Oh, Denise. 

No other phrase encompasses the spectrum of thoughts and feelings I have for this god-forsaken creature. She dared you to hate her, pity her, dismiss her, and love her, sometimes in a single breath. If you walked more than once through Third and Union, Third and Pine, or Third and James, you would have seen her, that wayward daughter of an outcast god, a litmus test of a person who caused in you reactions which revealed more about yourself than her.

I once spent the better part of an hour chatting with three homeless teens. One of the things I learned was that as a homeless person, it often behooves you to lie. To pretend your circumstances are more dire than they are. 

Housing and other services get prioritized for those with more extreme hardships, and if you tell them you’re schizophrenic and bipolar, for example, rather than (or better yet—in addition to being—) merely thrown out by abusive foster parents, you’re going to get a leg up. If you tell those unwitting tourists the bruises on your leg are from something truly tragic, rather than the stupid fall you just had, it might further convince them you’re in need. It’s a curious position to be in, and one brought on by too many people fighting for the same resources: 

You’re lying in order to emphasize the truth. 

The thing is, you really do need help. You’re on the street. But that’s not enough anymore. Everyone’s on the street, and your problems are too complicated to explain quickly.
How the pain medication from your on-the-job injury has developed over the years into a full-blown hard drug addiction.
How the continuous sensation of being treated like dirt because of your race and appearance makes you want to fight the world. The thorny family situation you could return to, but which would actually be worse than being out here, if you can believe it.
Or maybe you do have housing, but it’s in a roach-infested subsidized building with enough crime and drug issues as to be so far away from anyone’s definition of a home that it feels more accurate to just say: you’re homeless.

It’s real and it’s dire, the three kids explained to me, but it’s too convoluted. People only listen to extremes nowadays. Sure, being homeless and hungry is a big deal for you, but you have to compete with people who actually are suffering the extremes you end up having to pretend, or who really do have the sanctimonious moral fiber you wish you possessed. You need to eat, and they’re getting sympathy and solutions from social workers, strangers, and others. 

Time to come up with a strategy… and maybe not an ethical one. Because ethics are a privilege of those who are doing well. You’ll be your good self later. Right now you’ve got to survive. 

And thus it begins…

Denise’s strategy is to pretend to cry. Few, if any, street people look as completely, utterly and spectacularly miserable as hers truly. Yes, American homeless people are much better off (and fatter!) than the maimed, deformed and starved shells of humans I’ve seen abroad, but as far as US streets are concerned, you haven’t met Doing Poorly until you’ve met Denise. 

How long have those inadequate rotting slippers been on her feet, melded and twisted in her flesh as they are? What actual color is the fabric of her pants? What precious few teeth does she have left, and at what point did her slurred, nigh-incomprehensible torrents of speech become her norm?

She reeks less of the expected smells than of a particular brand of topsoil I used to encounter when I drove past a certain construction and landscaping plant in Bellevue. She’d step on board and my nose went right back to afternoons on Northup Way, maybe with a little human putrefaction thrown in. Ah, Pacific Topsoils, Incorporated. It’s good to be back…

Don’t get me wrong, dear reader. I like Denise. Street people, especially at the volume and level of mental illness at which we in Seattle now possess, are not an embarrassment of themselves but an embarrassment of the city and the people running it. A naked ignominy of those with the position, power and money to do something constructive… and don’t. The homeless person carries a cross of shame belonging less to him than to the society that would pretend his problems don’t matter. 

Any person before you is the result of the cause-and-effect timeline that is their lives, and if you think people end up where they are because of their choices alone, brother, you’ve lived a charmed existence. Someday life will just happen to you, and you’ll shake your fist at your god or your devil, wondering why. It isn’t because you’re an awful person, my friend. It’s just life.

Denise’s body vibrates from withdrawal with a persistence you sense she must not notice, twitching shudders made invisible by their constancy, known only to her as a pain she must fix. It’s obvious she’s an addict, that she’s unattractive, even repulsive, and you know she knows it too; what then is a girl to do for sympathy? 

This is where the crying comes in. Like the best of actors, she can manufacture tears at the drop of a dime. It’s impressive. An unsuspecting commuter will round the corner toward her, and her eyes and lips crinkle and split sideways, instantly at the stage it should take hours of grieving to get to. 

