I am proud to announce that my essay, Golden, was chosen as an Honorable Mention for a Women on Writing (WOW) award!
Congratulations to our Essay Contest Honorable Mentions!
Your essays stood out and are excellent in every way.
Say Map by Katherine Champney, Manassas, Virginia
56 Hours by Kristin Gallagher, Miami Beach, Florida
Spit by MM Lynch, Toronto, Ontario, CANADA
Golden by Joan Hicks Boone, Burnsville, Minnesota
Flight Path by Kathleen Cain, Arvada, Colorado
Finding My Voice by Christina Hamlett, Pasadena, California
I Am, Therefore I Art by Pepper Hume, Bartlesville, Oklahoma
Have You Ever Felt Sorry for a Therapist? by Aimee Carlson, Granger, Indiana
A Dream for Dylan by Melanie Ormand, Sugar Land, Texas
The Price by Ann Kathryn Kelly, Dover, New Hampshire
A few years ago I spent 10 days in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle pet-sitting for Olive (Golden Retriever) and Leo (Maine Coon cat) while our son and daughter in law went on vacation. My plan was to write a few chapters for The Best Girl while I was there. Instead, I wrote a series of essays about the neighborhood. Golden has been through a multitude of revisions and I have submitted it to about 30 publications so far. This is the first time it "placed" for an award. I hope you enjoy it.
Author's note: Aprroximately 554,000 people are homeless in the United States; there are approximately 9,000 homeless people in Minnesota and 22,000 in Washington State.
This man, who looks to be around sixty years of age, but could be as young as thirty, is seated in a lawn chair surrounded by three red plastic milk crates, just like the ones that hold small cartons of milk at most elementary schools. A quick glance at his clothes – jeans, tennis shoes and winter coat – reveals that he is soaked through due to the Seattle rain cascading from the sky in tremendous amounts. The green and white webbing of the lawn chair is straining under the man’s weight, the metal legs are bent and look to be providing only meek support. The man’s bottom is at risk of landing in the muddy puddle underneath. The whole of it: the chair, crates and man, is his home. The front is bordered by the sidewalk and the back by a brown, wooden privacy fence. A dozen or so used beer cans, and at least as many discarded cigarette packs, are strewn around the wobbly metal legs of the chair, creating a raggedy outline around the dilapidated piece of furniture. Stepping a bit closer, I see a long white pole poking out of the center of one of the crates. The pole is topped off with a neon-yellow patio umbrella emblazoned with the words, typecast in white: Miller Genuine Draft. Within the crate, a dozen or so rocks surround the pole to offer stabilization, but it is not enough to stop the keening wind from causing the umbrella to lean away from the man’s humble abode. The umbrella, then, does little to protect him from the deluge falling from the sky. The second crate is filled with packs of cigarettes, their plastic sleeves dotted with raindrops, and several cans of Bud Light. I can’t quite see what is inside the third bin, but whatever it is has captured the attention of my grand-dog, Olive.
What some might consider a temporary, makeshift residence is permanent for this gentleman and is in stark contrast to the towering corporate edifices of Google, Adobe and Tableau. The windows of these lucrative Seattle-based corporations look out over the enduring natural beauty that adorns the acclaimed Seattle skyline: Lake Union, Elliot Bay, the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier. This man has no windows, and his view consists of what he can see from his chair, which includes those of us walking on the sidewalk, the traffic passing by on the section of road directly in front of his space, and the Vietnamese restaurant across the street. As I try to maneuver the ever-curious Olive away from the unknown contents of the third crate, the man rises from his chair in a flurry.
“Umbrella isn’t keeping me dry,” he explains, trying to wrestle the long plastic pole into a better position. Once he feels he has made an adequate adjustment, he sits down and tests out the new level of protection. Immediately, he gets up again – the angle requires further modification. I suspect the pursuit of protection from the rain will keep the man occupied for most of the day.
I gather Olive’s leash up a bit tighter as she is now straining to greet the man, the contents of the crate forgotten for now.
“Just a minute,” I say to the Golden Retriever temporarily in my care. I wait a bit, allowing him the time and space to complete another sequence of adjustments, before offering up Olive’s unconditional love to him. “Would you like to meet my grand-dog?”
