Three years back I was chugging bum wine out the ankle of bleach-stained sweatpants in Olympia, Washington. At the time this was my favorite method for sucking down spirits from something other than a bum bag. I’d discovered how to do it while roaming through the streets for a fest in Asheville. Now I was in Olympia and tipping sweats to my mouth once again. My sister and I were here on a day trip from our apartment in Portland. We’d come up to Oly visit the area she first lived in after departing North Dakota for the left coast.
Before this, when I was still living in the nest of cold North Dakota, I’d made the drive out to see her in Olympia a couple times. These trips and a few more to NYC were the progenitors of my obsession with city trash and street characters. My sister’s apartment was downtown and within walking distance of 4th where all the interesting and indisposed set up shop. They make camp, play music, and lounge in aimless and idle states. It was an area I needed to absorb so trotted down daily as my sister worked her job scrubbing shit off the elderly.
Downtown Oly is littered with interesting characters. Street kids roam on skateboards with acoustic guitars strapped across their backs. A man with cigars snaked through his gauges serenaded drunk girls with a violin. Another asked for forty-seven cents after catching me gazing upon the massive Jesus tattooed in marker across his back. I sometimes spent hours walking up and down the blocks to catch these magnetic oddities and snippets of conversation.
There was a man with a keyboard perched atop a skateboard playing music on the sidewalk. It was dancey with live vocals. He crouched just off the berm to play his notes at night. Strapped over his long and stringy hair was a headlamp used for seeing each key as he sang his words. He had a bicycle with an attached cart. Resting in it were two pacified dogs. Homemade signs strapped to the bike asked “Where’s da kronik?” and declared “Get me high.”
Every now and then Keyboard Hobo looked up to no one in particular and called out “One hit gets me high.” When no weed was proffered forth he’d resume his compositions.
After watching all of this for the length of a few songs I approached. “Hey dude could I record ya playing? I love the sounds.” I really did. He had immense talent.
Keyboard Hobo glanced up from where he squatted, now shining the light across my midsection as if he were set to play it. “Nah. My tunes ain’t ready yet.”
I thought of a compromise and so conjured a lie. “How about if I got ya high? My sister’s coming down with some pot in a bit.”
“I mean I wanna get high but I don’t want my music on Myspace.” That was that for if fake offers of pot weren’t to entice him I could do nothing to change his mind. I kept near as he resumed playing in a manner more for himself than any passerby.
A drunken youth with a turkey ball gut stood at our corner while waiting to cross. Upon seeing Keyboard Hobo he bent to his face and screamed, “PLAY BEVERLY HILLS COP.” He laughed to himself and wandered off using his mouth to muster the tune.
Keyboard Hobo ignored both this and myself though paused his playing after the interruption. In time he tilted his head so the lamp once again shined across the keys. He put his fingers to them and carried on with his song. I took out my camera and began to shoot.
He was protective of his work and yet I recorded it anyway. Upon noticing my actions he stopped playing and stared ’til I ceased the capture. I’d robbed the street of some essential sounds and so stepped back to give him his space once again. I was still learning how to respectfully navigate street culture while simultaneously immersing myself in it as best I could. It was hard to resist. Each little snippet I received only engendered more fascination within me. This was an entirely separate world from that of the small towns and little cities I’d blossomed from in North Dakota.
It took years to properly contextualize and understand but eventually I knew why my experiences in Olympia had such a deep impact on my interests. I came to realize that I’m fascinated by street characters because of growing up in a rural area with few new people and even fewer ways of living. In a city I can step outside and see thousands of folks carrying out a variety of lives. But my attention always circles back to those displaced. I feel connected to the street, its citizens, characters, and stories. Its joys and sadness. It can appear both mysterious and horrifying once the entirety of its scope is taken in. I know I’m just a spectator but I try absorb it all to the best of my ability while still knowing my place as an other.
While city trekking through Olympia, and in time other places, I came to focus on one group of characters in particular: the charismatic youth. I’ve seen endless blocks of street kids draped in their dreads and drug rugs — vaguely Aztec-patterned shawls. They don’t have private spaces so live their lives publicly. Along the sidewalk they sit in groups and turn toward one another, their impromptu societies seemingly insular. They laugh and place their heads in one another’s laps. Often there’s guitars with dreamcatchers hanging off the headstock and dogs clothed in patterned handkerchiefs. “Pet him for a dollar.” The dogs are often the same junkyard breed yet in better shape than their owners. Sometimes there’s a shoulder kitten perched on one of the travelers like a parrot that goes meow.
