Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world

Stories

the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

W Burnside || Sunday, 5.30pm

SW 3rd and Burnside, portland, oregon It's not always fun and games, kids.

I honestly thought I was over this janky attitude regarding the valley end of nomadic freelance life.

But the current state of affairs does sting a little more than usual, given the way it shrinks down the time between now and the last time I was in Portland.

It's really not as bad as all that. At least, I don't think it is. It's wondering if it will get there, that's the problem.

Amid his usual battery of Confucian aphorisms, Frick advised me to reread Down and Out in Paris and London.

I went for a walk, instead.

It was sunny, and in Portland, you have to bank that up.

Portland sign, Oregon

When I was reaching the malaise period of my brief life in New York (which, unbeknownst to me, was near the end), I would go for long walks with my newly inherited iPod. It was September and October, and I cranked all up and down the island, staring into windows, inhaling the smells of dried fish and upscale bakeries, taking blurry pictures with my Canon point-and-shoot, swiping samples from Zabar's, Dean and DeLuca, and every Fairway I came across. In retrospect, those eight-hour walks are the fondest memory I have of New York...besides dancing with Justin at Lincoln Center that one time. They were the one thing I could afford to do. And really, they gave me as much of New York City as any time spent in a bar or a concert venue might have done.

When you're broke, or just feeling like you are, the one thing you can do as well as anybody with money is walk. Ask the homeless folks.

(Incidentally, the one thing you can do better than anybody with money is sleep. Especially in the afternoon.)

Burnside Bridge, Portland, Oregon

Have you noticed how you notice things differently, when you're a little bit broke? It's different from other kinds of worry--lovesickness, professional angst, whatever else you can think of. Being busted makes you look out from yourself, rather than in. You can't help it. When you've done everything you can do to dig yourself out, the only thing that remains is to look for help.

Portland rescue mission, portland, or

As usual, the west end of the bridge was thickly lined with people, their shopping carts, their sleeping bags, their gazes bent toward the ground in grave business-like concern. Except, of course, for those with stuff on their minds, which they mumbled or sputtered between mouthfuls of potato chips and cigarette smoke. Today I found myself trying to make eye contact, even if it wasn't a good idea.

One man, wearing a bowler hat covered in tarnished metal brooches, was sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of the sidewalk, just before the Chinatown gate at SW 4th. Walking past him meant breaking through a sort of musty smell, not of human flesh, more like a long-unused trunk of old clothes.

Powell's, W Burnside, portland, oregon

I always listened to upbeat music, when I'd walk through Manhattan--usually hiphop (which I was just catching up with), sometimes fey pop tunes from Belle and Sebastian or Beirut. I chose music that soundtracked the streets and the subway and the hustle into something that felt purposeful, that strung the blocks together into what could be a narrative.

Today I was more inclined to make fun of myself and of the introspective moodiness this town maintains, even in the sunlight. It's a curious sensation, to power-walk past the indigent and the clinically deranged while listening to Chubby Checker, Sam Cooke, and the Champs.

SW 3rd and Burnside, portland, oregon

When you're broke, cars seem to drive a little more aggressively, and they all seem to suffer from faulty mufflers and shock absorbers. It seems that more places and people than usual are playing more terrible Top 40 music for the benefit of the general public, bleeding it from car stereos and store PAs and headphones. It seems like more establishments are closed early, or forever. It seems like people are talking more aggressively, like they are moving right at you.

Burnside bridge, portland, oregon

Early in the afternoon, I passed a little old lady who was sitting in a wheelchair in an alcove next to Whole Foods on NW Couch. I mean, I blew right past her, and only registered her presence by dint of how grateful I was to have my phone distracting me. Her voice asked for spare change the way she might ask for the women's intimates section at Bloomingdales--with dry delicacy. Some better part of me frogmarched the rest of me, squirming in protest, back over to her.

(Henceforth, my rule of specificity offers exemptions to all panhandlers who look and sound like little Jewish grandmothers.)

I only had a dollar, but I put it in her bucket, which was a two-pint cardboard soup container, the kind with the blue and purple squiggle on the outside.

She didn't watch my money drop in; instead, she gazed up at me with more affable friendliness than gratitude. One eye was pale but brilliant blue; the other was nothing but a socket, a manifold of fleshy pink petals.

"Thank you," she said, as if I'd offered her directions or helped her up a step. "It's a lovely day out, isn't it?"

I was crossing the street toward the food truck pod on Washington, headed for the Target on the adjacent corner. The man at the end of the crosswalk met my eyes.

