Last night, on the Max (light rail), I saw an oracle. It was a man from the past, or from the future, I couldn’t tell which. All I know is that I walked on with my bike, and right away, I couldn’t stand the smell. It was like feet times ten thousand, a cloud of dirty laundry. I hung up my bike and went to sit down in the closest seat, but the smell was too bad, and I had to move to the middle of the car. It was a smell like if you didn’t take of your socks for ten months, if you didn’t wash your hair for a hundred years. If you’d slept for five decades in a goodwill dumpster. I turned and looked at the flat faces of the riders, searching for the smell. Was it the man in the fleece, or the girl in the purple jacket? The strangers stared ahead, saying nothing. And then I noticed him, far in the back, sitting alone in one seat, facing another.
It was Father Time himself, walking among the mortals.
His hair was like the cotton from broken stuffed animals, spray-painted silver and palmed smooth with dew, until it fell, flat and straight to his back, like fog clinging to a mountainside. His beard was white and weightless, and moved with his head, and met with his hair, and reached to his chest. His neck was bent forward, like a painting of an old man, and his shoulders were hunched inside his canvas jacket, still as an old cedar. The jacket itself was taupe if taupe had been left in a rain-clogged gutter and then picked out in spring, ironed smooth in rush-hour traffic.
I kept craning my neck around to stare at this man, confused and intrigued and alarmed. Portland has lots of homeless people. Lots, and lots, and lots of homeless people. So many homeless people that my friend Starling McMorning was alarmed, one year ago, when she first stepped off the Amtrak from the snow-swept midwest and found them, like packs of modern gypsies, pushing rattling carts of beer cans in the rain. She had wrung her hands with worry. Oh, who will help them? Who will help them?
There are so many here that I have stopped seeing them, but in general they seem to do alright, and have an easier time, I imagine, than in many cities in the US. There almost seems to be a sort of infrastructure for them- and there probably is, but I am ignorant of it. I do know of a few things in their favor- the weather is mild, there are places to sleep, there are drop-in shelters, there are bottles to collect. They travel in packs, they have dogs, the ride the freight train in and out, and in again, they build nests of blankets and tarps. And always you see them pushing swollen luggage, and selling newspapers, and rummaging through the recycling. The are as much a part of Portland as bicycles, and blackberries, and rain, and there would be a tangible absence, and I would miss them, if they were to disappear.
This man, though, was different.
And no-one, it seemed, had noticed but me. He was not a homeless man, I thought, he was a dying man. He was a dying man from the past, sent here to test our sense of empathy. I fidgeted in my seat, unable to think of some way to help him.
I wished I had a shed somewhere, that I could take him to- the shed would have a futon, and a space heater, and he could rest there, and I would fix him some soup. I would give him a new set of clothes, and help him wash his hair, and take him to the doctor. I would insulate the shed and it would be his little house, and I would take him for walks in the rose garden, and clean up his clutter, and listen good-naturedly as he muttered about the war. I would get him a television, and documentaries from the library. He would become my grandfather.
The train stopped at the last stop in fareless square, and he got up, as slowly as a tai-chi master, and descended the three steps to the main floor of the car. As he turned to face the door, which was about to open, I saw that his pants matched his jacket- some sort of light canvas, with a dark wash of earth and diesel, and that the left leg was split all the way down the side, so that when he bent it his bare skin was exposed, from hip to ankle, and I could see that his leg was swollen like the trunk of a tree, from cold, from diabetes, or from neglect. As the man waited to leave the train, I wished, for the first time in my life, that there was something I could do. The doors of the train slid open and his face looked ahead, quiet and still, and as he stepped off I had the urge to run after him, to grab my bike and follow him into the freezing cold night, to grab his arm and look past his beard to where his yellowed eyes looked back at mine, and to ask him-
Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?
But I didn’t, and even now, as I write this, I am regretting it. Last night the low was 27 degrees, and his pants had a split leg, and god knows what else was ailing him. Here’s hoping he had someplace warm to go to, a nest in the blackberry brambles that was insulated with ten feet of plastic bags, a bottle of water, some dinner. Here’s wishing there was a shed with a space-heater for anyone who needed it, for all our grandfathers, for men with beards of lichen and legs like old growth trees, who have no-one, who have nothing, who walk onto the trains with open wounds and rotting feet, and no-one looks up, no-one at all.
Or maybe I’m just thinking of my mother.
(photo not my own. used with permission from AM.)