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The Writer at the Lake

September 9, 2012

Thursday, August 2, 2012: Seattle, WA

I was talking to Rosie, the fabulous stylist who cuts my hair, about the people I see regularly when I’m running, walking, or biking to work around Green Lake near my home in Seattle. She mentioned a homeless guy who sits on a bench on the west side of the lake in one of the less populated areas of this extremely popular urban park. I immediately knew who she meant. He appears to be a big man, made even bigger by his dark, bulky clothing, apparently stuffed with more clothes and other possessions, and he keeps bundled up like that even on some warm summer days. He has a couple of bags piled next to him on the bench, and besides sitting there for hours, the only thing I’ve ever seen him do is write in a little notebook. For that reason, I’ll call him the writer. I’ve seen him quite often for at least a year, never eating or drinking or talking to anyone, just sitting and looking ahead, or sitting and writing.

In fact, of all the regulars I know who frequent the lake—other runners and walkers, friends and acquaintances who live nearby, the writer is the one person I see most frequently. I’ve often thought how strange it is that I’ve done hundreds of laps around the lake and passed him countless times and never said hello, waved, or even nodded to acknowledge him. Whenever I’ve looked in his direction, if he’s not writing, he appears to stare straight ahead and doesn’t make eye contact, which makes ignoring him—the path of least resistance—easy. He’s not like the homeless people I walk by occasionally at the NE 45th St exit from I-5, who look straight at you sometimes saying things such as “smile!” and “have a nice day” while holding signs asking for help. If one chooses to ignore them, and I often do, it actually takes an active effort to look away and pretend they’re not there.

Yet as easy as ignoring the writer might seem to be, in reality I’ve had many thoughts about him over the weeks and months. What’s his story? What does he write about? Where does he get food and drink (and when does he eat)? Where does he go when he’s not sitting on that bench? What are his needs? I’ve wondered what it would be like to approach him, even telling myself that one of these days I should carry some money with me on my run and give it to him, figuring he could probably use some. But of course, I never remembered, or conveniently forgot, to bring any money with me. I shared some of these thoughts with Rosie, and as soon as I did, I knew what I would do. I was planning to run around the lake after my haircut, so I told her that this time I would take some cash and say hi. Telling her would help me hold myself accountable.

Having a co-conspirator, even just a confidante, is powerful. Once I’d spoken the words, I knew I would follow through. So I tucked a $10 bill in the pocket of my running shorts along with my key, wondering when I would see the writer again.

He was right there on the shady bench as I was completing my first lap. At first I registered him mentally as always and ran a few more steps before I remembered—hey, wait a minute, I told Rosie I was going to stop and say hi. I stopped and immediately felt a little nervous and reluctant. Approaching strangers has never been my forte, and in this case I was particularly aware that I had never seen him speak to anyone. So I paused for a moment to prepare myself to approach him.

There was plenty of room on the bench for me to sit down with his bags in between us providing a buffer zone, so I walked up to the bench and said “hi” as I sat down. He glanced my way, his pale blue eyes briefly peeking at me through the layers of clothes, dirt, and deep solitude. I could smell from several feet away that he had not bathed in some time. I had pierced his bubble for the briefest of moments. I realized then that he had been whispering to himself and he continued to do so as if I wasn’t there. Mental illness seemed likely. I sat there awkwardly for a minute or two, turning occasionally to look at him and see if he would look at me, at which point I thought I might say something, though I didn’t know what. I also became aware of caring about the opinions of others as I imagined that passersby might wonder what I was doing sitting with a homeless person, since the writer and I were an obvious mismatch. He never looked at me, and I still had to find a way to give him the $10 bill. I played out various scenarios in my head. Would he take the money if I offered it to him? Might he be offended? Would he continue to ignore me? Would he react in an unpleasant way, as mentally ill persons sometimes do? I decided not to disturb him further that day, stealthily tucking the bill just underneath the bag that was closest to me in a way that it would be visible when he got up, yet secure from being blown away by a breeze. The bill was still there on my second lap around the lake. I have no idea whether or not he actually found it or used it. This left me wondering: Did I really accomplish my mission, or did I go to the trouble of walking out of my comfort zone only to achieve a meager, halfway result?

  1. Lech Trzeciak permalink

    I can easily imagine this converted to a short story about THE CONTACT (“The Writer at the lake” acutally makes a good title, since “Mission impossible” is already taken 😉

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