I see them huddled with one another and feel a tinge of envy, wishing there was a segment of society I could so easily slip into. Many of these people have a charisma I don’t possess. They’re not afraid to approach stranger after countless stranger. Some take the rejection with a smile. Others with anger. But they always return to their groups and carry on. I’m sure many of their lives are stocked with bullshit beyond the usual hardships. But to me what they do is interesting and bold — living out life through the new and unknown. So once I lifted the rock off humanity’s earthworms I was never able to set it back down and forget them. Before Olympia I’d never fully seen this strange world of travelers and transients. With those first observations I tried not romanticizing them into something they were not while still keeping focus on what drew me in. I began learning the line between seeing street folk as decorations in my world zoo and appreciating a lifestyle that stirred envy within me. I loved their inclusiveness and sense of community. It was something I was searching for in post-collegiate life though knew I couldn’t find through them. Despite that it was still a model to observe and borrow from. And so with this the world of Olympia kept alive within me long after my leaving.
After a year or two my sister moved from Olympia down to Portland. About six months after I graduated college I came out to join her as we each tried getting our lives together. We decided to day trip out to Olympia and revisit all our old favorite spots. To go back to the place that made me want to live in cities and spend my time observing the streets. We parked at her old apartment and I promptly stuffed a half-bottle of wine into some sweatpants so I could get tipsy. I kept returning to the bottle ’til it was done. One pant leg to my mouth and the other dangling in the wind.
We walked around Capitol Lake in the sunshine as booze distributed itself through my top and toes. Gentle winds chopped up the water and blew through our hair. While circling the lake you can see the Capitol building poking through trees just off the water. From there it only takes a few minutes of walking to reach the downtown that’s littered with packs stashed in bushes and people sleeping in doorways and stairwells. We made our way around the beautiful lake as my sister tried forming plans to meet up with old friends. At the same time I was invited to a birthday party for the friend of an acquaintance I’d hung with once at a dive bar. We finished circling the water and returned to our car. From beneath its seats I fished out two sun-warmed cans of Hurricane. I proceeded to get fucked on gas station booze.
We stepped toward downtown to explore before the birthday and a house party my sister was invited to. The hooch began taking hold in an overpowering way. I’d miscalculated how much to drink as I was new to using booze as compensation for the deficits in my life. Each step I took had me drunker until I was laughing and seeing the world as a woozy and joyful place.
Down on 4th we bumped into my friend and the birthday girl. I was so drunk all I could really muster for communication was loud proclamations as my sister explained my condition. It was agreed they’d text me later to let me know what was happening. My sister and I kept walking. She ran into a friend of hers. We went through the same series of events as before with me just laughing over and over, fully spun out of my head.
“Is he being serious.”
“Yeah he’s really that drunk. It’s not normally like this.”
I was recessed in my head, far off from their words. I couldn’t even focus on all the street life I love. Things were becoming more a series of glimpses than a cohesive narrative. If anything interesting was happening that night I missed it all. I didn’t do a second of exploration or observation. We went to a bar to get food for settling my stomach. I knew I was beyond drunk but it was too late to reverse this.
Before long I headed for the bathroom where I sat in a stall shitting and puking. Most everything exiting my oral wound up on the floor. I sat on the seat and bent down. My glasses fell off, clattering to tile now layered in booze and chunks of tater tots. I got off the seat, crouched down, and closed my eyes. While hovering just above this bowl of runny shit my mouth let forth once again. Then I sat down and emptied what was left ’til my bowels were nothing but a squeezed out scrub rag. I passed out sitting on the toilet with undies at my ankles and an unwiped ass.
A dude entered to ask if I was okay as a girl outside the bathroom was looking for me. That was my sister. It turned out I’d blacked out for close to two hours. My sister sat in the bar feeling dumb as the waitress came back time and time again wondering if she needed anything, if her companion was returning. I cleaned myself as best I could and picked my glasses off the ground. The lenses were crusted over in a slick film of vomit. I sat some more to collect my thoughts and spit bile against the wall. In time I came out and we left the place in embarrassment.
My sister wasn’t talking to me. I was largely sobered up but still somewhat in the grips of drunkenness. She was having to babysit her older brother and now would miss a party full of old friends she’d perhaps never see again. She walked me through downtown back toward the car. I was in a perpetual state of leaning forward and at one point the movement of our steps made me dizzy. I shot vomit all over the side of US Bank without breaking stride. After a few minutes we were back to the car.
I sat in the driver’s seat munching on crackers to sober me up. I felt my body absorb each granule of salt.
“I could drive you over to the party.”
She looked at my puke stained clothing and sickly disposition. “And what would you do?”
“I’ll just crash out in the car. I think I got blankets.”
“Nah. This whole night is fucked. Let’s just go back to Portland.”
I kept eating the crackers, each bringing me closer to the normal world. I hadn’t seen a single damn thing I’d hoped to. I ruined our evening through two cans and a bottle. In time we drove back to Portland in a state of silence. My breath was acidic and clothes crusted in bile. Perhaps for once I was the one gazed upon as I woozed around the streets that night. But unlike those I envied I possessed no charm. No character. I was just a mess. I knew there were new ways to live and still aspired to find the right one. But this wasn’t going to be it. I haven’t been blackout or back to Olympia since.