“I used to sleep in the bed next to Pearl’s. I watched as the procession of nurses and social workers came through trying to move Pearl into another place. They would argue with her and argue with her and leave, one by one. Pearl was an inspiration to all of us homeless women not to accept what people were trying to get us to do if it wasn’t right for us.”
–G., at a July 9, 2000 Memorial Service at Noel House
Words by Michele Marchand
Originally published in Real Change News July 15, 2000
Pearl Cahall befriended me 10 years ago at the Winter Women’s Shelter that became Noel House. She was brought to the shelter and for the first few weeks was silent, watchful, impassive. She was a mystery, but nothing escaped her.
I’d been working weeks straight with little sleep, and was in the shelter dining room early one morning when Pearl got up to go to the bathroom. She saw me sitting there and said, “Oh, it’s you,” shuffled back to her mat, lifted it up, and pulled out a McDonald’s bag that she came back to present to me. “Here, you’ve been working too much. You need to eat.” It was a mooshed cheeseburger and a very drippy chocolate shake.
Pearl died at Harborview Hospital on June 20, 2000 after a struggle with congestive heart problems. She was 87, an icon in the community. There is not enough space here for the hundreds of Pearl stories; no way to explain how much she will be missed, how much we loved and admired her.
She was born in Seattle in 1912, the only child of her beloved father’s second marriage. Pearl was precocious, an early reader who read the daily papers throughout her life. She married twice, spent time on the East Coast, and had three sons: Thomas, Carleton and Forest. Pearl’s two youngest children were taken from her when they were quite young; a source of deep and lasting grief and the reason she so tenaciously held onto things in her later life. She returned to Seattle in the 1950s and had various low-cost apartments through the 1980s. Eventually she lived in her van, with her cat Elizabeth and man-friend Wilford, although she continued to frequent her favorite haunts—Angeline’s, the Bon, and McDonald’s. In 1990 she moved to Noel House just after it opened, spoke out for its continuance, and lived there until she moved to DESC’s Kerner-Scott House in 1997.
After a long search, Pearl reunited with her two younger sons a few years ago. She was a family person and had always wanted to find them. She was known for thriftily buying post-holiday decorations and presents for her friends and for the grandchildren she never met. She was a community-builder, and even at age 87 dreamed of buying a piece of land and starting a car camp for herself and others who needed housing. “If you were friends with Pearl you were lucky, because she was devoted to you,” says her friend, Janna “The Nurse” Pekaar.
Several near-death stories seem most symbolic of Pearl, her indomitable spirit, and big heart. This spring she was very sick, close to death, and I rushed up to the hospital to see her, having been told she was very disoriented and wouldn’t recognize me. She was sleeping and struggling to breathe, hooked up to dozens of IVs with doctors and nurses standing over her. I held her hand, and she opened her eyes.
Her heart doctor asked her if she knew who I was, and she looked at him for a long time and then said, “Of course I know. It’s Michele. But why do you need to know?” He then asked, “Pearl, do you know why you’re here?” This one seemed to stump her. She looked at him a long time, chewing her lips. Then she said, “Well, I’m here to get better. But if you don’t know why I’m here I’m in real trouble, ‘cause you’re my doctor, right?”
After a while the doctors and nurses left, and Pearl started worrying about her fanny packs. I found them on the shelf next to her bed, and Pearl insisted, vehemently, that I strap them around her waist. She even played the death card—“Look, I know I’m dying and you need to do whatever I say” sort of thing. I was trying to convince her that reattaching her three fanny packs around those dozens of IVs could mess up the doctors’ work. Finally, completely frustrated by my stupidity, Pearl said, “Look, if the nurses come back and wonder how this happened, I’ll just pretend to be really confused.”
How could you not love such a woman?
Just before I left her that night, Pearl surprised me by asking to pray. We had never done such a thing before, but I took her hand again as she closed her eyes and concentrated very hard. “Dear God,” she said, “I want you to protect this woman who’s doing what she thinks is right. We’re both homeless in a way. I know I haven’t always been faithful to You; that’s why I’m still hanging on.”
In my own prayer on Pearl’s passing, I want to tell God that Pearl was faithful—to her friends, to the fight, to her own integrity. Her humor, feistiness, and ability to ask for what she wanted were a source of profound inspiration for all of us. I am a different and better person because of Pearl; she was absolutely one of my protectors.
Real Change Interview with Pearl Cahall, Local Hero
Interviewers Michele Marchand & gretchen king
originally published 1999
On an overcast mid-March day in 1991, 78-year-old Pearl Cahall wheeled her shopping cart up to the Bus Barn, near the Seattle Center, to attend a SHARE-sponsored rally. The rally was to save two shelters that had sprung up three months earlier, after SHARE’s first Tent City. Pearl refused to take the shelter van up to the rally with the rest of the group, preferring to make her own way. That is the essence of Pearl.
When the designated shelter speaker choked up and couldn’t continue on that overcast day, Pearl surprised everyone by saying she wanted to speak. The shelter group gathered around and lifted her onto a rickety pallet-podium. Pearl grasped the microphone and said, “There’s enough land in this country for all of us to live. We’ve got to live together!” Her words brought down the house, and her image on the front page of the newspaper the next day made a difference in the continuance of the shelter—now Noel House—and the Bus Barn Shelter—now the Aloha Inn.
