A love letter to my city

What does it mean to love a place?

In 1936, my paternal grandparents moved to Seattle. They were young and Black, fleeing the poverty and various forms of terror in their home state of Kansas. They would experience both (poverty and terror, that is) in their new home, but they did not know that then.

My Grandpa Marcellus arrived first, riding the rails west and then, eventually, north. He worked as a day laborer until he earned enough money to send my Grandma Bernice a ticket. She left behind her six beloved sisters—whose names I heard almost daily growing up—and everything she knew to travel to what might as well have been the end of the world.

Marcellus and Bernice married in Seattle. My dad, their second child, was born at Harborview in 1939. He knew a Seattle before the Space Needle, before I-5, before so many of the corporate behemoths that have come to define it.

I have always been simultaneously proud of my family’s deep roots in this place and ashamed of their participation in the colonial project that made it what it is. I understand that my grandparents were also victims of white supremacist settler colonialism, doing what they could to survive. They did not have the capacity to consider the impact of their presence on the original people of this land. I grieve for the Duwamish people and for my grandparents, whose own ancestral trauma required them to make their way in someone else’s homeland.

I hate what Seattle represents: genocide, Native erasure, Earth as “property” to be bought, sold, and exploited for profit. I recoil at the stories of razed hills and inconveniently meandering rivers filled with dirt to suit commercial aims. And yet, I am grateful that my family came here, and that they had some part in building the city that is my home.

What does it mean to love a place?

Like my father, I was born here. I have lived away—two years in Morocco as a child and eight years in Houston as an adult—but I have spent 38 of my 48 years within 15 miles of my first neighborhood. My family didn’t give me much in the way of culture or community or tradition or even a sense of self. But damnit, they gave me this place.

Alki Beach and Puget Sound. The Olympics. The 54 and the ferry. The 2. The Monorail. Air that smells of saltwater. Slugs and mist and mildew. Tahoma, mother of waters. Sword ferns and Oregon grapes. Supersonics. 1250 K-Fox. Chubby and Tubby. The Monroe Fair. Madrona Park. The Market. Gloomy Junes. Dark Decembers. Husky Deli. Cottage Lake. Roger’s Thriftway. The Fun Forest. The Facts building. Tahoma, Tahoma, Tahoma, the mountain that comes out.

What does it mean to love a place?

In the summer of 1990, right before I moved away for college, the Goodwill Games came to Seattle. For the first time in my memory, there was heavy traffic at all times of day instead of just during “rush hour.” Back then, I thought all those extra cars were temporary. They never left.

When I returned to Seattle eight years later, everything was different—not in a “change is constant, don’t get set in your ways” kind of way, but in a pollution and traffic, gentrification and displacement kind of way. Every day, as I drove to work, I felt uneasy. I felt like I was contributing to something brutal, to a mindless, self-centered death making. That was when I decided to stop driving.

What does it mean to love a place?

I never love Seattle as much as when I am on the ground, walking to, riding on, or waiting for the bus. When I ride, I am part of the living, breathing organism that is my city. I am invisible, unnecessary, and irrelevant. But somehow, at the same time, I belong.

What does it mean to love a place?

In November of 2015, our little family volunteered to plant trees in a wooded area near the kids’ school. I didn’t expect to enjoy it. (I suffer from Raynaud’s and am generally cold-natured, so I rarely schedule compulsory outdoor time on November weekends.) But I was hoping to connect my children to their community. I wanted them to put their hands in the dirt—to plant something that they could watch grow over the years.

Though I wouldn’t say I had a good time, I found moments of joy on that day. And my children had a blast. They named every single tree they planted. They remembered their locations and checked on them at least once a week. During the dry summer months, they hauled buckets of water from the faucet at the front of their school a full quarter of mile into the woods to keep the baby trees alive.

Years—and many trees—later, they still know all the names of those first babies, and they still check on them regularly. If my children are granted the gift of old age, and if the trees (and our species) manage to survive that long, I hope they will bring their grandchildren to admire them.

What does it mean to love a place?

We’re told that Seattleites love nature. After all, they’re always outside, hiking and boating and skiing and climbing and camping. What I see is a professed love that manifests as a need to consume, commodify, and conquer, not as reverence or gratitude or stewardship. “Nature” as entertainment, adrenaline, escape, instead of the source of our very lives.

What if loving this part of Earth meant that, instead of asking what it could do for us, we asked what we owed back? What if it meant accountability and not unfettered access?

