In a cozy room on the sixth floor of a Capital Hill hotel in Seattle, I’m seated at the window watching snow and traffic and bundled pedestrians.
Tomorrow morning I’ll be speaking at the Search For Meaning conference at Seattle University. But now I’m focused on what’s outside my window. I’m letting my mind play with trivial questions that pop up. Too often I hush this annoying-little-kid part of my mind, or run roughshod over it, believing I don’t have time to play. Today I have time – no computer, no smart phone, no schedule. My presentation is prepared and rehearsed. I have the leisure to be diverted and to play with my kid-self and her questions.
A block away there is a building under construction. So far it is eleven stories high, not counting the giant crane on top. On the ninth floor a man is working in one of the windowless openings in the wall. He is affixing wide strips of orange material around the opening’s edges. What is that material? How does it stick? What’s it for? Is it a sealant of some sort, for when the windows are put in later? And, more importantly, how is that man suspended there, nine stories above the street? After several minutes of studying this question with my kid-self (how IS he defying gravity?), I realize he’s standing on a tiny platform that juts out of the window space from the inside. Isn’t he afraid? I don’t know. I would be!
On the south side of the building two large bright-orange boxes made of metal grating slide up and down a narrow erector-set trunk. These are exterior elevators, each with their own operators, taking workers and supplies to and from whichever floor they’re working. I can see the safety gates slide – one half up and one half down – opening each orange box to disgorge or admit their cargo. How many people can fit into each car? Are all the workers men, or are there some female welders and ironworkers? How cold is it up there? Why do the elevator doors move vertically instead of opening horizontally? Do the operators get bored? Do they ever give in to the temptation to race each other to the top?
I love watching people work. In this playful mood it feels like spying. I love knowing they don’t know I see them, don’t know I’m watching and wondering what they’re doing, and why, and how each movement contributes to their task. There is a crane operator in a glassed-in cab at the apex of the crane’s 60-foot upright support – what’s the name of that part? – and the how-many-feet-long? working arm of the crane. For as long as I’ve been watching the crane its operator has apparently been sitting there, idle, waiting for the next task to do. Does he read a book in his cab? Does he do sudoku puzzles? Text his girlfriend? Then suddenly there is a little crane excitement: the horizontal arm spins fairly quickly around the supporting tower, then comes to rest exactly where it was before. What was that about? My favorite guess on this playful day is that the operator got bored and took his gigantic crane for a whirl. Or maybe he wanted to see the other 180 degree view of the city for a minute.
I make myself a cup of coffee, and then return to the window. On the street below, construction workers, now finished for the day, jaywalk across four lanes of traffic, their florescent yellow or safety orange vests and jackets and hard hats and coolers stopping cars that were on their way to somewhere. I hope now to see the crane operator make the perilous climb down from his perch – I’ve stared and stared, waiting.
But my attention is diverted by a woman in gray baggy pants and shapeless coat, her ankles bare above run-down moccasins in this freezing weather. Isn’t she cold? Why is she limping? Where is she going? What’s in those heavy bags? Does she have any friends? Is she sad? Briefly the slow-moving gray bag lady is surrounded by bright OSHA-approved colors, swallowed up in a surf of building-makers; then she is alone again like a cold gray stone deposited on the concrete by the headed-home tide.
I must have missed the craneman’s descent, because all is quiet now at the building-under-construction. That’s okay. What I really needed to watch was that woman, and her work of limping up the steep street. She needed my attention just now; she needed my prayer that she find warmth for her restless sleep tonight.
Tomorrow morning I’ll encourage an audience to notice – and maybe to bless – the many, many people deposited on the concrete of our society who are doing their work of surviving on the margins.