Will Work for Food or $

A suburban dweller for a long time now, I don’t spend a lot of time in downtown Seattle.  It takes a long time to get there, and a long time to get back.  The traffic is hideous and the parking is pricey.    It seems like a lot of trouble to go downtown.  But the other day I needed to visit the downtown public library to use some research materials unavailable elsewhere.  I had TGeek drop me there on his way to work.


I arrived ten minutes before opening and found some 40 people waiting at the door—about 90% male, 75% minority (African-American or Hispanic).  Most carried packs, as I did, but their packs weren’t book-shaped like mine.  The men at the door carried rounded bundles.  I paced impatiently up and down the street.  The other waiters stood still or sat on the ledge outside the building, their eyes sliding over me without interest.


Through the window I watched the staff, including several uniformed security guards, preparing for opening.  They turned on the lights, turned on the metal detectors, and took their places.  When the door opened, I stood back and waited until everyone else had entered.  They’d been waiting in the cold far longer than I had.


The library is just a few years old and was designed by a famous architect—Rem Koolhaas.  It is The. Weirdest. Building. I have ever been in.  It’s even weirder than Paul Allen’s museum, the Experience Music Project, which looks like a giant blob on the outside but behaves like a relatively normal structure inside.  The inside of the library is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, sans candy.  I am disinclined to take elevators, and so attempted to get to the seventh floor via stairs or (in this case, neon lighted) escalator.  I felt certain it could be done, but hell if I could find floor seven.  I fell down a rabbit hole and finally capitulated and took the elevator. 


Seattle Public Library




neon escalator



Years ago I used to use the old downtown library, which has since been torn down and replaced with this one.  That (ordinary, unremarkable) library had book stacks arranged in predictable ways and comfy chairs for relaxing while reading.  The chairs were usually occupied by sleeping people in filthy clothes.  It was at the old library that I first saw someone wash her hair in a public bathroom. 


So it’s no surprise that the new library does not offer comfy chairs.  There are some boxy, slightly padded chairs.  They are small and connected together and unsuitable for napping.  I wondered, as I was traveling through an area called the “mixing chamber” (don’t ask me, I don’t know what they do in there), what the homeless people do in this library.  Perhaps I misjudged the crowd out front and they were all perusing the stacks or doing some “mixing.”



Cool, yes.  Comfortable, not so much.





mixing chamber(?)



Shortly after this library excursion, I began reading Will Work for Food or $, by Bruce Moody.  The author lost his job at age 60, and in spite of his Yale degree and wealth of experience was unable to find work.  In danger of losing his apartment, he began panhandling at a freeway off-ramp.  The book is his memoir of the months he spent that way.


I am not recommending the book.  It was hard to read, not because it was emotionally affecting but rather the opposite.  Moody writes like a gerbil on crack—hurtling himself around in all directions at a high rate of speed but little apparent purpose.  I had to skim or just skip large sections.  Stream-of-consciousness blithering about God, his masculinity and its shortcomings, and suspiciously sketchy details about his past that didn’t quite add up, timeline-wise, all vomited upon the page without filtration.  I’m going to tell you about the book so you don’t need to suffer through it.


Moody set up shop on the roadside with a set of rules.  He had to bless everyone he saw.  He had to accept all offers of work.  He had to keep notes on who gave him what.  He had to treat his panhandling like a job, with a starting and ending time, and an hour for lunch.


I have to admit, here, that I had an agenda in reading this book.  I wanted a hopeful hard-luck story in which the deserving protagonist makes good use of the charity bestowed upon him, claws his way back from the brink of disaster, and goes on to live a self-sufficient life full of gratitude to those who helped him. 


And that pretty much describes the book (minus the god blithering).  So why did I hate it so much?


I think it’s because it had nothing to do with the crowd of homeless library dwellers.  Because a few handouts can’t save them.  Among the destitute there is a hierarchy, just as there is in every other facet of life.  The educated white guy who turns his bad luck into a book has nothing to teach the men who wait with dead eyes for the doors to open so they can get out of the rain.  The book comes off like bragging—like Moody won the race but he started just a few paces from the finish line. 


My complaints are unfair, I know.  Moody didn’t set out to provide epiphanies or make the world a better place.  It’s not his job to save the library guys, or the one shivering on the wet sidewalk outside the coffee shop I visited the same day.  I handed that man a buck, but it will only buy his next bottle. 


Moody ended up doing some gardening and handyman work for a kind woman who paid him enough to allow him to put an ad in the local paper and start a business.  Also an actor, he began getting paying roles in Bay area theaters.  He walked away from the off-ramp and never went back.


Some people can help themselves, some can be helped by others, and some can’t be helped much at all.  But if you are looking at a can’t-be-helped guy who has his hand out, can you make that judgment?  Can you refuse him?  What if you’re wrong?

In case anyone was curious, here’s the Experience Music Project.  I swear I’m not making this up.




28 thoughts on “Will Work for Food or $

  1. That’s the thing, you don’t know.  You never know.  Which is why I prefer to err on the side of paying for their beer (or worse).  Sometimes I think the handout is our cheap shorthand for acknowledging the beggar’s humanity.  On the other hand, cheap shorthand is better than nothing.

