Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I asked Ricco to call me today if Rose finds no transportation for her bags from tent to storage. Rose hoped Billy's friend who has a van might help her, but apparently it didn't happen, so Ricco called to say Rose is packed and ready to go.

i found Rose in much better mood than yesterday, probably helped by outpour of support for her:  both Ricco and Richard were trying to help her, and she also had a friendly visitor - Ursula, who helped us to get the bags to my car.  in a brief conversation before we left Ursula told me how she met Rose on the ave corner (university avenue in seattle is commonly referred to as 'ave'), befriended her and takes her for a coffee sometimes, and apparently visits her at nickelsville, too.

We were only able to fit 5 huge garbage bags of Rose's belongings in my car, and Isaac agreed to come along to help us deliver them to the storage unit once we get there.  the storage place Rose chose to trust with her stuff turned out to be in Edmonds, a trip several miles north of seattle.  i asked her why so far, but she didn't have an answer that i could comprehend.  she said something about having this arranged earlier, and we left it at that.

on the way to Edmonds Isaac commented on how beautiful washington scenery is, full of evergreens.  utah is beautiful, too, he said, but much colder and that gets irksome very fast.  he was excited about going north and said it's the farthest north he has ever been.  i quipped that if we just drive 2 hours longer we end up in canada; he answered that he heard is really pretty there, and that he already found out that for about $100 one can take a boat  from downtown seattle to vancouver, b.c.; he hopes to do it some day.

Rose, who yesterday was in quite a state while facing being booted out of nicklelsville, now showed her very pleasant, sunny  side - she is quite a conversationalist, and speaks in very polite, respectful and cheerful manner.  she told Isaac about places in university district which provide free hot meals, gave him directions and hours of operations.

in the chit-chat while driving to edmonds Rose mentioned she moved to seattle as a teenager from california, and has been living here for the last 40 years - she certainly knows her way around and was guiding me to the storage unit.   she said she used to be a home care worker and lived on capitol hill until her apartment building changed owners, got upgraded and she no longer was able to afford it.  she has been on the streets for the last several years.

i asked if she is not eligible for subsidized housing; she said she actually is, but the wait is several years long, and one has to keep in touch with authorities to stay on that list, and she was not able to do that, and each time the contact broke off she had to start the process from the beginning.  she finally gave up.

when we reached edmonds storage unit Rose told Isaac and me to wait - she has to talk to the people in the office first.  after 15 minutes or so i walked to the office to find out Rose only had reservations, not actual storage place, and was now only in the process of renting it:  filling application, inspecting unit, paying for it and so forth.  she was apologetic about the process taking more time that she lead me to believe it would.  she offered to stay behind and finish the deal all by herself.

well, people get their needs met in creative ways, Rose is no exception:).  of course i wouldn't leave her there alone, but making another trip to edmonds with the rest of her belongings was beginning to look doubtful, as we would approach the rush hour soon.

while Rose was dealing with paperwork Isaac asked about renton, where nickelsville is moving to on march 5th - 'is it nice?' he wanted to know. last night he was thinking what he could do there to earn some money.  i suggested 'maybe some landscaping or garden cleaning help?' - it's suburbs, people have yards there  and no time to tend to them.  we talked about pricing, making fliers and spring coming soon to seattle.

i asked if he was able to call his parents to let them know he is safe in seattle.  no, nickelsville phone doesn't allow long distance calls.  not sure why, since their is a cell phone - don't all of them allow unlimited calls across united states?  he didn't know about that.

i offered him to use my cell to phone them.  it was short and sweet call:  'mom, i love you, i'm in seattle and ok here.  found a place to live.  it's tents and it's called nickelsville...  you sound stressed out, probably all those children...  give my love to dad... it's not my phone, so i'll keep it brief... will call again when i can.  love you, mom'.

now Rose was finally done with her applications.  she walked up to open the gate, and then we drove around the storage maze to find her unit.  deposited her bags, closed the unit shut.  drove back.  she expressed her gratitude to both Isaac and me for helping her.  but what about the rest of her bags?  she was getting anxious and worried again. i offered i'd talk to Bruce - now a security master, about finding someone with a bigger car to take there the rest of her belongings.  Rose said she would appreciate that.

with her mood back to sunny-mode Rose told me about a woman she used to know for a long time, Bonnie.  they used to live a few blocks apart on capitol hill back in 2000, in different apartment buildings, and were sort of friends. they lost track of each other last several years, but when Rose got to nickelsville she found Bonnie again!  already living there. Bonnie has too many bags, too.  Rose is going to help her to sort them out as soon as she deals with her own bags.

i asked Rose when and where she sleeps, with her tent full of bagged stuff. 'tonight i'll be ok - i'll push some of the stuff to the back of the tent and i think i'll be able to catch a wink'.

Bruce claimed not to be in charge of Rose's fate: 'i'm only a security master, can't help you, sorry; let's find an arbitrator'...  so we did. Annette was understanding, but told Rose her bags are really becoming a problem:  'you are supposed to keep only a change of clothes, and a sleeping bag; the tent is for you to sleep in, not for hoarding the stuff'.  she said presently there is no-one in the camp with a car to help Rose transport the things, but she will bring up the issue on the tonight's meeting.  maybe somebody knows someone with a bigger car.  ask Peggy, perhaps?  Annette said she  will do that.

