The Road Revisited

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Neo-Geo is a No-Go: Seattle on a Summer Afternoon

Tony's hangover seemed to subside over top-shelf margaritas at a Mexican place on the pier. Margaritas, plural, because he had two, whereas I had only water and the sweet solace of tortilla chips to settle my quaking stomach. "You sure you don't want one?" he asked, licking the straw clean of icy bits.
"Positive." I stuck the bright yellow umbrella in my ponytail and tried to quiet my hands from shaking. "How is it that the hair of the dog can get rid of your hangover, but it's not even the hair of the dog? Weren't you drinking whiskey last night? Bourbon? Now tequila? That's like, the hair of the dog that bit your dog."
"Bit your dog's ass, ha! I like it!" He chewed the ice cubes before pushing the glass back to the bartender.

It was hot. We had walked around the water's edge, in and out of all the market places and tourist traps. "I know the bartender here, let's go in here," Tony would say, and in we'd go to another scrimshaw-and-lifesaver oak-paneled eatery, zip past the hostess and straight to the bar, where Tony would realize he didn't recognize the face shaking the Bloody Marys and off we'd go to the next place. It was like being back in New York again -- especially because Tony was from New York just like I was-- but with Pacific Indian carvings next to every doorway. We finally ended up at Mama's Mexican because Tony had all but exhausted his social parlay in that five-block radius. And the margaritas, he said, were "killer".

On our walk, he had told me about one of the women he was dating, a nurse. "She's so cool, but in a good girl way. She doesn't like my lifestyle."
"How do you mean?"
"She doesn't like when I do stuff."
"Stuff. Stuff?"
"Like, she gets all bent out of shape when I do coke and whatnot. I tell her, 'Hey. I don't do it around you.' Y'know? I mean, I like her a lot. But sometimes I feel like I'm dating my mom."
"Hmmmm. That's too bad." I didn't say much else. For some reason, unbeknownst even to me, coke unsettles me. I don't like the idea of it, I don't want to hang out with people while they do it, and I don't like hanging out with people after they do it. It scares me. Call me square, but it scares me. Maybe I'm the only one, but I don't like it one bit. And I didn't ask Tony how often he did it, because I didn't want to know.

Sitting at the bar, Tony let slip how much money he makes and I nearly choked on an ice cube. "Tell me you're investing it," I asked.
He laughed. "Um.... define 'investing'. I spend money, if that's what you mean. I'm completely broke."
"That's bullshit. I throw my bullshit flag at that."
"No, I'm serious. I'm totally broke."
"Well, let's see.... in the past month, there's been baseball to bet on, then Dave Matthews tickets, horse races to bet on, Neko Case tickets, um, I went down to visit a friend in Oregon -- if you ever go, you should go to Multnomah Falls, it's gorgeous -- and then, what else... y'know -- just the regular hanging out."
I knew he meant buying drugs. I didn't take the conversation any further.
"You like Dave Matthews?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah. I never miss him if he comes here. Y'know, one time, years and years ago, I was working for the Ruby Tuesday corporation down in southern Virginia--"
"I used to work for Ruby Tuesday, too!" I cut in.
"Really? Cool! Well, anyway, I was down in southern Virginia opening a new store. My friend and I went into this little dive bar just to have some beers and shit. So anyway, this guy was waiting on us and we asked him, 'Hey, is there anything going on tonight in this town?' And he said, 'Well, we have live music later tonight if you want to stick around.' So we did. So about an hour later he comes up and says, 'I have to close out your tab or switch it to the next guy.' So we paid him, and he left the bar. The band was getting ready to play. There was a black guy with an electric fiddle, and a bigger black guy warming up the drums. Then the bartender went over and picked up a guitar and started playing. It was Dave Matthews."
"Shut up!"
"No, I'm dead serious."
"That's awesome!"

