What Privilege is This?

by Chris Joseph

You can walk down any street in downtown Seattle

and witness the divide between the gleaming high-rises

built above the damp, cold bodies

of twelve thousand houseless,

and young men like me walk to office jobs

wearing blue badges, headphones in, sunglasses on

to deny witness. I work in a black glass tower

that stands on a hill sluiced away by water cannons

and excavators—the Denny Regrade—

once an outlook of the Duwamish people,

now a skid-row-turned-boomtown for anyone

who’s got the cash to live twenty stories high.

I work at a computer made from rare earth

minerals dug deep from the Congo, use a phone

built in a Chinese factory where bosses string up nets

outside of the windows to catch workers

who quit—for good, forever, falling unto death,

then caught and cycled back onto the line.

What privilege is this—to grind your fingers into

a keyboard, to strain your eyes at a screen,

then to walk outside, past the men asleep on wet concrete,

the women holding cardboard signs saying

Premature birth, anything helps or laid off, hungry,

God Bless. Younger than me, who grew up here

and I’m just a transplant like so many white folks

in this town. I met a carpenter, my age, who lives in his van,

Seattle born and raised, and he can’t afford the homes

he builds, can’t afford the planks of mahogany

for a deck or the power tools it takes to sand them down

smooth. Can’t afford to live where he’s from.

I saw a woman at the pharmacy steps

in a wheelchair, the elevator was broken,

and she lunged at the staircase rail

and hauled herself up, leaving her wheelchair behind

to crawl down the aisles for medicine.  

I saw a man shivering outside the 7-11

singing a Christmas tune about Jack Frost

and I gave him the cash I almost never carry.

A man sat himself down on the bus floor

one morning, right in front of the back doors

where workers stream in and out

and he laid down a saffron cloth and three marble figures

and prayed, and when the tech guys

in the back row with badges and glasses and matching

polo shirts had to get off, they stood around him,

unsure of what to say until he looked up, nodded,

swept the fabric and stone into his arms and strode off

the bus, down the block, past the big glass globes

that a billionaire built for show, past the new condos

and jackhammers and cranes and concrete dust,

the piles of rebar, rows of tempered windows,

and I knew that I was to blame in some way

for his plight, that I was the reason for the cops

to charge through the tent city that night

with guns and armor, ready to murder

and destroy what kept him warm.

 

[Originally published in issue 3 of the Seattle Worker]

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