Rose is a very kind  and mild mannered person - she bothers nobody and tries to take care of her business the best she can. and she needs a place to stay.  besides nickelsville she has nothing going for her.  i hope it can get resolved and she is NOT booted out of the tent city for having too many bags. i hope to find her there on monday.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Billy, part 2. and Isaac

another real time post about chicken minestrone created today by Billy and Isaac.  we cooked the chicken in a separate smaller pot that Billy happened to bring with him, while the big pot of boiling water received (in this order):  chopped onion and carrots, broken into small pieces spaghetti noodles (the only type we found in the camp), chopped eggplant and red peppers (also donations) + yellow squash (which i found on sale at the sun-rise green grocer.)  we finished with a huge can of diced tomatoes + several small ones and knorr chicken bouillon to taste.

oh, on the end we also added lots of red pepper flakes, and a small jar of mixed spices i usually have ready for the soup making - ground coriander, hungarian paprika, sage, marjoram, oregano, dried dill weed and cumin.  and fresh chopped garlic, of course.  did i say we chopped the cooked chicken and added both the meat and the broth to the soup, too?  Billy's knives are awesome - sharp and just the right, very handy size. 

we all had a customary small bowl on the end of cooking,  and it was very yummy. especially with 'essential baking' bread donated in the last minute by a very nice church volunteer, who was there cooking for another project (homeless teen on mondays) - he told us to call Travis at the bakery, to get that day's 'overbake' - very useful information, Billy took notes.

but it didn't start as easy.  when i got to the camp  Richard met me at the gate to say that Rose, his friend, needs help. she has too many bags and is about to be booted from nickelsville. both he and Ricco were busy trying to help  Rose, and both asked if i could help.  they introduced me to Rose, who was standing soaking wet in the rain, overlooking about 20 or more garbage bags full of... something.

Rose was upset, and close to crying, because she was told she is going to be booted from the camp if she doesn't get rid of some of her stuff by 5 pm. it was 4;20 when i learned about it, and the pressure was on.  she just finished tying the bags  on.  'where does she keep this stuff?' i asked Ricco.  'in her tent', he answered.  'so where does she sleep?', i asked puzzled, the pile seemed bigger that her tent would hold.  'she doesn't.  she walks around he camp, her stuff in the tent'. 

both Ricco and Richard felt Rose should be in some nice and warm place, but she has no family to help to find her appropriate place, so she is free to roam the streets and getting stressed out with too many bags.   Ricco got the deadline extended till tomorrow, so i can get back to help Rose put her stuff in the storage - she says it's on the corner of aurora and 205th - it may get us to do several trips, IF she feels brave enough to trust anyone to watch the stuff left behind while we are going there. tonight she said she can trust NO-ONE,  but possibly by tomorrow all will change for the better.

after that back to the soup business:  found the soup bucket behind the kitchen tent, dirty, but that's all right - we would wash it in the church kitchen.  Richard asked some young man if he could help with the soup cooking.  'yes', came the replay from a bit troubled but somehow hopeful face  - that was Isaac, i had never met him before; he said he is still waiting to be admitted, and looking for Billy.

now Billy waltzed in, a smiling ray of sunshine, as always:  'hey, Isaac, wanna help with the soup?'  'sure, as soon as i get settled in'.  Billy is now a tent master; he told Isaac they can pitch his tent later, then threw Isaac's and his own backpack  into my car (they both hoped for the church shower at 5, if line not too long- i suppose the backpacks contained change of clothes.)

Isaac told me he was waiting since 8 in the morning to get accepted in the camp. in the kitchen we had a small talk about his origins:  small town in utah, salt lake city area, no jobs, no perspectives. it's his second time in seattle, he is not quite sure what to do with his life, would like to go to culinary school downtown seattle, as he was working restaurants most of his 29 years life on this earth.  when we tasted the soup Billy present-mindely asked: 'when was the last time you ate?'  'yesterday', Isaac answered.  

on the way back to the camp Billy turned quite hilarious seattle guide:  watch out, Isaac, here is an important  seattle LANDMARK:  girls dorm!

Monday, February 16, 2009

almost a real time post... and Natalie

it would have been a rare real time post, if not for veteran's day - found out that the church was closed. 

but i didn't realize that before stopping at nickelsville to pick up a volunteer and the soup ingredients.  i had some  leftover dry rice and seasonings from previous cooking in my car, and frozen chicken breast,  cabbage and onion i found somewhere cheap.  just as well - not much stuff in the camp to make soup from today, save for potatoes and lots of canned vegetables - picked up several cans of corn and green beans to dress up the rice/chicken soup.

just married Donna, who is also a food manager, quipped that she is still happily married. she had her hair done nicely and a light make up  highlighted her pretty eyes.  her new husband Bruce was also beaming - so far so good in their world!  i didn't realize that their honeymoon vancouver, BC trip was postponed and haven't happened yet, but 'it's still being worked on', Bruce said.  i asked about right-after-wedding hotel gifts - how did that go?  there were two, said Bruce:  university inn and a place downtown.  university inn was a suit with kitchenette, which they liked a lot, because of microwave and refrigerator; the downtown place was just a room, and they had to figure out the food, but all the city's attractions were at hand.

at this point i fessed up that i started a blog about nickelsville, 'and you are all in it'. 'fine, we are all going to be famous now', joked Richard. Gina, who came over to share a hug  - how good was to see her! and who heard me saying that i just wanted to chronicle their university- district period thought it was a good idea.  i hasted to add i'm trying to be careful not to tress-pass on their privacy, to which Bruce said 'you can write whatever you want about me and my life', and Gina said 'same about me, but thank you for considering that'.   they asked where it could be found, and i gave them the title of this blog.

