The Crowd Might Cover You

Anxiety, kindness, and community on the streets of Portland

Fort Wick

At first, she looked like any other street librarian, complete with the cards in the books and post-it notes and paperclips. Bicycle parked, and little shelf pulled out, displaying the collection. I graciously overlooked the complete lack of any Wodehouse titles on her shelves but did mention in passing that a well-maintained library does require some attention. Only too late would I learn that here was a teacher turned recalcitrant schoolchild that refuses to do her assigned reading. But I didn’t know that yet.

I had been outdoors for about nine months by then, and still hadn’t recovered from the nasty shock of falling into the bottom of the barrel and then seeping on down through the cracks. I slept in Old Town, with a few spare clothes and a couple of blankets. Most nights the sidewalks from the bridge and around Second Avenue to Couch were haphazardly strewn with various specimens of humanity, some of whom a chagrined creator might called failed experiments. I was usually the third or fourth experiment down from the Mission. To a new guy, just finding a spot was a source of anxiety. I soon enough worked out a simple four-step routine. Breakfast at the mission, 7:00 a.m. Kill time. Dinner at the mission, 6:00 p.m. Find a spot on the sidewalk. This was challenging. Wasn’t two weeks before I was on Burnside over the MAX tracks, when Andre Payton came to a bad end. Corner of Second and Couch. They counted fifty-three bullets. Welcome to Old Town. Jesus loves you. 

There were a few doorways on Third between Couch and Davis, good rain spots, availability various. I commandeered one of them and it turned into “my” spot, even though there is really no such thing as a reserved spot. Think this one over: if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you can go to one of the nearby johns, and when you get back, maybe some of your stuff is missing. Or you can take everything with you and when you get back, maybe someone is in your spot. Or you can just give up and let fly whenever and wherever you have to. What I had taken to doing was to not drink anything past about noon. Not the healthiest approach, but it does show initiative, and employers take that into consideration.

Gotta hand it to the cops, it was fairly slick how they did it. Showed up about 4:00 a.m. and started rousting people, one at a time, handing out exclusions, so you don’t even know they’re there until it’s your turn. You see, under the bridge is considered part of Waterfront Park. Park closes at midnight. So now I can’t be in the park, any part of it, day or night, for six months. Bummer.

Didn’t know where I was going to sleep, so I went back to the sidewalks around the Mission, and the overflow under the bridge at the MAX stop, at Skidmore near the Mission. The overflow under the bridge had some aggressive types, usually the drinkers, that get belligerent, and it was a creepy place in general. That night there was a confrontation I overheard that sounded like someone had pulled a knife, because I heard a girl say, “Do it. You don’t have the balls.” Then I heard the sound of someone falling down. I heard these things. But I did not lift my head to see what was happening.

Seems despicable, but stick around: it gets better. Not long after that, I saw a guy step over the sea wall along the Willamette, just north of Burnside, and look around, thinking it over. I walked right on past and went on down to my usual bench and opened my book, and when I looked back, there was no one there. I didn’t even check to see if he had jumped (he had) or if somebody should make a phone call or something (they fished him out). What was I supposed to do? Get involved? I wouldn’t have known whether to try and talk him out of it or ask him to save me a seat.

Ratty-looking coat. Scruffy beard. Hair going every which way, like I’d just stepped off the cover of Gentlemen’s Quarterly and then through a threshing machine. The way I must have looked to Laura at the street library, it could easily have been straight out of Wodehouse. Describing one of Bertie’s lovesick acquaintances, he writes, “He looked like a character in one of those Russian novels, trying to decide whether to murder several relatives before hanging himself in the barn.”

 

I wasn’t crazy, exactly, but had a diminished capacity from depression. Sick is a good word for it, and creepy. Helpless, pathetic, contemptible—I was a regular walking thesaurus, a litany of mental health issues. Riding on the bus, trying not to sit too close to anyone, hunched inside myself as close as I could squeeze, which was completely ineffective as a prophylactic measure but the best I could come up with on short notice. The first few weeks being outside, I suffered alienation from the people I’d left behind, as well as the outdoorsmen I encountered on the streets. I was also paranoid. The man on the bus was not staring at me, but I was pretty sure he was. 