What does it mean to love a place?

For at least 15 summers, I have felt uneasy. I don’t need scientists to tell me the climate is changing; I can see it with my eyes and feel it in my bones. Summers are hotter and longer. Mountains are barer. Madrone trees are stressed. Salamanders and slugs are a rare—instead of regular—sighting.

Other people celebrate the warmer summers, as if weather is some sort of ambiance that exists to please humans. But I feel every degree like a diagnosis. Seattle is dying, and not because privileged people can no longer make it through the day without being reminded of suffering. Seattle is dying because we have finally asked too much of the land that supports us.

The smoke that at this very moment surrounds us is our invitation to see clearly. What are we going to do about it?

Chicklet and Busling at Lincoln Park
Fourth-generation Seattleites, loving on Lincoln Park (August, 2019)
Chicklet and Busling at Lincoln Park
Chicklet and Busling at Lincoln Park

My people are free

I’ve been thinking a lot about Harriet Tubman. I’ve been thinking about how, in the midst of slavery, she declared, “My people are free.”*

Harriet Tubman wasn’t just courageous. She wasn’t just brilliant, and skilled, and purposeful, and determined, and compassionate.

Harriet Tubman was a visionary.

She could see beyond the circumstances she was born into, to a more beautiful, expansive future. She could imagine a world where Black people were no longer enslaved. But also: Harriet Tubman knew that her people were free even when they were enslaved.

It is this kind of freedom, the kind that can’t be granted, that I want to live into in this moment. This freedom lives in my heart and my imagination, no matter what is happening to my body, no matter what is in front of my eyes.

In Harriet’s vision, I am not separated from those ancestors who still make their home on the African continent. I am in contact with people living seven generations in the future, watching them enjoy the shade of a tree my children planted.

In Harriet’s vision Tamir Rice is alive. It is the day of his birth, and his mother is cradling him in her arms.

In Harriet’s vision, Breonna Taylor has started her new job, and she’s loving it. She is a healer, mending folks’ bodies with her skills and their spirits with her smile.

In Harriet’s vision, George Floyd is napping peacefully on his sofa on this lazy Saturday afternoon. The living room window is open, letting in a warm breeze. He is surrounded by all of his ancestors and all of his descendants. They are breathing with him, for him, though him.

My people are free. My people are free. My people are free.

***

*Thank you, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, for sharing this beautiful truth.

Police murdering Black folks is apparently not canceled, either

Yesterday, on Memorial Day, George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department. I won’t share the details because I can’t bear them. I am so sick with grief and horror and fear and rage that I can barely type this.

I don’t have anything profound to say. I don’t know what the hell to do. I can’t even bring myself to call for “justice,” because what the fuck does justice look like in a culture that does not recognize Black humanity?

I am here to bear witness. To remember that a human life was stolen. A living, breathing man was brutally murdered by a publicly funded gang—people whose salaries he helped to pay.

A man who got dressed in the morning expecting to get undressed in the evening. A man who loved and was loved. A man who was birthed and nursed and bathed and scolded and cheered for and held close. A man with gifts and talents and people who depended on him. A light in someone’s world.

Rest in power, George Floyd. I will not forget your name.

Image description: Three lighted candles on windowsill. In front of each candle is a handwritten name: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor.

Cancer is not canceled

This morning I looked at my “calendar” for June. (So much for the Storm season.) Pretty much the only thing on there that’s actually going to happen is the mammogram I scheduled back in February.

I schedule mammograms months in advance because the imaging center has limited appointments with same-day results. I watched my mom die of breast cancer in 2007, so, I have a teensy bit of anxiety about mammograms.

I’m also still recovering from that time a few years ago when a front desk person from the imaging place called two days after my mammogram—on a Friday—to schedule me for “additional images,” with no explanation about why those images were needed. I spent that entire weekend in hell.

I digress.

The point is, in the midst of this complete upending of “normal” life, in the midst of this horror that is consuming all of our attention, people are still getting diagnosed with cancer—and experiencing other disasters unrelated to coronavirus.

My friend C is is middle school teacher. One of her students—a 7th grade girl—was reported missing over the weekend. One of my other close girlfriends is separating from her partner.

People are still experiencing abuse. People are still (actually, more than ever) losing their jobs. People are still dying in car crashes and of illnesses other than COVID-19.