i asked where Gus is - as i haven't seen him for a week or so.  'he is in tent city 3', said Richard. more chatting revealed that Gus, too, run into the harsh rules and was booted out.  fortunately, he was accepted into one of the several others tent cities in seattle.  good grief, i'm relieved he has a tent-home somewhere!

and Sirius? (sp?).  where is this  ever-cheerful man now?  he used to supervise the foodstuff tent. i was told that he is  probably in an apartment downtown now.  somebody added  that he maybe is (terminally?) ill, couldn't be in nickelsville any longer. oh, Sirius. hugs.

oh, anybody have seen Brian?  actually yes, someone saw him heading to some housing  complex for people with mental issues just the other day.  maybe he was visiting, i ventured, as i had never noticed any mental issues in my 2 months knowing Brian - he was cool and reasonable ALL the time...  'no, they don't take any visitors there', Richard  calmly explained...

chatting and food collecting done i was now looking for someone to help me cook.  Donna approached a lady i never saw before, and she quickly agreed to help, except she wants to check with her boyfriend.  it is how i met Natalie. Richard decide to come along - i was pleased, because Natalie was sweet but tiny, we needed a strong man to help us transfer and carry the soup in a soup bucket.

after we found the church closed i said:  'sorry, no soup today then, i'll try to cook it at home tomorrow and bring it then, ok?'.  no problem, they both said.  on the short drive back to the camp i asked Natalie how long she has been in nickelsville. '2 months, before that i stayed with my mother'.  how did you end up in nickelsville?  'my boyfriend is here, and he is sick', she said matter of factly.  so how is it for you so far?  

'hard.'.  she said after a brief silence.  hard? why?  'food, food is hard to find,  some people are like vultures here.'  Natalie's words reverberated in my mind after i dropped her and Richard at the gate. i went home and cooked the soup. 2 hours later i was back at nickelsville's  gate:  hello, i need some help, please.

a man on duty  i know i've met before, looked at me with his piercing eyes and chirped: 'i'm no doctor, madame, but how can i help you?'  har, har, funny man.  i think i forgot your name, sir, was it Richard? 'close', says he -'Ricco, i have no idea why i have a spanish name.'. hi Ricco, are you an indian?  'yes, a native american, from upstate new york, Mohican by tribe'.  of course, with his mane  i should have remember that detail. we joked some more, while transporting the soup to the  'kitchen tent'.  

the meeting was in progress.  i tried to steal some time to figure out what was the topic and say HI to Peggy, but Ricco gently stirred me away, informing me, that internal issues were not for my ears, and yes, he will say HI from me to Peggy.

i hope Natalie got some soup for herself and her boyfriend, after all.  the soup turned up pretty good, well received and not too spicy  - Ricco said spicy is always good news here:. while he was looking around for some hot sauce to add to his soup. 

"it's not necessary to advertise food to hungry people, fuel to cold people, or houses to the homeless"
--- John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Gina and cell phones

"I've been there. I've eaten out of garbage cans and I've slept on rooftops.  When I see the homeless now, I empathize.  I know there but for the grace of God go I, but i also realize how different it was.  For one thing it was safer."
  ---  Eartha Kitt, singer and actress, on being homeless in her youth.

Gina is quite commanding presence - she holds herself like a true leader that she probably is.   i first met her at the entrance gate, where she was doing the guard duty - she was very to the point and business-like:  'the soup bucket here, look at the recent donations in the kitchen, and hey, we just got some meat donated, can you use it for soup? i'll find you a food manager right now.'...  and then she was off to her business of the gate-guarding, answering phone, fielding questions from others, without giving me another look.  i saw her running an evening camp meeting in the same manner - very professional, using her authority to make sure people stick to the agenda and move to the next topic, without digressing.

normally i'm a bit leery of leader-types, but seeing those qualities in Gina made me think that it's good, because it somehow adds to her safety, wherever she goes.  generally women probably have it much tougher  being on the streets than men, but it's easy to imagine that  if somebody gets into Gina's space she is probably capable to respond along the lines: 'butt off if you don't want to have your nose broken' and mean it, and act on it, if needed. quite a comforting thought.

she and i had brief, professional exchanges about the food, finding people, etc, , but i'd never ask her to come and cook with me - i suppose i was unconsciously thinking a strong personality like hers doesn't want to be in the kitchen, or other silly stereotype like this.  so it surprised me, when one day she volunteered to come and help with making chili.

it surprised me even more that once off the campground she was very friendly and instantly lost her air of a commander.  i read somewhere something about people public and personal behavior, and how different it could be.   Gina's  public persona is definitely much tougher than her soft personal one - in person she is just as soft as an innocent kitten!

while cooking she shared how busy and stressful her yesterday was:  she went with her husband on the bus to harborview medical center, where he is being treated;  after the doctor's visit they had to wait for medication, and back on the bus to nickelsville.  somewhere thrown into all of this was stopping and  helping to clean the apartment of her husband's grandmother, all day spent.  and Gina's own ongoing struggle with depression.   and difficulties of being married in such close quarters as nickelsville, where many people share a relatively small space - kinda 'sex in the tent-city' self-writing episode if anyone would want to turn it into tv series.  

while cooking and chatting here and there she ventured back into her public persona:  'don't make the chili too spicy, some people don't like it spicy, and you have to cook it to order, you know, or it won't be eaten'.

