There is a place in Washington where it rains a lot. To be fair that is most of the coastal part of Washington. When you get to the Tri-City area it starts to become arid and desert-like. People always think emerald and green and lush when they think of Washington, but that is only the coastal parts at the far west of the State. The coast gets too much water; it falls out of the sky in sheets and soaks everything in sight. Living outside in the winter is miserable in the west of Washington state. Everything gets wet, it rains continually, pouring water over fires, tents, in clothes and over life. The further east you go, the colder it becomes, until that is not tenable either.
Down on the muddy banks of the Wishkah river there are a lot of homeless people. I used to be one of them. I lived in a parking lot in a camper van. My friends had names like Tiger Boy, who was looking for a hot meal only and refused my offer of sharing sandwiches I had made out the little food I had. There was a girl I gave a feather to, who was trying to find the Rainbow People to join some party or gathering or other. She wanted me to join her, but that was an adventure for a younger person than I was at the time and one with no children or a mean old drunk to look after. I hope she found them and I hope she had a ball. We shared a joint on the river bank, up away from the encampments that lay further downstream. I never went down there. I heard a lot of stories from the other homeless people I did know at the Friendship House and the Mission. I could at least get a shower and a few days parking up by the Park there, where no one would move us on. There were sweet women I met up there. Red had auburn hair and a sassy attitude. She was on the make but sweet enough with it. The sketchy methy blonde chick tried to sell me fake five dollar dilaudid. Her skin erupted in blooms of pus and picking and looked constantly sore. In the park people played frisbee golf and walked their dogs. I would go sit there with the kids and look out up at the nice houses on the hill and wonder how anyone got there from where I was at the time. To pull myself out of it seemed impossible. I guess it was. I guess with a little help the impossible happened. I now live up on a hill and watch the people below and know that I am not so far off being back down there with the rest of us after all.
I was lucky. I was in my camper van at the time with my friend and the children. It was my first year outside, and I was lucky enough to be launched into that world in springtime, ready for summer. Summer is possible. Summer does not suck, even though you think it does, then fall comes around with the rain and there is nothing to do except try to survive the cold and the wet and the hopelessness of it all. Wishkah means ‘stinking waters’ in the Chehalis language, and it is an apt name. The river stinks. That little City stinks with the haves and the have nots being kept apart, and the haves not even letting those with nowhere else to go just park up and live without being moved on and swept. You cannot pitch a tent, nor sleep in a doorway, even the Parking Lots which sit tempting and empty are subject to vicious harassment. The security guards smash on the doors and kick at your vehicle and scream at you until you wake up, bleary eyed, and try to calm the children and get the engine started and drive away….somewhere. You see, these ‘haves’ do not seem to realize that people cannot simply disappear. They are living out there in the parking lots and the riversides and the doorways because they have nowhere else to go. Mothers with sons are at a disadvantage – they age out of being able to stay in female only shelters at a very young age – pre ten, and then what? The male shelters are hell, apparently. There are rules and enforced praying to Baby Jeebus and nobody likes being infantilized and treated as if they cannot make decisions about their own lives.
I try not to think about it too often. I try not to think about those people who I used to belong to who count themselves lucky if they have a shack or a camping spot, or a tarp or a bush to live in. Last night I turned on the television and saw a documentary called The River. It is included in Amazon Prime and I would absolutely recommend watching it. It is the most sympathetic and kind documentary on the subject of homelessness that I have ever seen. It showed the best and the worst of human behavior and to be frank, the worst of it did not come from the unhoused, but the politicians with their shark smiles and attempts at re-election and the asshole people who live up on hills looking down their noses at the problems below, without ever seeing the people suffering underneath them.
When I started watching I had no idea it was about a community I had once been part of, not out there on the river, but in the town being moved on and hassled and trying to find food at the Salvation Army and somewhere to park up and live for a few months. When I had a few bucks we would go to a campground on the outskirts of town. It was $15 for a night and you could only stay a maximum of ten days, and then had to move on. We couldn’t afford more than a couple of nights at the most anyway, but we would go, get clean in their freezing cold dribbly showers, feel safe for a couple of days. It was almost as if we were somebody, if we were human, if we were not the trash that everyone looked down on for having two children in a campervan and nowhere to go. People never ask ‘why’. Why is this woman with an old man and two children in a campervan, and to be frank that suited me just fine. The fewer questions people asked the better. I ruined their view, I irritated them, I was undesirable and so was my family and that didn’t bother me perhaps as much as it should have. The old man drank. The kids read and studied and played. I wrote songs on a guitar which should have been mine but I lost anyway. All the best guitars are lost. They cannot stick around too long on account of belonging to somebody else, who uses them for collateral, for love, for leverage, and then smashes them, pawns ’em or loses them with only broken promises remaining.
The Reds and the blondes, and all the little people with their spikes and booze and beer. They are still there in their own little ways, trapped under bushes, in camps, by railways. People want to move them along ‘for their own good’, and then offer them nowhere else to go. Anywhere but here: that is the mantra, that is the law. That is the unreasonable truth of it. Then you go ‘there’ and that becomes ‘here’ too. Here is everywhere. That is why we have a fentanyl crisis with people dying left, right and center of the country – because here is everywhere, and nowhere there is any empathy or a desire to fix problems rather than punish.
I remember this chick. She had a weather name. She was from a tribe that originated in the area. She had long curly hair and eyes like coal. Her skin was smooth but her face looked as if it might collapse in on itself at any given moment. She was only twenty years old. She had been looking after everyone’s kids, because she used to be the sober one. Then she lost them and her own babies. She didn’t know where they were, the State had moved in and ‘for their own good’, instead of helping the weather girl help the children, they took away all her love and her hope and her comfort along with the children. She lost hope. The girl that held on, that did the right thing, just gave up. She took me down to the river one day. Told me about these men she had been drinking with down there. White men. Boys really. Mean little boys. They used her. They shot her up with smack. They got her drunk and took advantage of her distress. “Dee. They are gonna find me floating in that river. Dead. I dreamt it. I had a vision. I am going to drown in that river. I am gonna die here. One of these days someone is gonna kill me..or I guess I could just fall in.” Her eyes were searching for her lost babies. Her soul was in distress. She was desolate as anyone I have ever seen. I told her no, but I knew it was hopeless. Some people write their own misfortune, conjure up their own ends. I hope she was wrong and managed to swerve that fate. I heard her name I thought, in passing.
It is warm today in San Francisco. It isn’t raining and I had a shower in my own bathroom, and a cup of tea as I typed on a computer run by electric that I didn’t have to steal from a bathroom. My fingernails are clean. My hands are cleaner. I have socks on my feet, and underwear under my jeans. The river is just up the coastline, waiting there. Seeing if I return one day. I never will. I need to be down here in the golden sun of it all. I will not die in dreariness. You see I have the imagination to get outta town, to move on and on and on again. I don’t get anchored to a place. At least I didn’t until San Francisco. This place is holding me still for my own good. I am wooed with showers and hot water and television screens. I have some place to be, but would rather be right here, with my new mug and my cactus flowers and all the memories crowding around me knocking at the door, and asking what I am doing today. In the end, when it is the end, I don’t need to go to Washington to roll around in the mud and the blood and the merciful poison of it all.