But recitals, and weddings, and graduations, and birthday parties, and religious services—those are canceled. No bus adventures. No dance rehearsals. No visits to Husky Deli or Colman Pool. No Sunday dinners. No sleepovers. No formal dances or music shows. No girls’ nights. No potlucks with the neighbors.

All of the gatherings that help us celebrate our milestones and accomplishments and relationships and connections (in other words, LIFE) are canceled completely or “virtual.” It feels like we are suspended in time, like we are not really living.

But there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re really dying.

What I’ve learned from my transgender child

My second child, known as “Baby” Busling on this blog, is nonbinary.*

They’ve been telling us in different ways throughout their 10 years on this planet, but they told me directly—or as directly as they had language for—at age seven. The words they used were “gender neutral,” and they explained those words to mean that they didn’t feel like a boy or a girl, or maybe they felt like both a boy and a girl, or maybe, they felt like something beyond all of it, something that English does not have a word for.

When they first told me, I said all the correct, affirming things that parents are supposed to say in these situations.

But inside, I was devastated. I didn’t want a ticket for this particular ride. Even as I searched for children’s books about gender and met with teachers to discuss my child’s identity, I secretly hoped this was a “phase” they would soon outgrow.

For one thing, I simply didn’t understand.** We had raised our children to question gender expectations and norms. We had told them that their gender did not limit who they could be in this world. I wondered: If my child can be a boy and still dress and act and be however they please, why do they need a different label for it? And if they grew up understanding that boys come in all different packages, how do they know—in their bones—that they aren’t a boy?

But much stronger than the confusion, which I could live with, was the fear. I was devastated, not because I believed that there was something wrong with my child, but because I knew there was a lot wrong with the world they lived in.

Raising a Black child in this sick, violent, white supremacist culture is terrifying. I have struggled with that truth since my daughter was born in 2007. But at least a Black child can find some refuge, encouragement, and safety in the Black community. Where can a Black transgender child find refuge, encouragement, and safety?

Every time I looked to my sweet Busling’s future, all I saw was rejection and violence. In those first months (really, years), I was ruled by fear. And if I’m honest, it wasn’t just for my kid; I knew that the rejection would extend to me. My parenting would be questioned. I would be forced to reckon with bigotry in what had previously felt like circles of safety.

In other words, I could no longer simply profess solidarity with transgender people. I could no longer limit my support to sharing my pronouns or participating in the occasional march. I would have to live in the world from the other side of the divide, to actually experience the contempt, the erasure, and yes, the danger.

But fear is one thing. And love—love—is another.

I can’t make the world safe for my child. Full stop. But I can make my heart and my home safe for them. I can walk beside them with pride. I can stare down bigotry whenever (and in whomever) it arises and insist that everyone in my child’s life honor their full humanity.

I don’t understand what gender is. But the one thing I know for sure is that my child is beautiful.

They have always seen the world from a particular vantage point. For as long as they’ve been able to talk, they’ve astounded me with their astute, insightful observations. I’m constantly asking myself how it is that it took me over 40 years to unlearn nonsense that this oracle of a human sees through right away.

Busling is a gifted visual artist, writer, and dancer. They enjoy origami, welding, basketball, baking, and nurturing almost anything living. They hate bathing and practically live in torn, stained t-shirts and jeans, but they also love dressing up in fancy, sparkly outfits and gathering dropped camellia flowers to pin in their hair.

They will play any game (outside or in), with anyone, anytime. If I walk by someone on the street in need of help and neglect to stop, they always remind me. “Mom, didn’t you see? That person needs a few dollars for food.”

If this is what it means for my perfectly made, second-born child to be who they are, why would I want them to change? Why would I want them to “fit in”? I can’t take the particular beauty of this particular human and leave their gender. It’s one package.

Watching the person I had the honor to bring into this world understand, name, and embrace who they are has shown me who I am. And I don’t like what I see in that mirror.

I am a rule follower, someone who regularly chooses acceptance and approval over truth and freedom. I have spent my life tiptoeing and contorting, hoping to be liked, to be picked, to be “good.” As a child, I was such a pleaser that I rarely even knew what I wanted; I just automatically did what was expected of me. Because I didn’t know how to be true to myself, pain and confusion leaked out in other ways. It’s been a long road back to me, and to be honest, I’m still on it.

Thank god for beautiful Busling, my teacher. I watch the way they look inside for guidance, the way they walk in the world with courage, and I am convicted.

