We Saw Your Light On
It was a dark, unstormy night. Three in the morning. Middle of the week. We were driving around West Seattle, looking for lit-up windows. Other Stranger staffers were wandering around looking for lit-up windows in the U-District, Ballard, downtown, and Belltown (see sidebar for links). The idea for the project came from an experience everyone's had: You're walking down the street when the rest of the city's asleep and you see someone's light on. You wonder: Why are they still up? What's their story/problem/hobby? What are they doing/watching/thinking about? In the dead of night, anything could be going on. We all went in pairs to reduce the chances of being murdered.
I went to West Seattle with photographer Malcolm Smith and his friend Amanda. All the apartments above the shops on California Avenue Southwest were dark. There were orange leaves junking up the gutters. A couple times we saw a light on, pulled over, stood out in the street, unrolled our sign, switched on our flashlights, shined them at the window in question, and got no response. This had just happened to us outside of a residential building in Georgetown, and before that on Beacon Hill. Walking by and wondering is one thing, but standing in the middle of the street shining lights into strangers' apartments felt dangerous and weird and indefensible. And after a while it felt futile.
We stopped at a massive West Seattle apartment complex, maybe a hundred units, with an apartment in the very middle with a lamp on just behind the blinds. We lit up the blinds with our flashlight. A guy who just happened to be walking by the blinds parted them with his fingers. We waved. We held up our three-by-five-foot sign: "Hi, we're from The Stranger. We saw your light was on. We'd like to talk to you," followed by my cell-phone number. The guy at the window called someone else over to the window—judging from her shape, his mother. They looked at us for a while, and then they both vanished back into the apartment. "Maybe they don't like The Stranger," Smith said.
Several blocks south, where California Avenue Southwest meets Southwest Dawson Street, we passed a four-story brick apartment building. The stairwell in the middle of the building was lit up, and so was the corner unit on the third floor, and so were the leaves of some very tall trees. We glimpsed the shape of someone standing in the apartment as we passed.
"Turn around," I said.
We got out and stood under a crosswalk sign. We shined flashlights into the apartment while holding the sign. Someone came to the window. The person appeared to be Justin Timberlake—the jacket, the hat. After a pause, Justin Timberlake gestured toward the front steps. Justin Timberlake was coming outside to meet us.
Justin Timberlake turned out to be 27-year-old Rachel Kincade. We sat on the brick steps and talked. In addition to the Justin Timberlake hat, she had a stud in her lower lip, jeans rolled at the cuffs, and white Heelys, those sneakers with wheels in the soles. "These have been on my feet since I bought them," she said, turning one of her shoes over and spinning the wheel. An empty Rite Aid across the street faced us. The drugstore was dark, although the light on register 2 was lit up.
"That was really interesting how you got my attention," she said, lighting a cigarette. "I was on the computer, just looking stuff up." She couldn't sleep and had been on MySpace trying to find people she knew in high school, she said. She moved around a lot—her mother was an addict and a dealer—and attended 22 different schools in California and Washington State between kindergarten and 12th grade. She graduated from Highline High School in Burien.
"My whole life flipped upside down six months ago," she said. "I've been doing a lot of soul searching, dancing, stuff like that." Six months ago, she lost her job at a Cingular call center. She lost her girlfriend. When she lost her girlfriend, she also lost a place to live. She and her white Pomeranian were homeless and living in Kincade's car until a repo man showed up and took away the car, too. The Pomeranian went to stay with Kincade's ex-girlfriend and, in the ex-girlfriend's care, got killed by a pit bull.
"It's like a country song," she said. "I'm not kidding."
She's always been a night owl. Before Cingular, she worked nights at Port of Seattle running paperwork back and forth between people. She's not sure what's next, jobwise. "Actually, I applied over there today," she said, looking at the Rite Aid. "My dream is to be someone's backup dancer."
She dances to hiphop. During the day she does it at Cal Anderson Park—a teacher at the Kirkland Dance Center saw her dancing in the park and now lets her attend hiphop classes for free—and at night she likes R Place. "I go to R Place to dance and all the boys think I'm a boy," she grinned.
We asked if we could go up to the apartment, but it's not really her apartment and her roommate, who's a social worker for Lifelong AIDS Alliance and is letting Kincade stay there for free, was sleeping. "I live in the walk-in closet. Yeah, I'm in the closet! It's totally a joke."
She and her roommate "were going to go to R Place tonight but we didn't because I couldn't sleep very well last night, so I was going to get some sleep tonight."
And then she laughed.