Yesterday I visited a high school on the Eastside. The people there were working very hard. I had the privilege to sit in on some tremendous student conversations. I was overwhelmed and spent most of the time with my hands shaking, sloshing my Starbucks drip coffee onto my hands and vest. I’m still working to unpack what spooked and startled me most about my visit to this model high school, but my biggest revelation came when I arrived at home.
I live in an apartment building that’s sorta an in-between neighborhood. Go further east and it’s Capitol Hill, with all the #seattlestereotypes that I love and loathe most about Seattle. Legit coffee shops, amazing food, interesting people, lots of thinking. Go South and it’s a tense combination of a night club that’s been the site of some pretty scary violence with bars, burger joints, and The Quintessential Portlandia Market Experience. This is now loosely referred to as the Pike Pine Corridor, a term developed to appeal to tech employees who can’t afford to live in South Lake Union.
If you go north, turn on Denny, it feels more like downtown. The streets, though clean, seem a little bit less well-maintained than other parts of town. For a few years, there was a sizable homeless camp by the on-ramp to I5, but the city rounded everyone up and had them head somewhere else. (to their credit, it seemed like they brought counselors and social workers to help folks receive the services they might need)
And immediately west is I5. From the fifth floor of our building, we hear the vehicle noise at all hours, even when there isn’t much traffic. That’s because the noise echoes off the Metropolitan Park towers like a river running through a valley. (science)
In this scene, Eric sat on the porch with a giant coffee. I parallel parked (like a pro; I’m a bit of a savant) and sat next to him on the porch steps, giving him a patented Shannon-Bug-Eye-You-Are-Not-Going-To-Believe-This look. Bless him. “Tell me more,” he said.
I ran him through my day at the Modern Major High School, showed him my Snapchat story. We started a really amazing conversation about well-meaning white people in Seattle. He handed me a cigarette and, dear reader, I smoked it.
I told him about speaking at the MSU commencements and how after I spoke with Maya Angelou, the most common question I received was “when you talked about people smoking outside Berkey Hall, does that mean you smoke too?” Seriously? That was your takeaway from the conversation?
Living in this no-man’s land of Seattle, we encounter a variety of dependable archetypes. There are the White People Lost on Capitol Hill, who accidentally go further north than Olive and lose their minds because there’s broken glass on the curb. There are Tech Bros. There are the alterna-teens (I don’t know what we’re calling Youth Culture these days). And there are folks who are just trying to get through their days.
Kevin was one of those guys. As he approached our building from the north, Eric and I made eye contact and said hello.
“You’re not from here, are you?” Kevin said with a grin.
Eric and I knew exactly what he meant. The Seattle Freeze has some pretty profound racial and class manifestations that we as a city haven’t really begun to unpack yet. Eric shared that he’s from Chicago, I said I hailed from metro Detroit.
The next line in a typical Seattle porch exchange like this was well-executed by Kevin.
“Do you have a cigarette I can buy off you?”
But Eric flipped the script.
He pulled out two from the shiny foil inner wrapper of his half-empty box of Camels. “One for now, one for later.”
And usually that’s where the conversation would end. We’d all uncomfortably smile and maybe give an awkward half-wave, and then Kevin would continue on his way (he said he was heading to an AA meeting at The Recovery Cafe further down Denny)
I piped up. “They have AA meetings there? I had no idea! I’ve been working to remove alcohol from my life for the past four, five years.”
“God bless, one day at a time.” *fist bump* “You should come, the people there are great.”
And then he started telling us about the folks who have his back. He adjusted his Seahawks beanie and poured out the shortened version of His Story (I always think of it like the really long passages at Mass, how sometimes the priest skips the bits in brackets? Where the stuff in the brackets is important, but if you’re listening hard, you get the gist even without all the details). I pulled out my notebook.
Things have been tough because he’s been on a half-dose of his meds until his next doctor’s appointment. After scheduling it two months ago, it’s finally happening this week, Thursday, at Swedish Medical Center up Pill Hill (which is a name nobody really actually uses).
“I’m kinda nervous,” he said. “At the cafe, they told me that sometimes when you go back up to the regular dosage, the side effects are bad.”
I expressed concern and said I had a similar experience when I lost my insurance and had to jerry-rig my mental health self-care, by taking half-doses of my antidepressants, combined with legal recreational marijuana.
Then Kevin’s story started to pour out. I have a page of notes, but they’re all jittery and don’t make much sense because my hands were shaking and I was busy making eye contact with this man who was invisible to so many people in the Emerald City. He was a vet. He took two bullets.
“It’s not the bullet that killed me, it’s the VA.”
I asked Kevin how folks could get in touch with him. Kevin is available at ###-###-#### (“I had an Obama phone”). I told him I have friends whose work is to listen to the stories of people whose voices aren’t being heard, and would it be okay if I passed his information on to them? He said yes.
Initial readers of this piece asked what Kevin’s race was, and whether he was black. I chose to tell Kevin’s story without this information inspired by the work of Christopher Paul Curtis in his Newbery honor winning book The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, which takes place in Flint, Michigan.