$23.00 a NightJaton Rash
When the sheriff’s deputy came to the duplex to enforce the eviction, I was busy moving my family’s belongings onto a narrow strip of grass just outside our door. I was working alongside one of the landlord’s maintenance men and a teenage boy who I assumed was his son. I wanted everything to be as neat and orderly as possible and I quietly went about hauling the boxes outside and stacking them up in piles. The two others did more or less the same. It was mid-morning on an early November day in 1997. The deputy came into the duplex and looked around, then down at the court directive in his hand. “Where’s the son?” he asked Stan, the maintenance man. Stan nodded in my direction. I must have seemed harmless enough, because the deputy didn’t say anything to me.
My parents were outside, standing next to the growing pile of stuff. They were anxious, ready to go—but where? My sister had found someone willing to take her and her two-year-old daughter in, and they had already gone. So my parents and I were left to manage the situation on our own. I organized our collection of boxes and clothes and garbage bags full of stuff while my dad waited for an acquaintance of his, a man named Nick, to come over and help us move everything to a storage unit down the street. My mom was standing, holding onto her purse, trying not to cry. She had been on the phone earlier in the morning, trying to find a place for us to stay, and had eventually found a family friend willing to take us in for a night.
We had a lot of stuff in our little two-bedroom duplex, a strange fact considering that my parents and my sister were addicted to heroin and had sold most anything of value to support their addictions. Somehow, the place was still stuffed. We had held onto kitchen wares, furniture, clothes and knick-knacks, beds, and my niece’s crib and toys. And now it was all heaped up in a pile on the grass.
Of my two parents, my dad was the more animated that morning. Nick was late, and my dad was getting increasingly anxious. He stood in the parking lot expecting Nick to drive up at any moment, and from time to time he went out to the street looking for the car, hoping that by looking he could summon it faster. When he wasn’t pacing the parking lot, he watched Stan and his son carry the last of our things out of the duplex.
“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for you guys,” Stan said. “I see four adults not working.”
“Shut up, fat boy,” my dad responded, just loud enough for Stan to hear. Stan didn’t say anything back. This insult was unusual; I had never known my dad to resort to childish name-calling. Stan was a big guy and at least a decade younger than my dad, who was past fifty and not in the best shape. If there had been a fight, my dad probably would have lost.
Nick finally showed up sometime around noon. He was a disagreeable old man with a full head of white hair who did yard work around the city to make ends meet. His car rolled into the parking lot and he gave my dad the bad news: the car was full. He had bought some power tools and other things that morning and there wasn’t room for anything else, so he wouldn’t be able to help us like he’d said he would. He started driving away, but my dad stopped him. They talked for a moment, then Nick agreed to put some of our things on top of the car and move them that way. So that’s what happened: I helped place a box or two on top of the car, and then Nick drove slowly to the storage unit, about five blocks away. My dad followed on foot.
Nick returned for two more trips before he had to leave. Amazingly, none of the boxes fell off the car. My mom gave Nick a hug and a kiss on the cheek for his efforts.
Our pile of belongings was smaller now, but there was still a lot left over. My parents and I lingered for a bit longer. Without any way to move the rest of the things to the storage unit, it was becoming clear that we would have to leave them. I was having a hard time with this concept. I wanted to stay and guard everything, but my dad was anxious to leave. In fact, both of my parents were anxious, and not just because of the eviction and the pile of stuff on the grass. They were anxious for their afternoon fix. My dad probably had enough for a fix in his shoulder bag, but there was still the issue of finding a place to shoot up.
My dad came up with an idea: there was an abandoned shopping cart on the side of the street nearby—why not use that to take more stuff down to the storage unit? The suggestion was aimed at me. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but I also didn’t want to leave our stuff. I loaded up the shopping cart with some books, tools, and other items—a fraction of what was still there—and left the Copperfield Apartments with my parents for the last time. We took a right on Kauffman Avenue and headed toward the storage unit, my parents a pace or two in front of me. Behind us was our old neighborhood, a collection of modest houses and low-rent apartments uphill from the rail yard. We had moved here to the west side of Vancouver, Washington from a nice house on the east side of town about a year and a half earlier.
