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Monday, November 23, 2009

From the Story Archive: Girl Meets Squat

I was trying to relay a story to friends tonight but was failing miserably. I knew Ilsa had written this adventure down so I dug into the email archives to find it. It was better than I remembered. Grab a cup of tea and get cozy as I walk down memory lane.

Note: This is Ilsa's details of events. My commentary would have been much different but I like how she tells it. Do keep in mind Ilsa had landed in Seattle not 1 hour before this whole night began.

"After de-planing in Seattle and being picked up by Cara it was time to focus on dinner. Back in the day when I could, would and did eat anything that crossed my path, eating dinner was simple. These daysfinding food has become something of a chore.

But there was something else on my mind besides dinner and that was freegans. I was desperate to locate the people who knew the ins andouts of dumpster diving in Seattle.

As we walked though Downtown Seattle in search of a suitable place for me to have dinner Cara grew concerned with the way I was eyeing dumpsters. Cara wouldn't dive a dumpster if it contained the last meal on earth. It wasn't that I was eyeing the dumpsters in search of a meal, it was more a general nosiness. As in, Hmmmm, I wonder what's in that dumpster?

I asked Cara on several occasions, "Where are the punks?" She was evasive in her answers and then said, "Tomorrow night we'll go to Capital Hill. There are punks there."To which I replied, "Not tomorrow. Tonight."

Things between us started to get a bit tense but I was in town for a short while and if I didn't connect with the freegans then I was going to feel somewhat adrift. I needed to know that there were people in Seattle who were living on the fringe. Actually, I knew there were people on the fringe but I HAD to meet some of them and talk to them.

On the east coast the punk look is often just that, a look, nothing attached to any sort of counter-culture mindset. I've learned from personal experience that people on the west coast are a bit more earnest and their appearance tends to belie the truth of who they are. This meant that if I located kids in recycled clothes, they would be the real deal, kids who were living on the edge.

Images form the news footage of the WTO protesters ran through my mind as Cara and I continued to look for a place to dine.

We turned on Post Alley and I noticed a group of boys, one of them was juggling and he dropped one of the things he was juggling. It was a dinner roll. I had a flash of knowing and thought, "He dumpstered those rolls." I said nothing to Cara about my observation but as we approached the kids, who were boisterous and drunk, I struck up a conversation with them.

Cara stood off to the side, a good 20 feet from where I was talking with the boys. After a rapid fire interview, I learned that they had dumpstered the rolls, and they were quick to offer me one which I declined because I don't eat wheat. I also learned that they had all hitchhiked their way to Seattle from various part of the United States. One of the guys, Derrick, was a busker. There was something carefree about these kids. They reminded me of myself in my youth when I had been homeless.

The boys self-labeled themselves hobos and it had been a long time since I'd heard anyone say that word, let alone refer to himself in such a way. I wasn't among freegans, who have a deliberate political stance against consumerism and excess, I was beyond freegan, I was with hobos.

It was then that I asked if they'd jumped freight trains, to which they all replied, "Yes." Then went on to describe the beautiful vistas of the American landscape they'd seen from a box car. Unwashed as they were, these boys were my kind of people. I've got "jump freight trains" on my list of things to do before I die.

While we were chatting, Derrick, asked, "Do you want to see our squat?"

In my mind I started turning cart wheels. My thoughts: Do I want to see your squat? Of course I want to see your squat!

Tempering my enthusiasm, I was giddy and wanted to jump for joy, I looked over at Cara (as I have done many times) in the way that a child looks to a parent for permission and I asked, "Can we go to the squat?"

At which point the only girl in the group, Molly, interjected, her voice brimming with enthusiasm, "We have a chair!"

Cara was dressed in a black and white silk dress and white jacket looking every inch the career girl that she is with nothing in her appearance to suggest an affinity with dumpster diving or squats. (It's true that people on the west coast dress to let you about the character of the true self.) I'm not sure my look screams, "Let's go dumpster diving," but then again, I'm from the east coast, so my look is meant to conceal not reveal.

Cara who knew that I would die if I didn't get to the squat graciously agreed. It was then that I told the kids I had to get something to eat and that I'd be back in half an hour and we'd head to the squat.Then, in a bougie move, I ended up having dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants in Seattle, Café Campange.

The thing is when I was in search of a place to eat I knew that the pubs and somewhat nicer places we passed were serving factory farmed chicken (as is standard practice) and I was hard pressed after Tiny Snacks on the plane to find real food.

Inside Cafe Campagne three musicians were enthusiastically performing,but it was hard to discern which style of music they were playing: part jazz, part boogie woogie, big band? As I took my seat at one of the tables outdoors I felt the edgy New Yorker in me surface. I needed to eat and get back to the punks and get to the squat.

