The Side of the City You See When You Live in a Public Garden Frequented by Belltown Bros and Homeless Junkies
My first housewarming gift was a baseball bat.
It was left by the door of my 460-square-foot house in Belltown by the previous tenant, with a note that simply read "Enjoy!" The house is one of three old cannery cottages among the carefully tended gardens in the Belltown P-Patch, a beautifully weird oasis in the heart of downtown Seattle. The cottages were built in 1905. When I moved there in 2008, they were operated by Richard Hugo House, a literary nonprofit on Capitol Hill that gave discounted accommodations to four writers in residence, including me. Another female writer in residence and I were warned when we moved into our cottages that we might not last long. There had only ever been one other female tenant, a woman from New York City, and "she didn't last more than a week," we were told.
I dubbed the baseball bat Li'l Slugger. Honestly, I thought the present melodramatic until later that night, when I was roused from sleep—my first night in a new bed in a new place—by my two madly barking dogs. There was something clawing at the front of my house. It was about 3 a.m. When I opened the front door and stepped outside, I saw a man clinging to the side of my house, maybe eight feet off the ground, hanging from a windowsill, his legs cartoonishly scrambling against the wood.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I asked, even though it was pretty obvious.
His legs slowed down. "Trying to hide from the cops," he said.
"Do it someplace else."
He dropped to the ground and turned and looked at me in a considering sort of way. We were about 10 feet apart. He wore a knit cap low over his forehead and he probably had 50 pounds on me. My tie-dye pajama set was less than intimidating.
"I have a baseball bat," I said, grabbing Li'l Slugger and waving it demonstratively, although probably not threateningly because what the fuck do I know about baseball? "Get out."
After another pause that really caused me to sweat, he walked out of my tiny yard, which has a fence around it separating it from the rest of the gardens, gently closed my gate, and disappeared. The next day, I received my second housewarming gift: a lock for my front gate. I now keep mace by the front door, too.
• • •
I don't believe in ghosts for the same reason I don't believe in God: I'm no fun. Still, I'm embarrassed to say that for a while I imagined my tiny house was haunted. Sometimes there'd be a soft scraping at the front, or tiny knocks at the windows, but whenever I opened the door or lifted a blind, no one was there. One evening at about dusk, I was reading on the couch when I heard footsteps on the roof. Pacing, just above my head. I jumped up and ran outside. But there was no ghost on my roof, just a raccoon eating a cat.
• • •
After I'd lived in my cottage for a few years, two men in white hazmat suits and kneepads appeared on my doorstep and informed me that I was living atop a pet cemetery.
My house doesn't have a foundation. It's perched three feet above the earth on stilts. A dwarfish door at the front of the house opens up into the crawl space. The door is locked. Also, there's a tree planted in front of it.
The men told me that because my house is surrounded by towering condos, my crawl space is the most popular spot in the neighborhood for animals to die—rats, raccoons, stray cats, other creatures. "Junkies even used to nest there," one of the men told me. (That was before the lock and the tree.) "I bet we'll find a lot of needles."
The men had been sent by the city to exhume the bodies from under my house. They wouldn't let me watch or peek inside the tiny door—they didn't have enough hazmat suits and kneepads to go around. When they first opened the tiny door, one of the men said, "Yeesh. I'm surprised she didn't smell that one."
They hauled bags and bags of stuff out of there—years' worth of accumulated dead animals I never smelled. It took them two hours. I wasn't sure what to do while they were thumping around, but it seemed like I should commemorate all those furry little lives somehow. I remembered my parents putting down my childhood dog when I was in college. At the time, my roommate played ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All" obsessively. Now it plays in my head every time I see roadkill. But I didn't have "The Winner Takes It All" on my computer, so I played "Dancing Queen" on repeat instead.
• • •
If you've never been, the Belltown P-Patch is a beautiful garden with a couple dozen plots, each carefully tended by a gardener. Some plots are vegetable gardens, some are flower gardens, and some combine the two. I have discovered so much interesting stuff in the P-Patch—lemon verbena, artichoke trees, more mints than your mouth can hold, a rat's nest made entirely out of used condoms, raspberries, you name it. In the summer, the garden is especially gorgeous. A steady trickle of people wander through its footpaths all day: Belltown residents walking their dogs or children, homeless people looking for a spot to nap, cruise-ship passengers who've gotten lost on the way to Pike Place Market, gardeners admiring their plots, drug users. And, sometimes, assholes. I feel it is my job to call out the assholes. I can't help myself.
One day, as I was attempting to prune a tree, I noticed a scroungey-looking woman with scissors clipping flowers from people's gardens. From the way she was dressed—torn sweatpants, Crocs, and a dingy sports bra—I guessed she was either homeless or very poor.
"Hey there, please don't pick the flowers," I said. "Those are people's gardens."
She turned to me, scissors in one hand and a very beautiful bouquet in the other, and said, "Bitch, I will cut your face."