The traffic was light on Kauffman Avenue that day and there weren’t many people around. When my parents and I came to the gravel road that led to the storage facility, we parted ways. The plan was to meet up at the library in the evening and then go to the place my mom had lined up for us. It was a lady named Phyllis, a friend of my grandma’s, who had agreed to take us in for a night, though she had little idea who we were.
I pushed the shopping cart to the front gate of the storage facility, punched in the code to get in, and continued on to the unit. The storage unit was fairly spacious and only about one-third full. There were family pictures, posters and prints my dad had kept from when he was a printer, bags of clothes, blankets and other bedding material, and my baseball card collection. I added to the pile the things I had brought down in the shopping cart.
From the storage facility I walked a couple of miles to the library. I was carrying a green duffel bag my sister had given me with yellow lettering that said US Forest Service Alaska Region. I had stuffed some clothes and a small radio into the bag. At the library, I flipped through magazines for a while and when I got tired, I folded my arms on the table and put my head down on them, just like I used to do at my desk in high school. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if my parents would show up like they said, and I didn’t have a plan for what I would do if they didn’t. I was twenty and should have been able to take care of myself, but to be honest I was pretty helpless at that point. I had no vehicle or job and nowhere to go.
When evening came, my parents did show up and we caught a bus to Phyllis’s house in east Vancouver. Phyllis lived alone in a spacious, well-kept, two-story house. She was a kind lady with a round, friendly face who knew my grandma from when they both volunteered at a food bank. I had met Phyllis before, but it was long before and I can’t imagine she recognized me. I don’t think she had ever met my parents before.
That evening we all sat in the living room, watching TV. Phyllis and my dad made small talk about the job market. They agreed it was tough out there for a person looking for a job. My mom and dad each made a phone call. My mom called a relative in California to ask if he could help us out, but she couldn’t reach him. My dad called a motel and asked what the rates were. Later in the evening Phyllis excused herself from the living room. While she was gone, my dad said to my mom, “Did you see those books upstairs? Those are worth something.”
“Are you serious?” I snapped, summoning the most disapproving voice I could muster. He responded only with a sly grin. He was half-serious, at least. Phyllis rejoined us and we all continued watching TV until bedtime.
My bedroom for the night was upstairs. The small room had a wood floor and was furnished with only a bed and a nightstand. Under different circumstances the room might have felt cozy, but on that night, it was cold and a little creepy. There weren’t enough blankets on the bed to keep warm, and in any case, my mind was crowded with worry and distraction, so I got only four or five hours of light sleep. Back at the duplex, I’d been sleeping on a sofa, and there had been no electricity and little food as eviction day approached, but all the same, I knew I would have slept better there, because it was home.
We left Phyllis’s house the next morning and walked to Mill Plain Boulevard to catch a bus downtown. Our plan for the day was much like the day before: I would wait at the library while my parents took care of business. Then they would show up later on and the three of us would figure out what to do next.
I’m not sure where my parents went, but it must have been someplace where my dad could panhandle, a supermarket parking lot maybe. He would approach people in parking lots and tell a brief hard-luck story—then ask for money. He was good at this and would only get better in the months to come. My mom didn’t panhandle, so she probably waited somewhere, in a fast-food place or on a park bench, until my dad had enough money to score a bag of heroin. On that day he needed to make even more money than usual, because he wanted to get us into a motel room that night.
I put in a long day at the library, longer than the day before. I spent time sitting on one of the sofas, flipping through magazines. After a while I went behind the library and sat on some bleachers next to a baseball field. I ate some crackers that were in my bag and tuned into sports talk on the radio. I believe it was Jim Rome, the brash, hyper-macho talk show host who was on air for several hours each morning. “Have a take, don’t suck,” was the advice he always gave to his callers. I listened to him a lot back then, even though I knew his show was junk food for the mind. After my break I went back into the library for more waiting. The library was an easy place to wait; it was spacious, the sofas in the magazine section were comfortable, and it was open until 8:00 p.m.