then right back to her soft persona:  'i never knew i could make chili, and it's pretty darned good, too.'  she said how proud of herself she was for learning something new while taking care of other people while at it.   before taking the soup back to camp i usually pour some into the bowls for us, the cooks, to have the 'first tasting'.  even more than other cooks Gina insisted on having just a little bit, and preferring to wait and  have/share it with other people in the tent-city. 

she mused that despite of the fact that both she and husband receive disability benefits it's nowhere enough to rent and maintain an apartment, with all the other costs involved.  they once had subsidized housing, but somehow lost it, and now it's back to 2 year waiting line if they'd like to get back in the housing system.  

at some point she answered her cell phone and i heard her repeating detailed info on where the person on the other side of the line was, and thanking this person profusely.  then she called her husband to tell him that the bus driver called because he found her cell phone on the bus seat, the bus will be stopping a block from nickelsville in a few minutes, would the husband please go and retrieved her phone from the bus driver.

it's a spare phone, anyway, she explained, but she sure likes her blue phone, wondered where she lost it, so she will be very glad to have it back, and so nice of the bus driver to call her instead of turning it into 'lost and found' office - she would have to wait much longer or maybe never see the phone again.   a spare cell phone? must cost a fortune? yes, it does -  some time ago she and her husband  thought that pulling resources with someone else would give them a better  contract,  dividing the cost  between three people.  but the third person disappeared somewhere and Gina and her husband are stuck with enormously expensive cell plan they have to pay till the contract ends.  BUT, they have a spare.

sometime after cooking with Gina i came across 'pay as you go' cell phone arrangements.  i just made a mental note of sharing the idea with people in nickelsville, in case it's useful:  no plan, no credit check,  just $15-25 cash for a card covering about 200 minutes for 3 months; then repeat.  seems ideal for emergencies and just day-to day connecting about being late somewhere, or informing about getting stuck somewhere.  i think some companies may not even force customers to re-buy the card every 3 moths, if minutes not used - so far my research shows all of them work like that in europe, a TRUE pay as you go model -  but maybe there is company here in usofa which doesn't fleece customers on regular basis, just because 3 months expired....  yeah, they all promise to 'roll over' unused minutes, as if having lots of unused minutes could make anyone but the phone company rich. 

to be written:  Darren, Billy part 2, current monday post tomorrow (chicken/ginger soup with rice),  letter to mayor Nickels, and Brian.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Richard... 'to spin a life'

"...after all, one can set up a home anywhere, and 'spin a life', as M. Dabrowska was writing..." 

- this came in an email from a long-time friend in my country of origin, in response to my mentioning  the tent-city in seattle.  i put into google the quote by the writer she mentioned, because it captured so well the essence of human efforts to just keep on living sometimes.

unfortunately, the quotation search came empty - i wanted to see the context of this beautiful phrase which i roughly translated above.  the meaning of the words  i translated as 'spin a life'  is easily lost in english, where one has to chose between 'spin', reel off', 'warp', 'maunder', weave', and 'conjure up' - it's all of that and more, and brings an image of life wafting like a chimney smoke - up and who knows where...

my good old friend picked up on the theme of human kindness that goes on in nickelsville, especially on the news of  Donna and Bruce honeymoon in vancouver  - she wrote how uplifting she found to know this.  but the potted pansies adorning someone's tent (i forgot i mentioned that bit) was to her an utmost symbol of all that is beautiful in life for those in the tent decorated such way, and those lucky enough to stumble upon it to see it.

"... and by the way, how are these tents heated?..."  she wanted to know.  

why, when i lived where she still lives i, too, would have thought that even the tents for the homeless in the mighty-rich america MUST be heated somehow,  some way:)...  NO?!!!  my friend doesn't know english language well enough to read this blog  so i'll have to write her back that the tents, sadly,  aren't heated:(...

which brings me to Richard, who is probably right now again pushing the snow down the hill in nickelsville,   hoping it melts soon.  it stopped snowing now,  and we didn't get that much of it, but the temps hovering around freezing keep on the ground whatever we've got.

at least he has some warm clothes now - Richard told me that when the december cold snap happened, someone actually came to nickelsville and made a list, going from tent to tent, and asking what specifically everybody needs.  much better targeted help than what the neighbors of nickelsville did in the instant  attempt of help when the first flakes started falling:  within hours nickelsville was covered with bags and bags of clothes.  the sea of swelling black garbage bags was quite a sight, conjuring an image of u-district people all at once busily going through their closets to share any warm clothes they could spare.  but i wondered how on earth anybody can sift through it under still falling snow and in freezing temps.

i never found out who (or what organization or elf) came up with the idea of asking personally who needs what, and Richard didn't seem to know, either, but he was very happy to get really warm pants, a pair of sturdy shoes and a warm fur hat only 2 days into the freeze, and with 10-12 days to go, as it turned out.

