The other morning (Wednesday, March 11), I had one of the more interesting conversations in my life with two men. Both shared some similar life traits, including homelessness, but their situations and outlooks were quite different.
As readers of this blog will know, some mornings as I walk to work I can’t face the homelessness situation that is ingrained in the neighborhood. Maybe I’m tired, maybe it’s raining, maybe I’m worried about my son or about some work project that awaits me. Maybe I’m just depressed. Many times, when I feel that way, I don’t go by the U-District Safeway to see if there’s anyone hanging out there. On those days, I just can’t face the harsh reality of homelessness and poverty that so many are dealing with. It’s too much.
But on this particular morning, I was feeling great. I was also a little early, so I didn’t hesitate to alter my route to walk by the Safeway. As I approached, I saw two guys lingering outside the store, one sitting at the corner of the building and one standing in front. For some reason, I almost walked by the sitting figure (he was rocking out to music on his phone and looked like perhaps he wasn’t going to be open to conversation). But I’ve tried to make it a rule to say hi to whoever I meet on these Safeway forays, so I greeted him.
He instantly lit up, turned down his music and warmly returned my greeting. It was like he had been waiting for someone to talk to him (hopefully he hadn’t been waiting too long, since it was only 7:50 in the morning). He said his name was Greg, and he was 42 years old. He sat on a blanket with various artifacts surrounding him – small boxes, tobacco, different trinkets, his phone. I saw that his music was actually coming out of a speaker attached to his nearby bicycle (connected to his phone through a Bluetooth connection).
Suddenly a tall, thin young man walked up and handed Greg a bag with a donut in it. He pulled out a small wad of cash and handed it to him as well, and began talking to Greg. Clearly, they knew each other.
I began to talk to the younger guy as well. His said his name was T.J. and that he was 22 years old. (Pictured below.) It turned out that T.J. and Greg know each other just from hanging out on the Ave (as the main drag in the U-District is called). Greg is homeless (I’m not sure where he sleeps). T.J. is technically homeless, but it seems to be by choice – he had a nice-looking car parked nearby that he sleeps in. He also mentioned that he just got a large check for some unspecified reason, and that he had taken a date out to a very expensive restaurant the previous night. It was unclear if he currently has a job, but he definitely gave the impression that he wouldn’t have trouble finding one of he wanted to.
T.J. was clean-cut and nicely dressed, and very articulate about his life and the world at large. He told me that he had been a basketball player at Central Washington University before getting injured. (This reminded me of another guy about T.J.’s age who I met a few years ago; he had a promising college baseball career cut short by injury, then got addicted to the pain pills that were prescribed for him to deal with his physical problems. It seems that oftentimes these kids are recruited for their athletic talent, but once they can no longer play at a high level, they are not encouraged or able to stay in school. Some of them end up addicts and/or homeless rather than college graduates, let alone professional athletes like many had dreamed or expected.)
T.J. had previously been living with his father in the area, but said they didn’t get along very well, that his dad had physically abused him when he was younger. At one point he actually expressed grudging appreciation (or at least acknowledgement) for the role his dad played in making him physically tough and able to defend himself on the streets. However, T.J. also seemed to have a violent streak — he described doing jail time for an assault charge, after he severely beat a fellow high school student in a dispute over a girlfriend, an incident that included him punching out the principal and school security guard.
(He also told me a harrowing story about getting mugged by a group of teenagers in south Seattle – having a gun pulled on him, being pistol-whipped and nearly bleeding to death. A homeless person found him lying in a parking lot and called 911, or he might have died.)
The subject of alcohol and drugs came up. Greg admitted that he had an alcohol and drug problem. He still uses alcohol and marijuana but has mostly given up the methamphetamine. T.J. said that he regularly uses marijuana but doesn’t drink much. In fact, he said he gave Greg a fifth of hard alcohol the other day that he happened to have in his car. (I quizzed him on why he had this bottle in his car if he doesn’t really drink, but his answer was vague.) Greg expressed appreciation for this gesture, saying, “I shared that bottle around with everyone [on the street] the other night. Do you know how much happiness that bottle created?” T.J. was glad to hear it.
Greg then asked T.J. if he had any “pie” (apparently slang for marijuana). The younger man went to his car and returned with a small amount of the drug (pot/dope/grass/cannabis/weed/mary jane/wacky tobaccky/pick your favorite term) and gave it to Greg. I mentioned something about marijuana being addicting, and T.J. immediately rejected that notion, arguing that cannabis was not an addictive drug. We discussed this and came to an agreement that marijuana was not physically addicting, but it was mentally and emotionally addicting. T.J.’s attitude that using marijuana was no big deal seems to be a commonly held one today, especially by younger people. Often people will say that using pot is much better than drinking alcohol. This view has gotten even stronger and more widespread since Washington state legalized marijuana two years ago, I have observed.
I mentioned that I had been forced to give up drinking because it was damaging my life, and that addiction ran deep in my family and has caused many problems. I asked T.J. why he would give Greg alcohol and drugs if it was clear that the drugs were not a good thing for him. T.J. seemed to think that it was ok to do this, that he was just trying to help out. Greg explained that since he was homeless, there wasn’t much for him to do all day. He said that the people he encountered during his days were typically pretty rude to him, or ignored him. He used the alcohol and drugs to cope with this kind of life.
(I thought of this discussion a couple days later, when I read an interesting article on the Huffington Post site that talked about how studies have shown that the lack of social connection is one of the root causes of alcoholism and drug addiction. Read it at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/johann-hari/the-real-cause-of-addicti_b_6506936.html.)
Greg also drew a distinction between some drug users and others, saying, “You see that kid over there?” He gestured in the direction of the other person I had noticed earlier, a young man asking for change outside the Safeway entrance. “That guy is addicted to heroin,” he said with derision in his voice. I made some comment about how people struggled with addiction at all different levels and for different reasons. He agreed with this. At another point, T.J. told Greg he was glad that Greg was no longer regularly using meth. “If you were still using meth, I know I would find you over there in the alley someday, lying dead in a puddle.”
In regard to his situation, Greg also mentioned something about how he didn’t care about money, didn’t want to buy into “the system.” T.J. also told me that Greg had a house in Portland that was currently being sold, but that Greg wouldn’t see any of the money. I asked Greg about this, and he seemed a little uncertain about the whole thing, saying that his ex-wife was involved in the transaction. I let it go.
There was one other moment during this very engaging discussion that stood out to me. T.J. was in the middle of a long answer to one of my questions when he noticed a man walking by whom he knew. He cut himself off mid-sentence to talk to the man, who had some kind of scar or injury near his mouth. After talking with the man for a minute, T.J. turned back to me, an angry look on his face.
“See that? That’s horrible,” he said. “If that happened to me, I would go after those kids and kick their ass.” Apparently the other man had recently been jumped by a group of guys on the Ave over some minor disagreement. T.J. clearly cared about the homeless people hanging out in the neighborhood, and wanted to look out for them.
By this point someone else had stopped to talk to Greg – it was turning into quite a gathering. I told Greg and T.J. that I had to get to work. I gave Greg a dollar “just on the principle of the thing” (he clearly had his buddy T.J. to look out for him). He interrupted his discussion to thank me heartily.
“You come talk to me anytime, man,” he said with a smile, “no matter who I’m talking to.” I shook both their hands, repeated their names and mine, and walked away.