Drawn like a beacon of light beaming through the night’s rain, I huddled against the alt-weekly news stand outside Powell’s Books. The book display’s warm reflection flowed electric in the gutters of West Burnside Street. Sleep-deprived, hungry, and tired, I took it as a sign when I spotted my childhood companions nestled inside: Tolkien, Mr. Tumnus, Lucy. Though I could not read the books encased behind the glass pane, I felt comforted by their presence.
The man who had followed me as I wound through the maze of Chinatown at midnight finally gave up when I crossed the Park Blocks. He kept asking, “Do you wanna fly?” The first time he stopped me to ask, I naively thought he was trying to sell me a plane ticket. He opened his coat. I looked away, certain he was about to flash me. Each time I stopped walking, he appeared again, opening his blazer to display an array of syringes and other wares, neatly suspended inside little pockets sewn within the silk lining. It was like a pharmacy’s glass case cloaked in folds of fabric.
Ignoring the biting cold of the concrete outside the bookstore, I hugged my high school hoodie close. First my legs and then my body grew numb as the temperature dropped. My eyes closed for a moment. My body relaxed. Sleeping at night was not safe, but I was so tired. The rain’s soothing rhythm lulled me to sleep beneath the warm glow of the Tolkien display.
I woke to a sharp pain. I couldn’t breathe. I opened my eyes and saw a black boot swing back to kick me again. The cop stopped kicking me when my hoodie fell back. He was alone. I was alone.
“Identification,” he boomed. I told him I didn’t have any.
“Are you soliciting?”
I didn’t know what he meant. Drowsy, confused, and in pain, I blurted out the first thing I could think of.
“No. I’m not a British lawyer.”
He snarled. He didn’t like my answer. He reached for his cuffs, or a gun—I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t willing to find out. I jumped as he lunged at me. I couldn’t risk being arrested as a runaway. Hopping onto the Willamette Week and Mercury news stands, I leaped over the railing before he could grab me. All that parkour training in Seattle’s Freeway Park was paying off.
“Over here!” a gravelly male voice called from the shadows. I followed the sound. The police car’s engine roared as it passed, searching for me. The officer made a few more angry circles around the block.
“Do you have a place to stay?” asked the man in the shadows. He was in his fifties, maybe older, and he looked like Gene Hackman. I shook my head. He told me his name was Saint John.
“I have a camp on the other side of the river. It’s all men though. If you have nowhere else to go, they’d probably be OK with you staying the night,” Saint John said. I thanked him and agreed to follow him there. After being assaulted by a cop in Portland and raped by venture capitalist bankers at the Westin Seattle, homeless men seemed like the only people I could trust. An elderly homeless man in Seattle had saved me from getting arrested for sleeping in the Westlake Transit Tunnel. He bought me a Happy Meal at McDonald’s on Third and Pine and told me that Seattle was a dangerous place to be on the streets.
Sleep deprivation makes everything more frustrating, and problems become harder to solve. It seemed that nowhere was legal to sleep. Nowhere except alone in the woods. There, the predators were predictable. Among the trees I could listen for the sound of a cougar mimicking bird songs. I could sleep in a cave high above the Elwha River where I was unlikely to have a surprise encounter with a territorial elk’s hooves. But outside the forest, in cities and towns, men––especially rich men––were predators I didn’t know how to read or listen for. When you are raised in violence and fear, you find that everyone is equally untrustworthy. You learn to trust no one and everyone all at once.
Water glimmered alternating blue, black, and silver as we crossed the Steel Bridge. Saint John said we’d be less conspicuous to prowling cops crossing here than on the open expanse of the Burnside Bridge. I spotted a security camera.
“Has it always been this bad?” I asked him.
“Has what always been bad?”
“Yes,” he said, then told me he could probably get me work in the morning, tacking up Republican propaganda posters across the city: “It doesn’t pay much," he said, "and I don’t agree with them, but it’s something.”
