I recently wrote about how strangers can enhance our writing, and I want to elaborate more on that here, based on scenarios I witnessed outside my apartment window over the course of a few weeks.
Here in Portland, we’re experiencing an epidemic in homelessness, and as a downtown dweller, I see the effects of this problem firsthand. Camps are frequently set up, then dismantled, in the two-block circumference surrounding my apartment.
Several weeks ago, a couple set up their tent right across the street from my four large windows that overlook a fairly main thoroughfare downtown. The city’s MAX train run right by, and during the day, there’s a pretty steady stream of cars. At night, the motorized traffic ebbs and I become more aware of foot traffic.
A few weeks back, I saw a couple pitch their bright blue tent, which took up about a 5′ x 7′ area, and they put out a small welcome mat. They left no footprint other than this. One morning, when I opened my blinds to start my day, I saw the man standing outside the tent wearing his usual dark grey, wool coat over a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt. A knitted tan beanie covered his head. The woman stepped out in a pair of colorful yoga pants and a hoodie, and she began to run a lint roller over his shoulders and down his back. The man picked up the walking stick that lay across their welcome mat every night – the walking stick that I imagined he had carefully crafted from a limb; it was perfectly carved and polished and it added another dignified dimension to his already dignified appearance – and he set off down the street.
Later that day, while I was riding the streetcar, I saw him on the corner looking for cans in the garbage, and later that day, I saw him return to their tent with a bag of groceries. I watched them share a granola bar and a bottle of water.
At this point in my observations (and I’m sure I’m starting to sound like a voyeur, of sorts), I couldn’t deny their humanity, the grace with which they lived each day (from the snippets I witnessed), and their pride in their home… and a story started to blossom in my mind.
I needed names for these two, maybe partly because that’s what the writer in me does… but maybe more as a way to give them some humanity – a need I had, not as the privileged bestower of something they already possessed. He looked like a Mark to me, and she, like a Maria. If you’re a writer, you might be able to understand what was happening here for me… my writer’s mind was forming a story – not out of exploitation, but out of seeking to feel a connection through a story. It’s second nature.
I considered, several times, leaving them a note – or telling them in person if they were home when I was outside – ‘thank you’ for being such good neighbors. They were quiet, respectful, clean, and tidy.
Over the course of these several weeks, I saw people stop by to socialize with them and move on. A new man showed up and pitched his tent next to theirs. His footprint was larger and more disheveled, and a few days later, the police came and arrested the man. They took him and a little plastic packet of something away – but not before going back to his site and collecting his shoes for him. Mark talked to the police, and from what I gathered, they were allowed to stay. I watched him tidy up his neighbor’s site and neatly cover it with blankets.
Within a couple of week’s time, another couple made the sidewalk across the street from me their home, right next door to Mark and Maria. They had more and they were loud. I could hear their voices through my opened windows, and I could see Mark talking with them, but his soft-spoken voice never made it across the street. By now, the weather had warmed, and he had shed his wool coat for a tan corduroy blazer and continued to walk the streets with his walking stick and have people over in the evenings – many of them much younger males. With his staff, long-ish white beard, and dignified presence, I imagined him to be the wise sage in the community.
I imagined him to be an artistic soul… a wood carver or a painter. And I imagined Maria to be a dancer. I imagined them living a creative life together for years until a series of events changed the course of their lives and put them on the streets. I imagined the effort it took to maintain the sense of dignity I saw in them, their quiet and poised presence. I wondered whether either of them had kids and if so, where they were. Maybe these two had been imperfect parents to the point of estrangement… I don’t know.
But if this were the case – if they had made such a mess of their lives that they found themselves alone (but together), sleeping in a tent on the cement in downtown Portland – they seemed to have a powerful aura of pride and self-respect about them. Maybe this quality they exuded was redemptive, and maybe the redemption came after year upon year of bad choices and missteps, or maybe they were victims of the system…
Eventually, the people who set up camp next to them brought chaos and clutter, and someone called the police, who came and made them all pack up and move. I watched Mark talk with the police, then set out to remove his and Maria’s belongings from the tent and pack them in a few knapsacks. I watched him dismantle their bright blue tent and roll up their welcome mat, and I watched them walk away down the sidewalk to find another spot they could call home.
A few days after they left, I was on my way to a meeting on foot, and I passed Mark on the sidewalk.I saw him coming toward me, and the impression I had of him through the window was doubled, tripled, quadrupled as he passed me. His weathered but kind face, his tired but kind eyes, an obvious sense of peace emanated from him.
I almost said something to him. I almost stopped him. But I didn’t. At that moment, I was at a loss as to what I’d say. I doubted my own ability to say anything to this man from my privileged position that wouldn’t come across as condescending or trite. (I think part of my one-sided connection to Mark and Maria was that I have had – many times in my life – the there-but-by-the-grace-of-God-go-I thought. I have felt close more times than make me comfortable…)
I let him walk on past and I have not seen him since. I still wonder what their real story is, and I kick myself for not stopping him to say something. I, as a person who values people’s stories so much, froze from fear. I failed to reach out and connect. I wish I knew their story, and I wonder what they would think of the one I created. Would they feel honored, insulted? Would they think it funny and naive that I even tried?
I still can’t explain my draw to these two, and I will likely always remember them as Mark and Maria, the homeless artist and dancer who live one day at a time and have found a way to experience grace and humility amidst daily uncertainty about their survival.
Maybe I’ll always think of them this way because to think otherwise might just break my heart.