A conversation with Kenneth Gutman can comprise an update on the Tigray war in Ethiopia or what’s wrong with U.S. politics or how big cities like Seattle need rent control. Gutman has a naturally inquisitive personality and with his past background as a history and English major at the University of Florida, it’s no wonder he’s a whiz in many subjects.
In 1962, Gutman and his brother drove across the country from Gainesville, Florida, to Seattle in a Volvo model 544. His brother had just accepted an internship in Seattle, and Gutman wanted an adventure outside of his home state of Florida. Gutman remembers driving long stretches of highway with the windows down and sitting in the car’s comfortable seats. “In a sense, I hardly remember the trip itself, except that it was very, very pleasant. … It really was a nice car,” he said.
New to Washington and, since it was before the conception of the Internet, Gutman found himself scouring local newspaper ads looking for jobs. Gutman had worked on a skiff boat for a few seasons catching salmon, but he wanted a job that was more reliable and not seasonal. “You looked for a job in the want ads in the paper. There were lots of want ads for welders,” Gutman said. “And there was a $30 course to train you in welding.”
On a whim, Gutman took the course and became a professional welder working in shipyards across the Pacific Northwest. That journey turned into a fascinating 20-plus-years career.
“I worked in a pipe shop for a while and they made pipes out of exotic minerals because they had to sometimes transport acids. They had to be very resistant to corrosion,” he explained. Gutman said that some of those metal pipes were so big that they required a two-person team to weld together.
For Gutman, welding was the perfect job to travel to new places for jobsites and gave him the skills to work outside of a corporate environment, which were his priorities at the time.
“I frankly got too old to keep up the industrial pace. That’s really what got me out of welding,” Gutman said. “I should have set up a circumstance for a pension, but I didn’t, and that was very foolish.”
While Gutman’s body slowed down with age, Seattle rents did not. “The population greatly increased and as a result … rents got just out of control,” Gutman said.
After welding, Gutman has tried to find jobs that can compete with city rents that he can physically do, but has had no luck. Selling newspapers for Real Change has been the exception.
Gutman currently lives in a studio apartment in the University District that he said is challenging to afford.
Over time, he’s watched as old businesses have closed, like a vintage hardware store he was fond of named Hardwick & Sons Hardware, and the city has become more populated and tech-savvy. Gutman thought they had gone out of business because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he was surprised when a friend told him it was because the rent got too much for them. “It still exists, but they’re not here in Seattle anymore,” he said. In an article published Sept. 18, 2020, Dean Hardwick said high taxes and a generational change in people no longer pursuing trades like cabinetmaking and boat building contributed to their decision to close.
Looking forward, Gutman wants to hear a serious conversation from city leaders about how to house the homeless and see action taken to prevent ever-rising rents so people like himself can afford to remain in the cities they have grown to love and feel anchored to. “The reason I’m not homeless is that I get a subsidy from my brother. He subsidizes me to the tune of 400 a month and if he didn’t, I’d be wrecked.”
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the Aug. 18-24, 2021 issue.