Richard has been coming  to greet and chat with me since i started coming to nickelsville.  we always share a hug and he kind of briefs me about the news of the camp.  everybody is friendly and waves, but nobody besides him  interrupts his/her live to step into mine, except for helping me with the soup. long before i started this blog i used to think of Richard as some sort of a chronicler, who always finds a few minutes to put things in perspective and make some oral record of nickelsville's life to whoever would want to know about it.  i'm very much drawing on things Richard told me over the months to now write down all i know.  without his short but steady commentaries my own nickelsville's experience would be that of soup-to-soup only, with probably not much continuity to it.

it is Richard, who told me about efforts/ideas to buy a land for the camp, instead of risking being let go from every place they have rented so far, although he says  he doesn't know if they'll be able to collect enough money, ever.  from him i know that on the average the camp turns away several people each night due to full capacity.  he also, if i ask,  sometimes tells me about people  leaving the camp, which is how a learned about my very first friend there, Brian, breaking some rules and being booted out of nickelsville with no hope for return;  the sad post about Brian is yet to be written.  

but i know surprisingly little about Richard himself - his commentaries are of societal nature, not personal, and until recently, he studiously avoided actually going to the church kitchen.  he never explained why;  asked if he would like to help, he would only smile and say before departing:  'i'll find someone'.  he was usually back within 5 minutes with a said 'someone' - that day volunteer-cook.

last week the camp was decimated by too many new people breaking too many rules at once, or something similar, i gathered from Richard's answer to 'where is everybody?'.  it looked like many residents were gone, tents folded and no usual crowd milling around.  breaking the rules means police being involved and being booted forever, i think.  there seem to be no '3 strikes and you're out' rule here. one strike is all the chances you get to stay in nickelsville.

so, for the first time Richard trekked to the church kitchen with me to cook the soup, as there was not many 'some-ones' to get at this time.  he cooked just fine, and it was obviously not his first contact with kitchen and cooking - i thought that maybe he doesn't like to cook, it happens, but no, now he told me about pleasures of cooking for friends.  why he avoids going to warm kitchen i'll probably never know, all i learned  is that he was born and raised in seattle, with some time living in california, but now back to his home state.  he is  one of the few true seattleites i met in the camp so far.  so many people are from far away places:  how they ended up in seattle from texas or virginia would be a good topic for a separate blog. 

i'll sign off with a quotation i came across from the same writer Maria Dabrowska, who inspired the title of this post (my own lousy translation):

'in the droplets of everydayness, one can see, like in the ocean, the entire sky reflected.'

Monday, February 9, 2009

Tracy... & the camp's kitchen

There are two kinds of soup cook-helpers in nickelsville:  an occasional  kitchen director who takes over the entire operation (i met at least two trained chefs at the camp, and a few others who had some restaurant experience), and regular cook helpers, who just come along to help anyway they can - they usually ask for clear directions, chop and cut as told,  and leave the business of  soup turning into something edible to me.  

Tracy is the second type.  i often see her sitting by the fire, always cheerful with a ready smile for everyone, so one day when she wasn't busy she  volunteered to come along.  We first checked 'the kitchen' - a big tent at the edge of the camp, covered on three sides and open entrance.  the newest donations, especially vegetables, are usually there, either on two long side-tables or neatly packed in crates underneath.  vegetables are rather rarely  donated, perhaps because they are perishable, but we were lucky that day:  found some carrots, onions, a few sweet potatoes, even a lonely eggplant and a pepper or two.  

after Tracy and i packed all that into a shopping bag, we found 'food manager' - a person responsible for the smaller closed tent next to the kitchen, where the other foodstuff is  kept.  i believe that only the food manager can go into that  tent, because i used to be asked what's needed  and the food manager fished it out, if the tent had it.  

nowadays i'm such a regular fixture, that i'm often allowed to dive into that tent myself to find what could be soup-worthy.  it's  easy task though, because the tent has crates  with things divided by category:  noodles here, cans here, rice there, potato sac here, and bunch of cat food in the corner.   it must take sorting it everyday to keep such a good order!

now  Tracy and i started to look for a big soup pot.  we didn't need it for cooking, as we use the  pot in the church, but around that time i was trying to hold on to the soup bucket, so i insisted that the cooked soup goes into nickelsville's pot and the bucket goes back  home with me; i no longer do that,  as it finally clicked with most of the people that the bucket gets regular use for soup, and someone said to me:  'makes total sense - we give you the empty bucket and you bring it back full of soup...'  nowadays the bucket usually materializes the moment i show up at the entrance gate; it probably also helped that at some point i took a sharpie and wrote on all sides of the bucket 'nickelsville, SOUP', and that i tied the the top to the bottom with a heavy rope:). 

the big pot was not clean when we found it, it had a residue of previous something, so i was looking for a volunteer to clean it while we are away in the church.  i can't remember if it was Darren who did it that day, only that  someone took the pot behind the kitchen tent, where all the washing and scrubbing usually gets done - an outdoor washroom of sorts, with cold water from a hose.

it's a good place to mention the main kitchen fixture in nickelsville:  a big coal barbecue grill next to the small tent that holds the foodstuff.  it seem to be perpetually on during these winter days, but maybe it gets shut for the night, or when the fuel ends - fuel seem always close to the top of the list of 'things needed' written on the big bulletin board by the entrance gate, along with the blankets and flashlights and sometimes food.

the grill is outdoor, off course, and has no cover above it.  i often see people making hamburgers and hotdogs there or occasionally cooking soup.  or just congregating around, because it's warm there.  there is another source of warmth, also close to the kitchen tent: an open fire pit of sorts, but i do not believe it's used for cooking - i  see people sitting around it on the chairs, soda or coffee in hand,  chatting and socializing like in a living room by the fireplace.

