Alright, I admit this title is an overused and completely incorrect phrase when applied to the situation I plan to write about here, however… the individual words hold meaning for me in regards to much of the space I occupied last evening so I am running with this title.
First, the non-shock, but still awesome part. Alison and I ventured south to our capital city last night for dinner and our almost annual summer musical theater event. The term city is relative as you will read shortly.
**Quick shout out to the esteemed TDP and this post, which came at the most fortuitous time, and helped to direct me in the correct use of capital/capitol. I fear I may have used the wrong spelling without her timely post.
We had dinner at an amazing Thai restaurant called Lemongrass, starting with vegetable wonton appetizers. Then we shared Buddha Tofu: slabs of creamy and delicately soft inside-fried to chewy perfection outside tofu floating in a fresh tomato-garlic-pineapple sauce, and apple-potato curry in a slightly sweet and coconut infused sauce. I literally could have had an entire bowl of the curry broth all by itself. I cannot make curries that come anywhere near the goodness in that bowl. There was so much on the menu that I still want to try. I would also like them to move the restaurant to my front yard for ease of trying and continuing to enjoy those dishes.
I have written in the past about the little theater in our state’s capital that, we learned last night, will celebrate 25 years in 2016. For a several years they have taken on a fun musical production centered on music of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’m much too lazy right now to link past posts so if you need/desire information on these events it’s up to you to search the archives. Suffice to say, we have enjoyed these summer outings since we seem to go back almost every year. Last night they showcased a reworked version of their 2009 production. This one was entitled Sixties Chicks Too.
My impression of this production was good, but not great. A husband-wife team are the artistic directors and I have come to realize that they enjoy making social statements, and providing education on social issues as a part of their productions. They always manage to incorporate a video screen backdrop into their shows, usually filled with relevant news images and thought-provoking words appropriate to the era being portrayed. Somehow it works, probably because this city is known for an association with both the unique, eclectic and often outspoken old hippie/new hipster worldview. Sixties Chicks Too meandered through songs centered on teenybopper love, feminist empowerment, soul, the sexual revolution and folk ballads with a cast of four female actors. The first half was so-so, but after intermission the personalities of all the players finally emerged. My favorite of the night, and I am not a huge Janis Joplin fan, was a petite brunette (and also choreographer of the show) who rocked an amazing tribute to Janis with a powerful, energetic, at times frantic, rendition of “Me & Bobby McGee.”
Now, we need to move on to the shock and awe parts of the evening. I have to use those words because Alison and I were both overwhelmed by the glaring change in the downtown core of the old city.
To clarify a bit first…our capitol building and surrounding government buildings sit next to an inlet of the Puget Sound. The original, old-timey city proper houses the eclectic contingent, plus historical buildings, homes and businesses remade and re-purposed many times over. Across the inlet sits the expansion of mid-century homes, and even farther west lies the modern, strip-mall capital city.
Alison and I have frequented the historic district for years as we love the shops and have always loved the history and feel associated with this little enclave just 1/2 mile from the capital campus. Last night was different and thus we speak of the shock and awe. In the past hipsters have been a mainstay along one or two of the central avenues. I only focus on them in the context that they simply are the core of the old downtown itself. Many work there, many simply hang out there, and some also live there, on the street, literally moving from place to place among the alleys and bus station and market area.
A change has taken place. Walking along the sidewalks last evening felt different. We were wary, and even uncomfortable, and neither Alison or myself has ever felt that way before, especially early in the evening. After eating, we had some time to kill before the theater opened. Just one block past the restaurant we both became silent, rather absorbed in what we were seeing as we walked. The hipsters were still present, but transients, more than we have ever noticed before, were clearly the new normal along the tree-lined streets. Almost every doorway of the closed businesses housed a disheveled, often very dirty, just as often drunk or passed out, down and out transient. Parking lots held contingents of vagrants, clearly homeless souls with their lives crammed into backpacks and bags, their dogs mingling while words were exchanged among the mostly male groups. Their ages ranged from young – teens/20’s – to much older men. While no one was ever aggressive towards us we mutually became aware that we weren’t comfortable anymore, walking on those sidewalks, and we maneuvered ourselves out of the area and back toward our car.
