You can’t sleep here

The old woman is sleeping. Her eyes are closed and her chin sits on the top of her bundle of possessions. Her hands dangle in her lap, arms rest on her thighs. She sits heavily on the blue metal bench. Her gray hair is neatly fashioned in a tight bun on the top of her head. The woman wears no makeup on her pale, slightly ruddy face. Her clothes have that washed-out no particular color look and fit loosely over her large body.

The green plastic chair is the first thing I see as I approach the transit station. It is overturned and tied to the top of her cart. Everything and nothing gives her away as someone who has nowhere to go. But mostly it is the cart or rather the possessions in the cart, which I can’t actually see. I can see several full plastic bags and something large and dark blue. It could be a blanket or a sleeping bag folded up. Everything in the cart is as tidy as her hair. The cart is not a grocery store cart. It is the kind of two-wheeled cart one can buy to tote groceries from the store.

This is what I see as I pass. I think how hard it is to just get enough sleep when you are homeless. You sleep in small frames of time never having enough to really recharge, to really give your body and your mind, particularly your mind, what it so needs to survive. Thriving is a wistful dream. Sleep deprivation kills. Even this kind of sleep deprivation shortens your life even if you have a place to live and plenty of nutritional food and exercise and love. If you don’t have these things, there is no reserve and sleep deprivation is more lethal.

While housed people are thinking about how to have healthier longer lives, the old woman just wants to sleep. And Christ, is that too much to ask? Apparantly so. As I board the train, I see two police, one on each side of her. I see her outstretched hand holds something. An identification? The train begins to move slowly out of the station and the woman stands up, begins pushing her cart, moves away from the bench, from sleep. Weariness in her every lumbering step.

Sharks, guppies & puppies

Evening, Gresham Central Transit Station. Max is stopped, the gate is down, no way I’m going to catch it. I run with my bike because I don’t want to get a ticket for riding on the platform. I can’t believe it. I’m going to catch it . . . right up to the doors and I’m lifting my bike to take the stairs . . . the door closes in front of me.

It’s not raining. I won’t get pissy about it. I make the call home. Just missed the train. A courtesy guy gives me a strobe light for signaling buses in the dark. He talks about bus drivers who won’t stop, how the city has grown and isn’t friendly. People from other places, he says, from harder places bring their meanness. His accent is south of the border, but he’s a Portlander, looking at the strangers who are making this place hard.

Over Courtesy Guy’s shoulder Guardian Angel approaches, belly hanging over his large winged silver belt buckle. Bright yellow nunchucks dangle from his belt. He holds up his cell phone/camera and snaps the inside of the shelter. Seeing something there invisible to me. A police cruiser slips up to the curb. I can see it through the etched and frosted leaves, idling there, watching the Angel. Or watching for gangstas, or watching for kids on skateboards, for maniacs in wheelchairs who stop on the tracks and refuse to move, watching for ticket sharing scofflaws. Society’s delicate balance at risk. The cruiser moves on. The Angel flips through the pictures he took. A not-in-service train comes, stops impotently, goes, and finally, the westbound to Hillsboro train.

I call my friend whose brother can’t find his way. He’s living in his truck, smells of diesel and decay. He’s calling shelters, getting that TB test next week. She can’t let him stay, can’t lose her housing. She can’t take care of her brother. It’s so hard to live in a world about money and property, not people.

I hear cards shuffling and watch a boy in a hoodie. Young card shark, shuffles his deck. Says to the boy across the aisle, “Hey dude. Hey dude. Hey dude, pick a card.”

The boy shakes his head, but finally takes a card. Shark says, “Remember your card. Remember your card.” He places the card on the top of the deck and says, “Tell me when to stop cutting.” Cuts the deck three or four times, the boy says stop. Shark starts tossing the cards, one by one, on an empty seat. He goes fast. Only hesitates once. Then he stops, says, “I guarantee. I guarantee. The next card is yours. If it’s not yours, I pay you $5 dollars, if it is yours, you pay me $1. Are you in?”

