Jump in!

Now that I have been here about three months, and the fall is coming, and I am realizing that this move is more than just a big silly summer vacation, I have been thinking a lot about my first days in town. It makes me laugh to remember how wide-eyed, frightened and yet unreasonably hopeful I was. It shocks me to think how different a direction my life has taken since those early days…
My first friends in Seattle were these homeless guys who hung out by the water all day–in that “park” area by the aquarium, with the picnic tables and the disturbingly aggressive seagulls that crap all over EVERYTHING. I was sitting there, trying to plan out my new life, staring at places I did not yet know, waiting for my hostel check-in time to arrive, when I heard a scratchy voice from behind me–“Hey, wanna pet my bird?”
I turned around fast, teeth grittted in defensive New Yorker mode, to find a weathered looking man with freaking PIGEON in his hand. I had to decline the offer (pigeons terrify me), but the ice was then broken…his friends approached, slowly, shyly. Once they found out I was new in town, they overwhelmed me with chatter–tips on how to get around, places to go, stories about how they all ended up here.
Some were ridiculously young (an eighteen year old who had left Miluakee a few months before, lured by the promise of sweet, sweet Seattle weed). Others were around my age (a man from LA who had gotten kicked out of his parents house a few years back and had been wandering ever since). And some were older…like the guy with the pigeon, Brian.
He was there every time I went back over the next few days. It was hard to pinpoint his exact age really–if I had to judge by his perpetually resigned expression, I might say 50, but I know it was more like 35. I used to worry that I would appear rude because I had so little to say to him (I’m not good at striking up conversations with strangers), but it always ended up okay; cheesy though it may sound, I think Brian just wanted someone to listen.
He told me stories from different phases of his life; from his time in the Navy, to idyllic visits with his niece and nephew, to horror stories of the present day. How his back pack was stolen while he slept and how it wouldn’t be that bad really except for along with wadded up clothes and a few cans of food, the theif also got pictures of his family, his hometown, his dead mother–things he had no way of replacing. How most days, he just sat by the water, thinking about how there was no way out of his current situation. In between stories, he’d offer me swigs of his Pepsi and bites of canned tuna which always struck me as extraordinarily generous (I mean, if I had nothing, there’s no way I would be giving my food away to anyone, let alone some spoiled chick who had come to Seattle “on a whim”…I mean, how white girl princess is that??).
One day I was sitting with him, watching tourists stroll as he spoke. Some were ascending that pink ramp, making their way to the above landing. When they reached it, they all leaned over the railing, looking down at the water below.
“Hey,” yelled Brian. “Jump in!”
“What are you doing?” I asked him, slightly embarrassed, as I watched the tourists spin around in confusion.
Brian grinned at me and turned back to the tourists. “JUMP IN!” he repeated, even louder this time.
The tourists zeroed in on him. “You jump in!” they retorted.
He held up an extended index finger in a “Hold on a second,” and then stood.
“WHAT are you DOING?” I asked, a shade more nervous than before.
“Don’t worry. I do this alllll the time. Watch my stuff, okay?”
I nodded and watched as he jogged over to the ramp and up to the landing. I saw him converse with the crowd of tourists, negotiating. Then he stripped down to his boxers, climbed over the railing and…well…jumped in, while the tourists snapped photos.
When he returned to the bench he pale and shivering (the hot summer weather had not yet kicked in) and five bucks richer.
As the day progressed, Brian proved true to his word–he did do it “all of the time.” By the time I left a few hours later, he had made about four more jumps.
I don’t want to say that there is anything necessarily wrong with these transactions. Brian offered, they accepted. They hadn’t sat and talked with him, they didn’t think of him as a person, just a zany Seattle character–“Oh Betty, look at this delightfully quirky homeless man I met on vacation. I paid him a dollar to jump into the water. Isn’t that just a LAUGH?” That’s not so very evil, just human and a little sad.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Brian. The idealistic part of me thought “Someone as smart as Brian, surely he could get a job SOMEWHERE! And build a life! And be happy again!” But I know it isn’t that simple.
Since I have moved to the Hill and started working practically non-stop, I haven’t had much of a chance to go trade stories by the water. Even if I did, I am not sure that I would–“Hey guys, I have a house and a job and food in the fridge! Isn’t that great?”…but I might… I wonder if Brian still hangs out there. I wonder if he still gets five bucks a jump. I wonder what he does in the off season. I wonder if he’s okay…

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