Tracy was very mindful soup-cook helper.  she cleaned and chopped veggies, and was very much  into the idea that we should waste nothing;  cut off the bad parts of sweet potatoes all right, but instead of peeling them just scrub them well. she was no stranger to utilizing every little bit of everything - i kept thinking i wished she was cooking with me the day i asked one of the 'soup director' types to chop cauliflower leaves along with the florets - the horror!   who eats cauliflower leaves!  i'm sure the explanation that it's actually one of the healthiest parts of the plant would not fall on the deaf ear with Tracy.

she kept asking detailed questions about the shape and size of the pieces she was about to cut,to make them just right  and on the end, when i asked her to taste the soup for final seasoning, she fell in love with the sweet/hot banana sauce, which somehow ended up in our bag of possible soup ingredients.  she kept adding more and more of it, until i joked she should keep the rest of the bottle for herself.

while we cooked Tracy talked about how her faith sustains her and keeps her going.  and how before that, she was alone on the streets, with no help or direction whatsoever and many troubles.   i asked if she is able to share her religious beliefs with other residents.  she had an interesting answer which she delivered with her usual gentle smile:  'no, i'm told to keep it to myself, so i do not share that.  but that's all right.  it keeps ME going'... 

today the snow was falling on nickelsville's  tents in the evening when i delivered tomato-pasta soup.  snow again!  i found out the camp is moving march 5th, but they do not know where to,  yet.  what they  do know it is that it'll  be moving out of university district, as seattle chamber of commerce apparently pressures them to do.

the snow is still falling down hard 4 hours later, as i write this, thinking about my friends and neighbors in nickelsville. a week ago or so i emailed Natalie, over at 'real change news', that i'm probably about done with cooking soups, as the winter is over in seattle. now i think i'll stick with  it till nickelsville moves away.  i'll skip thursdays, as some other projects came up, but will keep coming mondays:  cooking soups is fun, and  only so little time left to document nickelsville's  u-district period.  hopefully Nova will keep coming, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

why this blog?

a good friend of mine, whose judgement i value very much said to me that she read this blog, but found it kind of boring - she said i could be more descriptive about the people's look and character and their probably very interesting lives, or i could write up  history of nickelsville, or even write something  about the 'story behind the story' - the group 'veterans for peace' which helps the camp going - she said she would find it fascinating to read who puts porta-potties, deals with organizing this whole affair, because every time she sees , RARELY, something about nickelsville on the news, she wonders about those things, and nobody bothers to explain.

well, i know this blog is kinda bland, because my friend's comment summarizes very well my constant struggle to write about nickelsville without revealing too much personal information about its residents.  after i explained to my friend why i do not blog about any of the things she would find more interesting to read, she asked this excellent question:  so what's the goal of your blog?  and i thought perhaps i should make a post about it, to make it all clear.

the goal of my blog  is to documents what i see with my own eyes and be a witness to life in nickelsville. to leave a trace of that life somewhere on the internet, because with the way things do and don't get reported and revised by media makers i wouldn't be surprised if some time in the future somebody said:  'did tent city really ever exist in seattle? prove it.  i cannot find anything  about it in the news archives'.  

during the 2 weeks snow storm last december i was totally taken aback that seattle papers never reported about the plight of 100 people living in tents right in the middle of a historic part of seattle.  it's almost impossible to miss the parking lot full of  bright pink tents on the corner of two busy streets for anyone who traverse through university district.  maybe something was mentioned on page 28 or 40 of the papers during those two weeks, i truly don't know, but i saw no front page headlines, where the 'real news' are reported, mentioning  100 human souls trying to survive  freezing temps and snow in the tents. in america, not some third world, mind you. 

privacy is the reason i do not go into details writing about the people in nickelsville:  no physical description, no age, or skin color, nothing identifying them as 'oh, that must be Sandy, whose mom left her to fend for herself when she was ten, and this must be David, who was a junkie, but now found jesus'.  i just made up both stories, and the true stories i hear while cooking would certainly make for very compelling reading, because they are full of joys and suffering much stranger than some fiction i read in the books.

so,  this blog is not for the reader's enjoyment or entertainment, really - i mean i appreciate anyone who takes the time to read it, but basically it's for people of nickelsville.  people whose lives go on and nobody reports on it; people whose struggle to survive with dignity continues, but nobody notices.

except for their neighbors , with whose lives their get naturally  intertwined:  i daily see kindness of people donating food and blankets, flashlights and clothes.  the other day my car was parked next to the woman who was collecting clothes for washing - she brings them back clean.  she must know that women of nickelsville can use nearby churches for washing and showers (i was told for safety reason, to reduce the risk exposure while traveling), but men have to take the bus or walk downtown (roughly 5 miles away) where certain mission is actually set up for such free services.  

my contact with nickelsville it's probably going to be relatively short - there is a talk of the camp soon moving away from my neighborhood.  so, people of nickelsville, THIS IS FOR YOU!  a humble effort of bearing witness to your lives, and your impressive effort of organizing and helping each other under distress.  

as to why i do not write about history of nickelsville or veterans for peace - i'm simply no historian, nor do i know much about any of the topics,  which is the reason i put the links to nicklsville.org and 'real change news' - let them speak for themselves.  at this point i do not even  know which  chapter of 'veterans for peace' sponsors the camp, and i will put a link when i find out.

to end this WHY THIS BLOG?  post i wish to add that english is my second language, and that i have no editor.  i  hope that what i'm trying to write gets through, despite the fact that i have a  tendency to forget articles and that my syntax is sometimes off;  if you feel like helping to clarify/correct anything it'd be much appreciated (using comments for that is fine).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Rosemary's visit and snow

basic facts: Rosemary is 10 years old.  during the december 2008 snowstorm,  she cooked macaroni and cheese and brought it to the camp.  she, too is a nickelsville's neighbor.

