Cliff left the Fremont Avenue area, crossing 46th and took the long straight walk down Aurora Avenue toward the bridge. He imagined himself walking right over Winona’s head as he navigated the breakdown lane with the cars and trucks speeding by him. He passed right by the spot where he had attempted to take his own life. He shuttered as he walked by. The half mile-long bridge that extended ahead intimidated him and he had the faintest impulse to attempt another jump.
Instead, he decided to hitchhike. Walking backward along the metal fence, he extended his right thumb and tried to make eye contact with each driver that accelerated past him.
By the halfway mark, he realized nobody would stop for him, turned around and completed the long walk with his head down. On the far side of the bridge, the road opened to another lane. Cars spilled into Aurora from busy side streets. Crossing the incoming on-ramps proved challenging as he had to move more quickly than usual and his ability to accelerate into a trot had greatly diminished in his 12 years of homelessness. The clumsy boot didn’t help his maneuverability, altering his stride.
He tried hitchhiking again. To his surprise, after about ten minutes, a truck pulled to the side of the road and opened the passenger side door to him. As it turned out, the driver was heading to the center of town. The ride condensed what would have served as an all-day marathon, walking a five-mile jaunt down route 99 to his old stomping grounds.
Pike Street looked the same as always. At least a dozen other homeless men and women slept on flattened cardboard boxes up and down the side of the corner pharmacy. They stood by the glass doors and accosted patrons, waving cups and hats in their faces, asking for money. They picked through the garbage cans and drank from bottles concealed in brown paper bags. Regular business professionals and local residents weaved through the crowd of zombie-like loiterers, sometimes having to step over bodies lying across the sidewalk.
Cliff stepped down from the cab of the truck and thanked the driver. He babbled something about not having any money to tip him, even though his jacket rattled and jingled with the loose change in his inner pocket.
He glanced up and down First Avenue and surveyed the scene along Pike. Just beyond the train tracks and Waterfront Park, he watched an enormous barge float along Elliot Bay. He had left his shopping cart one street over on Pine, near the department store. But he was sure the vultures would have picked it clean by now.
He nudged by a pair of hefty women blocking the entrance to the CVS and entered the brightly lit store.
While in the truck, he had resolved to count his loose change and start keeping track of the amount he made and spent each day. Thinking back to his life before moving to the streets, he recalled managing complex spreadsheets of his debits and credits as well as his progress against the family budget. He also reminded himself of the importance of keeping track of the days.
“The more you lose track of time,” he thought to himself. “The more time slips away.”
He figured, a pen and small reporter’s note pad would be a good start toward his path off the streets.
As he wandered the brightly lit convenience store, packed with consumer goods, he marveled at the memory of drinking Mountain Dew and downing bags of Salt and Vinegar potato chips. He passed the freezer and regarded the many flavors of Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs ice cream. He touched each box of sugar cereal and browsed the cookie aisle before arriving at the chocolates. He pulled out a Ghirardelli bar and thought about Winona and how much he guessed she would appreciate a rich, premium chocolate bar.
After noticing the five-dollar price tag, he returned the package to the shelf.
An employee approached him and tersely asked if he needed help with his purchase. The added emphasis on the phrase “with your purchase” made little attempt to mask the air of suspicion.
“I got all this change,” Cliff said, holding his hand out and displaying six or seven quarters. “I’d like a pen and a notebook, preferably one of those little ones that fit in the palm of your hand.”
The employee navigated him to the “Back to School” aisle and with a gentler tone pointed out several packages of pens. They typically contained a dozen or more per bag.
Cliff inspected a package of 24 blue pens costing $11.99. The notebooks were all full-sized and also cost between $4-$5.
“Can I buy just one pen?” he asked.
The individual pens, all fancy and expensive, ranged from $2.50 to $9.99.
“That much for one stinking pen?”
Cliff found a snack-sized package of golden Oreos and purchased it with his spare change. He emerged from the pharmacy and looked for a spot along the wall to claim for himself. But virtually every free space along the block had a body occupying it. He made a mental note that some clever homeless people had little vinyl folding chairs and looked comfortable slouching back in them.
“Gotta find one of those,” he thought to himself.
