It is close to 100 degrees in Seattle when we load our van with boxes of books, clothes and housewares. A couple of weeks earlier my young immigrant friend and her sister stopped by our garage sale. When we asked them if they had suggestions for our leftover clothes and children’s books they suggested a homeless shelter. Their response was serious, almost plaintive.
With the help of Google we find a shelter called Noel House located in the hip and lively Belltown neighborhood. A young man with a tall afro and dark glasses sitting in front of the shelter smiles at us as we park in the loading zone. The receptionist buzzes us in and soon we are arranging books in a large half empty bookcase. The lobby fills up with women eagerly checking out the new arrivals. “Is this for us?” asks one. A heavy set young blond woman helps me carry a heavy box of books. “It’s heavy” I warn her. “I can lift it better than you” she laughs and sure enough she can.
“Can you make use of children’s books?” I ask the receptionist. She seems overwhelmed with all the activity and hesitates to answer. An authoritative voice answers from the back “Bring them in. Some of these ladies have visiting grand kids!” The voice belongs to a middle-aged woman pushing a cart stacked with boxes of packaged dinners. Her name is Dana (not her real name), and she is directing the women to help us unload our donations into the bookcase and plastic bins. “I will take some of the DVD’s out,” she says, “and replace them little by little, then they won’t disappear all at once.”
A thin, older woman with a long brown ponytail finds a hand mixer in one of the bins. “Can I have this?” She asks smiling broadly. “I’m not in charge,” I say, “but take it while you can.” My fiancée asks her if she knows what it is for. She nods enthusiastically. “Oh yes, I know!” “Plastic travel cups” another woman exclaims. “I need one of these.”
"I packed and unpacked these books many times over the years as I moved from this house to that one, from this country to that one"
“We run out of books so quickly” says Dana. My fiancée and I look at each other and smile. We feel happy to have chosen Noel House and to see that our treasured books have found a great second life. The big, strong blond girl picks up my coffee table book about the British coast that I purchased while living in England. I feel slightly embarrassed; what is she going to do with a book like that? She leafs through it. “Oh, beautiful pictures” she whispers and places it carefully in the case. Then I spot my beloved Jennifer Weiner series of books, which brought me comedic relief through some of life’s rough spots. They may enjoy that, I think. I see Harry Potter, a guide to Paris, a Southwestern cookbook, a book about reincarnation, more novels. I see a title I almost want to take back with me, but restrain myself. I packed and unpacked these books many times over the years as I moved from this house to that one, from this country to that one. Maybe, I think, one of these women might find some inspiration in one of these books. And who knows what that could lead to?
As we close the door behind us we still hear the women’s voices; “Oh a cutting board” and “what is this for?”. The man with the tall afro still sits in front of the shelter and takes an earbud out. “Thank you” he says, “my girlfriend lives there. Thank you very much.”
Driving home I remember my conversations with my young immigrant friend who, as a child, spent time in homeless shelters with her mom and siblings. “I don’t ever want my child to be in a shelter” she had said. I think about those words, and what they mean – the weight of them, the pain in them, but also the resolve in them. At the garage sale, I gave her an inherited antique dresser. I had lugged the piece around for 20 years. It lived in bedrooms, living rooms and hallways in The Netherlands, the US and England. “Are you sure you want to get rid of it?” my friend asks as she lifts the heavy marble top. “I’m sure,” I say “I love this piece and had my wedding make-up done in front of it. I saved it from becoming firewood. But now I’m ready to let it go.” It takes she and her sister two trips with a borrowed SUV to take it home. “Remember,” I say “if you ever sell it, just say two things; European import and antique. Americans will love it!” The sisters drive off laughing while shouting through the rolled down window “European import!”
"A girl rides her pink bicycle through a maze of tents and shopping carts. At first glance the scene looks shockingly normal"
As the cost of living in Seattle grows and house and rental prices rise, the homeless crisis becomes more visible as well. Tent communities sprout up left and right. Next to overpasses and spilling out onto hillsides, contrasting with fields full off gorgeous wildflowers. Under the West Seattle bridge a girl rides her pink bicycle through a maze of tents and shopping carts. At first glance the scene looks shockingly normal, the tents resembling a colorful neighborhood.
We are shedding the stuff that we no longer need or want. We could be doing so much more. Yet that little bit, that little effort creates a measure of happiness for someone; maybe just the thought that they were not forgotten. A smile, a dollar in a cup, dropping off a case of water during the heatwave, finding out what shelters need; let’s not turn away from our neighbors that need a little help. The byproduct is that it makes you feel better too and there is nothing wrong with that!
Pietje - say Peach-a!