My friend Ben likes chess and bad puns, and he cooks a mean pot roast on Sundays. He is a seasoned Dumpster diver, and his scores include a taxidermied armadillo (whom he calls Armando), and an ancient Spanish-English dictionary. He has a funny, wry wit and keeps a neat apartment.
The apartment is important to this story, because when I first met Ben, he was sleeping outside on the ground each night.
It was the first summer of Street Books, the street library I founded in June 2011. Twice a week I set up my bicycle library, pulled out the drawer of books and hung the sign: “Street Books is a bicycle-powered mobile library serving people who live outside.” My shifts were at Skidmore Fountain on Wednesdays, and the Park Blocks, near the art museum, on Saturdays. After a few weeks, patrons began to show up regularly. I checked out the Twilight series to a girl named Stephanie, and Louis L’Amour to a tiny wizened man named Eric. Richard had met the author Anne Rice in New Orleans, dressed in Victorian Goth. He said she’d climbed into a glass coffin, which was driven around the streets (apparently research for the new book she was working on at the time). He checked out an armload of her books.
My summer felt rich with these stories, with the conversations about books I was having. Soon I looked forward to seeing my regular patrons, and connecting them with books they’d requested. Ben showed up each week at Skidmore Fountain, ready for conversation, and serious about reading. I saw early on that he was very well read. He was not afraid to tease me good-naturedly. You haven’t read P.G. Wodehouse? He’d shake his head as if to say, What kind of street librarian are you?
Ben gamely helped spread the word about the street library. One day he appeared with a man named Mike, whom he’d met down by the waterfront. Mike wanted to read the book Ben had, but Ben wanted to make sure he checked it back into me before Mike checked it out. That’s when I knew he was a serious, card-carrying patron.
The last time I checked out books to Ben happened in late autumn, on a sunny day with a chill to the air. He showed up to Skidmore Fountain in his professorial glasses and a thin jacket. I remember that he seemed particularly glum.
“Despair is actually the most deadly sin,” he said. “Worse than all the others, greed, avarice, all of that.” He gestured vaguely to the books on the cart. “I think I read that in one of these books.”
I asked him if he’d looked into the possibility of a warmer coat for winter, and he said he knew of two different coat drives in the past week, where he could have gone and gotten something free. But he just hadn’t done it.
“Why are you being so hard on yourself?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I gotta go. All this introspection is getting me down.”
He’d taken two titles: “No Country For Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy, and “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell The former, a story along the U.S./Mexico border about a drug deal gone wrong, and the latter, a memoir of a descent into poverty.
“I’m not sure those particular books will cure you,” I called after him.
Ben waved without looking back.
Two years later, in the fall of 2013, I looked up from my shift at the corner of Fourth and Burnside, and there was Ben. He was grinning. He said he was still sleeping outside, but that the depression that had dogged him during the summer we’d first met had finally lifted. We walked to the Mediterranean Café after my shift and ordered cups of coffee. I didn’t know then that we’d begin meeting there weekly, Ben arriving in a hat that resembled a dun-colored sock, pushing a cast-off baby stroller full of aluminum cans, and usually bearing some kind of Danish or creampuff in a brown paper bag. I didn’t know that later that fall, he would invite me for a gourmet fish dinner, cooked at his campsite in the southwest hills, and that by February he’d have an apartment. I couldn’t know then what an essential part of the Street Books project he would become, organizing our library books, making recommendations and offering bad jokes at our board meetings. (“What did one wall say to the other? Meet you at the corner.”)
One winter day as we sat in the café, he called about an apartment in Southeast Portland. After he hung up, I said, “If you get any static from them, and you want me to call and have a conversation in a more dulcimer tone, just say the word.”
“I think you mean dulcet, sweetheart,” he said.
I couldn’t know then how much knowing Ben would change the way I thought about people out on the streets. My initial impulse to start a street library had come from the idea that books and conversation about books, could be enriching and enlightening, and could transform time, especially for people living outside. But now I had seen through a window into one person’s experience, as he fought with a debilitating depression and for a period of time, struggled to find a place to sleep on the ground each night. When I see someone pushing a shopping cart downtown, or sleeping alongside the waterfront, I understand they are in this same state of vulnerability. I see that the line for some is very thin between sleeping outside on the ground and being able to tuck clean sheets on a bed, and sleep somewhere safe.
Ben now maintains an apartment that is tidier than my own place, with a filing system for his papers and towels folded neatly on the rack in the bathroom. Art hangs on the walls, and he packs a lunch each day for his new job as a maintenance person at a cemetery.
And I finally read a book by P.G. Wodehouse.
“Prove it,” Ben said.
“Okay, well Bingo is always falling in love and Bertram wears a bright sash and purple socks that Jeeves can’t stand.”
“You coulda got that much from the CliffNotes,” he said.
Read down and out in Old Town/Chinatown by Ben Hodges.
Learn more about Street Books.