  2. I don’t know about the homeless issue, but I am shaking my head over that library.  I just finished reading Patience & Fortitude by Nicholas Basbanes which is partly about libraries and how they are designed and there’s a chapter about the disaster of the new main library in downtown San Fransisco–like your library a dramatic architectural statement with rooms devoted to multiculturalism, or “mixing” or whatever, but surprisingly little space devoted to, you know, BOOKS.  Then came the revelation that thousands–possibly hundreds of thousands–of books from the old main library were tossed into landfills because there wasn’t room for them in the new library.  One important function of a library is to keep on its shelves the things that are no longer in print, that can’t be bought off the shelves at Barnes & Noble. It made me so angry.  I hope your library saved its books and didn’t toss them for the sake of the neon escalator.

  3. We now see panhandlers in our suburban area, from time to time.  The thing is that this is a driving-only kind of place….we don’t walk down the sidewalks (there aren’t any) to get where we’re going.  That means that these people need to stand at busy intersections or traffic lights at the exits of shopping centers.  I just can’t get myself to open my window and have these people approach my car — especially when my kids are with me.  Oddly, I feel more vulnerable having them approach my space than I would if I could just walk right up to them and walk away after that.  

  4. If the buck goes to buy his next bottle, I always figure that’s okay.  The bottle takes him to someplace bearable — at least for a little while.  The thing about “helping” some of the homeless — well, maybe most of the homeless — is that we tend to think in terms of helping them live the sort of life that the majority of us think is the “right” kind of life.  And they are not able to live the way we live for varying reasons — mental illness in one form or another being right at the top of the list.  You are right.  They are light-years away from the finish line.Just as aside, I really dig where your thoughts take me.But I don’t dig the interior of your downtown library.  (insert grin here)

  5. The library looks amazing, in a “Hey, look at me” kind of way, which seems a little odd for what I would expect.  From a library.  It’s just not about the books, or access to the books, it seems.Our homeless guys that frequent our small town library generally spend a lot of time at the computers.  A few will go to magazine room, also not an entirely comfy place.  Other than that, our library, even the old original for which I had a great fondness, has never provided comfy reading spots.  The old one had massive wooden tables with hard wooden chairs, set among  the stacks, in the adult section, while the children’s area had only a couple of hard benches.  The new library has two chairs and one small round table between them, on the main floor.  The basement has the computers and a couple of tables.  Even the children’s area does not seem too conducive to comfortably spending time.  It’s more a “get yer books and get out” kind of place.  But at least we do have some books.Sometime I think the homeless, not all, but some, are AT the finish line.  Not that they belong where they are, or deserve it, but that they cannot exist in a place where  most of us are comfortable.  There is a place along the new bike path, by the river, and when the trees are bare, you can see the “tents” that have been tucked away there, and I wonder if they resent the rest of us, peeking into “their” world.

  6. @Daylily02 – I’m sure they ditched a lot of books in the move, but don’ know how many.  The stacks are arranged in a bizarre spiral format that makes it impossible to tell what floor you’re on or how far you’ve come.  @suzyQ_darnit – I agree, there are folks on the street who can’t live the way we think they should.  One problem with homelessness is how uncomfortable it makes other people.

  7. that music building looks like someone dumped out a trashcan.  ugh.  And I’m not too keen on the Seattle library, either – looks more like an airport… although I am intrigued by the idea of the “mixing chamber.”   Keep us posted if you figure that one out.

  8. As a kid in the 40s, I used to love our library.   I could stroll the stacks for hours, finally picking out my 7 books for the week.   I loved the smell, the quiet and the atmosphere of learning I found there.   Now it’s a library for the college there and they have moved our library closer to the center of town.   It’s an ok place and does have some comfy chairs.   I don’t know who is homeless and who is not..    I do know that the way I dress (happy pants, old Tshirt and flannel shirt over all) I suppose I could pass for homeless.  The Seattle library doesn’t look very inviting to me, sort of cold.    As for the music project building.  Ugh.   Who thought that one up? 

  9. I say that you can’t let your motives be entirely determined by another person’s motives.  When you give a dollar to a person that says they needed it, the dollar is no longer yours to decide what it should be spent on.I don’t think I could read in that library.  It looks more like a student center at an urban community college than a library.

  10. I usually don’t mind modern achitecture except in churches and libraries.  Sorry but not impressed with yours any more than the small branch behind me made of glass and corrugated metal.

  11. I fell in love with a library when I was a kid…in the downstairs of our town armory…quiet and cool and dark in the summertime…and then I’d take my books and climb a tree and read to my hearts content.  Your library pictures look more like going to the shopping malls in the Cities! 

  12. I remember the Experience Music Project.   Doesn’t that world renouned rock band “CHEESE” perform there?  Quite an interesting looking library there.   Libraries should be for reading, etc ….there are shelters for homeless.   Much too simplistic, I know…..but I’m sick of professional bums living off the rest of us who pay taxes to support them.  

