The following occurred before Covid and other circumstances moved me away from actively being involved with relocations of various Tent City’s roaming around Seattle.
A few days before Christmas, I gave a ride to the neighborhood pawnshop to a man who recently became a homeless shelter resident in Seattle.
I met him while filming conversations with several teenagers who had volunteered to help the homeless camp settle in at their new location on a church parking lot in an upscale neighborhood.
He approached me while I was filming, asking if I was with the local press. I told him I was there to help out and talk with volunteers and residents if the opportunity presented itself. While I was explaining why I was there, I thought he was probably a church member or one of the parents of the dozen or so high school kids milling about looking to make themselves useful.
I’ll admit my surprise when he told me he was going to be staying in the shelter we were in the process of constructing.
Considering the many years I’ve been hanging around the edge, my preconceptions still surprise me.
I noticed some of the people standing near us do a double-take when he mentioned his status.
George, not his given name, is not what you think of when you think of a homeless man. He is well-groomed, well-spoken, and well dressed.
He’s in a pickle to use his words.
A pickle brought about by insurmountable medical debt combined with the inability to find a job. He told me his wife had recently died from cancer that struck her when there was a ceiling on the amount the insurance company would pay. He said they flew past the million-dollar cap two years into her treatment. Many brain surgeries, rehab, and a stroke all brought about the sale of his home, investments, stocks and bonds, and his wife’s car.
He wondered what would have happened to his love’s stress level if she were sick now when the cap had been taken away by the changes in health care coverage.
After liquidating most of his assets, he moved the two of them into a small apartment near the hospital.
George had been a mid-level executive with a religious organization overseeing their IT programs statewide. He told me he had no idea there was no unemployment insurance for church employees until he was laid off.
Their need to settle outstanding lawsuits against them made him too expensive to keep around.
He shared that what little family was alive was no longer able to help. They had done more than enough the first few years and were as played out, as were many others out there-
George showed a hangman’s humor to the situation making poignant remarks about the organization he had shown so much loyalty to through the years.
He laughed when he told me his downward spiral had one more foot in the rear to deliver before fate took a well-deserved break.
After he was made “redundant,” he went out with his co-workers for dinner and drinks at their favorite hangout – the Edgewater Inn.
He overdid it, plowing his car into a concrete barrier designed to keep cars off the rail tracks. Car was totaled – insurance had lapsed.
“Hey, the good thing was I pushed the car onto the lot near the art college for the night. If the cops had arrived, I would have been in the clink for sure!”
Amazing what we can laugh at when the reality is standing within spitting distance.
George and I talked for a while before he got recruited to help empty one of the trucks bringing camper gear from their last asphalt home.
I told him I would be back in the morning.
We would meet near the camp Christmas tree.
When I returned in the morning, we walked over to the church where they had set up coffee and some Danish. It was provided for whoever wanted to dig into the pile of goodies.
George told me he had a small storage unit across town that he would visit to get a few items to hock or sell. He was down to less than ten bucks and needed to get whatever he could get before tackling Social Security to investigate what might be available to him. He told me that avenue was a bust a few years ago, but he wanted to try again.
As I was thinking about the expense of a storage unit, he read my mind telling me it belonged to a friend who gave him the combination.
I guess he thought I was going to ask about the expense of a unit. I wasn’t going to –
An appointment I had scheduled for later in the morning was canceled, via text, while we were having coffee. I told George I’d run him around for a couple of hours.
When we got to the storage locker facility, I waited in the car for him. He was gone for about twenty-five minutes returning with a small bag under his arm.
“Got a couple of binoculars and the last of anything silver. Should fetch a couple of hundred, I hope.”
I went online on my iPhone to look up the retail price of a Swift Audubon 8.5 x 44 and a Swift Micron 10 x 25 sets of binoculars. Together they were listed at a bit over $410.00, with the 8.5 x 44 valued at $359.00.
George thought he’d get at least a hundred for the two of them. His wife had given him the better set for his birthday one year, so he was determined to “hock” them, getting them back as soon as possible.
Along with the binoculars, he had three one-ounce pure silver ingot bars he had given his wife on their last wedding anniversary.
They were limited edition bars with Christmas scenes carved on them.
He married during the holiday season thirty-plus years ago.
We talked about nothing in particular on our way to the pawnshop. Sports, the weather, and politics chased away the quiet time during the short ride.
When we parked near the pawnshop, we shared our surprise at how welcoming it looked from the street.
