The same March sunlight obliterates the tattered grey clouds with the same brilliance as every year, oblivious to the city’s transformation. With blithe equanimity it alights upon the contorted maw of the schizophrenic no less than upon the fair face of the young woman going wide around him, and the same pure light graces the puerile black power murals as the occasional classic architectural line. Our world is changed, and the weather is indifferent.
Suddenly portable toilets are posted at intervals along the stretch of Barbur Boulevard south of downtown, appearing as if overnight. Here and there are pods of three–like banks of phone booths. One of these appears placed to service an encampment I’ve been watching sprawl up a wooded hillside for months. Days ago I saw a clean-up crew–one Mexican with a pickup–hauling garbage out with a wheelbarrow to his truck, a good quarter mile up the road.
On the other side of the street past a broken vehicle gate there’s a dirt service road paralleling the highway just out of sight, abounding with heaps of refuse even the homeless no longer want.
The homeless are migrating down the highway out of downtown into Portland’s southwest, where they are still few. Before the one-two punch of Covid and BLM rioting the southwest’s conservative neighborhood association had been taken out by the city and activists, making way for the rezoning that will densify and diversify this calmer quadrant of the city–and make it more welcoming to the homeless.
The economic deprivation since has slowed the progressive/real estate developer alliance and their plans. Developments are going up all around downtown–such as the massive boomer basin for an “active 62-plus” clientele rising up in a grim forest of rebar nearby, that I whistle past like a graveyard–but these represent a clot of projects delayed by Covid, and the forecast is for less development, as downtown businesses continue to fall out even as the buildings go up. Yet the people still come, many abandoning the rural south of the state, and the increase in rental trucks I’ve been noticing lately aren’t escapees but arrivals.
The park blocks across from the still barricaded–new normal–Justice Center and federal courthouse, are empty and just a dozen or so tents with no visible human presence, the last stubborn trace of the occupation of 2020, line Main Street where the Elk Statue once stood.
From the advantage of his elevated position atop an obelisk the perpetually vigilant doughboy of the Soldiers Monument survives the iconoclastic racial reckoning; but he couldn’t save the good settlers of The Promised Land–promise broken, their pedestal remains with its inscription quoting Thomas Jefferson imploring settler and Indian alike to live in peace in the conquering but benevolent embrace of Uncle Sam.
“Cops Kill —>Cops” taunts the graffiti on the soldier’s obelisk, referencing a policeman killed by friendly fire recently. A junkie on the nod and I are the soldier’s only company.
“Chris!” I called out. He was passing me by oblivious, hobbling along in the orthopedic boot he’s been wearing on his wrecked right foot for years.
“Oh hey Dennis.” He said in his lilting slur, turning his sleepy eyes on me, smiling. “How you doin’?”
“I’m alright. How are you? Holding up?” It’s been almost a year since he fell back onto the streets, after a respite of four months or so renting a room. His booted leg was mangled in a work accident, he says; he’s a carpenter. But I know he’s got a drug problem too. “You still over there?” I motioned north; he had been living in a tent pitched near a homeless center in Old Town where he could get food and an occasional shower or phone call.
“It’s rough here,” he said when I saw him there last year, “those guys over there are dealing” he indicated a tent-complex nearby where a fat black brother skulked. “Lot of crazy people out here.” He had been recently beaten up. “I’ve been in more fights these three months than in my whole life. These young guys will challenge me to fight,” he grimace-smiled, “and I don’t know how.” He laughed bitterly. “I never hit anyone in my life.” They were singling him out because he’s weak and makes for good practice, I thought; shit rolls downhill on the streets, I imagine, and one bullies one who bullies another. “I don’t know how to fight,” he complained. “I can’t even lift this arm over my head” he raised it weakly a quarter rotation to demonstrate. That was almost a year ago.
Today he told me he’s found a bed in a shelter; I know the place, near Union Station which, naturally, is rotten with homeless. It looks rough, I said. He nodded; it beats sleeping on the street. I noticed his right hand was swollen, and grotesquely at the joints; the skin was red-purple and taking on a sheen; the base of this thumb was like a small plum. The hand looked like a rubber prop. He noticed me appraising it.
