Sunday, February 7, 2016

Digging for Gold

As I crossed the empty parking lot in the dark, the streetlights reflecting off the wet pavement, I felt the weight of the long winter season: short days, rainy weather, gray skies. No eager passengers were waiting for me to open the ferry terminal. The Alaska Ferry was in the doldrums of our winter season, past the boost of the winter holidays and not yet into the awakening of spring. The number of people interested in traveling up to Alaska in the dead of winter was typically low: fewer than 100 passengers today, a third of the load during the summer season. At a few minutes before seven a.m., I unlocked the side door of the spacious brick terminal building and let myself in. Usually pulling up to the waterfront early in the morning, the fleet of boats rocking in the water, the wind stirring, the openness across the bay uplifted me, stirred my soul. This morning, the world just seemed dark and rugged. What was the point?
            The day stayed dark and rainy, one more in the string of dark January days here in Bellingham.  Even with mild temperatures, the rain drove everyone who had a place to go indoors.  The passengers who came to my window dripped rain off their hats.  Their winter jackets were soaked from the dash between their cars and the terminal. They unpeeled their layers and parked their rolling luggage in a pool of water as they negotiated the process of checking in.
            The morning had passed slowly.  When we opened our ticket windows at 8, I checked in a few veteran employees and retirees of the Alaska ferry system who were traveling on pass.  I helped a woman who had been told incorrectly that she had to check in by 8 a.m., instead of 3 p.m., for the 6 p.m. departure.  Luckily the ample two story terminal offered plenty of space for the waiting passengers to spread out during the intervening hours. To fill the time until the rush of passengers later in the day, I turned to updating the fare sheet for the summer sailings.
            The smell of unwashed clothes and body registered across the counter at my ticket window before a word was spoken.  He was gray haired, not recently shorn, and bearded. He was wearing a nondescript army jacket. His body tilted forward to counter the weight of an enormous green duffel bag he carried on his back.  His face was pock marked and ashen, other than his red nose. In one hand was a cardboard sign.
            “How can I help you?” I said, intentionally disguising my gut reaction to the acrid smell.
            “I finally have enough money,” he said, as he smacked a worn white envelope thick with cash on the counter.  “Or at least I hope I do.  I want a ticket to Juneau. Two hundred and sixty dollars.”
            I looked at the envelope, at least an inch thick with bills.
            Keeping my voice casual and friendly, I told him the price to Juneau, $363.  My approach was designed not to ignite angry spirits.
            He looked confused, then said “I panhandled all week to get this.  I should have enough.” He stuffed the cardboard sign under the duffel on his back.
            “Let’s see,” I said as I turned my attention to my reservations screen, leaving the white envelope on the counter. 
            “I’ll need to see your ID.”  Checking ID was required, but also helped me clarify the situation.  Did he have one?  Where was he from?  How old was he?
            He pulled his license out of his wallet and handed it to me.  It was surprisingly clean. His name was Paul Martin. I noted his home address: Chico, CA
            “You’re a ways from home,” I said, to be conversational as I began creating a new passenger profile in the system. He didn’t reply. “Have you been on the Alaska ferry before?”
            “No ma’am,” he said.
            His license was up to date. His picture showed a younger, more prosperous version of himself: fewer gray hairs, clean shaven, smiling.  I checked off the box marked “New Passenger,” on the computer and began filling out the form: his name, birth date, and driver’s license number. I mentally calculated his age: 55. He has lasted this far, I mused, and still has some miles left to go.
            I asked if he had an email address or phone number, even though I correctly predicted the answer: “No.” I finished filling out the form, putting in his California address, even though it was apparently not current. “You’ll need $363 to get to Juneau,” I told him. “Let’s count your money.” Taking the stack of money out of his envelope, I started slowly counting it out loud.  He watched me as I concentrated on the pile of money. I sorted out some twenties, then a few tens, and totaled 55 dollars in large bills.  The rest of the bills, all ones, were crinkled and bent.  I straightened them as I counted, starting over several times.  I reached $100 and I was half way through the stack.  I didn’t think we were going to end up with $363.  I was right.  At $201, we ran out of bills. I hated to disappoint him.
            “We could get you as far as Ketchikan for $263,” I offered.  He looked at me.  “You would need 62 more dollars.”
            “How much?”
            “62 more dollars.”
            “I thought I had enough,” he said.  He lowered his voice and leaned forward a bit, “Would you let me pay the rest later?”
            “No.  Sorry.” I inwardly wished I could have granted his request.  Turning down people who are trying to get on the boat with their last dime was hard on me.  People on their last dime are hard on me. The idea of going to Alaska seems to give hope to people who have burned all their bridges in the lower 48 states. Everything is going to be different in AlaskaAlaska is the answer to their problems. In the six years that I had worked as a terminal agent, I saw this pageant play out more than I wanted to.  I didn’t ever want to be in their position. I didn’t want anyone to be in my position. With a swipe of a credit card, I could have paid his way.