Neither of us had ever been in a hock shop, so we had no idea what to expect.
My expectations were tied to Rod Steiger’s gritty role in “The Pawnbroker.” His character Nazerman dealt with his wartime trauma by stifling his emotions, with the result that he saw everyone around him, especially the desperate people who come into his pawnshop, as the scum of the earth.”
A young lady greeted us when we walked in, pointing out where various items were displayed.
The store was immaculate.
A Christmas tree and a platter of cookies on a side table invited us to browse brightly lit counters and shelves full of inexpensive goodies.
As I wandered around the store, George got in line, looking at treasures people had either sold or forgotten to retrieve.
I joined George when he got to the counter. A middle-aged man, who had no resemblance to Steiger’s Nazerman, who overflowed with anger and remorse, greeted us warmly. This guy was obviously a graduate of the Dale Carnegie School. He made us feel comfortable and not at all embarrassed that we were at the “Bank of Last Resort.”
The salesman made very positive comments about the more expensive binoculars saying he would look up the value. He invited us to share the cookies and offered coffee if we wanted a cup. This reception was utterly contrary to what I thought of pawnshops.
I couldn’t hold back my expressed wish that my bank could learn a few things from this shopkeeper.
The man laughed as he continued looking at his computer. After a couple of minutes, he asked George if he had anything else he wanted to be valued. George took out the three individually wrapped ingots, proudly displaying them.
A number of the other employees came over to gaze at the silver, saying how beautiful they were. George couldn’t help but tell them they were a gift to his wife.
As soon as that came out of his mouth, I could feel his regret.
The proprietor looked at the silver through a loop complimenting the engravings.
A few minutes passed before the man looked at George, telling him he could give him $15.00 for the binoculars and .20 cents per gram for the silver bars. A total touching $35.00.
Can you actually hear silence or the stoppage of time? If so, I did.
The moment George heard the offered price, it seemed as if both had taken a sabbatical.
Like the characters starring in lame television situational dramas, I asked the man to repeat what he said even though he had been unequivocal. He explained that he needed to have a margin to sell the items if the client never came back into the shop.
George stepped out of that frozen moment thanking the man for his time and expertise. He told him that he would consider the price returning if he decided to sell.
George reverently wrapped the silver ingots, placing them back in the little bag he had laid on the counter.
George reached into his pocket to drop some coins into a Salvation Army bucket on the way to the car. He got a “God bless you” from the lady swinging the bell.
When we got to the car, I asked him if he would mind me calling around to get some prices on the silver. He nodded his approval, saying nothing.
I called a couple of dealers to find out that the best deal was based on silver content. Neither of the places I called cared what the pieces were as they were only interested in purity and weight. The best price was .61 cents a gram.
George sighed loudly, laughed, and asked if I would mind dropping him off back at the tent shelter. Our original plan of hitting Starbucks after the successful financial transaction was dead-
We drove back in silence. I could only imagine what might be going on in his mind.
George thanked me for the ride when we got back, saying he’d see me later. I had intended to leave straight away but got hooked into a conversation with a couple of people about some kids that were scheduled to come to camp and sing Christmas carols.
I wasn’t the one who organized it, so I begged off and hit the trail.
As I walked back to my car, George called out to me. I stopped and waited for him, wondering what was causing the ear-to-ear grin on his face.
“Here, look at this,” He said, handing me an envelope.
On the outside of the envelope, someone had written, “my daughter wrote the note inside.”
George prodded me to open it.
I opened it up way too slowly for George who was looking over my shoulder.
Inside was a note bordered by drawings of a Christmas tree and a snowman. Little birds were circling an angel perched on the top of the tree. The snowman had a big hat prominently displayed left of center with a red bow.
The handwritten note read as follows.
Dear homeless man,
Daddy told us about you when he came home tonight. He said he heard your wife had died and you have no job. We are so sorry that has happened to you. We know you must be sad, but we want you to be happy at Christmas – not sad. Daddy said you felt like a lovely man, and he is usually right about such things. We will say prayers for you.
Jennifer, Amy, Jimmy
On the bottom was written.
This was totally the kids’ idea. They decided to share what they had saved with you. We added to their gift. Merry Christmas.
I looked at George, who was biting back the tears forming in his eyes. I handed him cash totaling $143.86, a $50.00 Starbucks gift card, a $50.00 QFC gift card, and a sixty-day all-region bus pass.
After a moment, he insisted on treating me at Starbucks.