Walk around Seattle and you’re certain to notice several things, one of the most common being homeless people. Lots and lots of homeless people. The last stats I read indicated that there are approximately 10,000 people living either on the streets or in shelters in Seattle, drawn presumably by the temperate climate and the prevalence of social services.
You see them everywhereâ€”congregated under overpasses, stumbling about Pioneer Square, selling Real Change papers outside the grocery store, sleeping in the downtown library, and, if you live up on the Hill like I do, milling about Cal Anderson Park, which is where I recently had one of the more unique interactions I’ve ever had with a homeless person.
I was walking through the Park listening to my iPod and smoking a cigarette. As I passed a bench a man motioned and spoke to me; I stopped and took out my headphones. He asked for a smoke but I didn’t have another one; unbothered by this news he shrugged, grunted and offered me the seat next to him on the bench. And that’s how I got to know Joe.
Joe is from Fairbanks, Alaska. If you don’t know exactly where Fairbanks is located on the map, let me assure you that it’s really, really out there. From Seattle it’s nearly the same distance to Fairbanks as it is to Chicago, St. Louis or Dallas.
Being so far out and isolated Fairbanks produces a certain type of man, and Joe fit the mold to a T. Physically he resembled a small grizzly bearâ€”he was intimidatingly large, built big and muscular but with a well developed paunch as well. He was pretty grubby and unkempt and was wearing white off-brand sneakers and a frayed black sweatsuit. Most noticeably there was hair everywhereâ€”sprouting like weeds from under his collar, fuzzing down his exposed forearms in a thick fur, bristling walrus-like around his mouth. It was as if Pig Pen from Charlie Brown had been raised on a diet of horse tranquilizers.
As he sipped from a bottle of Bacardi rum wrapped in a brown paper sack Joe told me about life in Fairbanksâ€”growing up playing hockey, fishing and hunting, trying to learn to play the guitar like Hendrix and VanHalen. All very manly, frontier stuff, exactly what you’d expect from an Alaskan man. As he told me about his present work as a commercial fisherman up in Alaska he pulled out a pouch of tobacco, which made me smileâ€”he had initially stopped me asking for a smoke and I appreciated the thrift in his wanting to smoke mine rather than burn through his own stash.
Joe talked. And talked. And then talked more. He was one of those people whose talking is like a juke-boxâ€”put in your quarter of inquiry and suddenly you’re stuck listening to all 18+ minutes of Alice’s Restaurant. Joe talked about being homeless, floating through parks when the weather was decent, occasionally finding a friend’s couch or taking refuge in a shelter when the weather turned.
He was affable and engaged and excited, and as I sat he talked rock music, fishing, professional sports, fishing, rock music, professional sportsâ€”a limited palette, yes, but one whose colors clearly intrigued him.
After about 20-minutes I interrupted Joe and told him I needed to get going. He said Sure but suddenly his demeanor shifted sharply. He mumbled, looked down, mumbled again, shifted on the bench and looked away. I asked what was up and he performed the same mumbling-shifting-looking-away maneuver.
I was a little confusedâ€”up to that point he’d been so garrulous and engaging and now this, so I asked again what the deal was.
He replied, Uh, I wanna ask you something but I’m notâ€”noâ€”no never mind, and stared in what seemed like hot embarrassment at the ground.
I’ve already told this story to a couple friends, and this is the point where all of them have interrupted and saidâ€”Surely now you must have known what he wanted to ask you. But as naive as it may sound, I didn’tâ€”I’d been listening to this hulking giant of an Alaskan fisherman tell me about hunting and sports and wasn’t thinking outside that character.
After a second’s pause I said, Hey manâ€”if there’s something you wanna ask me do it now because I gotta get going.
Joe looked at me, performed his same mumbling-shuffling-looking-away step, and said, I was just wondering if you… you know… if you’re… well, you know what I’m trying to say, right…??
And suddenly I knew exactly what he was trying to say.
This neighborhood of Seattle where I live is really gay. It’s Seattle’s version of the Castro or Boystown or Chelsea, and there are fags everywhereâ€”prancing like light-loafered queens with their little pocket-pooches or strut-stalking like hungry bears hunting pre-hibernation, and every other stereotype in between. And I love it, I love the diversity and the weirdness and how tremendously different it is from the rural Michigan where I grew up.
I’ve been asked out and hit on and flirted with so much by men that any homophobia I may once have had is gone. If anything I find another’s attraction to me, regardless their gender, flattering. But this was new to meâ€”this burly gruff Alaskan fisherman literally trolling for men and fumbling like an awkward acned sophomore asking for a homecoming date.
And because the situation was so unique I was curious, butâ€”and you can call me cruel or insensitive or whatever you’d likeâ€”I wasn’t about to hold Joe’s hand and coo gently at him. He was in his late 40’s, and while maybe he’d seen his share of difficulties and deserved sympathy and patience and understanding and all that, asking someone out is a skill you have to develop on your own and not with assistance from the person you’re asking out.
I thought for a moment and then replied, Well, I’ve got a couple ideas but I wouldn’t want to offend you if I was wrong, so why don’t you just ask me what you want and I’m sure it’ll be fine.
Joe looked down and away again, then up at me and anxiously spat out, I was justâ€”you knowâ€”just wondering if you wereâ€”you knowâ€”if you were gay?
I smiled and told him I wasn’t.
This didn’t seem to disappoint him greatly; in fact, it appeared that he was relieved, as if having now drawn our lines he could once again look at me. I asked if he was gay and he leaned back on the bench, lit a cigarette, inhaled and looked at me. Exhaling slowly he replied in a weary, distant voice,
Oh, I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’ve had some experiences with women that were really, really terrible. And then I’ve had some with men that were just beautiful. I guessâ€”well I guess I just don’t know anymore.
I didn’t know what to say to that and still don’t. Part of me sympathized and understoodâ€”I’ve certainly had my share of terrible experiences with women, though for better or worse I’ve never sought refuge from them in sexual intimacy with men.
As I stood to leave I wished Joe luck and meant it. Desire’s a tumultuous tempest with a shifting eye and I didn’t envy him being caught in those stormy currents.
I haven’t seen him since and presume he returned to Alaska for the final weeks of the season. It’s there that I imagine him now, on some shit-can rust-box of a fishing vessel getting tossed about the Bering Sea by house-sized waves, cranking himself up on amphetamines to be able to work the long hours required to haul fish. All the while dreaming of getting off the ship and returning to the comforts of a man, which are exactly the sorts of dreams a man in his position would never dare share with his shipmates.
It’s rough seas out there Joe but I thought you were great, and here’s hoping you can navigate safely to port.