"So," he said, slurping the tad-bits of his second margarita, "I have to go to work at three. Are you going to come by later?"
"Are we going to hang out later?"
"That sounds cool."
"Did Mike call you back yet?"
"That's pretty shitty."
I had called Mike to see if I could still take him up on his couch offer, but there was no reply, not even hours later. "I told you," Tony said. "Bainbridge, man. They're all flakes."
"Yeah... " My voice trailed off. In my mind the thoughts went reluctantly rapid. "I showered this morning. I guess I could go a couple days without, although I am a little sweaty from the hangover and the sun. Well, how much is it to park at the lot an extra night? I could sneak into the garage by crawling past the nightwatchman's booth on my knees and he'd never know. That staircase isn't too well surveyed. I could pay on the way out and freshen up at the gas station over on Second." This is not only normal, this is frequent for me now.

Tony could see the smoke trailing from my ears. "Stop it," he said. "Just stay with me tonight."
"I don't know."
"No, seriously. I have a roommate but he's harmless. And I have a couch -- two couches, actually. You can have your choice of either. And I have a shower that you're free to use. Seriously. It's no big deal."
Crawling guerilla-style past the nightwatchman would have made a better story, but Tony had said the S-word -- "shower".
"Okay. Thanks."
"Good, now come on. I'll show you where the library is."
On the way, we stopped at Tully's, a Starbucks-esque chain, for ice mochas. "Let me get this," I said.
"Are you sure?"
I winked at him. "Call it rent."

The Seattle Central Public Library on Fourth and Madison is still considered a marvel of modern architecture, but hopefully someday it will be the standard. The building itself maintains its landscaping with recycled rainwater collected in two large subterranean tanks as it runs off the angled glass ceilings. There are specially designated areas for adults, teens, children, and Web users, spread throughout five floors. Heating costs are kept low thanks to passive and active solar technology. It really is a sight, and looks a bit odd parked right there on Madison amid the early-1900's neo-classical structures. But it is quite nice, even if only half of the electrical outlets work. I spent hours there, catching up on writing, until the staff politely kicked me to the curb. It was early yet, only seven o'clock, and Tony wouldn't be getting out of work until nearly midnight, so I walked around downtown Seattle for awhile. I loved the exercise I got tromping up and down all those hills and city blocks; it made me homesick for the Upper East Side.

Eventually I ended up in a courtyard across the street from the mall. I'm not sure of the official name of the courtyard, but I started calling it Shantytown because of all the hobos. Most were young, probably under 21, and were camped somewhat comfortably beneath trees and on the cement platform stage that bordered the street. I don't know if Seattle has more homeless people per capita than some other cities (besides New York) or if the number is average and it's only that the homeless belonging to other cities are in hiding. But not in Seattle, not this day. And they were set up -- dogs, cats, cat kennels, Gameboys, and enough snacks to stock a gas station. One long-haired, shaggy man in black sweatpants and a cammo jacket even had a nice Dell laptop plugged into an outlet on the side of a lamppost. I laughed to myself, and then tried to find a similar lamppost. Unfortunately, he had the only working one in the park, so I worked off my battery power. In between paragraphs, I people-watched. There was a themed bachelorette party wreaking fun and havoc on the park. The theme was "Totally 80's", and each of the girls was garbed in their best Madonna-wannabe outfits. They challenged the hobos to Running Man and Roger Rabbit dance-offs in the middle of the square, and ran through the fountain. I laughed so hard I almost peed, but I didn't crash the party, much as I wanted to. I was sleepy, and conversation was near beyond me, much less the Roger Rabbit.

A gray-haired but fresh-faced woman walked by and asked the time. She was dressed in pink shorts and a blue t-shirt. Her curly hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she carried a variety of bulging duffel and plastic bags.
"7:45," I told her.
"Thanks! And do you know where a payphone is?"
"I sure don't. But you can use my cellphone if you want."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah! After seven is free."
"Oh, thank you so much!" She pulled a scrap of paper from one of her bags and took the phone. "I met a lady who needs a fifth runner for a charity relay race tomorrow but I don't know where to meet her!" She laughed a clear, beautiful laugh.
"Oh! Well, take your time," I said. She spoke so well, with no trace of an ignorant accent or anything. "She must have just come from the gym and went shopping," I thought. "There's no way she's homeless. She's too clean and too smart."

