Three times a week, we drive the same route to preschool. The Punkernoodles’ school is great, but it’s a little far – a 20-minute drive. The route takes us through several neighborhoods and requires us to cross Aurora Avenue. Also known as Highway 99, this mini highway through Seattle is, well, pretty much a shit hole. For miles it basically consists of flea-ridden motels offering hourly rates, strip clubs, gun clubs, fast food “restaurants,” even drive-through coffee huts where your barista will dress up in cheap lingerie. The underbelly of our town, if you will.
Anyway. Before crossing this treasure of a byway, we have to stop at a long red light. At the corner stands a homeless man. A very bedraggled homeless man. He’s an older guy, no doubt looking even more aged than he actually is, with a nest of wildish hair, a gnarled grimace, pale watery eyes, and a sign. The sign has changed a few times since we first started passing him, but generally it is fashioned from a wrinkled piece of box cardboard and is scrawled with a request for food, money etc. For much of the past year (though not in the past couple months), he wore a snowsuit, a kind of torn-up puffy sleeping-bag-looking thing. In this suit, or whatever outfit of the day he can muster, he shuffles along the sidewalk, grumbling and peering into car windows with his sign.
It is sad – I know that. I have a lot of compassion for people like this man. I have interviewed many of them as a journalist, written stories about programs that support homelessness. I have done the midnight homeless count and spent the night in a homeless shelter to interview the men who called it home. It’s not simple – lots of factors contribute to a life like this: Bad luck, sure, and also addiction, mental illness, poor social suport systems. Bottom line, people like him suffer on levels I personally cannot really even imagine.
But that’s not what I’ve been thinking about this past year. This whole time, I have been worried about the minutes we spend every commute sitting, in the right-hand-lane, right at his corner as we wait for the light to turn green. For the first six months or so, when the kiddos were a bit younger, I was just concerned they would notice this scruffy specter and have nightmares. Then, as Punkernoodle 1 inched closer to her fourth birthday, I began to panic about the day she would inevitably ask, “Mommy, what is that man doing?”
I know, it’s weak. I admit it. But I was afraid of having to explain homelessness, in stark terms, with such a compelling visual standing right before us. In the 2 minutes of a red-green light cycle.
Finally, a few months ago, the question came. I played the classic (and weak, I know, I know) brush off. “Oh, I don’t know, honey – sometimes people just stand outside with signs.”
Yes, I am a pathetic chicken-shit of a parent.
Another time, as 2 1/2-year-old Sister listened in, Punkernoodle 1 tried to come in from another angle. “What does that sign say, Mommy?” In that probing, demanding, painfully innocent 4-year-old way.
“Not sure, babe,” I chirped out as the light changed and I slammed the gas pedal. “I missed it.”
Other times I just distracted them at the corner so they wouldn’t notice. “Let’s sing a song,” I’d say. “What’s your favorite dessert?”
It’s not that I am afraid of tough topics. I take them on all the time. I’m like a parrot about the whole “your body is private” thing. We’ve done food drives and toy drives and have talked about how some children don’t have money for good food or nice toys and it’s good to help them. Heck, my daughters have a cousin being raised by two dads – and they already know all about that.
There’s just something about the harsh reality of a person so run-down, so obviously alone and desperate and unloved, so without-a-home, that I can’t bear to break to them. Maybe that’s because I don’t really understand it, or believe it, myself at some base level: How can someone in our country, our community, have no home? Nowhere to sleep? Or shower, or eat? It’s shameful – not on the people without a bed, but, maybe, on all of us with one. On me.
I know this speaks to a larger issue, the question of how to talk to our children about the difficult topics. I am searching for the best road, the way to give them the information they are going to need to become “citizens of the world,” as the catch phrase goes, without shattering that which makes them regard that world as miraculous to begin with.
Well. Finally, this week, the fateful moment arrived. The day I’ve been avoiding like a coward for a year. We pull up to Aurora. It’s an uncharacteristically sunny fall Seattle day. The girls are very busy looking out their windows. There he is. Here it comes. “Mommy? What is that man doing?”
I can’t avoid it this time. Too direct. Too obvious. She’s gotten too smart, too perceptive. This is going to shatter her innocence forever, steal her open-hearted wonder at the world and give her the first spoonful of human bitterness, but there’s nothing more I can do about it. Fuck. Ok – here it goes: “Well, sweetie. Sometimes people don’t have any food or money. So they might make a sign asking other people for money, or food, so maybe if they hold the sign up people will help them.”
I wait for it. The request to roll down the window and pass this man some money. And some food. And maybe invite him home to sleep in our guest room, at least until Nana comes to visit.
“Mommy,” she barks in her recent, loud, newly assertive and slightly demanding way. I cringe.
“He should just get a job.”
Oh my god. All this time, all this fear – of the wrong thing. She’s not losing her rosy outlook on the world. She’s training for public office. Ha.
Ok. Sigh of relief. Laughs all around. Note to Self: Make a few extra donations to the food bank, kids in tow. Volunteer at a shelter. Find children’s book explaining mental illness?
Find a new route to school.