Sleepless in Seattle
Sleepless in Seattle – that’s the old movie with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, right? I have some vague recollection of watching it on TV years ago. One of those weekends where you decide to stay in and watch whatever old film they decide to recycle on commercial television. Little did I know, as I lay back on the couch drinking beers alone that night, that one day I would end up sleepless in Seattle – minus the romance and the pretty woman.
In the midst of a trans-American bicycle journey, I stopped off in the city of Port Angeles in Washington State, USA, to explore the unique wonder of Olympic National Park. Only a week earlier, I’d decided that my trip was to undergo a significant transformation; no longer was it to be a bike journey, but instead a surf journey by bike. This meant I needed two important pieces of equipment: a surfboard and a wetsuit to cope with the tepid ocean waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Once I’d got the board sorted, I asked my mum to send my wetsuit in a parcel from the east coast of Australia. A human-sized suit of neoprene don’t come cheap, so I figured the cost of postage would be worth the effort. 150 dollars later, DHL had shipped my parcel to the States. I’d decided on a five-day solo bushwalk in Olympic National Park and figured my wetsuit would probably arrive during my time away. I spoke to the lady at the courier depot (Americans are so bloody friendly), and she assured me she’d sign for any parcel received in my name. So off I trudged into the mountains without a worry in the world.
Upon return to civilisation, I discovered something was awry. DHL had emailed me saying the parcel had been received, and refused. I decided to pay my lady friend at the depot a visit.
“I’m not signing for anything if I don’t know the contents!”
“But remember how I told you it was a wetsuit and booties? You told me you’d sign for anything in my name.”
“Yeah, but how was I meant to know what was in there? It was sealed.”
“So what happened to it?”
“Return to Sender.”
“Mmmmm. I guess so, yeah.”
A few emails and phone calls later, I uncovered the whereabouts of my precious package of rubber: the DHL terminal at Seattle Airport. I Googled the route: three hours driving. Transport options: bus leaving at 9am. Time now? 9:15am. DHL closed at 5pm.
Hitching was my only viable option remaining. It’d be at least two days using pedal power. With plenty of experience, I wasn’t averse to trying it, but what I quickly learned is that hitch-hiking has a very different ambiance when you throw in a deadline. I now had seven hours to make it to my wetsuit before it flew back across the Pacific Ocean.
After a series of short stints in cars with a variety of strangers, I found myself stranded out the front of a pro-Trump burger bar called Fat Smitty’s. Caving to both hunger and immense curiosity, I decided I’d order a burger and hope by some miracle that upon returning outside, someone would pick me up and drive me all the way to Seattle Airport.
A car pulled up alongside. I could have sworn I’d seen them drive past five minutes ago. Turns out they threw a U-turn and powered back to pick me up.
“Where are you going, man?” queried a smiling woman in a subdued coastal accent.
“Ummmm, Seattle Airport.”
“Cool. Us too. Jump in, we’re running late!”
After a wild few hours involving a car, a ferry and a little speeding through very narrow Seattle street, we eventually arrived at the airport carpark. 4:15pm.
Sweet, made it with 45 minutes to spare. Easy as!’ I thought to myself, impressed with my efforts.
My complacency didn’t last long. I scabbed some WiFi from the terminal and quickly discovered DHL was on the other side of one of the biggest airports in America.
I jumped on the first bus I saw and asked, between heavy breaths, whether I could catch a lift to my destination. An old African-American man responded in a calm, gracious tone:
“I can get you fairly close maaaaann.”
Jumping off the bus as soon as it arrived at the destination, I jogged another 10 minutes to make it to the DHL terminal. 4:49pm. I sighed, but I was smiling too.
With the taste of victory in my mouth, I returned to Seattle by bus. Due to the frantic nature of my departure from Port Angeles, I’d packed the bare minimum into a shoulder bag: water bottle, wallet, phone and a jumper. I’d now added a wetsuit and booties.
Once I’d returned to the centre of the city, I sought out the first bar I could find in order to down a celebratory beer or three. After a nice local shouted me a few more beers, the time came to seek out a place to sleep. I wandered around in an alcohol-induced haze looking for hostels. After trying half a dozen places, all booked out, I walked into what appeared like a budget style hotel.
“How much is it for a night here?”
“Okay, thanks a lot. Bye.”
By now the sun had gone down, and the temperature plummeted surprisingly quickly. I changed my tack, now hunting a place to lie down in the street. After a short while looking, I stumbled upon a Nirvana of street sleeping. Below an enormous skyscraper, an ornate wooden bench sat perched on soft blades of grass, surrounded on all sides by a beautiful garden.
