Looking south from my window, the airplanes are stacked five deep in the night sky. On their final approach, they descend into SeaTac. I watch, thinking of the streets beside the airport, feeling an odd mix of emotion. Exhaustion, nostalgia, familiarity, a sense of loss.
I spent both too much time, and not enough, on those streets. First with the cops and then on my own. The SeaTac street crimes unit and patrol officer Andy Conner showed me the streets like I’ve never know them. The police radio, the push-to-talk phones; it created an aural image of crime-ridden winter nights.
I am still figuring out what I learned, the positives I want to keep with me. I’m letting go of the rest.
Friends would ask what I was doing for the evening.
“SeaTac,” I’d say. Or, “I’m not sure, but I could get a call.”
In a sense, my life was on hold, so I could live another’s. To report on it.
I realize now, my life was on hold for other reasons too. Distance helps me see this.
When I won the Alexia grant in the late summer of 2012 my wife, who was working in Alaska at the time, sent a small rose bush as congratulations. Two days later, she was kissing another man. By the time she came home, she was done, though it took her nearly two months to tell me why.
She was on the phone; we’d scheduled a call, since I’d moved out to “give her space.” I thought it was temporary, so we told her son I was on a business trip. Had I known the truth, I wouldn’t have lied to him. I’d become an instant parent; I loved it and loved him. Never was I so proud as that bleary-eyed night several years prior when he called for me, not her, to soothe his fears.
Speaking from a script, she told me how she felt about our marriage. At the end, like a footnote or something for the appendix, she added she’d broken the marital contract (her words).
There was an intense moment of breathless disbelief and searing emotional pain. Then I vomited my very soul across the floor of the place I was staying.
We had loved, fought, compromised, accepted, grown closer. Or so I thought. She said everything with a finality that told me there was no working things out.
I faltered, consumed by the sad logistics of separating two intertwined lives. Around mid November, Brian Storm, one of my grant administrators called, checking in. I was still negotiating access to subjects, I said, but I also told him what was going on for me personally. It was too big not too.
“I’m sorry, that’s really hard,” he said, “but know that you’ve got two amazing organizations backing you up.”
“You mean, don’t f*** this up,” I replied. I might have been projecting a little.
After that, I dove deeper into work, professionally functional but personally crippled. Just another divorced older guy, stumbling along.
There was an evening with Natalie and her family; I was sitting in front of the wood stove on their brown shag carpet, scratching the dog. 17 year-old Natalie, who had just bared her soul for my cameras, asked if I had a dog. And I choked.
“Yes,” I said, exploring the words. “I had a step-son, too.”
At that moment, I became more than just a journalist. Sitting with a family I barely knew, I became a guy still figuring out how to tell his own story.
The way my wife cut the ties so quickly and cleanly, I hadn’t been able to see the boy in over two months. That last morning, he found me sleeping on the couch; she said she couldn’t sleep with me in the bed, and I know how she needs her sleep. The boy sat beside me in the pre-dawn light and put his arm around me. Half asleep, I put mine around him. I wish it had lasted longer; I want it to last longer. But as kids do, he stood up.
“I’m going to play legos,” he said. I carry that moment with me.
I know it’s not unique; so many others have experienced this, and far worse. But now I know what it feels like. This story is mine.
The first night I went out with the detectives, it started with ballistic vests and handguns on a domestic violence call. Next, they pulled over some guy with his pants around his ankles. He was shoeless. The young woman, an adult, had a tattoo on her neck. The kind a pimp uses to brand his girls.
I quickly felt comfortable with them and their dark humor, and I knew I’d been accepted when they started teasing me too. I rode shotgun on many eight hour shifts, through their personal phone calls, the cigarettes they were trying not to smoke, fast food, their countless Rockstar energy drinks. I heard about the days devoted to narcotics, some of their first calls as patrol officers.
There was the drowning: a 12 year-old at the Motel Six while the parents were partying in a room. The suicide by Desert Eagle, a .50 caliber hand gun. The gas charge from the round blew the guy’s brain, in tact, out of his head. And the Medical Examiner made a joke about it. One detective let the undercover work get to him; he’d pick up a half-rack of beer on his way home and wouldn’t sleep until he’d finished it.
I learned I was in good company; while their daily work was new to me, they knew what I was going through. Kids, divorce, ex-wives. I think journalists and cops find, or create, tumultuous relationships. And I think both cops and journalists like to be close to the edge, that place where uncomfortable things happen.
One night I found myself on a stakeout for a man who had shot two others.
“I almost gave you a call this morning,” a detective said, “Blood was everywhere.”
Another described how a bullet ricocheted through the survivor’s skull. “If that don’t change your perspective, I don’t know what will,” he said.
It didn’t pertain to my story, and I wasn’t sorry to miss it. But at the same time, I was. These were other people’s problems. They were a good distraction from the work I needed to do, work on myself.
During this time, I met an amazing woman. Passionate, caring, intelligent and skilled. Given the deficiencies in my failed marriage, I thought this woman might be the answer. But I was raw with emotion, gun-shy, and realized over the months the work she and I needed to do was more than I could handle.
Her story is now a part of mine, which I value. I value her. We were both in transition, and we tried, but it wasn’t the right fit. And I was so busy documenting others’ lives that I wasn’t paying attention to my own. Working the streets consumed me, letting me focus on something besides the hole in my heart.
Then, one night, the cops arrested the girl in the robe. I never imagined I’d actually witness a story like hers, much less tell it, but she let me into her life.
It’s a joke, but not really. For several months my world was ruled by a heroin-addicted teen prostitute. She’d text at 3 a.m., waking me up. Other times, I’d text her all day long, trying to connect. In the end, I just had to be there. And so I drove. Like the cops taught me.
I met her family and some of her friends. And their friends. Her old boyfriend didn’t want to see me; he was a 42 year-old meth dealer she later called a pimp. Her new boyfriend thought I was a good influence. After doing seven years for meth, he was on the straight and narrow. The dealers, the motels, the cops; they all knew her. She’s smart, funny, polite when she’s not angry, and she was turned out by a pimp at age 13. Her mom still loves her, but knows there’s only so much she can do.
We had a deal; she could tell me, whenever, that she didn’t want the camera around. And I’d leave. It only happened once, when she wanted to hook up with a dealer. Well, and the other time, when her heroin dealer drove by and she ditched me. She has a talent for disappearing.
When I think of those nights I think of her, and I hope one day she’ll find the courage to face her past. So she can have a future.
It’s spring now, a year and a half since I started. The story is a film now, edited and done. Kind of like my marriage: it happened, past tense. For the story, I no longer drive the streets. I’m working on partnerships and engagement, trying to find the best ways to honor what was shared with me. And for the marriage, that interlude in my reporting on human trafficking; well, those years are their own story, one of balance, intimacy, parenting, commitment beyond work. I am still figuring out what I learned, the positives I want to keep with me. I’m letting go of the rest.
Like those planes. They come and go in the night sky; bringing people and stories to Seattle, and taking others away.
“The Long Night” is a documentary project by Tim Matsui on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). This project is funded by the Alexa Foundation’s Women’s Initiative Grant. The trailer for “The Long Night,” a documentary film being produced by MediaStorm with the footage Tim has gathered is now available. See more posts from this project here.