            He considered. “How much more do I need?”
            “62 dollars to get to Ketchikan.” Then I asked casually, “What’re you going to do in Alaska?”
            “Dig for gold,” he answered right away. This man was hoping to strike it rich.  This business plan proved to be the death of many travelers since 1897 .  It was a rugged and risky prospect then.  It was just ignorance now.
            “The gold might be covered with snow,” I said in a low voice. I tried to be respectful and casual, stifling the many other opinions that were screaming across my mind. He looked down and didn’t reply.
            “Is Ketchikan a city?” he asked. I was glad he asked.  I wanted to help him.  He could have been my brother.
            “Yes, it is a city.”
            “Which is bigger, Ketchikan or Juneau?”
            I thought about it. “I’d guess Juneau is bigger,” I said. “It is the capital.”
            “But Ketchikan is a city?”
            “Yes.” I had been there only once, but I knew there were at least several thousand residents.
            “Are the people friendly?”
            I wasn’t sure how to answer. “Yes, there are friendly people.” I could have just as easily said no, but I hesitated to burden him with too much reality.
            He debated for a few minutes.  I showed him a map of Alaska and pointed out Ketchikan, the first stop on the ferry; and Juneau, several hundred miles north.  He noted that he couldn’t really see the map without his glasses. When he persisted about going to Juneau, I told him that another ferry runs every few days between the two cities. When he asked the cost of that ferry, I looked it up under Tariffs on my computer and told him the figure.
            “How much more do I need to get to Ketchikan?” Third time.
            “62 more dollars,” I repeated. I put the money we had just counted back in his envelope and handed it to him. As far as I was concerned, we were at a dead end.
            His mood seemed to shift. “I’ll have to get some more money,” he said in a determined tone. He pulled his cardboard sign from between his duffel bag and his coat.  Somehow, he had kept the sign completely dry.  “Could you reach my pen?” He turned sideways and moved closer to the counter so I could reach into his duffel.
            I didn’t want to touch his duffel, let alone search around in it.  “Here, use this,” I said as I handed him a black magic marker from my desk.
            He leaned his sign on the counter, still holding the huge pack on his back.  I watched as he carefully wrote “I need $62” in large, perfect lettering, then outlined the numbers several times to make them stand out. I glimpsed the words “Help” and “Alaska” under his arm as he wrote. When he finished updating the sign, he handed me back the marker.  I was impressed by the care he took with his sign, and that he had kept his cardboard sign in such good condition in this weather.
            “Where did you have the best luck getting money?” I asked out of conviviality and curiosity. I pass panhandlers frequently but I never speak to them. Yet I always feel bad for them.
            “The grocery store.” He glanced at me as he answered quickly.  He hiked up his duffel and turned to go.  He seemed to have an afterthought. “Do you know a church or anybody that helps people?”
            “The only place I know is the Mission.”  If he had more time, I might have offered him other options: the local Episcopal Church, or the Opportunity Council.  But we only had four hours before the ship started boarding passengers.
            “The Mission!”  I felt the strength of anger as his face turned sour. “They don’t help anybody.  I told them what I needed and they said ‘We don’t do that here.’” He mimicked a tense face and a callous voice.
            “That’s all I know,” I said quietly.
            “I hope I get that money.”
            “Me too. Good luck,” I called after him as he started to walk away.  I wasn’t sure I’d see him again, but I might. He had $201 in his pocket.  He might not be back.
I jotted down his reservation number on my desk calendar before I cleared the screen.
            Passengers kept turning up as the morning stretched into mid-day, the rain let up and the sun made a welcome appearance.  I took my lunch break upstairs in the terminal to get out of the crowded office.  It was both quieter and warmer up there, and I could stretch my legs out on the red seats and look out the window as I ate leftovers. I heard people calling to each other about the rainbow that you could see to the north. I thought about this passenger. He could be one of many men in my generation.  The streets of Bellingham were full of people living outdoors, on sidewalks, under bridges, in the woods. I wish I had a magic wand to fix this one problem. My friends tell me I have a tender heart. Maybe so, but I can picture myself with no place to live.  The anguish of insecurity would drive me crazy. I don’t like danger.  I don’t like hunger. I am grateful that I have a lovely, secure home with my life partner, but am I one earthquake or one financial catastrophe away from being on the streets myself?  I don’t feel that different.  All housing is temporary. All bank accounts can be emptied.
            After lunch, I went back to work on the new handout listing the upcoming summer fares. A rush of passengers turned up, and I stayed busy checking IDs and processing their tickets.  For those taking their cars, I instructed them on where to park, and what to expect, and I directed the walk-on passengers to the white booth out front.  After most of the passengers had checked in, I looked up from my work and there he was at my ticket window, his duffel still hoisted on his back and his cardboard sign in one hand.
