Some have called me a ghost in the past. The way I walk about Portland, often when nobody else is around, reveling in the quiet streets and the old buildings. I certainly feel like a ghost at times.
I moved down Congress Street, wearing a new coat and my leather gloves. The night was cold, but thankfully not as cold as it had been the last couple nights. But it was still cold. I was walking to meet some friends at a bar.
As I neared a lingerie boutique called Etain, I noticed a man sitting sprawled out on the sidewalk next to it. His legs were splayed, and he just sat there, looking defeated, his head bowed in silence.
I walked past him slowly, searching for his eyes with my own. I wanted to make sure he was okay, but not trusting anyone is my default mode of expression with strangers so I was somewhat apprehensive. He looked back at me, and I noticed he had a cane.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not okay.”
He was a man of color and he had a thick accent I couldn’t place. He was also drunk, that much was clear. He was thankfully wearing a coat, hat, and gloves. I’d once had to help a homeless man who’d received frostbite on a particularly cold day, and it was not fun for anyone involved.
I sighed and moved closer, offering my hand for him to take if he wanted to rise. I have dealt with the homeless many times in Portland, and it’s always a crap shoot as to whether they are genuinely endangered. One of my last encounters with a homeless man ended with me buying him a sandwich and then having him try to tack on cigarettes and beer to the order.
“My name is Joe,” I said. “Let me help you up. Do you need me to call you an ambulance? Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes,” he said. “I need you to call me a cab. Or give me money. Or give me money and call me a cab, because I have none.”
He didn’t take my hand, but sat there, unmoving, looking at me from under the rim of his winter hat.
A few people walked around us, not saying anything. I glared after them. Everyone was so jaded. But at the same time, the logistics for me calling a cab for this man, and on top of that – paying for it myself – were a nightmare. Was he stable? Where would he go? Why would he go there? Etc, etc.
“Well, I know that they have a phone at 7-11. Did you want me to help you get there and you can use the phone? Maybe call a friend? Something?”
“No,” he said. “I just came from that way. I don’t want to go back there.”
“Well, I am afraid I don’t have enough on me for a cab ride. I can give you a few bucks if that’d help.” I pulled out a handful of ones from my jeans and handed them to him.
“Thank you, brother,” he said, pocketing the cash. “Y’know – it’s not about the money. The money? It comes and goes. But we don’t help one another in these times. And it is for this that I will remember you. Not the money, but that you helped me – like a brother.”
“Sorry I can’t do more. I can call someone on my phone, too, if you know their number.”
He looked back at me for a long time. A police officer rolled by slowly, looking the two of us over. I made eye contact with the officer, and I was hoping he’d see that this man needed some help. But the officer just kept going. I was silently disappointed, but then again – this must happen on an almost-nightly basis. I crouched down next to him.
Again, I held out my hand. He didn’t take it.
“You know,” he began. “I’m not a drunk. I don’t mean to be, anyway. I’m just…depressed.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “Depression is a harsh thing.”
“My father would be disappointed in me. He told me to always look for the sun, to always see the silver lining. But I just try to exist. But it can be difficult. He always believed. It’s hard for me to, sometimes.”
“I can understand that. You just have to hold on, as much as you can.”
He sat there and nodded. “You know what you can do, brother? You can call 9-1-1. Tell them my name. They…know me.”
I asked him what his name was, and then told him I was going to run to 7-11 to get the non-emergency 9-1-1 number. He nodded and said he’d stay there. When I got about a block away, I looked back and noticed two men and a woman had lifted the man to a standing position, and one of them looked to be on the phone. The men were supporting him. I stopped moving and watched for a moment just to make sure they were taking care of him. They were.
I checked my phone, and noticed a text from my friends saying we’d be meeting at a bar in the opposite direction. I wished the man well, silently, and moved on.