It’s sunny and blue skied with the sharp bite of oncoming Spring in the air. If it weren’t for my own internal sadness and questioning, I would have thought it a beautiful day. Today a dear friend of mine began the long drive to his new home 14 hours away and I wrestled with questions about him leaving, about myself and had to battle the insecurities of a mind without solid answers. I was a bit of a roller coaster and warn out by the end of the day, but committed to checking through the list of things I needed to do and places I needed to be. By dinner I was parked in front of a strip mall accumulating items for gift baskets and thank you packages.
As happens often in Portland, a man, probably in his 50s or so, asked me for any spare change as I ventured off the walkway, away from the shops and towards my car. I stopped to tell him I didn’t have any cash on me and apologized that I couldn’t help. He was polite and as I walked away I noticed him start digging through the trash can at the corner of the building placed there for people’s excess litter and burnt down cigarette butts. At first I thought he was looking for cans or bottles to cash in, as I have seen so many do, and I had a little hope he would find a few good pieces and be closer to having some change rattling around in his pocket.
He pulled out a piece of yellow paper from an old take-out bag and unwrapped what appeared to be a morning biscuit from a nearby McDonald’s and I watched him take a bite.
Having not yet had dinner myself I opened my car door and walked back towards him. “I don’t have any change,” I said, “but I will buy you a sandwich.” I pointed towards the Subway a few doors down the city-block of farm stores and craft stores and yogurt shops. “That’d be real nice,” he responded, “Ok, yeah.” He was a little hesitant, but, I have to be honest: I thought for a second he was going to turn me down. I have heard so many stories of people turning down a good meal in exchange for dollars or booze or drugs. This man didn’t give me any reason to believe he was panhandling for a fix, but my judgments rose up before his answer. I am glad I was wrong.
Toby and I walked across the parking lot towards the Subway and he started chatting right away. Before we had crossed a few rows of parked SUVs and tiny cars I knew he was from California and had been living on the streets of Portland for four years. I knew he had come here to try and start a new life, away from trouble he had gotten into in LA and to surround himself by different people. I knew he hadn’t been able to hold a job, have a steady place to live, or connect with people here at any point in those four years.
When our short walk brought us to the door of the sub shop, he threw the old biscuit into the black metal trash can near the door and I heard it clunk against the sides. It was rock hard. One of the sub shop employees glanced up suspiciously as we walked in, “How many sandwiches are we ordering here?”
“Two.” I quickly jumped in, trying to make sure my dinner companion didn’t feel awkward. He ordered his BLT and I made sure he picked out chips and got a drink. I ordered my veggie sandwich and grabbed my own bag of sour cream and cheddar potato chips. He noticed I put my stuff down at a table while I filled up a large Cherry Coke and really kindly asked if he could join me.
As we ate I learned a lot about the streets in LA and the streets in Portland. I learned things I never expected and have never really thought of before, like that on the streets in LA the homeless tend to watch out for each other, respect each other’s belongings and form more of a community. But, here in Portland, your things can get stolen and people can be a lot more rude to each other. Toby had his only possession, a sleeping bag, stolen from under a bush recently, which, he said, would have been highly unlikely in LA. I asked if he knew why it was different and he said he wasn’t sure, but something had to do with who was on the streets and who was in control of the streets.
I learned also that one shelter in Portland costs $14.00 to stay at, which is really difficult for someone to save up, and another is free, but runs on a lottery and may or may not be able to offer a blanket while you sleep on your mat. Toby has never once had his number called in the lottery. He sleeps mostly under bridges, in the cold, with just the clothes on his back.
We both ate 1/2 of our sub sandwiches and our small bags of chips, sipped on our sodas and talked a little more about the difference between LA and Portland, the beach, organized crime and dead bodies in water viaducts, cocaine-run neighborhoods and non-indigenous palm trees. I dug through my purse and gave him my last two golden tokens that help to get food, clothing, laundry and nights in the shelter to those that find themselves needing them.
When I had to leave to go home I told him if he came to the reception desk at the church I work at that I would leave a sleeping bag there for him tomorrow. I am not entirely sure if he will remember where I said or my name or will show up, but there will be a sleeping bag sitting there if he does and hopefully a few more tokens to get a few more meals.
I am really glad Toby had dinner with me.