Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Two: Neighborhood Watch)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on May. 16th, 2012

This piece is part of a series:

- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter One: Honeymoon Phase)
- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Two: Neighborhood Watch)
- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Three: No Contact)
- Gravity of Abuse (Chapter Four: Three Strikes)

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The mother road

Brandy didn’t like living at the Georgian, not one bit.

First, the rooms were smelly. A combination of dirty socks and cigarette smoke, kind of like a bar. Second, the motel was chaotic. The police always seemed to show up, or someone was getting beat up. Random people knocked at her door, looking in her window. And third, she found the place unstable. One night, you were in one room, the next day, you had to move. Since she spent most of every day there while Richard worked, all of it sank into her pores.

For Richard, leaving the shelter and staying at the Georgian proved he could protect and provide for his family. But covering the cost, that took thought. He formulated a payment plan.

Rate at the Georgian: $245 a week
Richard’s take-home pay: $52 a day
Amount he’d pay the Georgian:
on Mon. - $50
on Tues. - $50
on Wed. - $50
on Thurs. - $50
on Fri. - $45

Total: $245
Left over: $15

Tight? Yes, but the pair understood their situation. Monthly rents for one-bedroom downtown apartments averaged roughly $1,000, almost equal to a month at the Georgian, but landlords placed legal hurdles before tenants that Richard knew he could never clear. At the Georgian, you didn’t need first and last month’s rent, plus security deposit; you didn’t need to submit to a credit check; you didn’t need to worry about having a felony record. All you needed was cash — plus you got cable, electricity, water and heat, all included at no extra cost.

Brandy had enrolled in TANF, the federal program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, once she learned of her pregnancy. With that and their GA-U, the couple eked by. And while it might not have been an optimal place to live, on one level, Richard had chosen the perfect spot: Aurora Avenue North embraced people in need.

Since its beginning, Aurora hosted services that the region required. Electricians, car dealers, appliance stores, mattress retailers and mom-and-pop shops dotted the avenue and brought an ever-changing stream of customers. Streets branched out from the central Aurora artery, giving birth to the Greenwood neighborhood. Aurora became the area’s mother road.

Roads needed cars, cars needed drivers and drivers needed rest. Again, Aurora was there to serve. In the 30s, motor inns sprang up. In the late 40s, motels. And during the 60s, more motels to house visitors to the World’s Fair. Ambassador, Orion, Crown Inn, Klose-In Motel; Marco Polo, Aloha, Nites Inn, Thunderbird: These names and others, some neon-lit with vacancy signs, called all who craved slumber.

But during the 70s, as Seattle fell into an economic slump and commuters buzzed along I-5, motels lost their usual patrons. Salesmen, part-time workers and other transients checked in instead. Working girls, many unbelievably young, sought johns. As the area declined over the decades, some of Aurora’s motels transformed. They served as a form of low-income housing and offered shelter to workers, couples and families who couldn’t afford to live downtown. Like Brandy and Richard.

While Richard bused downtown to work Monday through Friday, Brandy hung around the motel. With a phone in the room, she could call out, and incoming calls were transferred from the front desk. Not that anyone knew she was there. Sometimes Brandy spoke to the manager’s girlfriend, who lived in a corner room. Other than that: “I didn’t really associate with a lot of people,” she says. Except for Richard, she lived in isolation.

At the job site, Richard was a model employee, efficient and polite. The moment he arrived back at the motel, though, he started drinking. A quick trip to the Aurora Grocery, two blocks away, supplied him with beer — lots of it. “And I don’t sip things,” Richard says, “I drink them.” A regular 12-ounce beer would be gone in two, three good chugs. A 12-pack, no problem. He drank till he passed out.

Brandy wouldn’t join in. She had partaken before she knew she was pregnant, and even a little after. “That’s not the highlight of my life,” she says. But by the time she arrived at the Georgian, she went cold turkey: no alcohol, no cigarettes, no meth. She didn’t want anything to affect the baby.

Richard, in his own way, knew the child needed a good start, which fueled a desire to change. As he drank beer, oftentimes he watched TV. He liked history shows, and one evening he watched a program that detailed white supremacy movements. That’s my past, he told Brandy, and I’m going to leave it behind. Leaving drinking behind proved more difficult.

When Richard finished a beer, sometimes he gave Brandy the signal: He’d shake the empty can. That meant it was time to fetch another one. She’d pull one from the minifridge, feeling like a nag if she complained. By the time he downed a six-pack, his mood, like a storm cloud, darkened. A fight might break out. Yelling would charge the atmosphere. Sometimes, he hit her.

Brandy washed clothes, cleaned up, fixed dinner. Inside of her, a child formed, kicked. Outside, the world felt tight, constricted.