“Well, howdy doody,” he says, as Olive brings her golden-haired, soaking wet head into his lap. I know from my own experience that she is determined to give him a big lick of love, though the stubble on his face may surprise her.
“Nice umbrella you have there,” I say. I tighten the hood on my rain jacket a little, give Olive a strong tug as I am unsure of whether the man is open to her overzealous nature. In the end, Olive succeeds on giving him a few licks, and then turns back towards the crate. Her leash has a section of elastic meant to help in preventing her from pulling, but it is not helping to curb her enthusiasm surrounding the crate.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice he has created a stone structure on the other side of the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, I observe an approximately three foot tall tower made of various pieces of white Formica countertop material. The structure is as precarious as a house made of cards and appears more unsteady than the man’s umbrella pole. In an attempt to prevent onlookers from disturbing the network of Formica, yellow caution tape is tied haphazardly around the structure. A bucket with a cardboard sign is placed next to the structure asking for donations to support Stone Art.
“I got the umbrella from the restaurant down the street,” the man says, a wide grin spreading across his face. He is clearly proud of the acquisition. His speech has a unique energy to it – as though the first letters of each word are capitalized. “They went out of business and I was right there!”
“I’m so glad you have it – you need it on a day like today!” I say, cheerfully, while Olive gets even closer to the crate that she has deemed must be explored. “Olive, you can’t have that – come on, sweetie. It’s time for us to move along.” I make a feeble attempt to add a touch of harshness to my voice, but she knows her grandma well enough to know there is no ill will between us. Finally, she gives up her pursuit of happiness and we resume our walk.
“Olive is a beautiful dog,” the man shouts to our backs, trying once again to position his umbrella. Olive accepts the compliment by raising her head a bit higher and adding a little bounce to her step. Olive is fully aware that she is beautiful
It is our early evening walk, and the shops are closing, which means the homeless can claim a storefront for the night. Many of the shops in this downtown area have recessed entrances, and these, I can tell, are the first to be taken. We pass by an elderly lady who is so snuggled into a storefront, a backpack and grocery cart nestled on the steps alongside her, that she looks comfortable, safe even. She has more layers of clothing on than some of the homeless people I have seen in Minneapolis, my hometown, in the dead of winter.
Our son, Tony, and his partner, Nadia, are on vacation – hiking in the mountains of New Zealand – and I, Grandma Joan, came to stay with their dog and cat, saving them the cost of a pet sitter. Tony and Nadia live in an apartment in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, located next to a community art installment that has become an odd tourist attraction: a gigantic cement troll. The troll is housed, appropriately, under a bridge. Their ground floor apartment, in the Troll Eye complex, is perpendicular to the troll. All day long, starting at about 6:00 a.m. and going until 10:00 p.m. or so, people from the world over come to see the Fremont Troll. His body, face and extremities are a cement-gray color, save for one eye that is painted a shocking bright-blue. During the creation of the sculpture, the artists embedded trash of all kinds into the wet cement, all of which dried into place. Coke cans, items of trash, water bottles and more are cemented into the ogre’s body, but how the artists cemented in an entire Volkswagen Beetle, it’s headlights peeking out through the torso, is beyond me. Watching the various groups of friends and families take pictures in front of the troll, on the side of the troll, or anywhere near the troll, one would think they are at a significant landmark: the Lincoln Memorial or the White House – but no, they are here in Fremont to see an overgrown cement troll. The visitors arrive in all manner of transportation – cars, taxis, Uber drivers, motorhomes, motorcycles and tour buses drive by at all hours of the day. There is also a significant amount of foot traffic, and it is these pedestrians that Olive is most interested in. In her opinion, each and every person is a potential friend who will ultimately want a dog-kiss. People who stop a bit longer and offer her a belly rub become Olive’s friends for life.
A few blocks past the residence of the man with the stone sculpture, we pass by two wayward men. One of the men is leaning on an old-time bike – it has only one speed and lacks any enhancements, including the neoprene heated gloves that many of the bike commuters in this area have deemed a necessity. A light blue plastic crate, haphazardly balanced on the back fender holds his belongings; just one bungee cord holds it in place. An overstuffed backpack is on the ground near the other man, who does not have a bike. Both look to be about thirty. The two of them are shooting the breeze, catching up a bit, or at least it appears that way. As Olive and I approach, the man on the bike asks me if I know where the bike shop is as he has a flat tire.