“We’re here,” he said when we walked beneath a giant oak tree. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I could see huddled mountains of men gathered all around us. People screamed nearby at the Burnside Skatepark. I waited on the far side of the tree for Saint John to convince the men to let me stay. He motioned in my direction, emphasizing his case like a lawyer’s final pleas to the jury. They all paused and looked at me in unison, then turned back to the circle to whisper and deliberate some more. They didn’t want me to stay, and I didn’t know where else I could go. One of them mumbled something about jailbait. I was worried they’d ask me to leave, so I told them I was turning eighteen in a few months. They debated for what felt like eternity before grudgingly agreeing to let me stay one night. The men turned their backs on us, grumbling in hushed, raspy voices. Saint John handed me his sleeping bag. I protested. I was fine sleeping in the dirt, and he had been so generous already.
“But what will you sleep in?” I asked.
“I’ll be fine. You need some sleep.”
It was still dark when the light rail screamed to life and I screamed with it. Saint John whispered gently that it was only the train, electric ignition sparking to carry morning commuters to all the places they needed to be, not the monster I had dreamed of. I wanted a place to be. I fell back asleep. When I woke, we walked together across the Burnside Bridge. We slid into a table at Sisters of the Road Café. He instructed me to order anything on the menu.
“I can’t. I don’t have any money. I’m really okay,” I told him. And I was. After several days of not eating, you don’t really miss it. Once you hit a week of not eating, that’s when things start to go awry.
“No, really, order anything. I have money,” he said.
I didn’t cry, but I felt like I could when the plate of huevos rancheros was set in front of me. Golden eggs crowned the tower of tortillas and beans adorned with bright red tomato jewels and green onions. I doused the plate in hot sauce and ate until I was full. Saint John looked happy as he sipped his coffee and ate pancakes. I promised I would pay him back. He waved his hand and said that the prices were reasonable and I could wash dishes in the kitchen if I really felt like I needed to pay.
I seemed to always meet Saint John when I had no one else to turn to, but we lost touch when the camp was swept by police. It was just gone one day, and so was Saint John. Nothing but tracks in the mud and the oak tree remained. Years later, even the oak was torn down to build the towering Yard Luxury Apartments building.
I would pay Saint John back for the meal five years later when I ran into him in Chinatown and took him to a Pink Floyd light show at OMSI. I was a college student, and he had his own apartment. He invited me over for Thanksgiving later that week. He was the closest thing I had to family, and I had no other plans. I lugged in bags to make us dinner.
I told him that he’d saved my life. This year in school had been difficult, but I pushed through because I wanted to ensure mine had been a life worth saving. He said that after meeting me he had quit drinking and reconnected with his daughter, who reminded him of me.
We washed the dishes together. I hugged Saint John and headed home. The wind blew cold, but the sun was bright. I pulled my warm winter coat close.
Although we slept indoors now, we had both developed debilitating insomnia and a permanent, mostly irrational fear of landlords, baked into our marrow by the cancerous terror that homelessness had grown in us. I don’t know if Saint John’s fear and insomnia originated when he was deployed, when he was homeless, or somewhere else in the recesses of his memory. I just know that sleep has never felt safe for me, and I’m not sure it ever will.
I held my breath as I turned certain corners, walking home down the same streets that Saint John led me through all those years ago. There are blocks in the city where my own ghost haunts me. Specific odors on Northwest Third fire the olfactory bulb in my brain; memories cloaked in rogue disguises lie in wait for me on Southwest Ankeny. Traumatic triggers are everywhere, cast about the streets like tacks scattered by a cartoon villain for an ill-fated protagonist.
I exhale and try to save myself the embarrassment of a panic attack in public. I tell myself it’s OK, even if it’s not. Because this is fear. I never used to know its name. When living on the streets, fear disguised itself as exhaustion, anxiety, adrenaline, sadness, and, very rarely, anger. I learned that recognizing it is a luxury. There is no room for fear when you have to focus on just surviving.
Silvery sunlight glinted on the water as I crossed the bridge over the river. I thought about how lucky I am to feel fear now, because it means I have something to lose. Something I love, something familiar and safe. Something to live for. It means I have something to come home to.
TagsPlace, Homelessness, Kinship
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I used to run over bridges in Portland. Turn-sideways-so-two-can-pass narrowwalk of Sellwood's bridge. Hostile Ross Island, bleak with traffic. Welcoming Burnside, with views of Old Town & Waterfront Park. I ran because when I walked, I thought. And my thoughts then were fears & doubts. Thanks for your story. The physical details were like being there.
Neil | March 2023 | Astoria, Oregon