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Homeless in Seattle – a tale of coffee hunting, and a lesson in seeing others

– Posted in: Empathy, Positive Outlook, Self-Awareness
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Sunita Starbucks Seattle 640Today’s blog post is really about a trip that I thought I was taking to explore Seattle a little bit and maybe find the first Starbucks to buy a souvenir mug for my husband, but really ended up being a journey of a different kind.

Because I’m awake at 3:30am with the time change from Eastern to Pacific, I thought I’d spend those early morning hours going out to Seattle from Tacoma which is about 20-30 mile trip.  This meant I took the bus from the hotel on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, to Pike’s Place Market in Seattle where the bus stopped on 4th Avenue.   It all seemed so simple and easy  – almost door to door and no transfers.

So off I went at 5am to get the bus, just steps from the hotel lobby.

It’s pitch black.

There seem to be no cars and no people.

It seems I’m really alone but the street is well lit and fancy buildings all around.

Then I notice, a man at the garbage can just about a half block away. But instead of putting something in. He’s reaching in to take things out of the garbage can.

As he walks towards me, I’m relieved to see two other men down the street. Maybe I’m not alone.   Those men say good morning to me and are very polite, and sit at the bench at the bus stop for a couple minutes. Then I hear one of them say, “We’ve got to keep moving before the police make us.” And they move on.

I’m starting to see these men might be homeless people trying to pass the night.

The bus comes, and I get on thinking Seattle would be different.

It was.

4th Avenue was glitzy and ritzy with Macy’s and other high-end stores, all decorated for Christmas. Beautiful.

Macy's _640

And even at 6am lots of people. Almost all homeless. I’ve never seen this many homeless people.

Yes, Toronto has people on the streets, but here, every street, each side and street corner was full of people just walking back and forth. It was surreal with the backdrop being high-end stores. Columbia sportswear showing off it’s warm boots and down jackets and just on the other side of window glass are people who are frozen.

So I see the big sign for Pike’s Place Market and I go 2 blocks and realize it’s completely black and deserted and the website saying it opened at 6am was clearly wrong. pike's Market _640

And there are even more homeless people who seem to be aimlessly wandering and trying to stay warm outside.

I decided to go to the Starbucks at the bus stop to wait until daylight as that seemed a good place to hangout.

On my way back from 2nd street to 4th street, a young man – likely homeless by his clothes and this time of day — says hello and calls me Dinah (I think).  I said hello and that I was not the person he thought.   He seemed really embarrassed so I said I was just in from Toronto and wanted to see a bit of Seattle.  He seemed surprised I would talk to him, and he suggested some sights to see, and then I said good bye as I went into the Starbucks.  I thought, wow, he was a really nice, and genuinely caring, and seemingly well educated.

As soon as I entered Starbucks I realized 90% of the customers in there were homeless and looking for a place to hang out and stay warm. I ordered my coffee and sat at the bar looking out to the street.

As a coach, I asked myself, “What am I making this mean?”

A few answers came up, but none of them rang true. A few thoughts popped up:

  • “Seattle is a weird city of homeless people.”
  • “ It’s terrible these people are homeless!”
  • “Why do I have so much and these people don’t?”

Anger, sadness, guilt?  No.

None of those were resonating because I’ve learned (thank-you Martha Beck!) to figure out the difference between thoughts that flow into my mind and thoughts that carry truth.

So in the end, I didn’t know what I was making it mean.

And that not knowing was fine – at least I wasn’t jumping to conclusions and judgments.

Light was starting to come to the sky and I noticed there was a man in black sitting in front of Macy’s across the street.  He had a whole claim staked out on the sidewalk with cardboard and blankets.  How did I not see him?  There was a red grocery cart juxtaposed to Macy’s fanciness with someone’s belongings.

How did I have coffee there for 40 minutes and not see that?  Macy's SEattle _640

I realized:  we don’t see what we’re not expecting to see, even when it’s right there in front of us.

This realization shook me more than anything I’d seen so far.

So in the end I answered myself after all.

I was making this mean “even though I think I’m paying attention, there’s always room to pay more attention“.  There’s more out there than I’m seeing at first pass.

I also realized that homeless man and that red shopping cart and that fancy Macy’s store is the dream and the nightmare all superimposed on each other.

And I carry in me this dream of an awesome life and this fear of being a bag lady.  They’re both in there, and just seeing that was enlightening.