“I’m sorry, I don’t. I’m from Minnesota, just visiting,” I explain.
“Oh, Minn – e – sOOoooota!” he replies while walking his bike across the street. The other man chuckles in agreement.
“Yep, you’ve got the rain, we’ve got the snow!” I say, laughing lightly.
I arrived four days ago, and twice daily Olive and I walk the same route, and have come across pretty much the same homeless people each day. In contrast to the homeless in the downtown areas of Minneapolis, the homeless in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle seem settled in. Most, no matter the age or gender, appear to be happy and comfortable with their living situation; they do not harass passersby for money. One of the older men, possibly around eighty years of age, stands in the same doorway of the same storefront seemingly all day and all evening, singing the blues to his heart’s content; he has no hat, cup or bucket to accept donations in – though I imagine he would accept one if offered. A young woman, who looks to be about twenty, appears to be permanently housed on the steps leading to a lofted apartment, singing quietly to herself while playing an acoustic guitar. Immersed in her music, she appears oblivious to the people that pass her by.
I don’t know anything about these people, whether they are veterans, run-away children, have family members or are native Washingtonians. The homeless of Fremont are of all ages, of both genders, and appear to be as essential to the urban fabric of the neighborhood as the Fremont Troll, as Adobe, as Google.
Olive and I arrive at Starbuck’s and I decide to stop in for a cup of hot coffee, the rainy weather has me in an almost constant chill. I tie Olive to the bike rack outside the door, and hop inside. Three men with damp and muddy backpacks stand just inside the entrance and are sipping water out of plastic cups, compliments of Starbuck’s. Their staggering body odor is instantly noticeable, and I wonder when the last time was that they were able to shower or bathe. As I wait for my Grande Caffé Latte, I notice the youngest one – approximately thirty years old is agitated. He is mumbling to himself. I watch as he makes his way outside, only to immediately turn and reenter. In the few minutes it takes for the barista to whip up my drink, the young man has retraced the same route about ten times. The other two men are sitting in leather-like chairs next to the floor to ceiling windows, their backpacks cast aside. Both have their gaze fixed on something outside and appear to be unaware of anyone else’s presence. As I head back outside to unleash Olive, a bus pulls up in front of Starbuck’s and the pacing man climbs aboard.
On the last leg of our walk, it stops raining for the first time in four days. Immediately I pull off my hood, unzip my zipper.
“The sun is out, Olive!” I announce gleefully. I’ve learned that every moment in Seattle without rain is to be celebrated, and I’m more than ready. I don’t remember it ever raining solidly for four days straight at home and the dreariness of it all has taken its toll on me. Olive glances up at me, unimpressed; she has acclimated well to her life in Seattle. As we start to pass by the Fremont library, she vigorously escorts me toward a new potential friend.
“Your dog – is it an Irish Setter?” a thin, middle-aged man asks, bending down to pet Olive. We have not come across this man on our walk before and we stop to chat for a minute. His backpack is large – the type used for back-country camping. The weight of it, combined with the motion of stooping over, causes him to topple a little. “I think I better take my pack off,” he says with a chuckle.
“No, a Golden Retriever. She’s my grand-dog and I’m temporarily in charge of her,” I answer. Olive is instantly in love with him and starts giving him her trademark licks. She gives me a quick glance, then makes a split- second decision to lie down and roll over for a belly rub. Half of her body is wallowing in a mud puddle, which is of no concern to her.
“Ho, ho! Well, now! That’s more like it,” the man crows, rubbing his hands across Olive’s soft, white belly fur. I crouch down as well and join in; Olive extends all four legs out to the side, exposing her full belly – she wants to make sure her entire underside gets a good rubdown. As her body completely relaxes, her soft, brown eyes look towards the sky and I know she is ascending into her happy place. I look up and glance briefly into the man’s dark brown, slightly cloudy eyes. “What’s your name?” I ask.