Watching her perform I sometimes find myself genuinely touched. Who am I, after all, to say how fake those tears are? What great sorrows, hardships of the soul and body, roil beneath her drug-fuelled haze? I happen to know this: that her husband would beat her up in her younger married days, regularly, such that she fell into heavy drinking. 

I first met her during grade school, offering a her a handful of change which she accepted, and from which she immediately picked out the pennies and nickels, throwing them on the ground. At twelve years old, I was disgusted. I’d worked for that money. But she had other problems…

Single-minded is a euphemism you think applies to many people, until you know Denise; it’s a veritable science, how she’s streamlined her actions down. If it doesn’t have to do with cocaine, opioids, Red Vines, or Twizzlers, it’s not even remotely on her radar (though she did mention Skittles and once, totally incongruously, spaghetti with chicken and marinara sauce…). But crack, mainly. Crack and nothing but.

Denise died earlier this month. She died in the dried-up turtle fountain at the northwest corner of Third and Yesler. It’s a terrible place to die. Not many will miss her. 

But who will I have conversations with about Red Vines versus black licorice, or the merits of peanut M&Ms? Who will I marvel at as I did her, this strange asexual beast who didn’t walk but shuffled, who could shuffle into the busiest street without looking for cars (Denise never looked for cars; far too prosaic for her focuses)… and never get hit? Never? Did she know how she would later be killed, and that it wouldn’t be by a car or bus? Is that how it works? 

I want to believe she had some secret gene, the seer gene, or some sort of invincibility gene that separated her from basically all other hard drug users: she was invincible. There’s her, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. I swear these people are superhuman. She destroyed her body every day in ways that daily kill many younger souls, but she kept right on into late age. 

Usually she wasn’t able to say much besides the street name containing the project housing in which she lived. “JAMES,” she would scream repeatedly, a scream which will echo in many a bus driver’s head, including my own, until the end of time. I loved responding with the same word yelled at equal volume, the two of us creating our own echo chamber, the glee in my voice severely befuddling the other passengers. 

Take things as they are, and make the best of them: I can’t solve her problems. But I can yell a duet with her down Third Avenue that confuses people and makes me laugh—with her, you understand, not at her. Wouldn’t it be funny if every passenger roared their destination stop with guttural force, saying little else?

Her strategy for absorbing life’s blows was to turn away. Addiction provided a solace she was unable to find elsewhere, and  before it claimed her life she lived in a hidden place of her own mind’s making. It was far away, this place, some other planet, but it was just near enough for me to hear her yelling James, and for me to yell back. 

Denise always threw in a few coins for bus fare—perhaps vestiges of a childhood in which she was taught to pay her way. I now realize that the coins she tossed in the farebox were pennies and nickels; she found a use for those things after all, alongside the fact that twenty years on, she’s paid me back in a way. Not that the fare matters much. Sometimes I’d get a sentence or two of conversation besides out of her—I always tried—and blushed when she’d croak, “YOU TH’ NICE BUS DRIVUH. YOU KIND.” Yes, her spittle would come flying at me in ways I didn’t particularly appreciate. And yes, I don’t exactly love being involuntarily inundated with the smell of Pacific Topsoils, Incorporated. ​

But I will think of the young woman who lived inside her, deep down and far away, the newlywed who didn’t want to get beaten, didn’t want to go home, couldn’t stand the pain.

Who hurt.

Emotional pain hurts worse than physical pain, and domestic abuse cuts deep because it is both emotional and physical. She was the girl who had no one to turn to, and looked for answers in all the wrong places. It doesn’t matter if those tears were real or fake. 

There was a reason they were there.

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Nathan Vass has had work displayed in over twenty photography shows, designed a book and three album covers, including two for Neil Welch. His “My Favorite Things” tour at Seattle Art Museum was the highest-attended such tour there. Nathan is also the director of eight films, four of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. He owns a photography business, Two Photography, with Larry Huang, and has photographed a dozen-plus weddings. Born in South Central LA, he holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Washington, and is also a prolific writer and sometime painter. Formerly a Hollywood resident, he still contributes film reviews to Erik Samdahl's site, Filmjabber. In addition, he holds a side job as a public bus driver, which he enjoys almost as much as directing films- if not slightly more so! He is a two-time winner of Metro’s Operator of the Month award and holds a record number of commendations.

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