As he walked down the street, he looked at the face of one of the women lying dormant on the ground. Her face morphed into the saggy-faced hag from the train. He looked away in disgust, but when he looked up at another homeless man leaning against a “No Parking” sign, his face contorted into the hag’s visage as well. Every face he crossed converted to the resemblance of the hag. And, they all laughed at him.
Cliff tried to picture Winona, but he had already started to forget what she looked like. All he could picture was her ratty ball of curly hair and the curve of her jean jacket rounding her large breasts.
He found a spot at the base of the stair to the subway, sat and closed his eyes to shut out the chaotic scene around him. Employing some concentration, he managed to reconstruct Winona’s smile in his mind. His thoughts migrated to the other female in his mind. He reached into his pocket, fishing for the picture that had been there for so long. Without it, he struggled to reconstruct the smiling face of his daughter, Rindy.
“If I ever want to see her again,” he thought to himself. “I’m going to have to clean up and visit in person.”
He worked through options in his mind for traveling the 400 miles required to reach San Francisco. A train could run up to $80, he recalled. He figured he might be able to catch a bus for $50. He knew either a train or bus pass to Frisco would be a one-way journey, as it would take him months to save for the trip.
He moved to the shadows between two buildings and rifled through his cash. He had about $4 in coins and another $13 in bills. If he could make $20 per day through panhandling and spend only $5-$7 on food, he could have enough to afford a bus pass within a week or two. But he would want a haircut, which would cost $10 or $12. He would want a change of clothes, which would cost a good $20 or $30. And, he’d need a better bag or backpack than the plastic sack from the Dollar store to secure his belongings.
He listed a series of necessities to consider for prioritization against his goal to return to see Rindy. He thought of buying a toothbrush and toothpaste. He considered a roll of toilet paper, or at least a hand towel that he could rinse in the rainwater and puddles along the side of the roads. He ruled out purchasing a chair and hoped to find one in a trash bin somewhere. In the mean-time, he chalked up his sleeping conditions to consist of a flattened cardboard box that he would have to find in the shadows behind a store or restaurant. He figured at a profit of $10-$12 per day and expenses totaling $50-$60 dollars over the coming month, that he would start saving for the bus ride starting in about 30 days, enabling him to get out of Seattle within a sixty-day window.
That plan would get him to San Francisco with a completely empty pocket and he’d have to start at the beginning to build up an income and work toward saving enough to escape those streets. But, in calculating his ability to generate enough cash to afford a San Francisco apartment on $12 per day profit, he realized the futility of his plan.
He’d never make it panhandling. He’d need a job. If he could clear $25 per day above and beyond any expenses, he thought a couple hundred per month might eventually add up and give him a shot at a roof over his head.
The mid-day sun started to drift to the far side of the buildings. He felt the chill of the afternoon air. He had exceeded his target of $12 in profit for the day. But he hadn’t eaten more than a $1 package of cookies and desperately craved a box of chicken nuggets.
“I’ve got several more hours left in the day,” he thought to himself. “Ten more dollars. Two bucks an hour. I can do that.”
He decided to descend the stairs and return to his old spot on the train. The payment system for the SeaTac always surprised him. In theory, he would have to buy a payment card and tap the sensor as he entered and exited the train. But he had always just walked on to the train without a card and without tapping the sensor.
Of course, the police, who roamed the stations, routinely kicked him off as they noticed him. But, more often than not, he scored a free 30-40-minute ride to and from the airport without hassle.
He sat on a wooden bench pressed against the wall and stared at the floor to ceiling advertisements across the tracks. In the distance, at the top of the stairs, peering over a balcony, he spotted a police officer. He leaned back and remained still to avoid detection. The headlights of the train filled the cavernous underground station and came to rest a few feet in front of him. As he boarded the train, the officer noticed him and moved swiftly toward the down escalator. The train doors closed. The goliath vehicle surged forward and Cliff smiled at the frustrated officer as he glided past him with the moving pane of glass from the train car window between them.
About a dozen people sat facing ahead. Some had large suitcases in the seats next to them. Some people stood, holding the overhead support rails. Nearly everyone stared at their phones and nobody made a sound.