“Jeffrey,” he replies.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jeffrey,” I say, extending my hand out in order to shake his. “My name is Joan. I’m visiting from Minnesota.”
“I thought for sure your dog was an Irish Setter. I have a friend who has one,” he continues. His speech is animated, and as I watch him interact with Olive, his furrowed brow lifts and a delightful smile lights up his face. Olive is treating her new pal Jeffrey to a golden moment. As he leans farther down, a short curl of black and gray hair droops onto his forehead.
“How do you keep her so soft?” The man, as is almost everyone we stop to greet, is impressed by Olive’s stunning beauty. It doesn’t seem appropriate, however, for me to share that Olive is bathed weekly, and that her reddish blonde coat is groomed regularly with conditioner to keep it as soft and luxurious as possible. While I’m trying to come up with an alternate answer, I notice a small wet area in the crotch of Jeffrey’s jeans. I bend my head down closer to Olive and out of the corner of my eye I watch the wetness spread to his thighs. As a fellow human being, I am overcome by what can only be described as a profound loss of dignity for this man. As I comprehend his vulnerability, a wetness of my own forms: salty tears filled with grace and sorrow sneak out of my eyes, roll down my cheeks. Suddenly, Olive’s nose becomes aware of his incontinence and she scrambles to right herself – moving quickly with the intention of checking out the intriguing scent.
“Okay, Olive! Time to get going!” I rise to my feet, pull hard on the leash. If I can do this one thing – if I can prevent Olive, and therefore myself, from drawing attention to this man’s incontinence – then perhaps I can preserve this golden moment for him.
“Her name is Olive? So cute. Thanks for letting me pet her! You made my day! She’s so soft, just beautiful. I still think she’s an Irish Setter! Well, time for me to head into the library!”
“Okay, have a good time! I’m sure Olive would love to join you!” I say, jokingly, as he walks towards the entrance. As he opens the door to the library, he calls Olive, hoping she will join him, essentially turning my pipe dream of a joke into a possibility.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. “We have to get going – and I don’t think they allow dogs in the library.” Unfortunately for me, Olive’s ears perked up at the sound of her name and she decides to take the man up on his offer. She pulls hard – my arm and the leash are fully extended – it feels like I’m fishing, trying to reel in a Minnesota walleye on one of our 10,000 lakes. Finally, I get the leash rolled around my hand so that she has no choice but to succumb to reality; her only option is to continue walking with Grandma Joan. Together, we climb the steep hill to the Fremont Troll and the Troll Eye apartment complex. Once in the apartment, I grab Olive’s large bath towel and dry her silky coat as Leo, who is the largest cat I have ever met, winds his way around my legs.
When I was twelve years old, my mom filed for divorce from my dad due to his violent abuse, which was escalating, towards her. The judge awarded the house to Mom as Dad had never been able to hold down a job. No longer allowed to live in our home, and having no way to support himself, my dad became homeless. He lived for many years on the streets of Minneapolis, and died on an unknown street in Los Angeles.
Though my older brother sought Dad out a few times in the alleys or streets of Minneapolis, I did not. Initially I was too young, but even when I obtained my driver’s license and had my own car, I could not summon up enough courage to seek him out. While it’s true I didn’t want to see how he was living, it was his history of violent behavior and his deteriorating mental health status that kept me away. I don’t regret my decision, but I do wonder what his life was like. How did he survive on the streets when he couldn’t speak a coherent sentence? Did he take advantage of the shelters, the meals and other services that the various volunteer groups in Minneapolis provide? How did he sleep in the harshness of winter? The heat of summer? Why, and how, did he move to California? Perhaps Dad didn’t feel accepted in the homeless community in Minneapolis. Perhaps the people were too helpful, or invasive, to let him live the way he wanted. Perhaps he left searching for a different kind of acceptance, hoping to find it in the far away land of California. Perhaps he wanted to be farther away from his family.
I will never know the answers to my questions. At this point, all I can do is hope, that, whether in Minneapolis or Los Angeles, at least one person came upon him and looked into his ice-blue eyes, greeted him with kindness and asked him his name. I also hope that the person had a dog – an Irish Setter, Golden Retriever, or anything in between – and that my dad, who loved dogs, was offered a golden moment of his own,