I heard a comment on The Ave. today that I hesitate to reproduce here for fear of the reaction I'm sure to get from at least my dear work-wife, T., and others of her tender nature. "The Ave.," I should explain for any who are not acquainted with the parlance of Seattle, is University Way, so not actually an avenue, but rather the street that runs the length of the neighborhood where I work. Now I happen to like this neighborhood much. Long before my time, this was just another working and middle class neighborhood, distinguished by the overwhelming presence of the University, but otherwise much like the rest of Seattle; white, tidy, and self contained. One could rent skis or get one's tennis racket restrung in the sports department of the bookstore, see a double features with cartoons at The Neptune or The Varsity, stroll about window-shopping at night, presumably with one's mother. Then the city happened. There are those who still regret the change, but as I never knew it other than it is now, and, as I rather prefer cities to towns, I rather like it as it is. There are still good merchants here, though now they might be foreign born and likelier to sell sandals, saris and bongs than school clothes for little Johnny. The movie houses are still here, considerably funkier than they used to be, and the only cartoons they show now tend to be Japanese. But there are still good eats, more various I should think than they used to be, and good people. There are wonderful green spaces, on the University's campus and elsewhere. For me and for many like me, there are very real, if distinctly down-market charms to the the place. However, the reputation of "The Ave." is such that for locals it is enough to use the nickname to conjure a not altogether happy impression of urban funk; the second hand shops selling clothes and boots and books, cheap ethnic eateries, college students, dive bars, and music. All good things, in their way. There are also problems: public intoxication, tagging, illegal and unregulated drug use, shoplifting, occasional violence, and a specific homelessness, hardly unique to this street, or neighborhood, or city, that has resulted in another nickname, less friendly, for the vagrants, buskers, beggars and junkies that drift up and down 'The Ave.," these are known locally as "Ave, Rats."
Every city has a homeless population, or "problem," depending on the politician speaking to if not necessarily addressing it. This is usually just another way of describing poverty. Poverty, of course, is universal. But homelessness, as a category of poverty, while it may be of more recent and American coinage, never the less describes a condition as old as the species. In contemporary America, this one word, homeless, is understood to not just describe those without shelter, by choice or misfortune, but any and all of the displaced poor without regular work, an established residence, respectability, security of their possessions or their person, access to treatment or a bath. Of our failures as a society, homelessness is taken to be the most visible sign; of unalleviated poverty, untreated and unsupervised mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, and among the young specifically, domestic and family violence, disaffection and exploitation. That poverty in America is as likely to not be seen begging on the streets is a truth more difficult to address, for being both less obvious and requiring a more fundamental admission of our collective failure to adequately care for the less fortunate. The tendency is to see the urban homeless not so much as representative, but rather as a discreet demographic, as if, could the beggars but be cleaned off the streets, our cities would be suitable for guests, our streets safe again for respectable people to window-shop after dark, our society again a shining city on the hill. This is false, but tempting. I understand the urge. Working where I do, I am not on the side of the shoplifter or the stray junky shooting up in our bathrooms or the drunk pissing in our doorway.
I would myself prefer to walk to lunch without being asked, every ten feet, for a cigarette or spare change, to not have to listen to wretched guitarists, their cases open on the sidewalk, to not need to walk in the gutter in order to avoid stepping into knots of soggy, belligerently drunken teenagers huddled in doorways, or to avoid their brutish dogs. It does seem a curious thing that so many of these black-clad punks should keep a pet, and that their preference tends to pit bulls.
Reading Orwell's first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, I am reminded that every human being I step around on the street, every one to whom I refuse a cigarette or the change in my pocket, need not be there, that each represents a choice, both individual and societal, and that I make a choice every day in avoiding these people. I first read Orwell's book when I was young and vaguely if earnestly radical. Then I was what might be called an easier touch. I was a boy up from the country and begging was new to me, part of my new urban atmosphere, and, if not romantic, if always sad, at least an opportunity, in a small way, to express my sympathies. I was shocked. I was outraged. I gave what I could when I could. I was gulled, more than once, into giving what I could ill afford. Every beggar had a biography, a fact I accepted from The Bible, and from reading books like that by Orwell, wherein he slummed righteously, and amusingly, among the poorest of the urban poor in two countries, only one his own, and I then felt obliged, if no longer as a Christian, then as something of an amateur socialist, to listen and to help.
I'm rereading Orwell not in a tattered paperback, but rather in a handsome, Folio Society reprint, and the irony of this does not entirely escape me. Just today, carrying Orwell's book with me to lunch, I felt something of my barely remembered fellow-feeling for the down and out and being solicited by a huddle of "Ave. Rats" for a cigarette or two, I stopped long enough to engage in the briefest of conversations with them, giving them each a cigarette and such loose change and small bills as I had in my pocket. These kids were typical; dressed in filthy black and camo, tattooed, sexless, intimidating, a brutal little dog on a string tugged away from eyeing my shin when I stopped and talked. Every one of them, as soon as I'd handed out cigarettes, apologizing that all I had was menthol, ceased to be frightening, except the dog, and smiled. As we chatted just for that minute, they all became so obviously, heartbreakingly young, their faces bright and friendly under the grime and tattoos. I was thoroughly ashamed to think how many times before I must have walked by them, refusing even eye-contact for fear of being intimidated or misused. I found myself more shy than I have been in years. I smiled back, and told them as I turned to go, to "try to stay dry." Their thanks came in a chorus and sounded touchingly sincere.
As I stepped away, feeling myself the better for having reclaimed something of my own youth and humanity, I heard the girl with the dog in her lap comment in a stage-whisper which may or may not have been used to include me, the fat, respectable little gent with extra cigarettes:
"I told you. It's the dog. The dog's a fucking gold-mine."
I did not turn around to see if she was being any kinder to the dog than she had been when I stopped.
Later, at lunch, I read of Orwell jeering down with his homeless fellows at the church workers who had just fed them. He writes, "They were afraid of us and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us." I'd like to say I lost my appetite when I read that, but I didn't. I did cross the street early, coming back from my lunch, so as to avoid meeting the same beggars twice.