I am honored to walk beside them on this journey.

I want to be brave like you
Image description: A piece of purple construction paper with the words, “I want to be brave like you” written in a child’s handwriting

***

*If you don’t know what this means, the Gender Reveal podcast has a really great Gender 101 episode.

**I’ll admit that I still don’t—at least not fully. But my child’s identity is not for me to understand. It’s for me to support and accept.

Breakfast with the ancestors

Even before COVID-19, I didn’t fly much. Like my decision not to drive, it started as an attempt to limit the resources I—only one human out of billions—consume. But it soon became a way of life that suited me: staying grounded, finding adventure and newness and discovery close to home. We take the family to Detroit once a year to visit my in-laws, and occasionally, my spouse travels for work. But mostly, we stay put or find alternatives to flying.

The biggest thing I miss about traveling is, interestingly, the same thing I miss about driving: visiting people I love. So many girlfriends I live far from have asked and asked (and asked) to schedule a girls’ trip, and I always find a reason to put it off.

But in late January, my friend of many years, C, lost her mother, and staying put was not an option. C requested that, in lieu of traveling to New Jersey for the funeral, our friend T and I visit her in the DMV after it was over, during the quiet, lonely time after the chaos.

T and I made the trip in the last days of February. It was a perfect visit, spent mostly catching up: hours of sharing, laughing, crying, eating, drinking, and (bonus!) riding the Metro.

Because I had never been, we visited THE museum, and it was every bit as profound and beautiful as I had imagined. I felt all the feelings. We stayed all day.

A place–and a day–I will never forget
Image description: Exterior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Right before the museum closed, I happened upon a small book in the gift shop: Rosa Parks in Her Own Words. If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you know that Rosa Louise McCauley Parks is one of my sheroes—certainly because of her involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is one of the most remarkable stories of organizing and solidarity and commitment and resilience in the history of humanity. But also because of the incomparable courage and dedication to justice that she demonstrated throughout her lifetime of activism.

Rosa Parks is my chosen ancestor. My firstborn carries her name. She is a guiding light.

So of course I bought the book, which was published early this year and includes letters and personal notes and other papers that were only recently made publicly available.

In the evenings, after C, T, and I had talked ourselves out, I would lie on my hotel bed and flip through the pages, staring at the photographs of her handwritten notes, feeling equal parts voyeur (Should her private papers really be available to strangers?) and loyal daughter learning sacred traditions.

A beautiful surprise
Image description: Book cover of Rosa Parks in Her Own Words

In the middle of our trip, T received a text from a friend back home. There’d been a death from COVID-19 near Seattle.

Before that text, coronavirus was in our consciousness but not top of mind. We’d heard about the fast spread in China and about the first known U.S. case being identified in our state. Weeks before we left on our trip, elected officials and public health experts had begun encouraging us to wash our hands thoroughly and frequently. News of the death was alarming, but coronavirus didn’t feel like a direct threat.

I made it home on the evening of March 1, full from my girl time, ready to rejoin my family and return to my routines: library trips, neighbor visits, walks to dance class, and of course, bus rides.

Instead, I returned to an escalating emergency.

Performances canceled.

Fundraisers canceled.

A memorial service (for someone very special to me) canceled.

When school was canceled, I knew we had crossed into unknown territory.

On the first morning of everyone home, I woke up early. I felt a need to serve my family, to do something grounding and comforting that would bring us together at the beginning of a scary and uncertain time.

I opened that little book I had bought in DC a few weeks (and an entire lifetime) earlier and turned to the page with the photograph of Ancestor Rosa’s famous (in her family) “featherlite” pancake recipe, written in her own lovely handwriting on the back of an envelope.

Rosa Parks’ handwriting looks exactly like my grandma;s
Image description: A photo of Rosa Parks’ recipe for “featherlite pancakes”

As I read my shero’s notes and gathered the ingredients, I felt a deep connection to her. She was with me as I measured and mixed, as I heated the skillet just so.

Image description: A pancake cooking in a skillet

Rosa Parks’ life was so unjust and difficult. As a young girl, when the Klan terrorized her town, she had to stay awake all night, the windows of her grandparents’ home boarded up and her grandfather sitting in the rocker with a gun across his lap, prepared to do whatever was necessary to protect his family. As a young woman, she spent her non-working hours investigating sexual assaults against Black women for the NAACP.

