The Local Color

Where I work in Portland I park my car in a garage about a block or two from the office building. Normally my afternoon walks back to the car for the drive home are are about as calm as can be, once I am able to cross a busy street - sometimes with and sometimes without the benefit of a stop light.

Friday, though, it wasn't quiet. From a block away I saw a man standing at the bottom of the stairs I take up to my car on the second floor of the garage. I could tell, even at still quite a distance, something wasn't quite right with him. For one, people don't hang out there because there is no reason to; it's not exactly on the way to anywhere. Either you are passing by, or you are going to or from your car - no need for lollygagging.

As I came closer I could see better what he was doing - and hear him. As he waved his arms - heavily clothed on a warm late-winter, early-spring day - he ranted unintelligibly. Well, perhpas that's not the right word - I could understand the words he was saying. It's just that those words made no sense when strung together in the combinations he was using.

In one hand he held a bag, one which looked like it was originally from McDonald's or some other fast food outlet. It looked full of something, with the sides of the bag puffed out. As I drew closer the man swung the bag over his head and threw it into the concrete sidewalk. The sound of shattering glass echoed around the area. Completely non-plussed, the man then picked up the bag - which didn't seem to leak any of the glass, nor any liquid that may or may not have been inside - and stuck it under an orange traffic cone. (Why there was a traffic cone, I have no idea. Did he bring it with him?)

This type of scene isn't a rare thing in Portland, though it is by our parking garage. The homeless issue is one that crops up every once in a while, usually around the time of elections or when it becomes too concentrated in a single area and local businesses start to complain. The homeless then - no matter what the reason for the homelessness - are then strongly encourage to spread out and find a new place to hang out, away from people. Currently there is quite the community that has sprung up under the west end of the Morrison Bridge, in the sidewalk area fenced off from Naito Parkway. Soon someone will make an issue of it and they will be forced somewhere else, because no one has a solution that is feasible to the powers that be for one reason or another.

By this time I'm only about ten feet away, but I'm pretty sure he has no idea I'm there. In fact, even if he turned and looked right at me I don't think he'd know I was there. He's yelling, completely self-assured in the idea whatever he has to say is not only important, but that it's being heard. (By whom, I have no idea.)

So I have this dilemma, because this guy is still standing at the base of the stairs I take. Sure, I could take the other stairs or the elevator, or just walk through the lot and up the ramp, but I'm lazy and somehow assured this evidently crazy guy is not dangerous. Why I'm so sure of that I again have no idea. As he turns to the right and extends his arms wide like a prophet, yelling at the traffic 25 feet away, I slide in behind up and quickly step up the stairs. As I do so, I get a whiff of the man's smell - and it is not pleasant.

That smell - the smell of the unshowered human body - instantly transports me for a second to my college years in Eugene, where the neo-hippies wouldn't shower, burned incense, and smoked weed like it was going out of style. Why "neo-hippies"? I'm pretty sure driving mom and dad's SUV or BMW doesn't exactly fit in with the original hippie lifestyle, but I'm hardly an expert on the subject. Of course, the difference between them and this guy is this guy is obviously homeless and his mental state is hardly reliable. (Though, by now, if those college kids kept up with the weed that might be true of them also...)

I slowed my pace, which had increased in order to shoot the gap between this guy and the stairs, as I walk to my car, thinking about him. How does one get there? I mean, presumably at some point this man was relatively normal. Now he's a raving lunatic, homeless in winter on the cold streets of Portland, screaming at random strangers, traffic, and getting extra angry at the ambulance whizzing by with his siren blaring.

Perhaps his life was always behind the eight ball. Maybe he grew up poor, maybe he was always mentally unstable, maybe he didn't have anyone to care for him, maybe he never had any of the chances someone like myself did. Maybe he suffered a brain injury in an accident. Or maybe he just made a serious of bad decisions in life - or life handed him a series of unfortunate events - leading him down a path of drug abuse, destroying his life, taking his ability to hold a job, taking everything he owns and loves in this world, and finally taking his competent mind.

How do you get there from here? These are the things I contemplate as a get into my car, turn the keys in the ignition, put on my seatbelt, and turn on some music. This is what I wonder as I slip on my Oakleys, put the car in reverse to back out of the parking spot, and then in drive to head for home.

Did this man make all the decisions that led to a life of raving madly on a downtown sidewalk, breaking glass in a fast food bag and feeling like this is what he must do with his life? (I'm sure on some level in his own head this is perfectly normal and whatever he does next is the most logical course of action.) Or was he in control each step of the way, until finally he wasn't? Did he know what he was he doing?

I think part of why I spend so much time thinking about things like this on my 40-minute drive home to my house in the suburbs, the loving embrace of my wife, and a home full of fuzzy crazies and the things I feel I need to be happy, is that I wonder how much really separates me from this man. How many choices stand between normal suburban happiness and raving homeless looney? Are they many? Are they few? Is it something controllable, or is it the result of not being able to control anything, of losing control completely?

I want to think that could never be me. I mean, I don't think it could, because I feel like I have decent awareness of myself and my surroundings, a good handle on my life and the impact of my choices, that I could never be that guy.

Then I wonder - did he think the same thing at one time? There had to be a point in his life when he wasn't a lunatic - assuming he wasn't born that way and then shunned first by his family and then society as a whole, leading to his current circumstances as "the one to be ignored," which sadly happens - and I'm sure at that point he saw someone similar to him now and thought that would never be him.

But now it is, and he probably has zero capability to fathom the concept anymore, leaving himself as a cautionary tale - which leads me back to wondering how far I really am from that guy.

During my drive home, thinking these heavy thoughts, I flipped the track on my iPod and found something loud with a good bass line, something to distract my mind from itself. Thinking too much like that, with no answers making themselves available to your own deep musings, could drive a mind mad.

And we all know where that gets you: smashing glass on the sidewalk and yelling at ambulances.

Maybe I'm not that far after all. Or, maybe just by being able to think these thoughts and analyze them the way I am, that's all the defense and cushioning I need against that life.

I should stop - why take the chance?

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