Looking up from 75 feet away I could see the three-day notice taped to my door. So on the ninth anniversary of nine eleven I’m eighty-sixed. Coincidence? You decide.
The shock of the sudden transition: In Old Town with a few spare clothes and a couple blankets. One measure of how far gone I was is the stuff I left behind and why I picked Old Town. (OK, two measures). You have probably not noticed so much those “No Public Restroom” signs. I noticed them, and that was my chief concern. Where am I going to go to the bathroom? The Rescue Mission is always open. Fact is, much later, when I started to extend my range a bit, I did get caught out a few times, luckily while wearing double socks. I know you want the unvarnished truth here, so I’m giving you the straight poop.
The sidewalk from the bridge and around Second Avenue to Couch is most nights haphazardly strewn with various specimens of humanity, some of whom a chagrined creator might call failed experiments. To a new guy, just finding a spot was a source of anxiety. I soon enough worked out a simple four-step routine. Breakfast at the mission, 7 a.m. Kill time. Dinner at the mission, 6 p.m. Find a spot on the sidewalk. This can be challenging. Wasn’t two weeks and I was on Burnside over the MAX when Andre Payton came to a bad end, a block up and one over, Second and Couch. They counted 53 bullets. Welcome to Old Town. Jesus loves you.
One of the happiest periods of my street life was when I cleaned up Davis Street between Third and Fourth. There are four of these planter boxes with a palm tree and a shrub or rose bush in there, and the debris had accumulated over who knows how long. I started cleaning there, on the one closest to the closed-up Chinese food joint, where I was sleeping at the time, and I had Dumpster-dived a push broom somewhere. And then not long into it was when I first saw the billboard saying the Dalai Lama was coming to town, and that was what really kicked it into high gear. On the off chance that he decided to swing through Chinatown while he was here, we’d get the place looking right. All the way down to scraping the dirt out of the cracks in the sidewalk. I had a length of hose and a five-gallon bucket, and there was a bathroom down at the parking garage where you could stop up the sink and siphon hot water into your bucket, hang it on the handlebar of your bike and walk it three blocks back to the job site. I kept the broom and bucket in the shopping cart I was using for scrounging bottles and cans.
This is a good start, I thought, but what to do about a Tibetan flag? Maybe this Chinese-owned travel agency right on this very block. So I went in and explained about His Holiness coming and asked if they had a picture, but no luck. Then I asked if she knew anyone who spoke Tibetan.
“No,” she said. “Why?” I told her I wanted to learn how to say, “You got any spare change?” in Tibetan. She almost didn’t smile and said, “Shame on you.”
The poster shop at Lloyd Center did have a small 3 x 5 Tibetan flag, and the clerk just gave me a postcard with the man’s picture on it, (Tenzin Gyatso is the Dalai Lama’s given name). You know how one thing sometimes leads to another? I told someone about it, and then Julie’s mom had a full size Tibetan flag, and we had a good head of steam going. There were a few enlistees that joined up. Toby pitched in. Lucky only stuck around for about 45 minutes, but 45 minutes of Lucky is a lot. He was a logger from the Bend area. Chudznik, the Polish guy from Caracas, was willing, but I’m afraid he turned out to be a bit of a hobbledehoy. A lot of crud builds up over time: dead grass, cigarette butts, old needles, scraps of paper, at least one big trash bag per planter box.
And we’re scrubbing up the bronze plaques that are set into the sidewalk, and scraping the gum off, and I’m thinking here is something I can do without getting hassled. Actually, though, I did. One guy came by and suggested I try AA. I got some pretty good flak for the pruning of the palm trees. It’s a bit of a struggle doing it with just a pair of a scissors, but it worked, sort of. A couple of gentlemen from Clean & Safe told me that there were people from the city that took care of that and said to cease and desist. I didn’t bother asking them where the city people had been for the past few years. I just focused on something else until they left and then got back to work. Later a friendly guy from Clean & Safe came by and said he’d watched me trying to make the scissors work. He loaned me a pair of pruners and said if he didn’t get them back, then he should have used better judgment. (He got the pruners back.)
Two of the local merchants gave me something, one a Dr. Pepper and one an orange juice. The director of the Chinese garden stopped once and told me she’d seen it gradually looking better over the weeks. A young Asian lady among a group of clubgoers said “Thank you for saving the world.” I suspect she was having a bit of sport.
In time, the wall had featured a Tibetan flag, the picture of the Dalai Lama and pages from the art book “The Impressionists” by William Gaunt. I cut out thirteen or so pieces, paintings like L’absinthe, and At the Moulin Rouge, and using duct tape to simulate frames, put up a real nice display on the window of the closed-up Chinese food joint. Tourists were actually coming by taking pictures of it, because the girl who flew a sign at Fourth and Davis told me.
You need to be timely about clearing yourself and your stuff out of there in the morning, and I forget why I had left or what the delay was getting back, but I hustled back a little too late, and wouldn’t you know it, Clean & Safe had made off with my cleaning stuff, shopping cart and all. It threw me for a bit, but then I said to myself, only slightly daunted, “I did not get where I am today by giving up so easy.” Some clear quick thinking was in order. What I did was, under the guise of cleaning up around Street Roots (for extra papers to sell), I spirited a few cleaning supplies out, and in less than a week I was back on the job.
For those who are handling it well enough, being outdoors is not as pitiful as we fear it will be. One can adapt to nearly anything. One can also go nearly nuts from the shock before making the adjustment. I was still on the sidewalk downtown during the aforementioned street-cleaning period of happiness. Discovering a campsite was the biggest help: not having to carry all I owned with me everywhere.
It’s a tough way to go, nobody wants it, but it’s not as unlivable as you might first think. Even in the dead of winter this last winter, there were a couple times I cut my six-pack down to a four-pack and went to bed early because it was just too cold to sit outside my tent.
It has to come from inside. You cannot give someone a happiness transplant, and back when I was feeling really bad, I even said it back then: somebody could give me $50,000 and it wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t have amounted to much more than 50,000 problems that I couldn’t handle. You get a severely depressed person, and about the best you can do is hope they don’t go through with it (and gun ownership is not for everyone).
I had read in The Oregonian about a mobile book outlet setting up shop at Skidmore Fountain, and I don’t know if I was there on the very first day of operation, but early in the season for sure. I had a library card, but what with being an outdoorsman, and the risk of loss or theft, I never went there. Got to talking about books, and I think Laura let me get two that day. Since I returned them the next week, I was soon getting three at a time. That was about all I had to pass the day away, and I’d be down at the waterfront most every day, plowing through about three books a week.
I remember Laura even told me about the whole garage full of books she needed to get organized and would pay me for the help. At that time, being able to get to a place on a bus was just a little out of my range, and I sort of let it drop. But I’m told that I was the main borrower that first season, and Laura urged me to attend the event at the end of it. At that time, socializing with humans was just a little out of my range, and I sort of let that drop, too.
Do you know how much a cubic acre is? Well, that is how much impact this project carries. Cubic acres, baby. Who is to say it doesn’t?
Ben Hodgson is a volunteer with Street Books, a mobile library organization in Portland.