She stood surprisingly tall and alert but worn out and desperate. Unwashed blonde hair hung over gray-white skin. Her clothes were ragged, drab, and yet rich with color all at once. Bands of red, purple, and green zigzagged through the fibers of a dirty Sherpa hat pulled down tight. A turquoise scarf was wrapped around her neck and flung over her shoulders. Her eyes flickered between the waning control of high intelligence and the growing impulses for beastly survival. She looked real. She was real.
Upon the edge of an exit ramp off the freeway along which traffic thunders through Seattle, she stood there in mismatch boots holding up a ragged cardboard sign. It stated:
I NEED MONEY
Shocked, I drove on. Almost got hit by another car for staring a moment too long. Shook up, I accelerated forward and went around the bend. This was back in early October 2011, Occupy Wall Street protests were breaking out around my country including here in Seattle, I’d even marched peacefully in a couple, and scores of homeless were massing outside the Gates Foundation in protest. Almost two months later I haven’t seen her again. I promised myself if I did I would find a way to stop.
Yesterday on an early December day trip with family and friends – we’d gone for a day hike up Little Si Mountain, really a big, forested hill edged with cliffs, followed by a quick drive up to Snoqualmie Pass and back to see Cascade mountain snow – I’d stopped in heavy traffic to “rescue” a runaway wheel.
The rear driver’s side wheel of an SUV had broken off moments before and was rolling down the edge of I-90. At any moment it might veer into several lanes of traffic barreling oblivious down the mountain. One driver was attempting to follow it with flashing lights, but after a while he gave up as the wheel began to wobble. I pulled off the road, parked, darted out, grabbed the wheel, and rolled it back across the freeway. Most drivers saw me and slowed down until I got safely across all four lanes with the wheel and tossed it into the back of our minivan. Well, not quite tossed, as I didn’t wanna squish the dog.
As we were already down to the Asahel Curtis exits, I simply turned around, drove back up to the Pass, then around and back down the freeway to the stranded car. A long scar raked through asphalt pavement, left by the axle dragging down the road from where the wheel snapped off further back up the mountain. The driver was a woman of about 30 with two young girls in the back. One of them was a baby strapped in a car seat just screaming blood murder, terrified.
The driver said it was a miracle she even made it to the side of the freeway without losing control or causing others to wreck. She was glad to see her wheel, as at least the tire was in great shape. But her rear axle was destroyed and all the parts of the wheel hub drum brake system ripped off and shredded. Couldn’t even put a spare on. Just then a small car of snowboarders jumped out and a man with an intensely red beard zeroed in on the shattered axle parts. Maybe he was the driver’s partner and the father of those two children. I just wanted somebody to pick up and hold that squawlling baby girl. Being a dad myself, I’ve learned when scary stuff rocks their world they just wanna be picked up and held tight.
Remember the cold, hungry, broke woman begging by the freeway? Yeah, her, the truly desperate one. The family in the SUV may be in an ugly financial situation, especially with competing demands of children and automotive repair staring them in the face, and maybe they work at the Pass where they said they lived working for low ski resort wages, but they already had support.
The tall woman with the ragged cardboard sign was truly desperate. And why did I go out of my way for a stranger with a broken down car? I had no idea who was in the car when it all happened. In addition I had the responsibilities for a car full with four teenagers, our dog, my wife, and our packs. Truth is when we first passed the broken-down SUV sitting on the edge of the freeway we did not stop. We didn’t stop until about a half-mile later to stop the runaway wheel. My intention was to avert a greater tragedy and I had an agenda of sorts to instill certain lessons of helping out those in need for the kids.
I beat myself up whenever I think of the tall, hungry woman. She didn’t seem like a professional beggar, those who seem almost comfortable as they nonchalantly panhandle along the freeway corridors. Would you believe I held her image in mine as I dashed out into speeding interstate traffic after a stupid, rollaway wheel? Well, it’s true, I did.
While there was some guilt, still is, her image in my mind proved more of an inspiration. She inspired me. The tall, desperate woman exemplified true desperation on a stark, personal level. I promised myself I would go through the trouble of turning around and looking for the homeless woman should I ever see her again. Or for anyone else who somehow vibrates the fibers of my inner moral compass and sense of ethics.
Already my mind was subverting my commitment with thoughts such as “Well, what if stopping to help makes me really late for a very important appointment?” And “I won’t pick up cold, hungry hitchhikers no matter how far away from anywhere if I have minors in the car, or my wife. Or if I’m alone in my car.
Even some little kid hitchhiker could whip out a knife and push it against the side of my neck where my carotid artery throbs along the edge of my sternocleidomastoid muscle. Have I seen too many movies? Yes, such as 2009’s The Road in which hungry humans resorted to drastic action during apocalyptic times. Have I read too many books? Yes, including Jared Diamond’s Collapse, his 2005 study of civilizations in breakdown in which cannibalism is the final stage experienced by desperate people.
There is a place under the freeways in Downtown Seattle where James and Cherry and Borden and Yelm and others all knot together. Before the Great Recession one may see a handful of dreary beggars panhandling. Then a wave of homeless people moved in and set up a shantytown. Rows of tents and tarps, of cardboard boxes and discarded furniture, of bundled up families, of quiet stares amid the roar of traffic.
More and more people arrive. Are they in search of community? Maybe they felt safer camping in such a visible, public place than back in the lush, wild greenbelt zones of broken glass and blowing trash where fights and thievery and drunken brawls and rapes and even murder erupt back where even the Police don’t wanna go.
When I drive by, my children stare. Not a word. They’ve seen too much already and don’t want to be reminded we could be there and they were we once upon a time.
