Utah Avenue is a sad, crooked street that runs up the back side of Seattle’s industrial district. I’ve been walking this street for 17 years now since it’s where I work. It’s where I go to clear my head, get ready for a big meeting, or shake off a bad one. Recently, I’ve been going there looking for something else: a story.
The street is flanked by a long fence with razor wire on one side, and the backs of old businesses on the other. The razor wire protects a large shipping and freight yard, full of containers and large, orange cranes. The bakery has a dumpster here, and uses the street to hose down their drying racks each day.
Any inch of free parking is taken. The road is in bad shape, with potholes, trash, and remnants of old railway lines, long since abandoned, leading nowhere.
I take the walk to break up my day and dream. To the west, past the freight yard, are the hills of West Seattle. To the north, the skyscrapers of downtown. There is not much else to look at – yet, I keep looking.
Last summer, some people took up residence in one of the parking spots by the fence. Bit by bit, day by day, their home took on more character: first, a tarp with a stack of blankets and a shopping cart, then, a propane stove, a battery-powered radio…a house-plant that still had some life left to it. I heard laughter from behind the tarp and music, but never saw their faces.
I saw them packing up their things on the day the Health Department made them leave: a man and a woman, deep in their 50s, sunburned, bad posture. The official coaxed them along as they filled a shopping cart with their things.
Meanwhile, another residence appeared up the street: a wiry guy with a pony-tail, beard, and a wolf’s face tattoo. The tattoo was on his navel, and the mouth of the wolf was centered around his belly-button.
He had collected a variety of old bikes and rusty car parts around his tent, and appeared to be making art, somehow. I saw him hitting the metal parts with a rebar, as if he was trying to reshape them into something new.
The Health Department double-parked in the middle of Utah Avenue, and a few workers with orange vests and plastic gloves gathered up his things with trash picks and tossed them into the back of a dump truck. A policeman sat in his car looking on.
I saw the guy with the tattoo scratching his head, pacing, and then I never saw him again. I saw a co-worker of mine trying to get past in her Lexus, looking frustrated, then driving by fast, to the parking garage. I wondered if anyone else in my office had seen any of it: he had been there most of the summer, and now he was gone.
On the other side of the fence, where they slept, are the cranes. The cranes pick up containers dropped off by trucks, and put them on ships heading out to sea. The cranes move in the slow, measured pace of large, mechanical objects on their tracks. The crane operator is a small silhouette inside the carriage, high above Utah Avenue, with supreme views in all directions.
In the morning, they awoke to the sound of the cranes and their beeping, the heavy metal thud of the containers landing on their stacks, and the birdsong of sparrows lined above the garbage dumpsters, waiting for the bakery to toss out the empty bags of flour.
I went looking for the man with the wolf tattoo online: I went looking for police reports, anything, but there was no evidence of the event anywhere.
I studied the footprint where he slept, by a yellow fire hydrant, by an old fruit tree, but it was all gone. It was like he didn’t exist at all. And if I couldn’t write about it, neither did I.