June ticked by, July soldiered on. A heat wave cooked the city. Temperatures spiked to 103. Brandy, in her seventh month, tried not to wilt. They had learned the baby was a boy, a son. He drummed his foot against the inside of her swollen belly.

Brandy shopped for meals in the Aurora Grocery, buying items to microwave or heat up on the hot plate in the overheated room. The food was so expensive. Cans of tuna fish cost more than two dollars. And loaves of bread? She had to economize. Luckily she saw the flier about the food bank.

Run out of the Bethany Community Church, the food bank lay seven blocks south of the Georgian. Brandy and Richard walked as the early August sun dipped to the west. Inside the cool of the church, off to the side, was a pantry filled with canned ravioli, corn flakes, peanut butter, bags of sugar. Grocery bags stuffed with food awaited anyone who asked.

A woman, with wavy, ginger-colored hair and sea-foam green eyes, handed out the food. She pointed to Brandy’s purse. I like your bag, the woman said.

Brandy smiled, then asked, Do you have diapers? Or baby food?

No, but I can try to have diapers the next time, she said, and handed Brandy a bag. Richard carried their groceries to the motel.

They returned the next week and the next, Brandy always asking for diapers and baby food. Finally, the food bank had received some, and the woman with the ginger hair passed them on. Brandy supplemented their diet with what she brought back and played the homemaker, which pointed to a truth she hated to admit: Even though she dreamed of leaving the smelly, chaotic, unstable Georgian, after five months, the motel had become her home.

A neighborly day in the neighborhood

The first time Karen Ciruli saw the grit and grime of Aurora Avenue North, it reminded her of home.

She grew up in a quiet, little town in southern New Jersey, but not far away shone the bright lights and high-roller glitz of Atlantic City. You could travel there on the expressway or take White Horse Pike or Black Horse Pike, two major streets known for concrete medians, used car lots and neon-lit motels. Her father, a cop, thought the roadways spelled trouble, but Karen felt differently. The sight of them became etched in her childhood memories, the same as fireflies blinking across open fields.

After high school, Karen visited her sister in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle. When she ventured a few blocks west, she ran into the seedy motels and used car lots of Aurora Avenue North, a little bit of the East Coast out on the West. She vowed to move to the area, and, in 2003, she settled down in Greenwood.

She joined a local church soon after. One Sunday morning, the pastor delivered a sermon on a core biblical tenet — love thy neighbor — and challenged parishion-ers to extend their circle to encompass people who lived and worked on Aurora. Karen, moved by his words, stopped at motels, introducing herself to managers. She learned the stereotype of the motels, that they served as fronts for sex trafficking and rampant drug use, wasn’t entirely accurate. True, she couldn’t deny those things occurred there, but families lived in the motels, too, for weeks, sometimes months, on end. It was a neighborhood — not like Mister Rogers’ — but one all the same. The people were her neighbors, ones she wanted to serve. And in motels reminiscent of those back East, Karen, with the green eyes and wavy ginger hair, found her calling.

She also found an internship with AmeriCorps, a community service program created by the federal government. She would weave together a network of care for her neighbors in need. By the summer of 2009, she had a routine: Two or three times a week, she’d conduct what she called a “motel tour.” She’d start on Aurora Avenue North and North 95th Street, walk south down the east side of Aurora to North 80th, cross at the light, then walk up the west side, back to North 95th. She’d bring flowers to make the managers smile. If someone living in the motel needed help, she’d do what she could. One round-trip tour might take hours.

Karen set off on one of her tours in mid-August 2009. Walking past North 88th Street, she turned into the parking lot of the Georgian Motel. As she left the front office, a woman caught her eye. A pregnant woman. Karen knew she’d seen her before. But where?

Hey, I know you, she said.

Brandy stopped.

You had that green handbag I liked, remember? I met you at the food bank?

Yes, the woman who’d found the diapers. They introduced themselves, chatting. Karen asked what Brandy needed. More diapers, Brandy said, maybe some baby clothes.

As Karen walked away, she realized she wanted to do something more for Brandy. But what? She mulled it over for a couple days before it came to her: a baby shower.

She emailed a church group about her idea. “Is this something that you would be interested in doing?” A group spokesperson replied, “Yes.”

As August wound down, an email thread lengthened, with neighbors suggesting ideas for the shower. “It wouldn’t need to be girls only.” “Gift cards from Target.” “We can arrange to have some meals brought to them after the birth.” The Greenwood Senior Center, five blocks from the Georgian, agreed to host. Karen felt pride seeing the whole community come together, and she finalized the date of September 1 for the shower.

In late August, Karen’s phone rang. It was the manager at the Georgian. Brandy was taken to the hospital by ambulance a few days before, but she was back. Karen rushed over.

She knocked at Room 16. Brandy opened the door. And when Karen looked at Brandy’s face, what she saw made her drop her eyes in embarrassment.

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