Do we see a pattern emerging here? Let’s review: I had finding-a-bathroom anxiety, riding-a-bus anxiety, finding-a-place-to-sleep anxiety, getting-a-seat anxiety, wet-feet anxiety. Most mental health professionals will confirm that depression and anxiety kind of go hand in hand. Some would agree that with serious long-term depression, psychosis is just around the corner (or was that it around the last corner?). I don’t really understand that stuff. What I know is that things can get pretty weird. But for those who are handling it well enough, being outdoors is not as pitiful as we fear it will be. One can adapt to nearly anything. One can also go nearly nuts from the shock of it before making the adjustment. 

 

Now it’s a naturopathic medical center; back then it was an abandoned building with a recessed doorway that I would sit in for hours at a stretch, out of the rain. Good hidey hole. One day a guy walked past that I thought I recognized from Transition Projects, back when I stayed there. Few seconds later, he reappeared, said, “Here, man,” and handed me a bill and walked on. I looked at it, saw that it was a fifty, and sat there in stunned silence. I couldn’t help but think of the Chinese penny I had picked up off the street that morning. Of course, we are all adults and don’t really believe in lucky pennies. That night I was awakened by a young woman from Newport who had just stepped out of a bar. She wasn’t used to seeing a lot of Down-and-Outers, and generosity must have gotten the best of her. She handed me a twenty-dollar bill.

“Aw, you don’t have to do that,” I told her. 

She wasn’t going to let me get away with that. She handed me another twenty.

The next morning, I took the penny out of my pocket and looked at it, thinking, I don’t really believe in lucky pennies, but if there’s any luck in this one, I think I’ve just about milked it for all it’s worth. I tossed it down for someone else to find. The only thing I was spending money on at the time was rolling tobacco, and that $90 lasted me over three months. Sometime later, I ran into the guy who’d given me the fifty and asked him why he’d done it. He said he’d had a lot at the time, and I looked like I really needed help. Go figure that one out.

These small kindnesses that we have spoken of: I’ve given them short shrift. I’ve not mentioned the outdoorsmen helping each other. I have been out canning before and had another guy that was doing the same give me a bunch of cans. Bent over to pick up a half a cigarette, and a guy said, “You want some snipes?” and gave me a tin with a bunch of half cigarettes. Guy told me he was an army sniper. 

“Yeah, I’m staying at the Salvation Army, and I’m out picking up snipes.” 

I was bedding down for the night and the lady next to me had no further need for her paper shopping bag and asked me if I needed it. Considerate, no? Limited, perhaps, but there is such a thing as a sense of camaraderie in the outdoorsmen’s community. 

Funny how even if you don’t know what to ask for, or how to ask if you did, the crowd in general might cover you. I was under the Steel Bridge once, trying to carve out a little space to set up, and the people who were already there took care of me. Someone pulled out a tarp for me. It was strange, even though I didn’t really have the verbals, everybody sort of knew I needed help.

Anyway, I outgrew it. Somehow life seeped back into me when I wasn’t looking, and I was living outside and doing just fine. One night I was by the slab, where I never did sleep but where there was usually a crowd, and I had this sweater I thought someone might like to have. I was folding it up all ultra-neat, store-window style to make sure it would get noticed, when a guy came from all the way across the street and handed me three dollars and walked away. It was one of those little things that people do for no justifiable reason. Funny thing is, it was not the least bit humiliating.

But it was humbling.

There’s a difference.

Comments

4 comments have been posted.

Mr. Hodgson, you have quite a gift. Few people can tell stories like you do, with an edge of "truthiness" that cuts clean. I hope to meet you one day.

Andree M Tremoulet | September 2020 | The Big City of Portland

Hodge, you have a great voice-- keep it coming! You also brew a great cup of coffee. Thanks.

Laura Stride | September 2020 | PDX

Ben, you are an inspiring writer. Thank you for sharing. I am a semi-retired private music teacher living on the coast, but have spent 30 years working with my depression and anxiety disorder. For years I was embarrassed and ashamed of that part of me, but in recent years have learned to work with my issues, accept kindness from people, and use my creative abilities to go beyond my disorder. I have also learned to speak about my challenges. Thank you for sharing your voice.

Lynn Thomas | September 2020 | Oregon coast

A wonderfully written description of living outdoors with mental health issues. I’m so glad you found wonderful Laura and are part of the amazing team bringing books to others.

Cannon Lynn | August 2020 | Eugene

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