During the boycott, she endured near-constant death threats and lost her livelihood. (She and her husband dealt with financial insecurity for many years after the boycott ended, even after they moved to Detroit.)  She suffered stress-related health problems, including painful, persistent ulcers. Despite being introverted and extremely private, she spoke at large events across the country and submitted to countless interviews.

And yet, on some mornings, in the midst of the trauma and uncertainty and physical suffering, she rose early and mixed batter, stood patiently at the stove until it began to bubble, served stacks of fluffy featherlites to loved ones—with butter and syrup, or powdered sugar and jam—perhaps with a side of bacon or grits or scrambled eggs.

I was comforted by this thought then, and I am again now, as I set my alarm to wake early tomorrow morning and cook Sister Rosa’s famous featherlites for my family.

Breakfast, courtesy of my chosen ancestor
Image description: a tall stack of pancakes on a plate

“Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds, will continue in others.” – Rosa Parks

Missing the bus

Back in the Before Times (aka, two months ago), when I actually went places, I would sometimes rent a Zipcar for the day, usually to visit family and friends who live outside of reasonable busing distance. Of course, when it comes to buses, I’m not above pushing past what is reasonable, but other obligations and service limitations do occasionally constrain my ability to spend an entire day traveling 23 miles.

I digress.

On those Zipcar days, every time I found myself driving near a bus or rolling past a full bus stop, I would feel a pang, even a bit of FOMO. Seeing a bus when I’m not riding hurts my bus chick heart.

This is how I feel every day now when I go outside—usually to walk in circles around my neighborhood—and I see 3s and 4s and 8s and 27s and 48s rolling by, often completely empty. Except these days, it’s not a just a brief pang. It’s an ache, a cracking open, an interior crumbling.

It’s grief.

As a naturally anxious person who has lived through many of Metro’s ups and downs, I have rehearsed a fair number of transit disaster scenarios in my head. But never, not even in my worst anxiety spirals, did I imagine the current reality: that the bus would become a vector of a global pandemic, that anyone with the option to stay home would be asked not to ride, that loving your community would mean not riding the bus.

How can I explain what the bus means to me? I have been writing this blog for 14 years and still have not managed to put it into words.

The bus is my stability, my comfort, my assurance that the world is as it should be. It is my opportunity to be with other people I would otherwise never have the chance to meet.

On the bus, I am invisible but also seen, alone but in community, moving but sitting still.

I can participate in conversations or (my specialty) observe from the periphery, absorbing, empathizing, integrating all of it. Or I can tune it all out and look out the window to watch the world.

When I am on the bus, I know that I belong. To my city. To humanity. To the ancestors.

I know that this is bigger than my personal loss. Drivers are risking their lives to transport people who must travel. Major service cuts are limiting those people’s access to food and jobs and medical care. The economic crash caused by this disaster will make it near impossible for Metro to restore service when it’s finally safe to ride again.

But the thing about the bus is that it is both personal and collective. My loss is the community’s, and the community’s loss is mine.

And right now, it feels like a cyclone has hit, and we’ll never get back home.

We are all bodies with needs

A few days ago, I started my period. This was insignificant in the big picture of my life—I’m 48 (!) and have been getting my period (roughly) every 28 days for 34 years—but significant to the coming week: my periods tend to be long and heavy and accompanied by debilitating migraines.

My period is one way that I mark time (as in, “Damnit, again?!”), so when my monthly visitor returned (uninvited) in the midst of a global crisis, it somehow felt unfair. At a time when almost everything else has been canceled,* periods persist?!

Yesterday morning (day three), I listened to a podcast while preparing (read: popping migraine meds and fortifying my menstrual cup with period underwear) to teach my class. The episode topic was disability justice, and the entire discussion was instructive. But as the conversation was wrapping up, one of the guests said something that grabbed my attention. For context, this was her full comment.

“And one of the things that it makes me think about … is the reality that we’re all in bodies. You know, it’s not like we’re just abstract thinkers that are somehow leaving our existences outside the door. All of us are always in our bodies, engaging with each other. And all bodies are valuable, and all bodies have needs and strengths and desires. And oftentimes, it’s expected that our needs get kind of left at the door somehow, which is impossible. And all of us have a variety of needs.”

Patty Berne on Irresistible podcast, “Organizing in a Pandemic: Disability Justice Wisdom

What I heard was this: We are all (all of us, not just those society defines as disabled) bodies with needs. We cannot separate ourselves from our bodies’ needs.

