Clear, cold, colorful New Year’s Eve

Portland lights sparkle off the Willametter River at the end of 2014.

I stood in the middle of the Hawthorne Bridge last night and took lots of blurry photos. I don’t know if it was the vibrating bridge that shook a little more each time a car pounded past me, or the dry cold air blasting into my face that had me in tears the entire time. No, seriously, ha ha. Tears streaming down my face from the cold wind in my eyes. Almost funny enough to keep me from being annoyed.

When I arrived in my fancy Jeep, the two dashboard screens read: 27 degrees. My first thought was, “oh, that’s chilly!” My second thought was, “and that’s about…60 degrees warmer than my buddies in Burlington!” That morning on facebook, one of my forecaster friends (remember I was a forecaster in my past life?) had posted a National Weather Service temperature map of Vermont, showing 30 degrees below zero in Burlington and 50 below out in the Northeast Kingdom.

(I mumbled my sincere thanks to the Universe for not having to live through Vermont winters anymore.)

I parked under the I-5 overpass where it meets the Hawthorne Bridge on the East side of the river and returned an enthusiastic “Hi,” and “I’m doing great!” in answer to the homeless man walking briskly past in Carhartt overalls, asking how I was that evening. He seemed very cheerful despite the weather. I walked past two dozen tents and another dozen sleeping bags under the bridge before I came to the ramp that led me up top. Under the I-5 overpass is a good place to sleep. It’s large and sheltered and dry and clean. 27 degrees while taking nighttime photos is one thing, 27 degrees and trying to sleep in a tent is a different thing. A woman sat outside her tent in a hat and fingerless gloves, with a cigarette and the blue screen of her phone lighting up her face.

When I was done collecting all those blurry and colorful photos for you, I returned to where I had parked and took the Jeep farther under the overpass till I could find the right street to pull me to the surface of the city. It feels underground there, where the multiple bridges across the river intersect with the huge I-5 bridge and beneath all of it are restaurants, and warehouses, and parking lots and office space. And tents, and tents, and tents, all along the streets beside the river.

I waited for a passing train beside a pretty sweet spot on a concrete slab bound on four sides and just big enough for two tents covered in tarps, two outside sleeping bags, and a large tricycle with a basket on the front. The spot was directly at the base of a staircase leading to the bridge, so the space didn’t feel so trapped. There were three young men and a young woman talking and laughing beside the tents, and hopping around in the cold, slapping their hands together. Everything about their spot seemed perfect except for the train, about 12 feet away, shrieking and rumbling along the tracks. The red flashing lights and warning bell: “clang, clang, clang” the whole time. Really loud. They must be going deaf if they live there.

The Willamette River, Morrison Bridge with the blue and green lights, Moda Center (home of the Trail Blazers) in red, and the identical towers of the Oregon Convention Center on the right.

I guess what struck me – what I’m trying to say here – is that I saw people living their lives. I wasn’t squashed as much as usual beneath the burden of privilege next to a person at a bad place in their life. I felt instantly guilty at first, when I climbed back into the car and it was still warm from the heater, but the feeling didn’t last long. Mostly I looked at all the tent-dwellers and felt interested in their lives. I’m sure that must be terribly arrogant, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like, for one rare night, I was able to see the humanity and the community and the emotions of a group of people who are usually closed to me. I saw that the unusual cold was drawing some of them together like shared events do, and making some of them more animated than usual. And I felt lucky to be a part of this city, with all its citizens.

13 thoughts on “Clear, cold, colorful New Year’s Eve

  1. An astute observation. I am sure there are many among the homeless who would prefer to be elsewhere, but many are right where they want to be. My brother prefers a homeless life, traveling between North Carolina and Florida and camping out in state and national forest campgrounds. He lives off his social security and saves half of it for a rainy day. He has never been happier and has many friends who choose a similar lifestyle. –Curt

    1. Thanks for your comment, Curt. I have heard of many people here who choose the life, as well. I always buy the paper Street Roots, sold here by people who are poor and homeless. The content of the paper is one way I have to look into the perspectives of people living on the streets. I *love* having my stereotypes smashed, so I was captivated by so many people having an enjoyable night out there.

  2. Cousin-
    I agree with Curt. I think many homeless people prefer the lifestyle and companionship they receive from others in the same situation. Why else would a few homeless carry smart phones?

    I have a step-son who lives in a shelter in Nebraska. He is proud that he recently purchased a Play Station 3. He has a cell phone and owns a laptop. He prefers the homeless lifestyle. Less bills. He pays his child support and he can afford his toys. Not my idea of an ideal father but who am I to judge?

    Their outlook on the simple pleasures of everyday living is a treasure we could all adopt. We would see our world in a whole new light. Some of us take for granted that we will have heat, food, water, and a roof over our heads; what if that ceases to exist? Could we still find laughter, joy, camaraderie while we searched for the essentials or would we see only doom?

    For me I choose to support our homeless locally. Pocket change….No. Food, clothing directly or at the shelters and forever a giving smile. ~ Debbie

    1. I can see the advantage to having more of a person’s own money available to spend on fun stuff instead of bills! Speaking of food, we made waaayy too many Christmas cookies and they are not getting eaten. I need to deliver those today to the Vietnam Vet who works on the corner near here. I think the gingersnaps would go best with a mug of coffee, so I plan to take coffee too. His sign says his family includes a wife and a cat, so my last delivery was cat food. 🙂

  3. You’re a good woman. I say that in response to the comment you made previously about the Vietnam Vet.
    But I already knew you were a good woman! That second image is just fabulous and I enjoyed reading your commentary in this post.
    Happiness to you, Crystal!

    1. Thanks, Laurie! I can always be kinder, more generous, more thoughtful. I’m glad I live a life luxurious enough to allow me to ponder stuff like this, rather than be forced to focus on survival.

    1. “Doorstep dwellers.” Now that’s a phrase I hadn’t heard and I had to look it up. I’m glad you had a chance to see a variety of people in Budapest, and I find it interesting that they seemed happy. Watching the non-tourist places is where I learn the most.

  4. That was beautifully written – I walked the whole distance with you. Beautiful photo, too 🙂
    Here in France I’m not sure so many people are homeless by choice. They try to keep warm and forget the fact that they are outside with alcohol, and many are found dead from the cold. Shelters are full to the seams and people are turned away every night. Asking passers-by for money for food buys more alcohol or drugs. I’ve offered to buy them a hot meal, but never give money.

    1. Thank you for your kind words and your kindness to strangers. Even if you set limits on what you give, at least you are giving, and many do not. It’s terrible that the shelters have to turn people away – that must be heartbreaking for the people who do it.

  5. Really interesting look into the homeless tent camps. At first I was not sure if it was just a bunch of people camping and enjoying life, till I read on and realized they all were homeless. A real nice snap shot in their life.
    In Philly we have a large homeless population, and some do it by choice, but a large number of them have mental problems.

    1. Thank you, Michael. Yes, they were all homeless. I don’t believe that they would all choose to be there, but they were not in a perpetual state of angry misery, as I have incorrectly assumed in my mind. It would be much harder for the homeless in Philadelphia, because of the weather. I think a high percentage of people without jobs and homes have been driven to that because of mental illness. Without a strong family and friends network, those with mental illness have a greater challenge getting over obstacles.

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