John Michael continues his series Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise, reflecting on life and people encountered, returns to Portland and contemplates how he really wants to live.
I had a small miracle happen recently in Portland. I was back in town after seven years and looking for a couple of my friends. I spent two years on the streets of that lovely city living homeless. I stopped by Street Roots, a newspaper that homeless people sell to make a buck or two, hoping to run into them.
I used to sell them myself, back in the day, to make coffee and cigarette money. But I loved stopping by in the morning for coffee and to bullshit with the older vendors—and by older, I mean guys in their forties and fifties. The paper is doing well and has expanded by letting homeless people take part in running the day-to-day operations.
However, I didn’t see the two fellas, Mike and Steve, I was looking for. So, I spent the day wandering through downtown reliving some old memories. I was headed back to my car when Mike recognized me walking by and said hello. We had been chatting for a couple of minutes when Steve walked around the corner. So, we had a little miracle hobo reunion for a minute.
Steve still has his long hair and beard but has lost some weight because of a recent heart attack. He was a surly and verbal heavy drinker, back in the day. Black jacket, cowboy hat, and guitar. When he got a certain level of drunk, however, he would become kind, emotionally needy, and talk your ear off.
Somebody, the state I assume, got him an apartment after his heart attack and this is testament to the viciousness that severe childhood PTSD can wreak on the human psyche; he could only handle living inside with neighbors and expectations for about a week, but as soon as he could walk steady he was back living outdoors.
Mike is from California and was a drummer in a band in Las Vegas for a time. He eventually drank himself onto the streets. He had quit the booze by the time I first met him. We used to be in a poetry group together at Street Roots. He has a California vibe and a California way of talking. Sounds a little like Thomas Hayden Church from Sideways or Sean Penn from Fast Times.
Although he was recently jumped and beaten up in front of his apartment, Mike was doing well. His apartment is well-decorated and semi-well kept. He’s got a good sense of humor and a sweet personality. He said when he saw the punch coming, he adjusted his face so the blow would straighten out his nose.
When I was talking to Steve and Mike, I had an odd thought, Feel the ashes. After nine years of living on the streets, I still identify a little, internally at least, as a hobo, even though I haven’t lived that way in eight years. So, I thought I was maybe tasting the ashes of that falling-away identity.
After nine years of living on the streets, I still identify a little, internally at least, as a hobo, even though I haven’t lived that way in eight years.
The Oregon Coast is a powerful place. The sun, sky, water, rocks, wind, and sand can push the psyche around in profound ways. I spent four days there, after my time in Portland—whale watching, beachcombing, hiking, and picture taking.
I was hiking in some timber outside of Yachats when I almost decided to extend my trip to the California Redwoods. I was walking through all that beauty and thought about the toll the modern world has had on the environment. I wondered, for some sad reason, if we humans were going to make it as a species. This thought deepened my appreciation for nature somehow and I felt a desire to drink in as much of the natural world as I could while I was still around.
As I was driving back into Portland from the coast, however, I was thinking about Mike and Steve and a bunch of emotions came up. I just felt sad I had ever left the streets in the first place. I had had a similar thought while I was driving from Boise to Portland, that I betrayed myself by having money. That may be some emotional ashes, but I am going to spend some time contemplating how I really want to live.
Back in Portland, I wandered around Burnside talking to random homeless people, handing out cigarettes and spare change.
Cindy has an overly tan face, was a little too thin, seemed reasonably content, and insisted on giving me a dollar for a couple of cigarettes. She asked if I would drive her to Nevada and I said I wasn’t going to do it. Then she gave me a couple of bucks in change and was hoping for a full pack of smokes. I gave her the rest of my pack, save a couple. She was very grateful and it seemed to relax her a little that she wouldn’t have to be scrounging around for tobacco, for a little while at least.
She had a tent set up on the sidewalk right there in the middle of Chinatown. Her conversations were lucid enough, but she tended to talk about a lot of people I had never heard of as if they were friends to us both.
She used to have two tents but gave the bigger, better one to a friend. I don’t think it was out of kindness to her friend. The tent she kept was a brightly colored kid’s pup tent. This pleased the wounded little girl in her, I suppose, and she was delighted to have it.
I also chatted with a young black man in dreads. He oozed a sad sort of kindness and charm. He gave me a swig of his beer in exchange for a cigarette. He looked sad for a second and felt bad about offering a beer he had already been drinking from. Maybe he realized COVID was going on still, or maybe he was thinking about the manners his mom taught him. He then offered me a full beer, which I declined.
He had a birthday recently and managed to down a couple of fifths of cheap tequila along with some crack cocaine that night. He was maybe a little too proud of how much he could drink, but like I said he was a younger man. It was his first time trying crack and he said he didn’t enjoy it at all, which I was silently glad to hear.
I also bought a can of chew from a man in his twenties and a very dirty white tank top. He had five or six cans of Grizzly he was trying to sell and, from the looks of things, he wasn’t having much luck. He looked shocked and grateful for the five dollars I gave him. Problem is, I quit chewing five years ago, but now I’m chewing again.
I’ve got my feet planted comfortably in two different worlds and it’s tearing at my heart a little.