“Just be thankful for all the good things we have right now,” I said in a wan attempt to spin their outlook in a more positive direction. “We’re all having hard times, and like the rain it’ll all end and the sun ‘ll shine again.”
“It’s been raining a lot, Daddy,” said my youngest girl Talia without turning her gaze from rows of homeless people.
Earlier this year, back in late July, my oldest daughter Morgan embarked with me upon a seven-day long road trip down into California. This trip was her inspiration. She was also the one who motivated us all to go hiking the day I stopped the runaway wheel rolling down from the Pass. Our journey south was primarily to tour colleges in the Bay Area. We also enjoyed exploring the sites of San Francisco and Oakland with a day in Yosemite National Park. It was Morgan’s first time to all of these places, and my first to Yosemite. We drove from our home in the north end of Seattle, Washington all the way through Oregon down through Northern California all the way to the Bay in one big push. It was a long day.
Along the way we stopped at a number of rest stops. I feel it’s important on long drives to spend time getting up and out of the car and moving your body around. Get a little exercise. Relax the eyes and the mind a bit. Drink and eat and go potty.
At every rest stop there were homeless people. Rain or shine. All along the interstates of Oregon and California on the way down, and the same on the way back including Washington, there stood homeless people at every single rest stop. At every single one! Often, to our great discomfort, there were families with children of all ages.
Morgan and I were astonished. I’ve driven all over the United States and coast to coast in all directions many times. Once in a long while you might find some one asking for some extra gas money or for help with a battery jump, but I’ve never seen so many homeless people at interstate rest areas.
To be sure, I really don’t know how “homeless” they were. I was going by looks and assumptions. Some seem to have cars or trucks. Others were hitchhiking. Or just standing around looking lost.
Nice clothes or rags, they all looked unkempt. Hungry. Broke. Worn out. One family held up an enormous cardboard sign carefully unfolded from a large box. They needed food, money for gas, diapers, medicine, and stuff I can’t recall. The mother seemed in tears and her kids fidgeted in embarrassment.
Many signs claimed their bearers were unemployed, broke, and without any health insurance. “Retired but broke,” “Vietnam Veteran and Cambodia, too,” “Retired Police Officer now Homeless – Please Help,” “Forgotten Veteran of Persian Gulf War,” “Lost everything,” “Need $ help 2 get my Kids 2 Grandma,” “Unemployed, Lost my House, Good-bye California, moving back to Montana but need gas $$$” read several of the signs.
People didn’t quite know what to say on their signs, and as most other travelers did, Morgan and I hurried around them with our heads down looking sideways at them. A few times I looked directly at some of them and made eye contact with a smile, but then they would look down or away.
“What should we do, Dad?” asked Morgan.
“Just be alert and aware of what’s going on in the world. Be prepared for the unexpected. And I don’t really know what we can do to help these people here,” I replied. “We could give them money, or our food, and then we are on a really tight budget ourselves. If we were to give all these people money, we wouldn’t have any left ourselves to get back home to Seattle much less even continue on to San Francisco.”
Morgan nodded. She knew my wife and I had been unemployed or underemployed and with undercapitalized businesses since this Great Recession metastasized. One by one we’ve lost work, investments, our home in Seattle, our home out in the Lake Wenatchee-Plain area, and endured a catastrophic house fire. My mother-in-law, once retired and living off well-managed investments, lost those investments in the Recession, got foreclosed out of her home by Bank of America, and is now living with us. Currently she dwells in the downstairs living room of the rental house we’re in.
My brother and sister back East were all having hard times, too. They lived back in Virginia and endured shortened workweeks, layoffs, college expenses, savings consumed, taxes on this, taxes on that, unexpected medical expenses, and felt haunted by a blight of abandoned businesses and real estate. Would we end up on the streets next?
As the giants of national and international finance revel in their breakaway civilization of sorts, as secrets surface into public view of just how much in TRILLIONS of dollars the Federal Reserve System and the European Central Bank, privately controlled institutions embedded into governments and markets, are pumping out in fiat currency made up out of thin air with keyboard strokes, more and more people slide into homelessness. The mainstream mass media and their puppet pundits put on clean-shaven, made-up with make-up smiles to reassure us with hollow numbers and shallow graphs to say, “See! Look! The recession is over! Things are better already! Keep shopping! Don’t look too hard!”
It’s legal for the Fed to issue fiat Federal Reserve Notes backed by nothing but the word of a hostage government where secrecy and lies trump transparency and truth. When mindboggling quantities of Fed monies are issued they are not even paper or coin but electronic digital bits on computer screens. If anyone else where to do the same it becomes “counterfeit” and a citizen’s threat to the de facto power of the private money regime.
The banks bail themselves out and pass the cost on to the taxpayers. The IRS must hurry, though, before we 99% run out of fiat to help our government pay back the interest on loans borrowed from the central bank but printed out at cost by Treasury to bail out the Wall Street banks.
Winter approaches. What happened to all those families homeless along the freeways? What will happen to those camping under the interstates in Downtown Seattle? What strategies will the Occupy Wall Street movement develop? Will the fabled Venn diagram linkup between the Tea Party and Occupy ever happen? How will anything we do or don’t do impact what choices we choose? What might happen to any one of us?
Life goes on, and so do we all. Still, as images from The Road and Collapse reel through my imagination, I see that tall, desperate blonde woman turning along the edge of the freeway holding her ragged cardboard sign, her eyes alert as a fierce mother but worn out from too many tears, silently pleading:
I NEED MONEY
William Dudley Bass
4 December 2011
Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.