Moving through the pockmarked world, warm eye contact with strangers, heaven on Earth — I’m talking about a world that is possible with love, when one can look beyond fear.
This is where we drop in. One quick shuffle shot southbound on Broadway. More specifically, I’m heading to Cal Anderson Park to meet my escort for the evening. The clock reads something like 7:30. It’s a little after dusk, the sky has gone black like a ripe plum, and all the lights have come on.
I pass hollow storefronts that have an easy, locked away glow and packed-out restaurants with a million little stories streaming out into the street. There are people all around, as Capitol Hill should have, so logic indicates that it’s best to keep your back to the brick, phone in your pocket, and eyes forward. Right?
24 hours in Capitol Hill, from dusk to dusk, I’m here because this is one of the places where everyone is — junkies, students, drifters, and CEOs, and they’re here for a million different reasons which I’m willing to bet boils down to — this is where their people are. We can’t exist alone, and that’s what I suspect as I jerkily rush into the night.
But if that’s so, then why am I terrified of you?
Standing on a street corner with strangers, nine times out of ten — no one says a damn thing to each other — but these are our siblings, are they not? Just as fleshy and soft as you are. What does this lead-tongued fear keep us from? What exists just beyond the fear? Tonight, I want to know people more than I want the safety of my crystal box. This takes practice.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD…
A low hum is kicking up, I am on the very edge of Cal — unequal parts shadow and white light — making a B-line for the dugout where my friend waits, legs crossed and smoking a cigarette. This is where the night begins, on the charged concrete steps, facing headlights on Pine Street.
Staying awake is the easy part, this is well-traced territory for me. I know the key to keeping morale high is to remain satisfied: well-watered, well-fed, well-pissed, and a little bit of dignity. Ergo, I carry some toner and sunscreen in my pocket next to pepper spray. The real challenge is just being in the moment, in letting the night find you, in having that trust in the world around you.
Thank God I am with someone who made that easier.
We passed a can of beer back and forth across the barren Seattle University campus, loosely acidic on my empty stomach. Outside Rhein Haus, there’s a crash of security guards checking the IDs of the little black dresses that clammer out from tinted windows and curl around them. Screams and lights, you can’t tell if they’re fighting or if they’re just that excited.
I want to talk to the security guards, but there’s lead in my gut. My brain knows nothing bad will happen, but my heart doesn’t. It is difficult to act until feelings sync with knowledge. I’m looking down the barrel of the night and nerves are kicking, ‘cause passivity just won’t do. There will be a cost.
We’re still just witnesses when a blue-eyed, denim evangelist rushes past with this boy in tow. He carries a wrapped plastic banner over his shoulder like a cross, his pace is quick, a dead strut.
Without a word, we’re keeping pace. What does his plastic read? I can’t wait to know. He unravels on the corner of 11th Ave and E Pike. My friend recognized this man as the same preacher type that got dropped on this very road a weekend earlier. The boy, all black in a U.S Army hoodie, is beginning to preach into a microphone when we lean in with a couple of questions.
Diamond-pointed malice in his eyes, looking only the bluer from his tan as he expounds the mainline for us. It goes like this: The Lord will not receive us in the kingdom of heaven unless we change, “When you really get saved and born again, you start hating the world, hate sin, hate the world, and hate people. The bible says that any man who loves the world. The love of the father is not in him.”
This man’s God is cold and lonely. I am more interested in the conditions which created him and his God than his carefully-measured, redundant spiel. He says he was raised Christian but was 21 when he found God. The preacher’s vivid depiction of Hell brought him to his knees.
I struggle to be let in. Like I said, this takes practice. So, I ask him, “What do you experience out here?” I was really asking about his internal experience, but I get anecdotes from him about being assaulted by people and being dragged through the streets.
He elaborates as a decently-drunk, tank-topped man slurs in the face of his friend looping the same dead point into a microphone: submit.
There is no other way this night should have begun. The anger, the gaped absurdity he provokes in others, he likely carries in his own heart for something as brilliant as the world around us. When he was assaulted that weekend before, I imagine him sitting alone in his living room, staring at the floor — the only sound is his heartbeat, the clock, and the blood he swallows.
If he hates the world, why is he out here risking life and limb to save us all? It’s not merely a shining exhibition of his magnificent hatred. Is it his duty to the Lord? Does his heart race as he prays?
A man in a leather duster rolls up and introduces himself as the anti-Christ. Both him and the Evangelist smile as they reminisce about CHOP, “Aren’t you the one that chased me with a screwdriver?” No, apparently the anti-Christ is a different occasion. But it’s kind of sweet how they smile over the violence, the smile might’ve even reached the evangelist’s eyes, I don’t remember, but it really doesn’t matter.
We break away with the tide of people, crackling warm flesh in the beginning of October. It’s 9:30 p.m., and we trust that we’ve got a bit of faith in the Lord.
