you a gift,” I said.

“Sometimes it does,” she finally said.

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