Pearl was born and raised in Seattle, and spent many years living in her cars, with her cats, and later in shelters. Now 87 years old, Pearl lives at DESC’s Kerner-Scott House. Real Change interviewed her to kick off our “Local Heroes” feature; we wanted to ask her what moved her to speak at the rally all those years ago. Of course, that’s not what Pearl wanted to talk about, but her insights prove her fierce pride and self-reliance are still intact, as is her willingness to fight not for herself alone.
RC: Could you tell us how your perfect shelter would work?
PC: Well, it’s not perfect. What makes it perfect depends on the circumstances and the kind of people you have. If you really like your place and your circumstances then you maybe try harder to please people and have an appreciation of the place. But if you don’t like the circumstances…just like if you don’t like someone you’re not going to bend over backwards trying to please them as you would a friend, would you?
RC: So you’re saying the perfect shelter would be based more on friendship, relationship. Remember when you were living in your van with the cats? Can you tell us about that and your time at Noel House?
PC: No, all that stuff is bad, bad. Noel House, they made me put my stuff outdoors and all the time there’s people going through the alleys, going through your stuff. That wasn’t fair. I don’t like being put down because more or less I’m poor. I don’t think anybody appreciates being treated like a patient. If you’re going to ask people all kinds of questions you can always find fault with them. You can turn things around and find some kind of fault.
RC: What would home look like?
PC: Well, home could be anything as long as you call it that. You don’t worry about what it looks like. In other words, home is where you come from. I almost want to be back at Noel House in a way because I never paid any rent and they still gave me a place and something to eat anyway. But they don’t work with you, do they?
RC: How have things changed in Seattle?
PC: What’s that got to do with anything?
RC: Well, it would be interesting to our readers.
PC: No, it’s not interesting. I think it’s real bad. Anyone with any sense can see it’s changed. That’s what they call progress, but it’s mostly been for the well-to-do. Like they said to the farmer, “Get big or get out.” Basically I’m a kind of a working person, trying to see some progress and to have something, that’s all. I don’t have any education, I don’t know where I get my ideas, really. I guess from the man upstairs.
So anyway, you could buy a quart of milk for a quarter and a newspaper for five, ten, fifteen cents, but then you didn’t get much of a welfare check when you needed it. The way the president has done it now, trying to get people off of welfare…I don’t think anyone was getting rich off welfare. I think they should see what your circumstances are.
RC: It’s pushing people to get jobs instead of being on welfare. What do you think about that?
PC: They’ve had jobs, physical jobs, right? Now, they can force people to get any kind of job. But given their circumstances, people shouldn’t have to take some old kind of job. Would you ever take a job where you could never be advanced? Well, you might, but at least you have a choice.
RC: With all the change or progress that happened in Seattle, how were poor people affected?
PC: They weren’t as bad off then as they are now because people used to help each other. I think they’re a little rougher out here now. The thing of it is, if you hung around a little bit, maybe they’d think you were hungry. It used to be people would ask you to stay for supper or give you some of the canned food they had put up. But now when dinnertime comes they expect you to go home. “I think I hear your mother calling,” is what they say now.
RC: I remember so clearly that day in 1991 when you stood up in front of a hundred people and talked about keeping the shelter open.
PC: I wasn’t talking specifically about the shelter. I was just talking general circumstances.
RC: Well, what you said helped keep the shelter open.
PC: Nah. Some people were getting by, but a lot of people died in that place.
RC: A lot of people died on the streets. There are a lot of women dying on the streets right now.
PC: But that’s not the point.
RC: Well, what’s the point?
PC: The point it that they set it up to help people and all their rules and things almost made you want to go out in the streets. They’re too strict for what they offer. That’s the point.
RC: Do you have anything hopeful to say?
PC: Well, that’s hopeful, isn’t it? When I tell anything how it is, it’s hopeful because it’s the truth. I’m too good for this place, too good all the way round.
RC: It seems like a lot of people identify with you. How do all of these people know you?
PC: Because I complained, I guess. (laughs)
RC: Do you speak out a lot?
PC: Well, of course, I’m my own woman. I’m nobody’s pappy. I’m no slave. I understand that Lincoln freed the slaves a long time ago.
RC: How have people reacted to you?
PC: I don’t care. I don’t care if they listen or not. I think they’re nuts, all of them. I don’t need a psychiatrist. I think that psychiatrist is nuts too. He shouldn’t have been asking, “Do you hear voices?” I said, “I hear yours.”
RC: What do you want?
PC: I want a decent life. If I had some land, I’d have a car shelter with outside toilets. I want a membership deposit so I can keep track of the people, what they want and what they think. I’m just trying to find myself a place where I can live, that’s all. It’s just a stepping stone. Later, I’d take some of these people and have them help build little houses. Why should I have to pay rent to someone when I can build my own house? Just a shack, in other words, with ten windows. (laughs)
RC: Is there anything else you want people who read Real Change to know?
PC: That’s all I know. I don’t exactly have a plan. I just need a good man friend.
RC: Two things you want: a personal ad to find you a good man friend and a car camp. How do you want us to describe you to the readers?
PC: Well I’m kind of an ambitious person and serious. That’s what the psychiatrist said.
Featured Leaf June 2016