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.