Thin dimes and fat nickels in jet city

Well, our fearless leader Mayor Greg Nickels has shown his qualities of statesmanship once again.

Nickels, who looks more and more like he never misses a meal, recently cancelled an after-4 p.m. nightly feeding of the homeless in City Hall Park, also known as Muscatel Meadows. He cited public safety and pointed to incidents including fistfights, the showing of knives, and an alleged attempted theft of a police car.

Nickels' action drew immediate fire from those who work with the city's downtown homeless population. One activist cleric was quoted in a Seattle Times column as wondering if Nickels was so quick to punish the homeless because he was too busy with the South Lake Union development to be bothered with the down and out.

The same day the issue was highlighted in the Times (Aug. 10), the mayor changed his mind and decided the homeless could be fed in the evening. But he moved the feeding from Muscatel Meadows back to the plaza outside the city's vacated Public Safety Building.

It's easy to attack Nickels on this issue. His mean-spirited cancellation of the volunteer feeding and his quick cave-in after a tad of bad press bespeak both a quick trigger and a lack of backbone - a dangerous combination.

But, even though I'm no Nickels fan, there are quite a few elements involved in any story about today's Seattle involving the homeless.

When I first arrived in this fair city in the summer of 1984, I was stunned at the number of folks shambling up and down the sidewalks begging, pleading for, and sometimes demanding, spare change.

I was fresh from Cincinnati, a German-American-dominated city that had little truck with homelessness. In fact, there have been times over the years when Cincinnati's neighbors just across the Ohio River in Kentucky cried foul; it seemed that somebody ordered the city's homeless bused into Old Kaintuck overnight on more than one occasion.

I had mixed feelings toward the homeless scene in downtown Seattle 20 years ago. Being a card-carrying liberal who stopped just short of radicalism, I thought the homeless must be fed and protected from the elements, but some homeless folks were downright scary.

The deeply defeated alcoholics who sprawled in the street urinating, defecating and even copulating didn't bother me as much as they seemed to agitate my more middle-class friends. The hot button for me was that not-uncommon homeless guy who was young, perpetually enraged, and in my face. Such guys caused me to feel a rage of my own toward their particular examples of homelessness.

Divorced not long after moving here, I often found myself out late at night, going to one bar or another trying to drown my sorrows ... walking, I might add. The ex-wife got the family car.

Within weeks of my marital disunion, I was accosted on a Belltown corner by a big, longhaired homeless dude who refused to take no for an answer.

I told him to get his hands off me. He laughed and went for my neck. I popped him good, a nice, short right hand to the neck. He sputtered and went away, and I felt pretty good, pretty macho, for the 15 minutes it took me to storm back to my dark, lonely little apartment.

But after lying there sleepless for a while, I started feeling kind of guilty, but not about the fact that I'd defended myself. However, I couldn't quite put my finger on my feelings, and I suddenly knew I wanted to understand the homeless better.

Enter the second or third incarnation of Seattle Magazine (there have been six or seven I know of). The magazine agreed to give me a letter for police, a tin cup, and some grease to plaster my hair down. I provided an old pair of broken, taped-back-together horn-rimmed glasses and some beaten-up gym shoes with the toes out.

It was the week before Christmas. I took my tin cup, a scrawled homemade sign asking for money and my raggedy self down under the monorail. I sat on the sidewalk outside Nordstrom, a few feet from a Salvation Army bellringer, and waited.

Folk being folk, I didn't have long to sit there. In the four days I stayed out, freezing while I accepted unsolicited abuse and solicited kindness in equal measure, I had a conversion.

I knew there was no way someone would endure this on a daily basis unless they were truly down and out.

Ever since, I carry dimes and quarters (a big deal for a freelance writer with a budget like mine) for the homeless. I give to the alcoholic, the hungry and the deranged. I don't give to the pierced young who look healthier than I feel, and I don't give to the angry, demanding folks. But I don't hit or preach to them, either. I'll never forget how it felt to be homeless eight hours a day for most of a week in the cold winter of 1985.

This is a rich city. At least that's what the business pages of both dailies constantly claim.

There's Paul Allen and all his schemes. There's the big money for the monorail and seemingly even bigger money (can you say Selig?) against it. There's yuppie wine bar after yuppie wine bar. There are gourmet delis in the corner grocery stores.

The folks who propagate all this lifestyle drivel are not any better than the homeless. Luckier, maybe; cleaner, usually. But not better.

I voted for Nickels once. I probably won't do it again.

Unlike, say, George W. Bush, who behaved as badly as I expected him to (see environment, economy, stem-cell research, etc.), Nickels made a lot of promises. He looked like a go-getter with a social conscience.

I guess I'm saying George W. didn't surprise me. He appalls me, but that's a different matter.

Greg Nickels disappointed me.

His recent flip-flop on the homeless-feeding situation looked a lot like a Schell game: a heartless decision followed by an instant cave-in.

Maybe our expansive and ever-expanding mayor ought to go out on the sidewalks for a few nights and see how the other half lives, and doesn't always eat.

If Seattle really is the world-class city it claims to be, it is morally compelled to treat the disadvantaged as victims, not nuisances. For those who do - all the organizations, volunteer and paid, that try to make a difference - here's to ya.

To Nickels and all the rest who seem to see everything in terms of profit and bottom line, or quality of life: shame on you.[[In-content Ad]]