Because it’s just a hope and a fear and they are not real.

What is real is just me and also my perceptions; and those perceptions I can be in control of.

So I went out to find that Starbucks mug. I smiled and said hello to those I passed on the street, homeless or not.  I could see as the light of day came out to shine on Seattle’s beauty,  the homeless people were packing up and getting ready to be invisible again. More and more “typical city” people, walking dogs, jogging and couples walking with their coffees were replacing the transient people.  I rounded the corner and a man was zipping up his fly. I’m fairly sure he had just urinated into the sewer.  I saw him though, and it was compassion and connection I felt: a common sense of being in this world and part of humanity together and each of us having the right to choose our lives.Seattle Sunrise_640

I saw a woman coughing and try to spit something out of her mouth onto the street but got it on her hands instead. So she picked up some newspaper off the street and wiped her hands and her mouth.

No judgments came up in my mind, and it felt good. We’re all alive. I have no way of knowing if these people are worse or better off than I am. I can only know me. I can do my best to see them. Really see them and not just the first pass.

On the bus ride home, a man reeking of alcohol couldn’t read the bus stop sign (maybe more drunk than illiterate) and I helped him find his bus. Which was my bus. Which I think he asked me about so he could say it was his bus and then ask me for money as he got on because he was short. I gave him the money. Maybe he just wanted to get on the bus to stay warm.

Maybe he really was getting on that bus and his story of his buddy abandoning him, taking off with a go-go dancer, and leaving him stranded was true.

Who knows?

I saw him and he knows I saw him. Not just a drunk man who may or may not be a liar, but just as another fellow human being.

I did find that Pike’s Place souvenir Starbucks mug and it’s coming home with me to Toronto. Nipples and all. (that’s another story).

But I’m not quite the same coming home.

I think I gained a great lesson in Seattle, on seeing what you don’t see.  A reminder that looking is not the same as seeing.

8 Comments… add one

Sunil November 16, 2014, 3:54 pm

Wow, I just read that at church. Oddly enough I just finished praying for my family, good health and prosperity. I soon realized that I was only focused on personal needs and then prayed for those who were needing of help. When I read your story shortly after it brought tears to my eyes. It is amazing that you had the will to so something this morning, but even more amazing that you had that experience. Thank you for sharing it with me. You are right we sometimes don’t see the things that right there in front of us… truly an awesome journey that I believe you could of only done on your own. it has humbled me.

Sunita Alves November 17, 2014, 6:40 am

Sunil, this is a touching comment. Thank-you for sharing so deeply. This was a humbling experience for me too, and I’ll be paying attention more because of it. — Sunita

Vicki Flaherty November 16, 2014, 10:09 pm

Sunita, what a wonderful, authentic post filled with wisdom and insight. I love what you learned from Martha Beck: the difference between thoughts that flow into my mind and thoughts that carry truth. Yum, I definitely want some of that. Your main point about looking not being the same as seeing was very powerful and what an invitation: there’s always room to pay more attention! Thank you for sharing.

Sunita Alves November 17, 2014, 6:38 am

Vicki, thank-you for your thoughtful comments. It strikes me that even in business we have problems that we try to solve repeatedly, and sometimes they are solved in a flash of insight. This ‘seeing’ of a solution that was always there can be really fun (once it actually happens!). — Sunita

Jennifer Ramsarran November 18, 2014, 12:16 am

Wow! What an amazing adventure. It reminds me of my trip to Montreal this past summer. I had the same thoughts as you when I saw the amount of homeless people there. Only, I had looked at them and never really saw them. Because of you, I will never look at a homeless person the same way again. Thank you so much for sharing your story Sunita, it has definitely touched me deeply. God Bless and looking forward to more of your insights.

Sunita Alves November 19, 2014, 12:42 pm

Jennifer, I’m so glad you enjoyed this story and that it touched you so profoundly. I’ve heard from others who felt the same way as you do. I’m sure your comments will resonate with other readers. Thank-you for sharing your thoughts.

Waheda November 20, 2014, 9:26 pm

Hi Sunita, I finally read your blog on Seattle – a tale of coffee. So inspiring, like all of our chats, thanks for sharing.
PS. You are becoming a great writer as well, cheers.

Sunita Alves November 21, 2014, 1:34 pm

Waheda – thank-you! My coach in Seattle helped connect to myself inside, so I think that helped me write straight from the heart. :-) I so enjoy our chats as well. –Sunita

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