Goodbye to the guy in the van

For the past couple years, I’ve been tracking a homeless guy who lived out of a van on the alley by my work, the Starbucks corporate office. I got to know his name, made small talk, met his son, shared our favorite camp spots. More than once he offered me a beer, which meant I’d have to get in the van with him and risk being seen by a co-worker. That would be hard to explain, so I never did.

He lived out of his van because he went bankrupt with credit debt, got divorced, and left the house to his wife. He worked as a laborer downtown, didn’t want to live in the homeless shelters. He became a symbol of something, to me: he and the others who cropped up in transient spaces, wedged between parked cars and the razor-wire fence by the shipyard.

Amid the massive logo of the Starbucks siren on the corporate office, and the backdrop of the Seattle skyline, this sliver of society sleeps in the cracks either unnoticed or ignored. I walk the road and compile the sounds of the shipyard and the cranes, the boxcars, the slamming weight of metal and creaking of trains on steel, and imagine what it would be like to sleep and wake to that.

Every day, I’d drive my van by his on the way into the parking garage and watch for movement, for silhouettes as he stirred and woke: he looked like hell, with eyes puffy, smoking and staring blankly out the windshield. Sometimes he didn’t report to work because he was hungover or didn’t feel like it. He had an old paper cup on the dashboard he reused at the Starbucks for discount refills, probably used their toilet every day, too.

Now the van is gone. Another group of transients built up a tent near a gnarled old tree on the same alley, and they’re also gone. In the space they lived there’s now a Jeep Cherokee parked there, this afternoon.

The alley has remnants of railroad tracks that used to lead in and out of the shipyard, then got paved over. They’re called orphan tracks because no one takes ownership of them; they’re trip hazards to pedestrians and bicyclists.

There’s segments of them exposed where the asphalt failed and it will probably stay that way for a long, long time. At some point, it will just get paved over again.

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14 replies

  1. More disappearing people. I think often of a former co-worker at a suburban Montreal newspaper called, appropriately, The Suburban. We worked in ad production, really hit it off, same musical tastes, sense of humour, kind of artsy. Given more time, we probably would have become solid friends. But I quit to take my chances on freelancing and to have our first child (what was I thinking!). As parting gifts, he made me a mix tape and a wood-cut print. I still have both somewhere. But I can’t remember Owen’s last name and have no way to track him down. Probably never will.


    • Wow…a mix tape and a wood-cut. That’s a cool friend! I did some free-lancing about 20 years ago, but slinging coffee and the espresso business just sort of swept me away. So it goes. I think I’ve beaten that down, now. On to Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, and liking the writing and humour so far. My machine keeps trying to correct me when I type English/Canadian spellings of things.


      • The machine eventually learns. I haven’t read Tom Robbins in years. I liked him a lot and then I didn’t. I should give him another go.


      • Let’s agree to be friends after you don’t like me anymore. That’s a lot to ask, but why not. I’ve been reading about Onan now and trying to work it into a blog post and it’s not working. Another day.


  2. sad and honest, and i often wonder what happens to those who i’ve crossed paths with, never to be seen again –


    • Hi Beth – thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I just checked out your page again, and admired the cute photo of the owlet…sweet….thank you for reading my posts this week and sharing your comments. I really appreciate it. Best, – Bill


  3. You have a way of shedding both an unfiltered and a soft focused lense on folks you come in contact with. Beautiful, human and deeply sad.


  4. I find it enthralling that a number of homeless prefer their way of life to what the rest of us experience daily. Their level of expectations is so low, if not nonexistent. Yet, from what I have read, they do seem to try to take care of their own. When I see how the rest of us sometimes treat each other, I question the notion that we’re better than them.


  5. You noticed. One person, even one person, noticing the absence of another human is a blessed thing. Wonderful writing.


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