I held up my three-foot-long tree pruners and replied, "Not if I cut yours first." We stared at each other for a second and then both started cackling. It was a very cathartic cackle—the laughter of two women who have just realized that maybe they don't want to risk fucking with each other. Then, still laughing, she clipped another flower.
"Knock it the fuck off," I told her. "If you don't leave right now, I'm going to call the cops."
That got her moving in a hurry.
Later that evening, I was leaving the garden on my way up to happy hour when I noticed another young woman with clippers. This woman had ridden up on a Vespa. She was still wearing her matching mint-green helmet, and on her arm was a basket filled with one woman's very carefully tended roses.
"Hey, please don't pick the flowers," I said to her, same as I do to everyone. "That's someone's garden."
She gave me a quick glance, then continued to cut roses.
So I stepped closer to her. "If you don't stop, I'm going to call the cops," I said because, hey, it had worked before.
"For what? For picking someone's roses? Oooh, I'm sure they'll rush right over and arrest me," she said. She was right—it was an empty threat. I wasn't going to call the cops on someone for picking roses; cops have more important things to do than respond to such calls. That moment was a reminder that some people can be real entitled pricks. The entitlement probably comes from experiencing mild-to-nonexistent consequences for being pricks throughout their lives. It is especially common among non-poor people and white people, most of whom do not jaywalk through life with a healthy fear of being singled out and persecuted by authority figures.
This young woman knew cutting other people's flowers was a dick move and she did it anyway.
So I tried a different tactic.
"You know you're being a huge asshole right now, don't you? You're an asshole, and I'm going to stand here and keep telling you that you're an asshole until you leave. Oh, and I'm going to take your picture and send it to all of the gardeners of this P-Patch so they know exactly what you look like, and what the stupid Vespa you drive looks like, so they can also call you an asshole every time you step foot in this garden."
The Vespa-riding rose thief was out of there before I could get my phone out to take her picture.
• • •
If you have ever had sex in the Belltown P-Patch, chances are I have watched you have sex. My walls are thin and I do not own a television. If you'd like to know who has sex in the Belltown P-Patch, the answer is everyone: homeless people, people with multiple homes, drunk people, hippies, stoned people, even Greek tourists! Sometimes, the sex is funny—like the bleached-blond couple that had tantric lap sex on the sidewalk, in the middle of a sunny summer day, for two hours (I clocked that shit) while pedestrians politely ignored them. She sat on his lap and rode at a slow gallop so long that even I felt saddle sore.
Other times, the sex is sad. I have witnessed a lot of blowjobs for drugs in that garden, sometimes before I've had my morning coffee.
I have a hands-off policy when it comes to other people's public sex. I mind my own business and stay out of the way until it's over—unless it seems someone is being harmed.
Recently, I awoke to the sounds of screaming. It was around 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night. The screams were low, guttural. My first thought was, An ox is being stabbed! I ran to my kitchen, peeked out the window, and saw two people in the garden fucking. But the woman was being fucked from behind, so I couldn't tell if it was consensual. I ran back to my bedroom to grab my phone, and then to the front door to grab Li'l Slugger. My plan was this: Call 911, and then run out screaming and swinging the baseball bat. Going outside was maybe a stupid plan, but I couldn't just stand there and listen to her screams. So I opened my front door, already dialing the 9—only to see that the couple had switched positions. From this new vantage, I could tell that the sex was entirely consensual. So I went back inside, full of adrenaline and perverse crabbiness, and tried to go back to sleep.
• • •
Over the course of a few years, I've seen one man have sex with many different women in the garden. About a year ago, I saw this man at a rather swank public event. I felt giddy—it was like seeing my own personal reality TV star in the flesh. Later, when we were introduced, I couldn't resist asking him if he had a plot in the Belltown P-Patch.
"No," he said, giving me a puzzled look.
"That's funny, I feel like I've seen you there a lot. I live in one of the cottages."
He gave some vague nonresponse like "I take a lot of walks" and excused himself from the conversation soon after. I have not seen his penis since. :(
• • •
Once, on my way to work, a man followed me for blocks shouting, "Where's my wang?" I said that I did not know where his wang was. To this day, it remains a mystery.
• • •
Downtown residents are very concerned about crime and street violence. I understand, but too often, words like "crime" and "street violence" are code words for "poor." And personally—as someone who is not nearly as wealthy as any of her neighbors and who lives right next to the Millionair Club, which hooks poor and homeless people up with temporary jobs, hot meals, and an array of social services—I feel pretty safe in my neighborhood. The men who line up at the Millionair Club every morning have never harassed or threatened me. The constant cycle of men who sleep in the garden have never harassed or threatened me.
The men who harass and threaten me are usually the men who wear a rainbow of button-down shirts and party in Belltown on the weekends. On several occasions, such men have encountered me walking home. They have followed me. One told me I have DSL, and when I clearly didn't know if I should be offended/afraid/turned on?, he clarified: "Dick Sucking Lips." Another man just kept chanting, as he followed me home, that he could "buy and sell" me. He shouted this for blocks. I've caught men like these puking their guts out in the garden as often as I've caught homeless inebriates puking in the garden.
