One day last October, as the tent city called Nickelsville flowered pink and blue in the parking lot of University Christian Church in the U District, George arrived in Seattle on a one-way bus from St. Petersburg with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Florida's Department of Corrections had put him on the bus the hour after releasing him from two years of incarceration for a nonviolent felony. He passed his first night in Seattle under a bridge downtown.
Early next morning he found his way to the tent city, and after undergoing background checks and orientation was given a tent and his first assignment to the security detail. I met George when driving residents to and from free showers at a community center.
On my first day as "the shower lady," as I quickly came to be known, George welcomed the chance to clean up. He'd arrived only the day before, but already he'd landed a job interview downtown. His face in my rear-view mirror was vivid with shy, hopeful eagerness. When I asked if one of my passengers would grab the bag of towels out of the back of my car, he practically dived into the space. He didn't walk between car and community center; he loped. As I dropped him back at the encampment he asked, "Does the church need somebody to sweep up? Can I give something back?"
At 31 George looked barely 20 and seemed emotionally young, too. His unmarried mother was only 15 when she gave birth to him, and his father didn't stick around to see his son come into the world. Children raised by children sometimes don't have a felt sense of adulthood. Although teachers who mentor such kids can help them grow up, George found such teachers in short supply for African American males in urban Florida. Still, he had made the honor roll in school twice. "When?" I asked him. "The years I had teachers who wanted us to learn. Mr. Akers in 5th grade. Mrs. Peters in 7th." George dropped out before graduating from high school.
He came here because he had a plan: go fishing in Alaska and earn enough money to start building a new life. The same hope attracts to Seattle many jobless people whose hopes are more often crushed than fulfilled. George's plan was doomed from the start. To get on a boat he needed his Social Security card, but the only ID in his pocket was a prison photo ID, which the SSA refused to accept as a valid identity card to supplement the birth certificate FedExed by a Florida friend. A current driver's license would do, but Washington State Licensing wouldn't issue a Wasington driver's license to someone whose only photo ID came from a prison, either.
In other words, the only way George could get a valid photo ID was to have a valid photo ID. To fish in Alaska he'd have to return to Florida, apply for reissue of the Florida driver's license that lapsed while he was in prison, and start over again.
When he realized he'd have to climb back on that transcontinental Greyhound, he began doing yard work and handyman chores in the neighborhood so that he could buy a ticket. Within a few weeks he earned more than $500, even though he kept giving away too many twenties to his more impoverished Nickelsville neighbors.
Each work day George and I spent time with a spreadsheet on which we recorded his earnings and expenses. Nobody had ever helped him draft a budget for himself or set realistic goals and plan ahead. By the time he left Seattle he had told my husband and me more than once, "I love you," to which we replied, "We love you back." He took with him to Florida a picture of us, plus one of each house and yard he'd worked on.
Now George calls or emails occasionally. He's working two jobs in St Pete, has his own apartment, and sounds as if he might be growing up. A long dark night of incarceration culminating in a journey that took him thousands of miles from his mistakes, then full circle back where he started, may have helped him grow a little more self inside himself than before.
Thanksgiving Day, when his bus arrived back in Florida, he sent a text message: "I'm back here, but I'll be home soon." We miss him but try not to say so. We're hoping he'll start putting down roots right where he is, so that if he does decide to transplant himself here or anywhere else someday, he'll be in stronger, more stable shape — with more than just sudden freedom, a one-way ticket, the clothes on his back, and a dream.
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