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Thursday, December 20, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur / Times staff columnist

Just a letter — and so much more

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Years ago, on a trip to Mexico, Mark Jaroslaw spotted an old man on the street, sitting behind a card table that bore a sign: "escritor público."

Public writer.

Jaroslaw, himself a free-lance writer, had "an epiphany." Instead of being the middleman, telling stories for faceless corporations, why not face real people and tell their stories?

"It's one thing to make good money at writing," said Jaroslaw, who is in his 50s. "But it doesn't feed the heart."

And so, one day a week, Jaroslaw can be found sitting behind a card table at the Urban Rest Stop in downtown Seattle, helping homeless men and women find the words to tell their loved ones how they are, where they are — and perhaps who they wish they could be.

On his table he places a word processor, a stack of paper and stamped envelopes, and a bowl of Hershey's kisses to break the ice.

"We are in one of the most wired cities in the country," said Jaroslaw, of Magnolia. "And here are these homeless people wandering around without the means."

The chair in front of his story table doesn't stay empty long. Folks come in for a shower or some laundry. Then they spot Jaroslaw, read his sign ("Want to write a letter?") and pause.

Charles Parker, 26, of Houston took a seat yesterday to write to his mother.

He left Houston for Seattle four months ago — months he spent on the street when he couldn't find welding work. He has work on a fishing boat that leaves Christmas Day and hopes to go back to Texas in the spring — with money.

"Anything else you want to say?" Jaroslaw asked, fingers poised. "Your life now ... ?"

"No," Parker said. "The predicament I'm in now. ... You could say that I'm fine."

Jaroslaw types out loud: "I don't want you to worry."

"Yeah, that's great."

If a letter writer struggles, Jaroslaw asks them to think of three questions the recipient might ask.

"After a while," he said of the process, "I disappear."

Still, it is not a place where one easily can gather one's thoughts.

The air is warm with the sweet-and-sour smell of sweat, the streets and alcohol. The door opens and closes constantly. One wall is lined with washers and dryers, the clothes as tossed and turned as the people who own them.

While the Rest Stop provides 125 loads of laundry and 250 showers a day, Jaroslaw will compose only about 10 letters. Most are addressed to Mom or to those who have been left, hurt or lied to.

One man abandoned his kids 15 years ago and told Jaroslaw they would rip up a letter from him sooner than read it.

But Urban Rest Stop program coordinator Ronni Gilboa said Jaroslaw's gift can't be measured in numbers.

"This is a decent guy doing a decent thing — a simple thing that is very much appreciated," she said. "You really don't know what can happen with a letter."

To Jaroslaw, the letters are tangible signs of life, crisp and folded, stamped with the first postmarks their senders have claimed in a long time.

"A message in a bottle."

Reach Nicole Brodeur at 206-464-2334 or at nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists. She makes her kid write thank-yous.

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