Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tent City 3 - Move Day, Saturday 27 Nov 2010

By the time I arrived at 8:30am to help with the move, all the personal tents were down and the community tents (office, check-in, kitchen and movie tents) were being disassembled. The pallets and plywood rafts, upon which the city was raised to keep it from sitting in water, were being torn apart, nails were being pried and hammered out, and everything was simultaneously being hauled into piles for transport. Jetsom. Whoosh!

It was a nice, cool, dry, overcast morning, not gloomy, but Seattle wintry, full of potential. Good weather for outdoor work. After a few tries, I found someone willing to give me a task and I started folding tarps and organizing tent poles. Once I'd cleared a corner, I moved to pallets and boards and began carrying loads from the "barge" to the staging area. When the trucks arrived, I helped load pallets and boards. Heavy, hard labor. Hats off, jackets off, warm body making work. I'm happy in the weather, face ruddied by the wind and sun. My heart responds to the open air and my muscles thirst for work. Yes, I have a penchant for over-doing it and for later needing Tylenol and rest, but I felt appreciated and helpful. When the opportunity to arose to go off and have lunch with a friend, I chose instead to stay with the others in camp and have a sack lunch.

Team Work
I impressed some with my strength and willingness to work. They chuckled and said I was putting them to shame, but there were many able bodies at work and the team moved well together. It's been a long time since I labored alongside others to make something momentous happen. The solo and small group labors of a climbing or sailing endeavor is different than 50 able bodies coming together to do one thing. It felt as if we had a social purpose and that our efforts were necessary. And they were. We were raising a city! Being a part of that made me feel strong.

After the snowstorm and freeze of last week, followed by a quick warm-up, the ground and tents and tarps were wet and muddy. The heaviest tarp took six men to lift onto the truck. It was all but loaded in the truck when a stream of muddy water leaked out and down our arms. Eieeee! My green pants were streaked with mud water and my white down jacket was turning brown. When I looked around, I saw everyone had muddied legs and arms. Where this group was going there would be no hot showers, no sinks with soap, no laundromat. What do you do to stay warm and clean and dry? What would you do for a home?

I had some casual conversations with the men as we worked. They knew me as the poet and asked me about my work and plans. Somebody asked me who my favorite poet was. I said I liked Russell Edson. He said he liked Catullus, the greatest lyric poet of Rome.

To whom am I to present my pretty new book,
freshly smoothed off with dry pumice-stone?
To you, Cornelius: for you used to think
that my trifles were worth something,
long ago, when you took courage, you alone of Italians,
to set forth the whole history of the world in three volumes,
learned volumes, by Jupiter, and laboriously wrought.
So take and keep for your own this little book, such as it is,
and whatever it is worth; and may it, O Virgin my patroness,
live and last for more than one century.


The women were at task sweeping and clearing trash. The entire back end of St. Mark's parking lot was to be swept clean by this afternoon. I'm happy not to have been on the women's crew. I would have been frustrated to be resigned to lighter labor when there were people ripping out nails and stacking pallets all around. I've worked with all male crews before--as a mountain climber, an industrial landscaper and a commercial fisherman--each time it's been an endeavor in proving your worth. Once proven, you're on the team and treated like the others.

Like anywhere, the people at Tent City are a mix of types and personalities, some cheerful, some not, some hard-working, some complaining, some agreeable, some disagreeable. I'd wanted, in my mind, to lionize this group, to make them into a choir of faultless, suffering angels, but like anyone anywhere, they're just people, some of whom I'll get along with and some of whom I won't. It was nice to be reminded so soon of this. It will help me, I think, see more clearly.

River Barge
The broken skeleton of Tent City, now visible, showed, in the rich NE quadrant, a field of black bags stuffed with blankets and sleeping bags and other sleeping material. In the SW, there stood a monolith of milk crates, stacked 8 high, 20 wide and 20 deep. These are the crates that, when tied together, make all bunks for the residents of Tent City. The houses float. The residents too. The whole camp floats!

At times, the place looked impossible--nails and cups and bits of trash and dissimilar items strewn about. Ten, at times, it looked like it might be improving. Every time I turned around I thought, ok, two more loads. Then the trucks came and went and I turned around again. Two more loads. Two more loads. It went like that until noon. Then 2pm. Then 4pm. Finally, when I left to get my own gear and shelter together, I do really think there were only two loads left. They'd begun sending people to the other side to assist with the 30 residents already there receiving and setting it all back up on the other side. Then I finally got to the other side with my poetry ger (yurt), I was amazed at how clean and orderly it all was. O what a task!

I picked up my own pallets the week before from a free pile in Ballard and now, learning that I'd need to get my own plywood sheets together, I raced to the hardware to buy them and was lucky to have a helpful staff two minutes before they closed. Then I drove back to Meadowbrook and began installing. The guy in charge of the new city layout placed me on my own in an open space between two rows of tents, like a buoy in the current. I'm on a separate raft now, in the middle of a dog-leg, floating between two barges. A street lamp, like Sirius, overhead.

Everyone was interested in the ger as it was going up. Looks cozy! How can I get one of those? What is that? And then, when I was bringing my bags and belongings in, I didn't get far past the entrance before someone took a bag out of my hands and said, "That's not how it's done here." People help one another and ask for help. I suspect that'll be the hardest part for me. A resident came forward later to help bend a board into place and then located duct tape when I broke my fiberglass pole and needed to make a repair.

People went past, steaming plates in hand, announcing dinner. Dinner's here. Did you get dinner? I had a bite to eat before I left for the evening, beef stew and potatoes with gravy. The meal was provided by a famous couple who have been feeding Tent City for 10 years now, every other Saturday. What a difference it made, a hot meal. How grateful I was. At 9pm, I left for Fremont. I still have a few loads to transport, so I won't sleep at Tent City tonight. I figured it would give the residents a chance to check out the yurt and poke their heads inside. Everyone was interested in seeing it and it being so late and dark, perhaps tomorrow morning they'd get a better look.

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