I set up, wearing only a jumper and shorts, and tried to make myself comfortable with my backpack as a pillow. Not long after closing my eyes, a stern voice drifted through the air.
“You can’t sleep here. You should know that.” A tall man in security attire stood before me, his voice more kind than intimidating.
“Huh. Shit. Sorry about that, I’ll move.”
Time and time again I found a place to sleep, only to be denied by either police or security. By now, I’d acquired some cardboard in an attempt to insulate myself from the cold emanating from the ground below. One thing became clear as the night wore on – I just needed to find where the homeless people slept in this city.
It didn’t take long. Under an overpass 100 metres from the ferry, I found a ramshackle arrangement of tents. It was cold now – proper cold. I trudged past a couple of these temporary homes as an interesting cacophony of coughs, splutters, cries and growls made me wonder what was going on inside. Eventually, I found a space between two tents, laid my cardboard down and proceeded to unsuccessfully burrito-wrap myself in my wetsuit in a feeble attempt to stave off the chill night air.
Suddenly, a rustling came from my right. Then a zipper slowly peeled open the door before a head popped out through a gap. A man with a gaunt face and ruffled, greyish-black hair stared back at me.
“Are you okay? You’re not cold are you? You look cold.”
“Mmm yeah, I guess I’m a little cold,” I said with some apprehension.
“Wait up. I’ll get you a blanket. It gets cold round here maayyn.”
The head swiftly disappeared as my new friend rifled through his tent in search of some blankets. He reappeared, stepping fully out. Slightly hunched, he wandered across to where I lay on my piece of cardboard, seeming a little irritable and frantic.
“I’m Billy Crystal. What’s your name?”
“Hi Billy. I’m Tom.”
“Where you from, Tom?”
“Australia?! What you doing sleeping on the streets of Seattle?”
Before long, Billy and I had constructed a fairly well-engineered cardboard house, complete with four walls and three layers of insulated flooring. With the addition of his spare blanket, I was fully sorted.
“Nice work guys. Looks good,” exclaimed a voice behind us, semi-amused.
Billy pivoted to the source of the speech.
“Tiny. What you doin’ here? I thought you was still out dealin’?”
“Sold out Billy. No more.”
Tiny then turned to face me.
“You wanna see my knife?”
“Ummmmmmm yeah okay,” I responded, again apprehensively.
Tiny slowly revealed a large knife, which I estimated to be about the size of a 30cm ruler, from his pants.
“I got this one after I got out of jail the most recent time. Nice, eh?”
Being an admirer of knives, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of the blade. Although I have to admit it did put me on edge, especially when coupled with Tiny’s previous experience in the American penitentiary system and Billy’s slightly frantic temperament.
“So what do you guys deal?” I queried, figuring it was my turn to ask questions.
“Mostly crystal meth. Sometimes crack, but mostly just meth,” Billy responded in a relaxed tone.
“It’s the most addictive and the cheapest,” added Tiny. “You wanna try?”
For a split second, I considered answering in the affirmative. As crazy or irresponsible as it sounds, I figured if I was ever gonna try meth on a one-off occasion this would have been the perfect time.
“No thanks. Thanks for the offer though.”
“Anyway, we’re gonna leave you here to sleep. We’re off to find some more.”
“Okay cool. Thanks for the blankets.”
“You’re welcome, man. Just make sure you keep an eye on my house, eh?” added Billy in a sterner tone.
“I’ll do my best.”
It was well after midnight by the time I lay down on my triple-insulated cardboard bed. By first light, I’d probably only slept a couple of hours at most – the constant groans, grunts and wails were fairly off-putting. When coupled with the cacophony of noise from a city-centre, it didn’t make for ideal sleeping conditions.
Billy and Tiny were muttering in a muted tone in the tent beside me. They explained that they’d just consumed some of their product intended for sale. They seemed happy enough, and Billy was certainly less frantic than when I’d first met him.
I jumped up, stuffed my wetsuit into my backpack and asked the boys where the nearest convenience store was. I was ravenous. Ten minutes later I returned with a bunch of bananas and a packet of cigarettes for Billy.
“Thanks for the blanket man. That was really nice of you, I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome, man. My home is your home,” he smiled. “Good luck on your travels.”
“Good luck in life!” I responded as I headed back to catch the ferry, a grin ear to ear.
Cover by Ev