Soon after absorbing this wisdom, I logged in to Zoom and managed my 90 minute class—including the logistics of connecting a guest speaker—while bleeding heavily and fighting a headache.

This was hardly remarkable. Some variation of that scenario has been my reality (and, likely, the reality of untold numbers of people who menstruate) through hundreds of periods. But for the first time, I saw it differently. I realized that I was ignoring my body and its pressing needs in order to get stuff done.

Throughout my life, I have ignored (or hidden) my body’s needs again and again. Some examples:

  • Struggling through school and work in an achy, sleep-deprived fog in the early years of my period, when excruciating cramps kept me awake all night
  • Ruining numerous pairs of pants when I taught high school, because–period or not–I couldn’t find time to use the bathroom between classes
  • Commuting 15 miles (two buses plus lots of walking) to work and working full days during my first pregnancy, despite being exhausted and nauseous every moment of every day
  • Busing to Mercer Island on weekday evenings for Regional Transit Task Force meetings when my youngest was still a newborn, struggling to participate in the three-hour discussions while my breasts filled with milk and my arms ached for my baby
  • Lying under my desk in the shared workspace at the nonprofit I worked for, hoping my migraine would subside before my next appointment (usually a donor I was supposed to ask for money) arrived

I realize now that I have always carried shame about my body’s inconvenient needs, especially when those needs were related to menstruation or reproduction. It never occurred to me that I was actually pretty freaking amazing to manage work and life despite significant physical discomfort and logistical challenges. It certainly never occurred to me that it was OK to miss school or work for my period, or to cancel a meeting because of morning sickness or a migraine.

When my youngest was a week old, my spouse returned to work. I was fortunate to be able to stay home with the baby while I continued with regular life: writing my column, caring for our two-year old, and managing the household.

One day, when I was out and about with my newborn strapped to my chest and my toddler in a stroller, I ran into an elder friend who had raised her children in her home country of Eritrea. My friend told me that in her culture, when a woman has a baby, mother and baby “go to bed,” as she put it, for some months.** The mother’s extended community handles everything, and her only jobs are to rest and feed and nurture her new baby.

I remember aching with longing as she described this way of being, wishing for all the world that I could take my exhausted, sleep-deprived self “to bed” with my baby.

There are so many reasons this wouldn’t happen in the U.S. (one being that few of us have an extended community that would—or could—support us in that way), but one of the most important is capitalism. Our culture doesn’t value wellness, or bonding, or rest, because those things aren’t profitable. And because we live in a patriarchal society, we don’t value work that is traditionally performed by women.

I wish I could nurture my previous selves, tell them it’s OK to rest, that there’s nothing shameful about having a body with needs, that you don’t have to push, to deny, to “keep up” with everyone who seems to be managing it all better than you.***

Since I can’t do that, I will do my best to nurture my current self and to change the culture I’m a part of. I will rest when I am tired or sick. I will honor the rhythms of my body. I will remind myself and my children that there is nothing shameful about needing care, or medication, or accommodation, or extra time. And there is nothing abnormal or embarrassing about having a body that bleeds every month.

I will focus on others’ humanity instead of their output. I will encourage students and colleagues and community partners to listen to their bodies instead of sacrificing them to the religion of “productivity.” I will stand in the gap when I am able, trusting that others will do the same for me when I am not.

May all of us embody the care, peace, and rest that this moment demands.

Ase.

“Our bodies are a site of liberation.” – The Nap Ministry

* And speaking of … One day soon, I’ll write about how much I’m missing the bus in this new reality, but I’m not ready yet.

** I don’t remember anymore how long she said this period of time was. I think it was three months, but it could have been one.

*** Except you sort of do, if you want to pay your freaking rent. But whatever.

Shelter and safety for everyone

I met my friend Lawrence* because he lives in my neighborhood, and I know—at least by sight—most people who live in my neighborhood. Lawrence and I frequent the same bus stops and walk many of the same routes. After crossing paths numerous times, we officially introduced ourselves. Eventually, we became friends.

Lawrence has lived in Seattle for his entire life. Because he can no longer afford housing, he now lives in his van, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t running. The front windshield is smashed, and at least one of the tires is flat. Lawrence often needs money for propane, so he can keep warm at night. Like me, he suffers from a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome, which causes pain and numbness in the hands and feet during even mildly cold weather. He also has arthritis.

