June 8, 1997 in Features

Advocate For The Homeless Makes His Case In Novel Form

Judi Hunt Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Spend a couple of hours in Seattle’s Pioneer Square with mystery writer G.M. Ford and it’s obvious that to him, homeless people have faces. Real faces belonging to real human beings with feelings like everyone else.

“But most people who live, work in or visit this city don’t even see homeless people when they walk past them,” grumbles Ford as he strolls from park to park, seeking out familiar faces among the shabbily dressed figures sitting or sleeping on benches.

“To them, the homeless are faceless,” says the author of the award-winning “Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca?” and the recently published “The Bum’s Rush” (Walker, 226 pages, $22.95).

Normally a good-natured man who smiles often, Ford becomes indignant when he talks about those who turn their backs on the homeless.

“They don’t realize that tomorrow this could be them on First Avenue with no place to sleep, not enough to eat and their only possessions in the backpacks and bedrolls they carry.”

“All it takes is a bad accident, the loss of a job, a serious illness or a major financial problem. It can happen so fast they don’t know what hit them, just like it did many of these homeless.”

Ford, 51, deliberately set “The Bum’s Rush,” the third book in his Leo Waterman, private-eye series, in the part of Seattle where most of the homeless hang out.

His main charter, Leo, is a somewhat seedy private investigator who doesn’t work very hard at his job, preferring to spend his time schmoozing with street people who hang out at his favorite watering hole.

Over time he has become close friends with some of the regulars, despite their boozy breath and sometimes less than sanitary personal habits. Leo has heard their tragic stories and is committed to convincing the community to treat them with dignity.

“Leo’s obviously an advocate for the homeless, just like I am,” says Ford as he stops to talk to Shane, a weather-beaten man of indeterminate age. Shane complains that he went hungry the day before because a mission refused to feed him unless he paid or stayed for an hour and a half of preaching.

“That food’s supposed to be free, but it ain’t free if you have to sit with your stomach growling and listen to a buncha stuff you don’t believe anyways,” Shane tells Ford. The author promises to come back and have a long talk with Shane about free food programs around town.

“All I want is for other people to treat us like human beings, with dignity and kindness like you do,” Shane yells his thanks to the author, who palms a dollar bill into the homeless man’s pocket as he leaves.

The author walks from his Capitol Hill home to Pioneer Square, ostensibly to keep physically fit, but it’s his love of that part of town and its resident characters that really lures him. And if “Stan the Man” is typical, the homeless are just as enthusiastic about Ford.

Stan, who has the look of an Alaskan gold miner who has lived long and hard, beams in delight when he sees Ford walking through Occidental Park and dances over to him, arms outstretched to hug, and even plant a kiss on the startled Ford. The writer doesn’t even flinch, although Stan has obviously breakfasted on several bottles (by his own admission) of fortified wine.

By deliberately giving the homeless jobs as the fictional detective’s operatives, Ford hopes to convince readers that there really is a place for the country’s most desperately poor citizens.

“Showing they could help Leo with whatever work he assigned, I was trying to convince middle-class America that these people aren’t lazy, do want to work when they physically can and should be treated with the same dignity as any other human being,” Ford says.

In “The Bum’s Rush,” Leo’s homeless friends play a major role in helping the private eye solve several cases. They also are at Leo’s side when he sets out to trap a killer, only to get into a battle for his life and that of his companions.

Ford says his detective - whose last name, Waterman, is to honor Seattle - is the voice that’s closest to Ford’s own.

“That makes writing dialogue for this series very easy, because I’m really talking through Leo,” says Ford, who retired from teaching last year to write full time. “I have to be careful not to let Leo preach.”

The background descriptions come much harder, he admits.

“The characters are easier because I see them all the time, but I really have to hack away to describe the beauty of Seattle and diversity of its neighborhoods. It isn’t as easy as I thought it would be from reading other writers.”

An avid reader of detective books since he was 10, Ford grew up knowing he wanted to write his own, “especially after I read four badly written detective books in a row.

“That’s when I said to myself, I can do better than that, so get to it.”

Like most youngsters in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he started out reading the Hardy Boys series.

“And when no one was looking, I’d lock my bedroom door and read the Nancy Drew books, too. I didn’t want to be unmercifully teased for reading books meant for girls.”

At 12, he stumbled across Nero Wolfe and immediately fell in love with Rex Stout’s books.

“That’s really where my journey towards writing mystery stories began. He was really a wonderful writer and storyteller.”

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