somewhere at the beginning of december Mary in the church where we cook  (that would make Mary 'the church lady', wouldn't it?) mentioned that someone left a message  about wanting to help cooking for nickelsville; Mary said she called back to say 'no-thank you, it's pretty much taken care of already',  but handed me a pink post-it note with a name a number anyway.

on the other end of the wire i found Terry, who told me about a special person in her life, Rosemary, and about Rosemary's concern about the homeless people now living in her neighborhood in the tent city.  this 10 year old girl decided to do a fundraiser of her own for nickelsville - she made a sign and stood in the entrance of a food store.  in no time she raised well over $100, said Terry, and  now the girl would like to put it into good use, and cook her own favorite food - macaroni and cheese,  for the people in nickelsville.  Terry's mission  was about ironing the details: how many people need to be served, how many trays and how to accomplish it all.

soon after our conversations seattle was hit with a 2 weeks snowstorm - unusual for this part of the country, and hard on most of its inhabitants, who hardly know how to drive on icy hills in a city not prepared to deal with snow (i read  somewhere that seattle has 4 snow ploughs total, usually saved for clearing the sports-fields).  i was not able to drive my car at all at that time, but i wasn't worried much about nickelsville, because  Natalie over at 'real change' (a paper for and by homeless people), who arranged usage of the church kitchen told Nova and i that we are getting a break from christmas till almost new year: there is a niclelsville-well-wishers crowd galore.  they all are wanting to cook for the camp over the holidays;  i told Terry to please coordinate with Natalie if she and Rosemary are planning to use the church kitchen, but didn't follow up to check what really happened.

when i finally was able to use my car at the end of december i drove to nickelsville and chatted with Richard, who always comes to the gate to greet me and chat about the news of the camp.  he said it was rather terrible with the snow piling on and on, and how every day he pushed the snow off the tents roofs and fronts, and towards the middle of the camp, hopping that it melts down the hill.  and how it didn't melt, because it was a really long cold snap. 'and how are you all guys now?', i asked,  and Richard  joked 'no frozen bodies has been discovered so far, so we are good'.

i asked about the food.  were they all right, short of it or what? 'we were fine, and yes, your friend visited, and she said you are snow-bound'.  which friend would that be, i wondered, clueless...  oh, the one  with a little girl, said Richard, she  made us macaroni and cheese from scratch, and it was so, so, very  good, and she served it right here, around the fire, for all of us'....  big smile on Richard's face while he said it - i could imagine how the camp residents appreciated the visit and company - Nova and i   i hardly ever serve soup, we are usually ready with it right at the start of the camp's daily meeting at 6 PM, so we leave the soup and styrofoam cups  at the table and depart... 

Rosemary, would that be you, cheering and gladdening the people's hearts? Richard described how the meal came in disposable roasting trays, how they all gathered to share it and chat in a snowy landscape.

i never met Rosemary, yet.  her adult friend, Terry, invited me over for a soup next week, to meet both of them.  if Rosemary is NOT a figment  of Richard's and my imagination i'll say to her:  'good work, and keep doing it'.  i will also ask her to maybe write about her experience of cooking for nickelsville. if she does, i'll post it here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Billy - part 1, maybe

Billy is quite a character - funny, witty, and always smiling.  Billy volunteered to help with cooking several times.  the first time around he said with a wry smile: 'sure, i'll help you; let me get my knives', then he disappeared, presumably to his tent.  i wasn't quite sure how to take it - GET HIS KNIVES?!  

it turned out Billy graduated from a culinary school, he is a trained chef, and used to work as one in a restaurant. he still has his chef's knives from the time before some personal problems derailed his dreams.  he currently works part time, i'm not sure where, i think one of the places he mentioned IS a restaurant.  that on top of getting up 5:30 every morning to go to the clinic which treats him.

Billy is funny in the kitchen:  he used to be THE chef, and very well knowing what he was doing, apparently high end stuff.  he named our soup efforts 'this and that soup', meaning we put in a little bit of  this and a little bit of that, whatever we find. he was a game, chopping whatever we had with professional precision and constantly musing that we could/should  do better. he showed me how to shake away the core of a cabbage by smashing it against the counter.

Billy is not used to follow directions in the kitchen, and kept improving the soup every time he had a chance:  more of the chicken powder every time i turned away, more salt and more pepper, more spices. i finally said:  'hey, there is a room for only one prima-donna in this kitchen, Billy, and that would be me'. 

'wrong, wrong, and no, no, no' he said. 'i'm the chef '!  he went out to chill out with a cigarette.  in his absence i realized he was right: he knew much more about cooking that i'll ever will. he ruined my short-lived role as a  kitchen director, but it was well worth it.  he was DA chef and we both knew it.

the soup turned out great: spicy, sweet and filling.  Billy thought we should do some pasta soup next time, and we did, although he was busy at work, and not around to participate that time.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


i saw Gus many times at the gate, as his guard duty apparently often coincided with my monday and thursday visits.  Gus is a very polite man, but he did let me know on a few occasions that he didn't care about my soups.  didn't like them and that's it.  i thought that maybe our cultural differences accounted for that (virginia is very far away from the corner of europe i came from), so one evening i asked him what HE considers a comfort soup.  'chicken and dumplings' was his fast response, followed by rapid explanation on how to make it, probably because my face showed that i never heard of it.

after recipe search on the internet, and after a few more soups Gus probably didn't care about either, one day i happened to come to nickelsville at the same time as Gus, who was just getting off his bike, back from his work downtown.  'guess what we are cooking today, wanna help?'  'no! no way' he answered in his typical clipped way.  then he asked how long it's going to take to cook and calculated that he has enough time before his guard-duty.  off to to church kitchen we went.