“I got nerve damage. I can’t close this hand at all.” He demonstrated, weakly flexing the fingers. “I got beat up again, on Christmas.” He shook his head with a grimace. “They hit me with a bat,” he pointed at his right eye with his club-hand; his temple looks dented there, as if by a ball-peen hammer.
“Yeah” He said with morbid enthusiasm. “I’m all fucked up along here,” he indicated his side; “I can’t really see out of this eye…”
As always, with the same miserable grin he relates his troubles, shaking his head.
“Jesus. You need anything?”
“Nah.” He says, turning dark, as if delivering an unfortunate diagnosis.
“You want a smoke?” I ask. “What do you smoke, Marlboro Reds?”
“I smoke whatever,” he smiled.
“Come on, I’m going to buy you a pack of cigarettes so I can bum one.” He protests briefly but falls in as I head north. The wretched little 24-hour convenience store near an off-track betting place has been cleaned up a bit; the usual collection of the most wretched of the homeless is not occupying the alcove of the abandoned store next door. I chuckled bitterly at the price; how do the homeless afford it? Back out front I handed Chris the smokes and he gave me one back. I coughed a little drawing in the smoke along with the crisp air.
“You need a ride?” I asked.
“Nah.” He said, glumly; nowhere to go.
I watched him trundle north on Fourth Avenue, wondering, as always, if this will be the last I see of him.
“Hoy Dennis.” It was my neighbor Malachi and his Irish brogue. I was back home.
“Oh hey.” I said, putting my keys away. “How you doing?”
“Foine, foine.” He says. As we engage in small talk the subject of the homeless comes up–he’s read a recent news report that seventy percent of our record-breaking traffic fatalities last year were homeless pedestrians.
“I heard. I guess the mayor instituted a ban on camping near freeway onramps and the like, but he’s catching hell even for that. Can’t tell people where to live.”
“Yoo kneow what happened to my friend?”
Of course I don’t
“Ookay: hae’s over on —, by the —“; I pretend I understand, as it doesn’t matter. “Hae’s maykin’ a rooight tarn, yoo kneow, hae’s maykin a rooight tarn, yeah” Malachi tends to repeat phrases “end theare’s a boous theare, yoo kneow, a city boous, pulled up to a boous stop, yeah? end Bob, yoo kneow hae can’t see round it, yoo kneow? End hae goies to make his rooight tarn, coming round the back of the boous, rooight?”
Right, I nod.
“Soo hae’s lookin” he mimes someone with hands on the wheel looking over their left shoulder for traffic “foor carrs cooming, rooight?” Again I nod. “End hae poonches it, you kneow, thinking it’s cleer. Next thing hae kneows, Bob says, a homeless goy, a homeless goy hae din’t see–Bob was blocked boy the boase, hae din’t see–currashes into the windshield.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Bob says the goy breaks the windsheeld en goes over the roof uh the carr en comes down on the raeer windsheeld taoo, en et breeks. Yeah. That’s heow hahrrd Bob hit him, yeah?” He pauses courteously to let me absorb this. “Soo boy neow Bob has het his breakes, only neow, yeah? end the poar bastard comes back over the roof of the carr! Over the roof of the carr, end lands in the street en frent of et!”
I let him know how impressed I am by this story.
“Soo thay call 911, yeah? end an ambulance takes the goy away. Noabody says anything to Bob, you kneow, and hae gooes ahome. But hae’s awooried, right? Hae’s awooried about this goy end hae mooight be in some trouble, yeah? Suoo, hae goes to the cops, yoo kneow, end hae tells em his stoory, right?” He pauses. “End thay tell him not to woory about it. Jest goa hoame thay say.”
“What about the homeless guy?”
“Hae’s in hospital. Hae’s in hospital, yeah. Thay din’t seay how hae is. But thay told Bob to goa hoame. Thay doan purrsoo these cases now, thay say.” He laughed. “Noo woories I guess.”
No worries I guess.