There is a hidden little street not far from my house that, three years ago, had two Greek statues of young and dancing women (both were about three feet tall and, I suspect, a part of a Four Seasons set) on its sidewalk, and one large parked RV, which was occupied by a middle-aged white woman with two little dogs. Now, this street is lined with five or so RVs, three cars, two pickup trucks; and it connects with another shorter street that has five more RVs. All of the vehicles are pretty beat-up. And those who live in them have formed a nervous community. The old white lady is gone and has been replaced by people of color.
This Sunday at around 1 p.m., I walked down the street—a small bottle of the bubbles in hand, and Brain Eno's new Music for Installations plugged in my ears (more about this numinous music in another post)—and saw a black man passed out in a pickup truck, and another black man visiting an RV owned by a middle-aged black woman and her dog. He had a Bud in his hand and was laughing, it seemed, at a joke that, though made by him, cracked him up (but not his host). Then the woman spotted me passing. The man noticed she was looking at something through the RV's door and stopped laughing.
I then saw an athletic young man who had the appearance of a Pacific Islander, and stood on a part of the sidewalk once occupied by the statues of the dancing Greek girls. He was grilling meat and vegetables on a outdoor cooker. Smoke rose from the sizzling. The last RV on the street was burned to a crisp. The fire that destroyed it must have been huge, but it amazingly failed to leap to a number of the short trees whose branches hang above and leaves shade the sidewalk. The fire spared little in that RV, whose owner or owners appeared to have abandoned the scene. Little in the vehicle and the street wasn't reduced useless carbon. As I stood looking at the wreckage, and drinking from the small bottle of La Marca Extra Dry Prosecco, I began thinking about the catastrophes this fire represented. I counted three in all: a catastrophe within a catastrophe within a catastrophe.
The first was the near-total destruction of the RV's owner's home and possessions. Now, I don't know the circumstances of the fire and financial condition of its occupant(s). And the Seattle Fire Department did not tweet about it (though they did tweet about a single engine Cessna that crashed into Eagle Harbor); and my requests for information about the incident must have entered a black hole in SFD's office. But what I do know for sure is that one does not permanently reside in an RV because it is fun. It is a lot of work. Here, one is constantly, relentlessly harassed by the kinds of things that require only occasional maintenance in a conventional home. This harassment surely adds color to a camping experience, but it turns city-living into a nightmare of chores. And the nightmare is intensified by the age and smallness of the RV. Many of the vehicles on this street are very old and kept from the scrapheap only by the desperation of their occupants.
The second catastrophe is this: a person who loses an RV is in a worse situation than before. As there is no comparison between an RV and a house, there is no comparison between an RV and the raw street. The former at least offers shelter from the elements, and provides some privacy. Those who have always had an actual home they can call home take many things for granted. One of them is the luxury of privacy. The fact that it is a luxury is revealed in a section of a documentary, Urbanized, that concerns a low income housing project designed by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. Late in the design stage of the project, the architect was informed by the government that, to meet the budget, he had to make one of two cuts to each unit: either the hot water heater or a private bathroom. By a "participatory design" process, the architect learned that the future residents of this housing development overwhelmingly wanted a private bathroom because in the slum there was no such privacy. Everyone saw everything all of the time. They had had enough of that. Give them a closed space to bathe.
The third catastrophe is the housing crisis that, from our current political position—which is determined by the interests of those who hugely command the social power of money—has no end in sight. Seattle Times reports "that 3,300 people [sleep] in vehicles in the county, a 46 percent increase from the previous year." We can expect that number to rise and rise. Recall Walter Benjamin's angel of history. This fantastic bird faces the past and sees "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet." Seattle is the other way around. It faces the future and sees a homeless and housing catastrophe that hurls and hurls wreckage upon wreckage at its feet.
UPDATE: SFD reports:
On 6/2 at 10:56 a.m., we responded to... a RV fire parked on [that] street. The RV fire was fully involved with some impingement on the power lines above. Occupants safely exited the vehicle and there were no reported injuries. The RV was a total loss. Seattle City Light inspected the power lines and determined there was no significant damage.