I heard the Chef sigh, first. We were driving towards Greenlake, on a beautiful spring day. Immediately after the sigh, he said, “Oh, I wish we could help that old woman.” I looked behind me to see a woman in her 70s or 80s with four grocery bags. She had left three of them behind her and was walking twenty feet forward to lay down the one bag. Then, she went back to get one more and move that one forward. I immediately circled the car around and parked. We didn’t have a choice.
We hopped out and said, “Ma’am, can we help you?” She resisted at first, her back hunched against us, but she eventually let us help her carry them. (She wouldn’t take a ride in the car.) I thought we were just helping an old woman with her bags.
She talked, in a meandering mumble. Her stories were a little loopy, a bit circular and paranoid. Complaining neighbors, Metro bus drivers closing their doors on her hand before she descended the stairs, Arabs across the street claiming that they owned her house. I leaned in as close as I could to her furrowed face„ but I could only hear about half of it.
I looked for a food bank, since she had mentioned one. She had pointed to an old magenta sweater in one of her bags, saying that she wanted to give it away to someone. But this was a residential street, with lovely Craftsmen homes, only a block away from the lake. One of the best neighborhoods in Seattle. I looked for a food bank, but I couldn’t see one. And then she stopped.
She pointed to a banged-up house, scuffed and boarded up. The steps toward the porch were gone, covered by that flexible orange sheeting that construction workers use. I stood there looking, and then I glanced at the Chef. Neither of us understood. Where did she sleep?
When we asked her, she turned away from her story of the neighbor complaining about the driveway and the tree she had planted ten years before. She pointed, quickly, and then dropped her hand. We turned around and saw it.
She lives in her car. This woman in her 80s, on a tree-lined, upper-middle-class street in Seattle, lives in her car. It is an old Lincoln, stuffed full of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and detritus. It was impossible to see where she slept, since the driver’s seat was covered in stuff, but that’s what she insisted: she sleeps in the car. Her car is parked in front of her old house, where she lived for decades. From what I could gather, she has been living in her car for over a year.
The Chef and I stood there with her, letting her say what she needed. She said that her social security check was cut to $135 a month, and she has no choice but to live there. (She also claimed that a prostitute on Lake City Way stole her card.) We both leaned in to hear her, because her mumblings were pretty quiet. When I asked her if we could find her some help, she shook her hand at me. Eventually, after I persisted, kindly, and said I would like to call someone in the city to come out and help her, she said, “Okay, dear.”
She wouldn’t tell me her name. I don’t know any more of her story.
When we walked away, she was slowly tottering her bags to the car, one by one. She had been to the food bank, which had taken all morning. The bus she had taken back home was the wrong one, swooping away from her usual route. So she had been walking for blocks the way we had seen her, before we stopped.
One of the images that has haunted me all afternoon? They gave her a cantaloupe. Some part of me thought — well, at least she has fresh fruit. But then the other part of me thought, how is a woman with little-to-no space to sleep in the driver’s seat supposed to eat a cantaloupe?
As we walked away, the Chef and I held hands, and were silent. When we looked up at each other, we both had tears in our eyes.
When we had to stop at Whole Foods, for out-of-season fruit for a photo shoot I was doing for the summer issue of a magazine, we both felt a little disgusted at all the gleaming bounty.
When we reached the restaurant, I immediately called every city agency I could think of. Homeless shelters — although she wants more than that, I should think. Public health — they informed me that the funding for their eldercare outreach has been cut, and thus the office no longer exists. I finally spoke to someone in the mayor’s office for the elderly. He was kind, but he was also resigned. “I think I know who you’re talking about. Does she have a white car?” He hasn’t been able to check in with her for over a year, but his hands were tied. Unless she has reached complete dementia, is in terrible medical condition, or asks to be institutionalized, they cannot do anything. He has a senior home he could get her into today, but she has to ask for it. He said my call has put her back on his radar, and he’s going to do what he can. “We’re aware of it,” he told me.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her all day. Neither has the Chef.
We take so much for granted.
I don’t know how this story ends. I don’t know that I ever will.