I worry about everyone in our city who is houseless. I especially worry for those people whose faces and names I know, people I have formed bonds with. Every single night, I worry about Lawrence.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lawrence and I exchanged numbers. I told him to call me in case of emergency, like if he was out of propane, or just needed someone to help him problem-solve. About a week later (around the same time our region was beginning to understand the seriousness of coronavirus), I decided I could no longer live with the idea of him suffering on the floor of his van night after night. I texted to ask if he’d like to spend a few days in a hotel. He said yes.

I chose the Best Western Pioneer Square because I know someone who has stayed there several times and liked it. It is a fairly short bus ride from our neighborhood, is clean and comfortable, and includes a hearty breakfast. I called to make a reservation, then took the 27 to the hotel to provide my credit card and give them Lawrence’s information.

As I waited in line, the hotel staff were very busy, answering calls from people canceling reservations and helping guests check out early. It occurred to me that the fallout from this pandemic had created an opportunity for an emergent strategy of sorts. Hotels were losing business and would soon be empty. Houseless people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. What if we, concerned citizens of Seattle (and every city), pooled our resources to rent newly cheap hotel rooms for our houseless neighbors?

When it was my turn to register, I attempted to provide the hotel with some information about Lawrence, who, not surprisingly, isn’t as clean or neatly dressed as someone with access to shelter. I struggled with whether I should say something; I didn’t want to violate his privacy. On the other hand, as a person of color, I know for sure that disparate treatment happens. Lawrence is both houseless and a person of color, so I wanted to make sure that he didn’t experience any hassles when he arrived to check in.

I said, “This room is for my neighbor. He’s fallen on some hard times and is living in his van, and I just want to ensure that he will be treated with dignity.”

The person who was helping me leaned forward and widened her eyes. “Are you saying that he’s HOMELESS?”

I said, yes, that’s what I was saying. She said that the hotel doesn’t “do” homeless.

I should have left immediately, but I felt pressed. I had already given Lawrence the hotel’s information, and it wasn’t always easy to reach him. I had to help another neighbor with childcare (back when we were still allowed to do that) in less than an hour.

So, I pushed back. I said the room was paid for, Lawrence was a human being, and the hotel’s policy amounted to discrimination. She doubled down on the discrimination and asked me to assure her that there wouldn’t be any drug use.

Finally, after conferring with a coworker, she agreed to let Lawrence stay. I reserved the room for three nights.

On the third night, I decided that I could probably swing at least one more. Nighttime lows were still in the 30s, and I hated to imagine Lawrence back in his van under those conditions. I called the hotel to extend. The person who answered the phone cheerfully looked up my reservation. But as soon as her computer retrieved it, she said, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to extend this reservation.”

I asked if I needed to come in and present my credit card again. She put me on hold. A moment later, a manager picked up. “We’re not going to extend this reservation,” he snapped. “If the guest can’t afford the room, then he shouldn’t be staying here.”

Lawrence is now back in his van. Everything is closed—libraries, community centers, coffee shops, every public space—so his van is the only place for him to be. I don’t see him very often these days, because I rarely leave my home. But sometimes, when I am out for fresh air, I see him walking to the store to buy water; he has no access to plumbing. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how likely it is that he’s able to wash his hands at all—let alone frequently.

Even though we had a bad experience with the Best Western Pioneer Square, I’m still convinced that the idea—to provide guests for empty hotels and safe housing for those in our community who are most vulnerable right now—is a good one. Certainly, there are independently owned hotels that are on the verge of closing completely that would welcome a steady source of income.

All of us are threatened by this virus, and all of us are suffering from the havoc it has wreaked on our communities. Think about how you’re feeling right now—how lonely, fearful, and uncertain. Imagine spending every hour of every day uncomfortable, with no distractions, no people out on the street to help you with a few dollars, feeling abandoned and desperate AND scared of getting sick.

As we do everything we can to keep ourselves healthy and financially afloat, we can’t forget our houseless neighbors. We as a community need to offer them more than “socially distanced” mass shelters. One obvious, short-term solution is for the city to rent rooms in empty hotels (owned by compassionate, openminded people) so that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, can stay safe—and as comfortable as possible—during this challenging time.

Can we find the will and focus to make this happen?

Image description: people holding a sign that says, “Housing is a human right.”


*Not his real name, which is much more awesome