YOU, MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS, WERE CALLED TO BE FREE…
It’s just about 10:30 p.m. when we exit QFC, Red Bull in tow — where now? The answer swooshes past quick in a black cloak, the yellow glow catching on the skin of his dome. This is the Bald Man. I see him virtually every time I am in Capitol Hill. He walks in circles, dressed in black, sharp like a club bouncer with this harsh, shark-like nose. He’s got a dare in his eyes, “Do you really want to know where I’m going?”
There’s an effort made to follow him, but he cuts the sidewalk with a mission and we’re tourists for the night. So we bottomed out somewhere else — outside a couple restaurants and opposite Neumos, where a roil of brassy jazz is in full swing under the red neon, bodies in full animation, rhythmic shapes are spilling off the curb.
Buskers have posted up outside the black Jeep which produced them. Plastic chairs and typewriters on TV trays and milk crates. They write poetry for a small fee.
I’m still running around the rim of the scene. When the music fades out, I’m stiff against the brick, a witness. The cost of fear, of hesitation, has played out before me an hour earlier and I still don’t know how to cut through the crust. It’s an unexercised muscle, I explain to myself, to my friend, that I don’t know how. I convince myself to waiting silence, in a lurch like my plane is landing.
The funny thing about humans is that we can’t live alone, and don’t have to, not if we don’t want to. My friend strikes up a conversation with this petite woman in this long, plaid skirt — a schoolgirl with an underlined wink, her name is Izzy. In a matter of minutes, I met her husband of one month, Conrad; one half of The Brudi Brothers, this folk rock band; and their friend, Adam, the poet scrawling Rimbaud-influenced verses on cardboard.
She asks me what kind of life I want. Without hesitation, I tell her one without fear before returning the question.
“This kind of life! Art, and fun, and beauty, and like those kinds of moments when you dance and you completely blackout, and you’re thinking about the other person or the music and you completely lose yourself. Those are the moments of life that I love and that I’m always chasing.” She is bright the way daylight is weary on the eyes of a cave dweller.
My cheekbones have gone stiff with a grin, labeling “freedom.”
A flurry of dance breaks out and the man with the purple cane finds me. He towers over me with blonde waves tucked into a grey skullcap, a heavy black jacket, and chains hanging from the pocket of his dirty, grey denim jeans — this is DJ. He is afraid to dance, and when Izzy encourages him, he gestures to his cane and she says it just gives him more class.
I learn about all his tattoos, etchings from his cheeks to his gut. He hugs me when he learns I was raised in the South too. “Feels good to have another fuckin’ Confederate out here … I’m from Everett, they’re always like, ‘Fuck you, you ain’t no true southerner’. I’m like fuck you bitch, my fuckin’ heart lies in the goddamn South,” he says.
I am swept away with his passion. To me, it doesn’t matter what I really think, I’ll glow as his mirror just to see him ratcheted up to maximum volume. It’s beautiful just to connect, but there’s something genuine in feeling that connection — we both know what that thick southern air feels like, having the night air swamp around you as you step out of the air conditioning, storm door exhaling behind you.
The block picks up into dance again, I feel DJ’s hesitation in myself, but there’s nothing left to judge, nothing to apologize for. I hold my friend’s hand, hesitantly responding with sloppy twirls where I grab his waist for balance. Everything just is.
Each of us are little balls rolling around a roulette wheel, some of us roll with cracks and chips that meddle with our odds. From being with someone to being with a crowd, it is to stare these odds down and accept the risk, because so much is possible beyond fear.
IF TWO LIE DOWN TOGETHER, THEY WILL KEEP WARM. BUT HOW CAN ONE KEEP WARM ALONE?
It’s 1 a.m., and for the next six hours, we wander through Capitol Hill, watching her eyes become heavier and heavier until she drops, empty.
Avoiding the vortex jazz corner, we pass by Neumos, a man on his knees sobbing. I keep walking only to look back and catch my friend kneeling with this man, nodding and listening. His girlfriend is gone. Oh man, I’m so sorry, I- Oh, your phone? It’s dead. You can’t reach your girlfriend. She’s been in there for hours. She’ll be okay, dude… White flesh gone pink, nodding in anguish at our statements.
It didn’t even occur to me to stop and ask him, but the choice had always been there. This realization strikes like seeing outside of a box, something cellophane inside me crinkles away.
A lap is made through the streets of curb-sitting-hours. The end of their night, sweaty, crouching in synthetic blends, dodging vomit. It’s 3:44 a.m., we shiver in 40 degrees, a subtle mist is in the empty streets.
We take shelter in the QFC parking garage on Broadway and Pike. A man wavers in the street, a half-lucid victim of the wind like an infant tree. A group of nightclub refugees loiter against a couple cars. We stand in the jaw of the parking garage at first, discovering a man with his jeans around his ankles, he seems barely conscious of his surroundings, submerged in a different type of cold.
At 6 a.m., Capitol Hill has this dream-like soup feeling, a man in blue skates past like an omen. Rats skitter in and out of bushes, Cal Anderson Park has gone blank as the black pulls into hushed blue light. A chilly, yet long-awaited breakfast is spent at Lost Lake Cafe.