My parents came to get me in the evening. We stopped in the lobby on our way out so my dad could use the pay phone. He called a motel to ask if there were any vacancies, and there were—so long as he had enough money, there was a place we’d be able to stay that night. In the bright lights of the lobby, I could see that my dad’s eyes were jaundiced. I wanted to ask him what was wrong, but I stayed silent.
We headed toward downtown, which wasn’t far. The weather was mild, perfect for an early evening stroll. There was almost a sense of camaraderie among us—we were in this together and there wasn’t really any choice but to be kind to each other and just let things happen as they would. My dad was the leader of our little group, but he seemed uncertain about where he was leading us.
When we got downtown, we caught a bus to a neighborhood called Hazel Dell, a few miles to the north. In Hazel Dell, we got off the bus and crossed the street to the Value Motel, a large motel and apartment complex next to I-5. My mom and I lingered outside the office while my dad paid for the cheapest room available. The price was $21 plus tax, for a total of about $23. As we walked to our room, my dad told us what the office had told him: only two people were allowed to stay in the room. Clearly, we would be ignoring this rule, but as it turned out, it wasn’t strictly enforced.
When I walked into the room, I understood why there was a two-person rule—it was tiny. There was a bed, a sink and nightstand, a TV and a shared bathroom. Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized I would be staying the night here. My parents didn’t seem to be as put off by the size of the room as I was.
My dad went to Burger King that first night to get dinner, which was a Whopper for each of us. We ate, watched a little TV, and then it was bedtime. I curled up on the floor with a blanket from the bed set. The next morning, we were up and out before the 11:00 check-out time.
My parents went off to do their thing and I wandered into Hazel Dell with my duffel bag. I walked into an upscale trailer park and sat down on a park bench. It wasn’t clear when or how I would get back in touch with my parents. I decided to hang out in the vicinity of the motel and hope that they would return and that my dad would get another room that night. This was the third day of homelessness. I hadn’t slept well for days and food was an uncertainty. My ability to think clearly was diminishing.
I reconnected with my parents that afternoon and we got into a room once again. My dad bought Taco Bell for dinner that night. Soon, he started making enough money panhandling to pay for two nights on the room each time he went to the office, so we didn’t have to check out in the morning. We would just have to move aside when the housekeeper came in to empty the trash and vacuum and replace the drinking glasses with new ones. My parents and I gradually settled into our new lives at the motel.
My sister and her daughter began staying in a room at the motel about a month later. My sister had taken up panhandling by then. She and my dad went out each day to supermarket parking lots and other places to plead for money. They grew closer to each other in the months that followed. My mom and I drew inward, staying in the motel room together drinking the beer and wine that she stole from local stores and eating snacks we both stole from the Fred Meyer supermarket across the street from the motel. We sometimes babysat my niece while my sister was out there in the wild, hustling.
My family’s misfortune accelerated over the next year. My mom, my sister and I were each arrested in separate incidents. My dad never got arrested but he did get his jaw broken when he was punched by a fellow addict. At various points, other members of our extended family tried to help out: grandparents, an aunt, an uncle. When my grandparents came to the motel, they said that they didn’t recognize my dad right away, so changed was his appearance.
By the summer my dad was getting worn down by the panhandling routine and was making less money than before. Sometimes he could find a church or charitable organization to pay for the motel room for a night or two, or even for a week in one case. But other times he didn’t have enough money to pay for two consecutive nights, so he and my mom and I would have to drag our stuff down to a stairwell at the end of the hallway and stash it there for the afternoon. My mom would hang out around the motel and I would either do the same or go for a long walk. My dad would appear later in the afternoon or early evening and pay for a room, and we would gather our stuff from the stairwell.
These motel room evictions happened many times that summer. On the mornings when we had to vacate, my parents and I would quietly clear out our room with a shared sense of duty. We were still together, but our unity was fraying. My dad had wondered aloud once or twice why he couldn’t have the room to himself, considering that he was the only one paying for it.