Gus wasn't really assisting me to cook, it was, appropriately,  the other way around, because he was the expert on the chicken and dumplings and i merely read about it on the internet.  first he criticized that while precooking the chicken at home i cut it all up -  now i know that a good southern way would be to leave it 'as is', bones and all.   oh, well, too late for that.  

he also limited amount of veggies that went into soup (veg-overload is my chronic soup crime) - just a few carrots and onions, half-approved bag of the frozen peas ('you already opened it, so', and "Bruce is not gonna eat it, he hates peas' right AFTER i threw them in) and only half of the parsley i chopped for garnish. he monitored the seasoning and showed me how to shape dumplings from pillsbury dough.

after we put the dumplings in, we chatted a bit about his childhood and growing up in a poor family in small town in virginia, then about his current job as a janitor for federal express office, and about difficulties of getting downtown on the bike in the rain and snow, because the bus ticket is prohibitively expensive to him. after a while  i asked Gus if we are not overcooking the dumplings - they were sitting there much longer than the internet instructions allowed.  'nope'... so we chatted some more.

at some point Gus fished out a spoonful of broth and happily proclaimed:  'look, just like my mamma made!'   the broth was now thick from the partially cooked down dough.  he tasted the dumplings and decided it was all good and ready.  

two hicks from small towns half of a planet apart, cooking together in one kitchen - only in america:).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Robert volunteered to help with cooking the soup somewhere in december.  we kept losing the soup bucket at that time - somehow it disappeared after the soup got eaten, or the top was nowhere to be found.  it was about the third 'disappeared' bucket donated to the cause by a nearby QFC, so we set out to the church kitchen without.   

Robert proved to be a very skilled prep-cook, so i asked him if he would like to volunteer the next time as well.  He  said he would have to check with his work schedule and took out a piece of paper from his pocket to look.  Robert works at some auto-company; his resourcefulness  blew me away, because i couldn't quite imagine being able to live in a tent and maintain work schedule, and i came to this country with a status of a refugee.

When we put all the ingredients into the pot we started to worry about transporting it back to the camp with no bucket.  i stayed to look after the soup and Robert and Nova, my monday-partner-in-cooking, set out to look for a bucket in  QFC  three blocks away.  the soup was ready 30 minutes later, but no signs of Nova and Robert.

i walked to QFC and back, and now started  to worry what happened to them.  the time was passing and Jorge, the church worker, was getting ready to close the church.  he kindly found some paint bucket which he washed so it could be used for soup, and also provided plastic bag to cover it for transportation.  

by now i was getting a bit panicky - an hour passed since Nova and Robert left for a 6 block  walk.  Jorge helped me to put the soup into bucket and carried it to my car.  i said goodbye to him, and yes, do close the church, but i'll be back in the parking lot to wait for my friends.

back in nickelsville i had to inform Robert's wife that somehow i don't know what happened to him.  i could tell it made her nervous.  she tried to call him on her cell phone, but he wasn't answering. she left a message.  after some very tense 5 or 10 minutes he called back.  i was so relieved i didn't wait for the details and drove right back to the church.  Jorge came to the parking lot, obviously concerned, too.  

it turned out Nova and Robert had no luck finding a free bucket in nearby food stores, so Nova called around asking her friends about big empty container for soup.  one of her friends in northgate had one, so she and Robert went to fetch Robert's car and drove there.  the sight of them pulling into church parking lot made both Jorge and me very happy.

to be written:  Gus, Gina, Tracy, Brian, Darren, Richard, Rosemary, Peggy.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Donna and Bruce

Donna and Bruce were helping to cook soup one evening and told me that  they are going to get married next week; she said she has a nice green dress to wear to her wedding. 

they got married at 4:30 pm on thursday january 15th, in the church that is presently hosting nickelsville on its parking lot on the corner of 15th and 45th. when i got to the camp that day at the usual 4:15 to gather the soup ingredients i passed at the gate a group of about 15 invited residents walking over to the church - everybody seemed to be in a very good mood.

after the ceremony the newlyweds returned to the camp to share the joy of the moment and the  wedding cakes (donated by well-wishers from the outside of the camp) with everyone present, but they spent the night not in the camp but in the motel - also donation from well-wishers.  two weeks later they went for a honeymoon weekend in vancouver, BC, another wedding gift to them.

a few days after the wedding i was passing their tent and heard Donna saying HI to me.  i stopped to greet her  and saw their  very neatly arranged tent - the mattress elevated on some crates to double as sitting arrangement,  nice colorful fabric cover  draped around it. it was obvious that Donna and Bruce put a lot of care into arranging their little home/nest.

Monday, February 2, 2009

the end of winter in seattle

i started to cook soup for nickelsville, a tent city for the homeless in seattle, around october 2008. i wanted to learn about the lives of the people there, so i come twice a week and find a volunteer to help me cook.  we first check the donated goods for soup ingredients, then go to the nearby church to cook, put the hot soup into plastic food bucket and take it back to the camp. 

some of the things i learned surprised me quite a bit: many residents have a job they got to, at least part time; there are quite a few couples there, many married; two kids were living there before the december snow-storm (went to shelter since); the rules to stay there are pretty harsh to follow; there are several kitten/cat residents. today i saw a tent adorned with spring pansies - it made me pause.