Those of you familiar with my penchant for eschewing panhandlers are doubtlessly surprised so allow me to explain myself.
The journey from Oakland to Seattle was a 24 hour ride - enough time for solitude and contemplation while taking in the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Northwest. It's now two years almost to the day since my therapist Maggie Clough died - a thought that still grieves me in strange ways. As a secular man, I have no expectations that Maggie and I would reconnect in some imagined afterlife.
The midnight train I boarded became a sun-filled skylight to the majesty of the unpaved route along the Pacific - first Mt. Shasta, opening up to the vast plains of Northern California, giving way to snow-capped forests of Oregon, until the light faded into darkness again when our train pulled into its final stop at Amtrak's Seattle station.
With my luggage in hand, the first thing I encountered was a large group outside of what I later learned was Pioneer Plaza in downtown Seattle. Tired from travel, my instinct was to move on - I had a bed to check into, and a full day of meetings and conversations following, but my instincts drew me closer.
I had initially thought the crowd to be the northwestern cousins of the "Occupy" movement, but upon closer inspection these folks were too polite, too respectful, too civil to qualify as anyone from Occupy. It was a far sadder gathering - a candlelight vigil for a 21-year-old girl, Nicole Westbrook who was gunned down on that very spot a week prior.
The story was as short as it was brutal: Walking home from a comedy show with her boyfriend, she was shot in the neck and bled out in front her boyfriend - and subsequently died in the hospital. The shooter and his associate - two young men, boys really, scurried into the night.
There was no attempted robbery to speak of, no grievance they were looking to settle - it was a senseless drive-by shooting.
I further learned that her family seems to singled out by Fate to bedeviled with tragedy - her father, Sgt Alan Westbrook (Army National Guard, 126th Military Police Company) was himself KIA in Iraq from a roadside IED.
The sensible thing to do was to keep walking. I didn't know this woman or her family - she's a stranger in a strange town, who died under strange circumstances.
I could offer lip service condolences to whoever would hear, shake my head at the wrongness of her tragedy.
That would be the sensible thing.
But in some ways, I am a deeply insensible man.
I saw an online request for financial contributions to get her a proper memorial service - and bury her remains next to her father's.
I know that a soldier's life is not a life of material abundance. And how wealthy a life would the family of a dead solider be - a family with five (no four) surviving children who must continue on without his income or leadership?
I opened up the request URL on my smartphone - and saw that there was about $8 in contributions so far; their stated goal of US$4000 seemed impossibly far away.
Having buried my own therapist two years ago, I know how important memorial services are for the living to properly say goodbye to the fallen, and I wanted to kick-start enough money for others to see this as a real fundraiser and join in.
In darkness, I typed off the numbers off my credit card until I came upon a screen
US$50 - Confirm?
I refreshed the page and the donation total now stood at $58 and change - a good start.
And with that, I began my vacation in Seattle.