by Casey Jaywork
Outside the massive Seattle Central Library, a thirty-something black man—clean shaven in overalls and carrying a bulbous backpack—takes crackling bites from a bright red apple between cigarette puffs.
“I don’t want to get a minimum wage job and work hard to still not be able to afford a roof over my head and a pot to piss in,” says the man, whose name is David. He says he’s been living outside for about five years after more spent filtering in and out of stable housing and employment. “If you lose that job, you lose the shirt off your back, and then you’re right back to square one,” he says. “Been there, done that, got the t-shirts—I got some old, crusty t-shirts from years ago about that, and I’m not trying to go through it over and over again.
“What’s the point of having a minimum wage job… and you still don’t have a place?” he asks rhetorically. “I don’t get it, and that’s why I don’t go through the motions to make people happy.”
Now, David lives as an economic sub-citizen, his movement and freedom restricted to public areas like libraries. “If you’re not at work or home or school, you basically have to be a consumer or a shopper to be a part of the economy,” he says. Libraries, however, are open to all and provide a sheltered refuge for those not part of the consumer class.
“I like the smaller ones, the ones that used to be Carnegie Free libraries,” David says, referring to the Fremont, Greenlake, and University District branches. “It feels not as crowded or oversized.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the soaring metal-and-glass honeycomb edifice of the downtown library. Inside, the hum of ventilation fills the air and muffles the background patter of coughing and soft conversations at the reference desk and gift shop. Elevators silently swoop up and down clear glass shafts. At the cafe, a barista periodically bangs a portafilter against dull rubber, grinds beans, tik-tik-tiks the grind into the portafilter, and clicks the portafilter into its catch in the espresso machine. The machine whirs and spits hot, thick espresso into tiny glass cups.
The library also offers toilets, sinks, water fountains, as well as wifi accessibility and electrical outlets for charging devices—the basic infrastructure of daily life. The destitute congregate here struggling to secure such simple resources, public access to which is essential for those who can’t afford to buy a coffee at a Starbucks to use the bathroom. “If the place is closed, then I’d better think of something else,” David says, like an alley if nature calls and there’s no alternative.
Nearby the café, dozens of people of all appearances populate the library’s sleek lounge. Resting is allowed here, but not sleeping, and so the loungers struggle to keep their eyes open, occasionally lapsing into a few breath-cycles of snoring before hearing themselves and snapping back awake. A thin, middle-aged woman with hard lines in her face huddles for warmth inside a parka and sherpa hat beneath a faded, children’s blanket.
A burly white man in his late 20s whose name is Adam says he comes to the library “pretty much every day” to charge his phone and access the internet. He says the reason he’s so tired is because he spent all of last night high on meth, walking around with a friend and trying not to attract the attention of police. Adam says he has outstanding warrants and failed out of probation after smoking cannabis and failing a drug test.
“I live in a constant state of paranoia, because I feel like I might be arrested at any moment,” Adam says. “Part of why I’m at the library a lot is because I’m trying to facilitate getting on anti-depressants” and anti-anxiety medications.
“A library’s never just a library,” he says. “It’s a place to be inside for a while, a place you can meet people.There’s so many resources, like being able to get on the internet, trying to get a hold of people… Especially Facebook, because a lot of people have a phone – [with] Facebook, you have all of your contacts listed.”
Casey Jaywork is an activist and freelance journalist in Seattle.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Ming-yen Hsu