In July I got a job as a school custodian. After a couple of weeks on the job, I got my first paycheck and opened an account at the bank inside the Fred Meyer by the motel. I was walking through the parking lot, back to the motel, when I ran into my dad. This wasn’t exactly a chance encounter. He knew it was payday. He immediately asked if I could give him some money. I said I couldn’t, but he wasn’t going to give up easily. We walked together to the motel, and in the room, he continued to press me for money. He sat in front of the sink in a green plastic chair, leaning forward. “Come on,” he said over and over, and my response each time was, “I can’t.” With each “I can’t,” his head bowed down a little.
“I need to save this money if I’m gonna get out of this place,” I told him. He didn’t have a counterargument; he just kept saying, “Come on.” Even after he knew I wasn’t going to give in, he kept pleading, but less emphatically:
Come on. Finally, he gave up. He didn’t kick me out; for another month, I stayed in the room with my parents, paying nothing toward the $23 a day.
In September, I moved out of my parents’ room and into my own room at the motel. This wasn’t much of a leap, but it put some distance between us. There were several dozen rooms in that part of the motel, so I was never in a room next door to my parents. My sister and her daughter had moved out of the motel months earlier, so I never ended up next door to them, either. I didn’t see my parents much after I left their room, but I still bumped into them once in a while.
I followed my dad’s example and paid for two nights each time I went to the office. I soon realized that this was a lot of money for such a tiny room, around $700 a month. I applied for one of the on-site apartments that were managed by the motel, but the office didn’t get back to me. I was making around $1,000 a month and even though most of that went toward the cost of the room, I was able to save a little. I settled into a new life at the motel, a working life. I was still homeless, but I had achieved a measure of freedom and could begin plotting a way out of the motel.
About two months after I moved into my own room, my mom knocked on my door. I wasn’t completely surprised when I saw the shape she was in. She was skinnier than I remembered and seemed to be in a daze. She wanted to stay with me. She and my dad had drifted apart in the couple months since I’d left them. My dad was now staying in a room with his girlfriend Alecia and my mom was staying with a man named Keith who was another permanent resident at the motel. I told my mom that I didn’t want her to stay with me. She pleaded with me and when I said no a second time, she gave up and returned to Keith’s room.
I stayed at the motel a little longer. On Thanksgiving, I ate dinner at the nearby Denny’s and for Christmas dinner, I bought something at a local mini-mart. I was working the swing shift at a high school with about five other custodians and never mentioned to any of them that I was living in a motel—that I was essentially homeless. I moved into a studio apartment in downtown Vancouver just before New Year’s, bringing with me one or two grocery sacks full of stuff, my duffel bag and a bicycle. The apartment was an upstairs room in an old house. As at the motel, I shared the bathroom with another room.
My mom left the motel around the same time as me and ended up in Seattle where she briefly lived on the streets. My dad stayed in the Portland area where he lived mostly in motels or on the streets. For a time, he lived with my sister in a dilapidated apartment in north Portland. I often saw him on the bus or on the street. When we ran into each other we would say hi and talk. I would try to keep our conversations brief. As the years went by, I increasingly tried to avoid him when I saw him in public. Once or twice my dad called and left a message on my answering machine. He just wanted to say hi and see how I was doing, and to ask if I knew how my mom was doing.
My family’s time in the motel is etched on my mind, but I remember the better times, too—the times before all that. I remember my dad’s irreverent sense of humor and all the fishing trips we went on, the times when my mom came home from her job as a housekeeper and made dinner. Before we moved to Vancouver, we had lived in small towns and off-the-map places in western Washington. We were poor, but we enjoyed the charms of those places.
Even at the Value Motel, there were moments of comfort, when my parents and I watched TV together in the evening and talked about what we had done during the day. My dad sometimes told stories about the people he asked for money in the parking lots. Once, there was a young woman who initially refused to give him anything but had a change of heart and came running back with a twenty-dollar bill. Another time, there was a man who listened patiently to my dad’s plea but then responded, Sorry, I don’t carry change with me. And once, there was a man sitting in his truck, working his way through a pile of scratch-it lottery tickets, not having any luck. I’m getting killed on these things, he told my dad, before giving him ten dollars.
Jaton Rash has been published in The Portland Alliance and Yoga Northwest Magazine. His lifelong passions include writing, cycling and yoga. He works for Portland Public Schools and has lived in the Portland, Oregon area for over thirty years.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.