  13. This is a great essay…I have always admired that library from afar and I like the insight about the homeless…I have always though that poverty is an absolute, that no matter what anybody does it doesn’t seem to constrain the fact the poverty will be there…nothing has convinced me otherwise…And I don’t like the tone either…there something about writing a book that is self serving isn’t it?

  14. @Barn_Bear – Yes, though Cheese hasn’t been seen at the EMP in a while.  There are not enough shelter beds for all the homeless people.  This becomes apparent whenever the temperatures drop below freezing and many people are turned away.  And shelters are only open at night.  Sure, you’d like the homeless people to go away, but where are they to go?@distractedbyzombies – Thank you!@youandwhosearmy – self-serving to write any book, or just a book about oneself?

  15.  You are clearly closer to the pulse of homeless people than I am or ever will be. Here, the homeless would shortly be without pulse.  But i don’t know what to make of you acknowledging that “some can’t be helped much at all”. That was kind of what I took away from the movie “The Soloist”,- that our offered solutions might be pointless. But , what then, are we supposed to do?   Wild architecture! What a country we live in, that such resources can be flung at such as this!

  16. In my region, the homeless are beginning to outweigh the resources available; un- or under-employment is at an informally-estimated 20%, and there are currently several single family dwellings that have either become abandoned or are housing more than intended capacity [an example: one 3br 2ba home that is housing two couples, four kids, one elderly single, two cars and one dilapidated truck in the street]. In my region, there is one family in a cheap two-bedroom apartment unit; a man, his [wife? girlfriend?], and two kids. He sets out to work at 5:00 A.M., and rolls back in at midnight, while she watches the two little ones [a toddler and an infant] while running errands and shipping items through the mail [eBay business?] – and still barely breaks even.Back to your article: your library looks like a fun place to hang, for youth – and much safer than back in my day. I know that our local library is [relatively] more interesting than libraries once were when I was a kid – more activities, as well as books. I grew up around books [seven full walls devoted just to paperbacks…]. Although the library looks more like a campus hangout or a mall than a library, the whacked-out design may prove to be a draw for kids to have a [relatively] safe hangout area. The block chair clusters are a bit weird, though…The author of that book, Moody: he overcame adversity by simple means of having previously had a sufficient enough education to leap ahead of the guy who had and has nothing, on the street, with no access to sanitary means, education, room, board, or advancement. Quite simply: Moody doesn’t count insofar as the homeless experience. Just my opinion, having neither read his book, nor formally interviewed said homeless people.Meanwhile, whether my dollar goes towards a beer or a sandwich: either way, it is a small measure of comfort to the guy whose eyes have a hard time meeting mine. Also, either way, I would likely have lost that same dollar along the way to an overpriced candy bar from a vending machine anyway – why worry it, right?You have, as usual, given quite a bit of food for thought…

  17. The thing is though aren’t most of us just one paycheck away from being homeless.   Well not maybe one, but after a few missing paychecks how many of us could continue to live in our homes, pay the utilities & feed our families.    And what makes one person do whatever it takes to keep a roof over their head while another simply appears to lose it all?  As far as handing over money to people, I just do it and then figure, hey what they do with it is their business.  Isn’t that what being charitable is about.  Sure you can teach a man to fish but if they aren’t mentally or physially capable what’s the point.Your library carpet makes me dizzy, so dizzy I’d probably toss my cookies if I had to try and find something there.  But then again I think libraries should be a calming place.

  18. I remember seeing homeless people in our main (St. Louis) library way back in the olden days of the early 80s.  They were there when you went to the local Germanfest (er, Strassenfest), and they’re there now.  I don’t think I see as many as I used to back then, probably because it’s not just after the deinstitutionalisation dealy….but since I was just downtown a couple of hours ago, I just realized that I most likely overlooked them.  Hell, there’s folks with various cans on busy intersections in the podunk county town where I live–they’re on the highways, highway off-ramps, etc.  I know half of them are full of shit, mainly because they claim that they’re merely trying to “get kids off drugs,” or some such shit.  You need MONEY for that?  I don’t think so.  Just tell me you’re going to get a bottle of MD 20/20 or something, and I’ll gladly give you the money!  Hell, I can relate to trying to drown your sorrows with the good ol’ C2H3OH. Who hasn’t?  But give me a little credit, and don’t insult my intelligence with trying to help the children!

  19. I love the library.  Well maybe not love.  Actually the 4th floor makes me nauseous.  It’s the RED floor.  The floor, walls and ceiling all painted the same color of fire engine red.  My tummy no likey. I wish I had a solution for the homeless problem, and it seems to be a product of our society.  We live in an anonymity creating highly mobile world where people are bereft of family, friends, and community far too easily.

  20. I think homelessness often cannot be solved with money alone.  I have no qualms about giving someone money they will spend unwisely.  Re: that library, it reminds me of the malls that blast “classic rock” to keep all the undesirables away.

  21. Hey now. Don’t diss the EMP. I LOVE the EMP. And don’t forget the sci-fi museum is in that building too (Speaking of which, we should go there soon, I love the sci-fi museum and haven’t been there for-freaking-ever). The downtown library actually looks pretty awesome. Comfortable, maybe not…but awesome nonetheless. It reminds me of something, but I can’t quite place what…:-/ oh well.

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