"Can you spare some change so I can get some food?" he blurted, almost too quick to be understood. But I'd seen him see me coming...I knew he was going to ask before he spoke.

"I'll get you some food," I countered.

He skip-turned on his heel. "Okay," he said. Then he stopped, and looked at me hard. Then he turned again. "Let's go down here," he said.

We walked about ten paces when he stopped again.

"Where were you going?" he asked.

"Target," I answered.

He made a shooing gesture with his hands. "Oh forget it," he said, and began to walk away.

Relief flooded me, even as I stood still, making noises of protesting confusion.

In a moment, he'd turned again on his heel and rejoined me, repeating, "Okay. Let's go down here."

The manager of the falafel stand stared at me with a curious smile, the whole time; he never once looked at or addressed the guy who was ordering food. Instead, he asked me where I was from.

I paid, left the homeless guy waiting for his falafel, and hustled around the corner and out of sight.

Burnside bridge, portland, oregon

There was still a line at Voodoo Doughnuts, even at nearly five p.m.

A man poked his head into a doorway just behind me and said, "You all sell pizza slices here?"

"Wait a minute." The woman beside him pulled at his arm. "I think... This is a strip club."

Voodoo Doughnuts, Portland, Oregon

Crossing Burnside again on the south side, I was skirting a pileup of sleeping bags when a man with long black hair made a sudden, darting move out of nowhere and dropped in a huddle, his arms encircling something I couldn't see. My peripheral vision showed two people rushing across the traffic lanes from the north side; my gaze hit the ground and my adrenals powered my steps past the sleeping bag area. Just as I cleared it, I heard raised voices; turning around, I saw fists catapulting and limbs flailing up from the ground; a skinny, pink-faced bald man was throwing vicious kicks, the kind that send your arms flying behind you. The others on the bridge were closing round in a hunched circle like vultures, but leaving enough room for the man to keep punting whoever it was on the ground. He got pulled down, somehow. A woman started screaming; another man started jabbing his finger and yelling at her. With a howl, she darted toward the fighting pair; someone else dove in and fished her out, struggling.

People on the other side were shouting, "Break it up!"

I felt some delicacy about watching--this wasn't my scene. I turned away. I wondered whether I should call the police, whether anybody else was likely to, whether this was a scene of chaotic savagery or if there was some specific societal order at work that an outsider couldn't see.

Then the pink-faced man got backed up to the stairs. A steep flight of stairs leads down from the bridge to the riverside promenade below. Somehow, he'd let himself end up on them, and the shouts grew quieter, and there was a suspension of breath as to whether this would end the fight. It's like we were all asking ourselves whether nature would regulate itself or not.

Then a leg flailed out at him, the crowd jumped forward as he fell backward.

But he caught the metal railing with his hand. And again the pause was suspended, but it was more definite now. I saw hands grasping the shirt of whoever was trying to kick him down the stairs.

And I thought, no one would have done anything. No one would have showed up in time. He would have fallen down the stairs, broken his neck, and that would have been the end of it.

Burnside bridge, portland, oregon

I stopped at the peak of the bridge to take a picture of the sunset. The man wearing a puffy vest and a bedroll pointed asked me how much my phone cost.

I wanted to make sure he understood that I didn't buy mine new; that I bought if off Craigslist.

He pointed a shaky finger at it.

"How many of those do you have?" he asked. He repeated the question more than once, each time as if he were saying something new.

Just one, I told him.

The water line, he said, was getting low. Something in the atmosphere, getting too warm. He pointed to the rocks on the riverbank. Did I see the line? Where it was wet, and then dry? That was too low. It was something in the atmosphere. It was getting too warm.

He'd spent time in Alaska, on a fishing boat. On a fishing boat in Alaska, he said, there are just three things to do: work, eat, and sleep.

"First," he said, holding up his index finger, "you get up. Then"--his third finger emerged--"you work. Then..."

His ring finger popped up, but he faltered on the next thing to say. I hesitated, wanting to help him. But he started over.

"You get up, then you...work. Then you...sleep. Then you work. Then," he triumphantly concluded, "you eat."

He went on to say more--about his watch (which is important to have, because if you don't have one, you don't know what time it is, which is no good at all when you're living in Alaska), about his hair (which is getting too grey, and making him look too old)--and a lot more things that I don't remember now. I just remember thinking that I needed to stay, a few minutes longer, because he needed to talk, and to do that, he needed someone to listen.

Burnside bridge, portland, oregon

The upside of being broke is being invisible.

When you have nothing that anyone wants, nobody sees you.

When nobody sees you, you get to see so much more.

Burnside bridge, portland, oregon