It took her a moment to figure out how to dial and send, then she said, "Hello, Gayle? Hi, this is Linda, the lady from the bathroom. Do you still need another runner tomorrow? Okay, great. Should I meet you at the starting line? Do I need a number? The registration booth? Where will that be? Okay. No, this isn't my number, this is someone's cellphone I borrowed. Yeah. Okay, so tomorrow at eight? Okay, thanks so much! I'll see you then! Take care, Gayle!"
She turned to me and handed me the phone. I was still sitting on the ground, looking up at her. She was healthy and pretty, in a very "granola" kind of way. I liked her.
"Thanks again," she said. "That really helped me out." Then her cheeks grew pink as she lowered her voice and sheepishly said, "The reason for the bags is that I'm homeless."
What could I say? "Oh. Well. Huh. Well, good luck tomorrow!"
"Thanks!" She picked up her array of bags and trotted away, with small steps.

That evening my notebook read, "How did she slip through the cracks?"

Laptop Man came over after seeing me sitting Indian-style surrounded by cords, cameras and various notebooks. "What kind of computer is that?"
"An Averatec."
"A what?"
"It's a lesser-known brand. But it works for me."
"Oh, that's cool. Do you like video games?" He sat down beside me. I could smell the tell-tale scent of stickiness and dirt. He whipped out his Dell from his battered backpack, along with a burnt copy of something called "gamezzz". "This is every original Nintendo game. Do you want me to install it for you?"
"Um, no thanks. I'm good. I have a hard enough time keeping myself on track without Tetris being on my computer. What's your name?"
"I'm Mark." He extended a smile and a hand tipped with black fingernails.
"Nice to meet you!"
"So, are you homeless too?"
"Kind of."
"Where are you staying tonight?"
"At a friend's house."
"Oh, that's nice. Are you going to stay there tomorrow?"
"I don't know yet."
"Oh. Well, 'cause if you need to camp, you'd be better off going to the park up on Washington Square. You'd have to go early to claim the bushes, so you could hide yourself. Because you're a girl."
He meant camp in the sleeping outside sense, not the pitching a tent sense.
"Is it that bad?"
"Well, you're a girl. And you don't want people to mess with you. You're sure you don't want me to install this program? It's really fun!"
Only in Seattle and possibly San Francisco will the homeless share pirated software.
"No, thanks. I don't even have that much battery left. It probably wouldn't even work." Still, I felt surprisingly relaxed around him, even my fingers and toes releasing tension I didn't know was there. It was bleeding out into the pavement, leaving me with a smile on my face -- probably from the silliness of it all.

While Mark fiddled with his own laptop, I looked up from mine to watch a homeless kid -- the same I had asked directions from the day before -- plop down on his knees in a crowd of other drifters. With his long neck and big nose, he reminded me of an ostrich. He began making out with a heavy girl in a dirty Old Navy sweatshirt, and she ran her fingers through his yucky hair. I looked away, not in disgust, but trying to pretend I didn't know what it is like to feel a kiss.

"Do you have a job?" Mark asked, snapping me back to reality.
"Not right now. I write a lot."
"That's cool. I tried to get a job but I haven't been able to yet. First I want to buy some new clothes."
"I bet you could get a good set at the Salvation Army."
"Yeah. But because I don't have a job, I don't have any money to get new clothes to get a job."
"Are the thrift stores around here that expensive?" I asked.
"This is Seattle."
"Oh, yeah."
"You're really sure you don't want this program? It's got Neo-Geo!"
I laughed. "Dude. I am totally serious. I don't need video games. I'm bad enough with Myspace."
"Okay." He seemed so dejected.
It was getting late, and I was hungry. I had two dollars and a wallet full of McDonald's coupons.
"Mark, I gotta go. Thanks for the camping tips. Here," I said, handing him the two dollars. "Add this to the new pants fund."
"Are you sure? Do you have enough money for yourself?"
"I have money, don't worry. Good luck finding work."
"Thanks," he said quietly.

I packed up my things and walked toward Third Avenue, waving goodbye as I went.


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