Cliff strode to the open area by the sliding doors. He faced the seated passengers and projected his voice like a tour guide.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his booming voice echoing through the narrow chamber of the train car. “As you may have noticed and probably guessed, I happen to be a bit down on my luck. I live on the streets. That’s right, I’m one of the 20,000 homeless people in the greater Seattle area.”
Most people looked down or away. An older lady made eye contact and smiled in sympathy. He zeroed in on her and returned as much eye contact as possible, smiling back at her and directing his voice toward her.
“I had a wonderful wife, who I loved deeply and a beautiful young six-year-old daughter,” he continued, noticing another couple paying moderate attention to his story. “I was a good husband and father. I had a solid middle-class job at a good company. I provided for them. We bought a house, sent our little girl to school, paid our taxes and saved for college. We were the happiest family you’d ever see.”
The train stopped. The older woman walked past him and handed him a dollar bill.
“Bless you,” she said as she exited.
“My little girl,” he continued after thanking the short, grey-haired woman. “She had the most perfect smile, eyes that would swallow you and the cutest freckles any child’s ever had. She was my life and my sole reason to live, along with my wife, who I loved dearly.”
An athletic man in a golf shirt yelled for Cliff to shut up, but his wife in the seat next to him reprimanded him with a pat on the arm and a “shushing” noise.
Cliff had the young couple, he knew it. He walked closer to them and directed his eye contact at them.
“I still remember that rainy day in June when I got the news from the police that they had been struck and killed by a drunk driver. My beautiful, loving wife who took care of me. My angel daughter. She didn’t deserve that. Neither of them did. And, I just fell apart. I turned to drugs and alcohol. I lost my job, my house, my whole life. I’ve been on the streets for twelve years.”
The couple started fumbling through their wallets. Cliff kicked the story into his final phase.
“But I have a reason to live now. I’ve found a new love, a wonderful, caring woman, who lives on the streets as well. And, I want to help her. I want to give her a better life. I’m ready to get off the streets. But I can’t do that until I save enough money to buy some new clothes, clean myself up a little bit, get a job and make an honest living. I hate to have to bother you all when you’re just trying to get to the airport, but this is my only way out of this life. If you could just offer me your spare change. Maybe a dollar or two, I would be eternally grateful. Thank you for your time.”
The train came to rest at the next stop and as Cliff expected, the sympathetic couple offered him a dollar each. Two other passengers flipped him a couple quarters as they exited as well. Having exhausted the car, Cliff exited and quickly maneuvered to the next car in the line to retell his story to a new crop of potential donors.
The next car produced about the same proceeds. He estimated about a $6 income from 20 minutes’ worth of work.
He proceeded to a third car, but only earned a single quarter from one young child who begged her mother to let her help the nice man.
As Cliff turned to move to the fourth car in the string, he found himself face to face with one of the last people he would have wanted to see.
“That’s some story,” Alex Svoboda said to him, clutching him by the lapels and shoving him into one of the seats.
“Easy on the guy,” Summer said, as she took the aisle seat. “He’s just a tired old homeless guy.”
“You got some nerve making a buck talking about my mom like that,” Alex continued pressing Cliff against the window of the train. “What’re you even doing here? Where’re you going?”
“You told me to split town,” Cliff sputtered. “I’m finding a new place. What do you want from me?”
“Now, I want you to go back,” Alex said. “Apparently my mom likes you. So, you gotta go back to her and treat her good.”
“I don’t think that’s really what she wants.”
“You don’t tell me what my momma wants, homey,” Alex snapped, pushing further into Cliff’s face. “I say you go back and be good to her, you go back.”
“Jesus, fine,” Cliff said. “But you know it wasn’t me. She, uh…”
Alex peered at Cliff as if daring him to complete the sentence. Cliff knew better and sensed the strategy in closing his mouth.
“What do you want me to do?”
Alex unhanded Cliff’s lapels and gave him room to sit properly in the window seat.
“You’re gonna come with me and Summer to pick up a car and we’re all gonna drive back together like a big happy family.”
Cliff nodded and frowned in confusion.
“Otherwise,” Alex continued. “I throw you out this train window over the bridge down on to the freeway. You got me?”