By 8 a.m., I trade my friend for the warmth of a golden morning. It’s a bit of a raw deal, I know my preference between the two, but we play the hand we’re dealt. He goes to sleep and I go south on Broadway.
The world is regenerating again in new isolation, clean people go about their daily circuit. I feel hazy, catching my reflection in black glass. Me. The world, in and around. That’s all.
The Bald Man passes again. I swivel from my hips to watch him as he comes within reach and extends beyond it once again. He still walks with a bounding bite, catching my eyes slow in passing.
THERE IS NO LOVE IN FEAR. BUT PERFECT LOVE DRIVES OUT FEAR…
It’s 10 a.m. before I’m up and off my hiding spot on the Seattle Central College campus. DJ’s friend, Ashley, whom I meet an hour from now, will call this the safest place in Capitol Hill to sleep.
As I stroll through Cal Anderson Park, a man sits in the dugout. Initially, I hesitate, my reaction is to ignore and proceed in the name of safety. But where has playing it safe gotten me? I step outside my glass case and greet the man. His hands are made of thick leather, clutching a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
He introduces himself as Motion, “always forwards never backwards, and they call me Indiana Jones, because I be discoverin’ shit.” His favorite discovery is kemetic science, very possibly the 1980s repackaging of ancient Egyptian religion.
I ask him what he loves about life. His elbows are balanced and swiveling on his knees, hands gesturing with his words, “Family … No, God first always, but family, women.” He smiles at me, “But yeah, I love shit like this … Like I wish I could’ve grown up like this,” he gestures to the busy soccer game, “I grew up in the projects … These people ain’t ever seen no one get shot, get robbed.”
I confirm my suspicion that he doesn’t have much fear, “You’re not afraid to go anywhere?”
“I don’t give a fuck-”
“What about Afghanistan?”
“Shit … Afghanistan, I don’t give a fuck, give me an AK.”
I separate, despite Motion’s protests, and immediately collide with DJ, who speedwalks to hug me, grinning with a girl named Ashley, plump in jeans, a hoodie, and a perpetual smirk.
They invite me to hang out with them, and I explain that I have to stay in Capitol Hill. “Capitol Hill is one of the worst places to be stuck for that long,” Ashley says, and in hindsight, maybe I should’ve asked why, but come 4 p.m. I am able to understand intuitively.
When I ask them what they love, they talk over each other like siblings. Twisting from static hips, fidgeting, “I love … people who aren’t afraid to be original, like they’re just themselves, like they just don’t care and … freedom, and people who are free to do what they want-”
Ashley cuts in, hands sunk in her hoodie, “I love change, the human potential to change.”
DJ takes over, “No, I love that too, like I used to be a white supremacist, and now I’m completely anti-all-that-shit.”
This dynamic of change is why I can’t bring myself to hate anyone, pass some judgement as though I’m God. Everyone is capable of anything, and to even restrict ourselves to the binary of good and evil is blinding. It makes it difficult to recognize our own potential for harm, and easy to negotiate the humanity of someone else. I slip away with a quiet wave.
The afternoon washes around me, the interactions have become somewhat fatiguing. Privacy is a privilege that so many take for granted. Even being alone in an alley, alone on a bench, or alone behind your eyes, cannot compare to this stillness of something you can call your own.
I feel relief in the bathroom of Ooink. I am waiting out the clock.
It’s only 3 p.m. when I loiter around Capitol Hill Station. I start a conversation with a young girl waiting for her friend, homeless and hailing from Everett. My pulse doesn’t jerk when I open, this is another human being and I am beyond the atomized lurch I was last night.
I ride a little too far north on Broadway, flirting with the taste of rest. I am not even tired, there’s just no adrenaline left and no novelty to carry me. I am swept up with DJ again and the universe corrals me back to Cal.
“Cal Anderson…” He announces in a conversation, “It’s literally … the fucking Twilight Zone.”
A Black boy asks me for my Instagram as we pass the basketball court. Ashley keeps walking, and DJ lingers as I talk to him.
As I walk away, DJ lets me know that he hung around for my safety. He can only meet me as far as he has met himself. I am not afraid to be around DJ, but I don’t trust his temper enough to ask him to explore where that idea comes from. That’s a shame, what fear can deprive us and those around us of.
The sun is setting. I exit Cal.
Dusk wind is kicking up and there’s a little bite in the air, but not enough to make the corners which we loiter on uncomfortable. I slow-drip my way north. 10 minutes feels like an hour. It is Saturday for the rest of the world, and the slow drum beat is beginning to roll again. Infinitely in a loop. The exchange of light begins, the power of neon and bass, beating hearts and minds zoom around. I am on my way to a bed, but in this world, I have been home.
These are our lives! This is what we are on the planet to experience — someone’s perfume as they pass, the feeling of someone’s ribcage and lungs and heart up against yours when they hug you, the domesticity of a familiar convenience store. Life is outside, to be found in each other, a world of people we are so lucky to be amongst.
It is an active choice every day to love those around you, see them as human as you are, to understand that there is nothing to fear.