We live in downtown Portland, Oregon. It's wonderful to be able to step outside our door and walk to almost anything we need or want, to be right in it, to feel like part of the city. It's fun and frustrating, exciting and exhausting. City streets can make a person feel invisible, and yet, they're also like a big meandering stage, studded with spotlights aimed on a surprisingly constant cast of characters.
A lot of people live on the streets here, in varying degrees. We see a lot of young ones drift in and out, with dogs and guitars and sometimes weary looking girlfriends. Did they think it was worse at home with their families than it would be on the cold concrete, eating out of garbage cans? Older ones, almost always men, follow regular routines and daily circuits from bench to doorway to park to street corner. And mentally ill men and women are a regular part of our daily adventures in beautiful downtown Portland.
We know nothing about these people, any of them, but we allow ourselves to pretend that we do. We give them names, we make up stories, we wonder about them when they disappear. I imagine them to feel invisible, anonymous, but it isn't that easy. Not for them, and not for us.
There are some we only see or hear in passing. That young guy who shuffles as slowly as a 90 year old, head down, quiet, and looking to be in great pain. There's the fuck, Fuck, FUCK guy who makes his way up the street late at night, bellowing in a voice that scares me so much I don't even want to look out the window to see what he looks like. And there's the infrequent visitor to Archangel Michael's church, across the street, who stands at the bolted doors wearing a giant crucifix, shaking his head in disbelief at his denied entry, and crying, I love you Michael! Their stories? Lost? Crazy? Dangerous? Or merely... annoying?
Some we come a little bit closer to, like Blanket Man, who is often in Pettygrove Park, behind our building. He sits on a bench with a blanket over his head. He is completely still and quiet. He appears to pay no attention to the dogs, humans, bikes, skateboards, and Segway tours that whiz past him. My story on him is that the blanket is his room, his house, his place to be alone and separate from the street. I would never disturb him, but I have occasionally left food near him, so he can find it when he comes out.
An Asian woman wanders through Director Park every day at lunch time, at least in good weather, when hundreds of people come from nearby offices to enjoy their lunches and some sunshine by the fountain. She hovers at an uncomfortable closeness to people and their food. She stares at their plastic-boxed lunches until they start to squirm and look up. Then she says something. I never hear it clearly, but I assume she's asking for something to eat. They always shake their heads, she always walks away, makes the rounds, ends up at a trash can, digging for scraps and cold coffee in paper cups. I have no story for her yet. I can't make her being there make any sense to me.
There's a nice tree lined route to Riverplace that's off the main streets. We walk that way often, on our way down to sit by the water, look at boats, and have a beer or a coffee. There's are benches under the trees, and the one nearest a heating exhaust vent from the building next to it is occupied by a man we've been seeing there for over two years.
He might be in his fifties, but it's hard to tell. He's shaggy and skinny. He's kind of twitchy. He sometimes talks to someone we can't see. He sometimes looks up when we pass by and gives a nod of recognition. Sometimes he raises a hand in a subtle but friendly wave. Sometimes he ignores us completely, and we in turn, respect the fact that we're walking through his living room.
He always has food, so we stopped bringing him what he doesn't seem to need. But what does he need? I have no idea. My guess, my story, is he might be schizophrenic, and he's somehow tapped into the social services system, enough to have food, but not enough to live indoors. Of course I'm making that up. And while we've tried to name this man - something dignified like Robert or James or Howard - we can't agree on who he is. Maybe he doesn't know either.
Carl is different. I know his story. He used to spend every day on a bench in the park where I walk Heidi. Being a social girl, Heidi would tug her way over to say hello to him, and eventually Carl and I started having friendly conversations. I gave him a thermos to keep his coffee hot. He told me his name. I told him mine. I learned about his childhood in Montana, his years setting up and running carnival rides, and his unfaithful wife. He needed a tent, so I put the word out, and an online friend sent me the money to buy him one. He set it up under a freeway overpass for protection. He kept his site clean. He gave me a Bible.
Carl was gone all summer. He had told me that he likes to go to Montana in the summer months. Home, whatever that means by now. Family? He never mentioned any. I knew he was up for a subsidized apartment in the city, so I figured maybe he had moved on. The tent had gotten him through last winter, until he burned a big hole in it, trying to melt a loose thread with a match.
I saw him not long ago, sitting on his usual bench in the park. I walked right up and said hello. He was polite but guarded, and seemed not to recognize me. He's not around every day anymore, like he used to be, so I still assume that he has a place to stay now. But I really have no idea, and now I feel awkward approaching him. If I see him again, will I say hello, or will I avoid him? Maybe I've done all I can. Maybe he'd rather not get any closer. Maybe he's not as mentally stable as I thought he was. And of course, again, even though I sort of know Carl, I'm making up a story about him.
And then there's The Pirate. He's been in the neighborhood as long as we have, over two years, and I suppose probably much longer than that. When we first saw him, he was sort of terrifying to look at. He was a stocky man, maybe in his 60s, all dressed in dirty black, trench coat, boots, long dark hair and beard. His glasses had one dark lens and one open one - no glass at all. He stood hunched over an enormous mountain of stuff - things he'd found or traded maybe - all piled onto what looked like a Costco cart, buried deep below the treasures. We dubbed him The Pirate, because of his eye-patch glasses, and because of the "ship" he pushed around town, usually under cover of darkness. We never went near him. He looked too scary.
The Pirate disappeared for a long time. We didn't really think of him, but once or twice over the months we'd note that we hadn't seen him in a while. And then he came back. At first we weren't sure it was the same guy. He seemed smaller. And his ship was gone. In its place was a walker, aluminum and sturdy, just like the one my dad had, with a tray for carrying things. He had very few things now.
He had the same eye-patch glasses, and the same shaggy hair and beard, but his clothes were maybe a little bit newer and cleaner, and his ship had been downsized to a life raft. In place of his boots were sneakers, and sprouting out of the tops of his shoes were two shiny new prosthetic legs.
I see The Pirate every so often, always from a distance. He seems to keep himself at a distance from other people, and the name, The Pirate, still seems to suit him. He still looks intimidating.
This morning I took Heidi for her usual walk. None of the regular cast of characters were out there though. The weather is changing, and I guess maybe some of them move on in winter. But how? And to where? We rounded the corner going back home, and as I neared the door to the little convenience store in our building, out came The Pirate. There was no avoiding each other. We were both right there on the same sidewalk, heading straight for each other, he with his walker, and me with my little dog.
I'm not sure why, but I took a chance and looked him in the face. I even smiled. What was I thinking? Who smiles at a scary pirate? Well I do, apparently. And then... The Pirate said, Hi. In the split second I had left before I passed him, I smiled a little more for real and said good morning to him. His response was a cheerful, Good morning!, in a voice more fatherly than pirate-like, as if we had greeted each other this way every day for years.
The Pirate... who is this man? What is his story? Of course he has one. We all do, eye-patch or not, roof or not, legs or not... I might never know his story, or most of the others out there, but I did learn one big thing today.
We may not know a thing about these people who cross our paths every day, but they're still very much like those of us who pass them by without so much as a glance. We have no idea who they are, or how they came to be where they are now. And even when there's nothing obvious we can do to assist, the very least we can offer is some sign of recognition.
Hello. Good morning. A smile.
It's not that hard, and it probably pays off in bigger ways than we can ever imagine.
But that's another story...