• • •
As with sex, I have a pretty hands-off policy when it comes to people sleeping in the garden. After all, it's a public park and people have to sleep somewhere. My general rule is, if you clean up after yourself, we do not have a problem.
For a few seasons, there was a young woman living in the garden. My guess is that she was in her early 20s. She was really beautiful—big brown eyes, a willowy frame, flashy white teeth. She also had a serious substance-abuse problem—meth, crack, spray paint, gas (one day I saw her huffing from a big red canister). I guess I imagined myself as a benevolent older-sister type who could maybe remind her, through generous thoughts and actions, that she had worth. If I saw her in the morning, I'd wish her a good day. When I saw her in the evening, I'd ask her how her day went. Her response was usually along the lines of "Fucking dandy" or "How the fuck do you think?"
If I offered her food, she'd say things like "Thanks, Mother Teresa." Which was actually pretty funny.
When she left food and drugs and gas cans strewn about the garden, I'd ask her politely to pick them up. When she wouldn't pick them up, I'd pick them up and throw them away and lecture her a bit. When she'd dig them out of the trash, I'd throw them away again and lecture her some more.
Then one early morning, I let my dogs out into the garden to sniff around while I made myself coffee. Minutes later, I went outside and discovered my two dogs lapping fresh shit off of this woman's ass. It was the viscous shit of a hard-core drug addict. She was on her stomach, pants down, barefoot. It looked like she'd taken a shit while sitting on the ground and then rolled over. It was disgusting, yes, but I didn't have time to process that because she appeared to be dead. I was terrified. Then she snored and I realized she was just in a drug-induced stupor. Meanwhile, my dogs had wandered away from her sparkling clean ass to lap up other puddles of shit she'd left on the sidewalk. Have you ever smelled hot human shit on a panting dog's breath? What about two dogs?
In my head, I'm still screaming.
I rounded my dogs into my yard and closed the fence and walked back to her prone form. What should I do with her? Call the cops? Call someone else? Who else was there to call? As I stood there, dumbfounded and barefoot, coffee in hand, a man walked up. I'd seen him before. Sometimes he brought her drugs; sometimes he brought her socks. We stared at her in silence. I asked if I needed to call someone. He said, "I'll take care of it." I watched as he pulled up her shit-stained pants, rolled her over, and woke her up by slapping her cheeks. He tried to help her sit up, but her movements were too jerky, like she didn't have control of her limbs. She was shaking all over. Somehow, he got her up and out of the garden. I haven't seen her since.
• • •
Because of the shit-eating incident, I now patrol the garden for human poop as well as dog poop. When I find human poop, I pick it up with a doggie bag and dispose of it. Sure, it's disgusting, but it's less disgusting than having a dog lick my face with hot shit breath. One day, while patrolling for human poop, I found a ring half buried in the ground. I asked around but none of the gardeners claimed it, so I pawned it for $285. If I believed in karma, this would be a good example of it.
• • •
I've called 911 only once while living in the P-Patch. This was a few years ago, during the winter, when the days get dark by 5 p.m. I was standing at my kitchen sink when I heard a commotion. Outside, a large man was stomping through several fallow garden plots. Pacing back and forth, back and forth, stomp stomp stomp. Then he reached down and picked up a broken old chair someone had used to decorate their plot and threw it. Then he ripped several stakes out of the ground and threw them. By the time he got around to heaving bricks, I was dialing 911. I gave the operator my statement as he was shot-putting decorative slabs of walkway. She asked if he could see me. I said, "Probably." She told me to get away from the window, so I did. She was still talking—telling me soothing things, like help was on the way—when I remembered that the gate around my front yard was unlocked. And I didn't have my dogs with me. I ran to the front door, thinking that maybe I could dash out and lock my gate and then feel oh so much better, but when I opened my front door, there he was, already in my yard at the bottom of my steps with a cement gold-painted Buddha raised high above his head. He looked up. I think I startled him. I know he startled me, so I said the first thing that came to mind: "NOPE." Then I slammed the door and locked it.
Seconds later, flashing lights shone through my windows. I saw the man on his knees with his hands cuffed and officers looming over him. I don't know what happened to him after that. My tacky gold Buddha I found days later, embedded in some mulch.
• • •
I've lived in the Belltown P-Patch for five years now, which I've just realized is a longer period of time than I've ever lived in any house, ever. There's no telling how long I'll last. Some days, I think it'd be nice to grow old here, to die here. A lot of people in my life have died suddenly over the last few years, and some of the best memories I have of them are in this house. I want to hoard those memories, to live with them as long as possible. But realistically, I can't live here forever. The lack of closet space is a real hassle, and the windows are so thin and rickety that a strong breeze makes the curtains dance. When my time is up—I'm talking about my death now—I have two requests:
1. My teeth are pulled and donated to needy children with imperfect smiles.
2. Someone cuts the lock on that dwarfish door and slides my toothless body under that house with whatever stray cats, raccoons, squirrels, and other corpses have happened to settle there. If shoving my whole body down there is too much to ask, I'll settle for a hand.