I can see the boy’s been drawn in, but doesn’t want to be. He shrugs. The shark flips the card. “Is that your card?”


“Damn, I lost five bucks.” The shark gathers up his cards. Some new people get on the train and he tries to pull them in to his game. Finally starts a rap about all the kinds of dope he has on himself. ”I’ve got weed, meth, you name it. I got all kinds of dope.” No takers. He changes his patter. Says, “This is Oregon it’s green up here. Not California. This ain’t California.” Then he goes on about Miss California and marriage between men and women and those democrats complaining about Miss California and at 60th, he gets off the train.

Dogs on the train start barking at each other.

It’s Portland.

Monday morning on the MAX

CheThere is a beeping as the ramp slides out, then the doors open. He rolls himself in. His legs are covered with a blanket. His dull blondish hair is in a ponytail and he’s got layers of clothing. Behind him is a younger man, no more than five feet six, no hair visible under his billed cap, with red marks on his face shaped like tiny cigars. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and pants torn at the knee.

CheThere is a beeping as the ramp slides out, then the doors open. He rolls himself in. His legs are covered with a blanket. His dull blondish hair is in a ponytail and he’s got layers of clothing. Behind him is a younger man, no more than five feet six, no hair visible under his billed cap, with red marks on his face shaped like tiny cigars. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and pants torn at the knee.

I don’t know how to measure how old these two in the train with me are because life on the streets batters the skin. They are younger than me, I am sure of that, probably 20 years younger. Less than forty would be my guess. Somewhere between thirty and forty-five, no more. And the younger one could be in his twenties.

“It’s not working right. I can’t afford a new one. Something’s wrong with the wheel.” He’s backed himself into the wheelchair space and leans back so that the front wheels come off the floor and balances himself by holding the rail with one hand and putting one foot up on the rail in front of him. “Is it wobbling?”

His friend checks it out. “It’s just the bolt needs tightening.”

The ponytail man says, “I can take care of that. Just tighten the bolt, huh?”

“Yeah, the bolt on the top. How much does a wheelchair like that cost?”

“This chair cost $1800.” The way he says it you know that is an amount of money out of his grasp. However he came by this chair, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to get another if something goes wrong with this one. It isn’t one of those fancy motorized ones. He has to maneuver it himself. I’ve seen this man on the train before with a companion, not this young one. Someone older. Often, he is sitting on a max seat and the chair is in the space in front of him. Whatever makes it difficult for him to get around is not obvious, but something limits him, makes the chair necessary. Most likely it is diabetes.

“You live with that big guy, right? Where you live?” Younger man asks.

“At a motel out on 82nd.”

“How much does that cost?”

“We pay $400 a week.”

“$400. That’s a lot, man. You should move to my motel. It’s a lot less, man.”

“No, wait. Not a week. That’s every two weeks. Costs us about $200 a week. My friend, I live with, he gets $700 every two weeks. He was a logger and got injured. Now he gets $1400 a month. We been together for 7 years. He’s in pain all the time.” If he has any income himself, from Social Security or anything else, he doesn’t say.

I grew up in a mill town. I remember loggers with fingers and arms missing and deaf sawmill workers. I remember the fatherless children of timber fallers who were felled themselves, and never got up from the forest floor, and were laid to final rest in Juniper Cemetery, which was named after a tree no one logged.

The talk turns to heroin and methadone, to nodding off, and cruelty. “I never nodded off,” the young one claims.

The one in the chair says he sometimes still uses, but he gets the methadone. They talk about the clinic where they both get their doses. “That lady who runs the clinic. I knew her when she was using. How did she end up running a clinic?” Wheelchair man wants to know.

“She used to use? Oh, man. You know that bitch cuts people’s doses. Bitch. She’s a user. Bitch.” The younger man’s anger is strong.

I wonder if he will kill her some day. Or if someone else will.

The rain starts coming down in buckets and it’s 122nd Avenue and the man in the wheelchair gets off the train. He doesn’t have an umbrella or a raincoat, “Shit,” he says as he wheels himself away and reaches back to pull the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head.