Dinner consisted of tap water and Truite aux amandes (Pan-sautéed boneless trout with steamed potatoes and an almond, lemon and brown butter pan sauce $16.00) The first bite of dinner brought the line from a Preston Sturgess movie to mind. The scene: black tie dinner jump cut to a man who declares, "The fish was a poem." The trout at Café Campagne is the closest I've ever come to a fish being a poem. That one little fish brought me to food heaven and unlike some meals where the fist bite is divine and subsequent bites make you wonder if you'd lost your mind because you can't recapture the joy of the first bite, my taste buds did not fizzle out until I was almost done. All the while I was eating the trout I thought, "This is damn good!"

I was careful to notice what a beautiful night it was, fall had arrived in Seattle. I did start an interior monolog about whether or not the trout could be considered organic and then I soon found my mind drifting into environmental issues regarding how polluted everything is and that there is nothing on the planet that can be considered pure...That discourse was cut short or else I would have become really cranky.

Cara and I returned to the group of kids having agreed that only Molly could ride in the car, as the boys reeked of alcohol and the odor of not having bathed in many weeks. Soon enough Cara, Molly and I were driving to the squat. The boys, traveling on foot, would meet us in approximately 30 minutes.

I have never entered a squat that didn't require acrobatic skills. Ok, so I'm exaggerating a bit here but usually some sort of security device: a grate or a lock has to be subverted coupled with the entrance being in the darkest, farthest corner. When I asked Molly how we entered the squat she answered rather plainly, "You just walk in the front door."

This I HAD to see.

We parked the car, waited until there was no traffic on the street, ducked into the shadows, climbed around a chain link fence, walked carefully over a lot of debris, up a couple of steps to the front door. Then the moment of truth, Molly placed her hand on the door knob, turned it gently and voila, it opened without so much as a squeak.

The interior of the building was pitch black but ever since September 11, 2001 I carry a powerful flashlight with me worried that I might find myself in a subway tunnel with no power and I plan to illuminate my path to get the heck out of that situation in a hurry. The funny thing is the subways continued to run on September 11, 2001 before, during, and after the World Trade Centers collapsed.

Soon Cara, Molly and I were walking through the halls of the abandoned building, taking a right turn as Molly put it, "At the stuff hanging from the ceiling." While we walked thorough the building Molly described her life and it was soon clear that I was hanging out with a bi-sexual teenager who was pining for her girlfriend. (How terrific is that?)

We ascended a few staircases and soon came to "Lake Squatington." This was a large body of water on the second floor where Derrick had been sleeping until it rained for a day and the room, not having the benefit of windows, was soon flooded under a couple inches of water. We took a left after we passed the lake and found ourselves in an enormous room. Each wall was floor to ceiling windows and plenty of street light came in allowing us to see the details of the room clearly.

There was one mattress on the floor, surrounded by three sleeping bags, a couple of pairs of pants hung to dry form a window pane. Someone had spray painted T.U.I. on the wall. This was the motto of the squat. Tear It Up. Later when I pointed out that it should be TIU, I was told, "That doesn't roll off the tongue." Which is true.

Within ten minutes the boys, like a bunch of demented miners, appeared wearing head lamps.

At this point I turned to Molly and said, "I thought you had a chair." She ran out of the room and returned a minute late proudly bearing a chair for Miss Cara to sit in.

We sat around, the scene lit by birthday candles, and while the boys shared a 40 ounce of Old English, rolled cigarettes from a huge bag of loose tobacco, Mark strummed on a guitar and the rest of us started telling stories.

Not to bore you with every little thing that was said, the salient points that came out of chilling with the teenage hobos:

They "poop out of the second floor window."

If you need to "take a dump and you're near Seattle's Best Coffee, use code 513" to gain access to the toilet.

The motto of migrant fruit pickers, who will pick up hitch hikers is: you today, me tomorrow.

I noticed that Cara laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy herself in spite of the fact that she found herself in this rather improbable setting.

I was having the time of my life. The kids were cracking me up. They were so candid and told stories in a very matter of fact style. They answered each question that I asked honestly and without reservation.

It would be hard to pick a favorite moment while hanging out at the squat because there were so many inspired moments, but I have to give Cara big props for climbing through the sky light to join me and the boys and Molly on the roof as we looked at the lights that twinkled on the Seattle skyline.

Around 11:30 p.m. Cara and I decided to call it a night although I felt I could have spent a little bit longer with the kids."

This night is quintessential in our friendship. I can alway count on Ilsa to push me beyond my comfort to discover a world beyond myself. This is just such a story.


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