            “Hey,” I smiled at him.  He dropped the white envelope on the counter, then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a handful of cash. 
            “I should have enough now,” he said breathlessly, putting the rest of the money on the counter for me to count.
            “OK, great,” I said, masking my surprise at his success. I straightened out the new pile of money and counted the stacks of crinkled bills. The total: $64. Added to the money in his envelope, he had enough to go to Ketchikan.
            “You have enough and one dollar left over.” I looked at his face. He smiled.
            I pulled up his reservation on the computer and entered $263 in the payment field. I clicked on the icon to print his ticket, then took his entire stack of cash, dropping his oversized pile of bills inside to organize later. I gave him back a lone dollar bill and then locked the cash drawer. I felt uneasy and sad. He was going to Alaska in January to dig gold with one dollar bill and his belongings on his back.
            “I’ve never panhandled that much money before,” he confided with pride as I handed him his ticket.  “Maybe $20 or $30, but not that much. It took me all week.”
            “Well, you got it.  Good job.” I smiled at him. He had shown persistence.  He had stayed organized and accomplished his goal.  He was also alone and naïve. I decided to let the motherly part of my brain speak. “Do you have food with you?” I asked quietly, hoping he wouldn’t be offended. I was thinking how I would feel.
            He hesitated before replying. “Yes,” he said, looking down at the counter.
            I still wasn’t sure he understood what he had just signed up for. “You aren’t going to get there until Sunday morning.  Today is Friday.”
            “That’s all right.”
            The ship had a cafeteria. I had heard that sometimes the Purser will hand out a cafeteria voucher to indigent passengers. I silently hoped that he would win that lottery. Meanwhile, I explained where he needed to go to board the ship.  “When you get on the ship, take the elevator up to the top deck.  There’s a place for you to stay there.”
            He turned to go, then stopped and asked, “Will it be dark when we get there? I was hoping it wouldn’t be dark.” My heart sank. Both at his fear and his naïveté.
            “It will be 7 am, so yes, since they are further north than we are, yes, it will be dark,” I said carefully. I wished I could have told him it would be daylight. I wished it were Disneyland. I wished he hadn’t revealed his concern to me. What I really wanted was for him to change his mind and walk back out our front door with his cash.  Alaska, January, alone, $1.  I felt stressed.
            “There you go! You are all set.” I smiled at him.  “Good luck!” I called as he walked away, actually hoping that my wishes would improve his chance of success. Or at least protect him from the worst.
            Heading past the other ticket windows, he held the ticket up in the air.  “I got it!”
            “Have a good trip,” my colleague called to him.
            The sun was down and darkness reigned again when the ship was finally ready to leave. All the vehicles had been loaded and the passengers were on board.  The car ramp was lifted, and the line handlers turned the ship loose from the pier. I heard the horn sound, indicating the ferry’s departure at 6 p.m. We closed our ticket windows and my colleague went out to lock up the gates as they pulled out.  When he came back he said, “Someone’s standing on the back deck waving his ticket saying ‘I’m going to Alaska! I’m going to Alaska!’ I think it was your passenger.”
            “Must be him,” I said, swamped by the image of his childlike optimism and his heartbreaking plan to make money digging gold. I was glad he had this window of good cheer before being tested by the reality when he walked off the boat in Ketchikan. I could only imagine his confusion in a strange, cold, dark place.  Where would he stay?  How would he eat? He didn’t have enough money to come back.  Who would help him?
            With the boat heading across the bay on its way north, I prepared my financial report of the day’s transactions. I opened my cash drawer and pulled out his wad of money and counted it once more.  I got to $263, and found that I had two extra dollar bills.  This couldn’t be right, I said to myself.  I couldn’t have taken two extra dollars from him. I recounted the money.  Same result.  The boat was already heading north.  He didn’t have a valid mailing address, a telephone or email address.  There was no way to get him the extra two dollars that I had taken from him. Of all the times to make a cash mistake, I couldn’t believe I had shorted him $2.
            Within a few minutes, we had locked up the terminal and turned out the lights. I walked back out into rain, back across the dark parking lot, and drove home.
            Lynne greeted me and asked about my day.  I told her about Paul, the money, the panhandling, the gold digging. I choked up as I described our interaction, especially the part about the dark and money for food. I was used to indigent passengers, but his flash appearance in my life on a day when life’s challenges were already weighing on me was too much. I helped him get on the boat. Should I have stopped him?  Lynne said I should have given him more money. As it was, I pictured his elation turning to disappointment when reality came crashing in on him. I sobbed when I got to the end of my story and told Lynne I found that I had taken two dollars from him.  She comforted me.  “You have a tender heart.”  Sometimes it feels too tender for this world.


  1. What a fascinating tale, and example of resilience of the human spirit.
    The man you describe seems one of those souls who is able to able to elicit good will from others and toward whom others extend a caring hand.
    Your compassion and kind spirit are part of the reason we love you.