Words and emotions began to flow between Alison and I.
“What has happened here?”
“When did the homeless become so present, so complete, just so everywhere?”
“Have we not seen this before, why now, what has changed?”
“Why are we so uncomfortable with this?”
“Why are we worried about walking here?”
We each felt uncomfortable with ourselves because we were being both overwhelmed by the sheer numbers but also because we were being judgey, not judgmental per se, but just feeling more than okay with our reactions to these human beings, homeless and alone, living on the streets and among the places that just a few months ago felt light and happy and fun. We didn’t like either the imagined situations that may have led to this change, nor our reaction to the people just trying to live on both sides of this change.
We talked, and I began to remember reading some news stories telling, not so much why or how, but that yes indeed, transients and the homeless were becoming a huge “social problem” for this downtown corridor. We talked about other things we noticed that night: a much more obvious police presence than before; what appeared to be a mobile soup kitchen set up in a parking lot just to the rear of the theater we were visiting; the clear lack of cultural diversity in this city. This city is white, beyond even the whiteness of my own tightly wound suburban community. There has always been a large LGBTQ community here, but people of color–you would struggle to find anyone with racially diverse ties.
I don’t have the answers as to why this noticeable change has occurred here. Of course I am not so naive as to believe that this small, old town area was ever completely without a homeless population. We’ve seen transients scattered throughout the core every time we visit. It is the apparent suddenness with which this population has come to claim a 2×4 block radius as their own that surprises and mystifies and bothers. Individuals lingered on the fringes, but I almost want to characterize this striking upswing as likened to cattle being herded into a strictly monitored enclosure. And that is god-awful in both my use of that image as explanatory to what we saw as well as the implication of the notion as reality.
Alison and I, along with a smattering of other very middle class residents and visitors, were decidedly the outliers here. We were the strangers. We, with the clean clothing and the ability to eat dinner in a restaurant and pay for tickets to a musical, we didn’t fit in. Speaking personally, we were uncomfortable, and wary and even slightly frightened by the sense of ownership and authority of this ‘in group’ of individuals who live differently than ourselves. I was made keenly aware of emotions and feelings associated with difference, of exclusion based on appearance and class. My emotions scattered when faced with the ability, if only partially, to begin to comprehend what it may mean to live in a society whereby you are ostracized, or marginalized, or oppressed simply because you are different.
Much later, enclosed within a moving bubble of that same middle class humanity edging as one group along the sidewalk and through the increasingly crowded streets, the enjoyment found in the last few hours was replaced once more with questions.
Would we come here again, to this place that has been fun, and always seemed welcoming?
Would the numbers of homeless grow and with that increase would aggression among their groups increase, or spill over onto those of us who live a very different life, who don’t seem to belong, who are intruding?
I also silently had to ask myself what my place was here, or if I had any true ability to understand this world. I came away clearly knowing that I have a lot to learn. That my understanding of this one social issue, while allowing me to glimpse what so many others live and endure each day based on class or gender identity or race, is minimal at best. My place is centered in privilege, and through this experience, confronted with that knowledge I am shocked at my naivete, my own incomplete understanding of people who live in ways unimaginable to me.
The easily invisible few, scattered here and there, forgotten in previous visits as quickly as we would round a corner onto the next street could not be overlooked this time. The bodies strewn about, huddling in doorways, congregating in alleys and on benches, walking tirelessly from place to place and corner to corner, taught me more about my meager grasp on our world than reading a hundred sociology texts. My eyes were forced to see and I am now also forced not to ignore, perhaps forced not to write of wondrous meals, or inconsequential outings that are quickly meaningless to me. Trivialities I take for granted but unattainable to so many.
Today I am forced to think, and hopefully also do something as I acknowledge my privilege in this world.