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
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.
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.