Crosswalk beatdown

It’s 2am and I’m driving home after work feeling like I’m a decrepit 91 year old. It was a long challenging night at work, and I’m going over things that happened in my head like I usually do on the way home. I’m driving East on Burnside just going through the motions of driving the familiar route. I’m on exhausted autopilot.

My eyes are half closed and my gas gauge is actually below the word EMPTY on my dashboard. Which perfectly summarizes how I feel right now. Drained and running on fumes, wondering where I can get the fuel I need to keep going.

I notice all the people on bikes and scooters going about their business, but I’m more focused on the domestic minutiae of what’s happening inside my truck right now. I’m in that bizarre land where my body is tired beyond measure, while my excessive caffeine intake is keeping my brain wide awake and full of questions. Here is the state of my ADHD brain on the drive home:

My back hurts. How many crowd surfers did I catch tonight? Should I take a shower or a bath when I get home? Both, I think. Where is the CD case so I can put this CD away? Did I bring my car charger for my phone, and where is it? Oh I forgot that I have these bolts and pliers still in my pockets from breaking down the stage barricades. Did I forget to clock out? Holy gods that moon is huge tonight! Pretty sure it is a gibbous moon, which I learned from reading H.P. Lovecraft stories. Shouldn’t we have cars that can drive me home while I take a nap? Or Star Trek teleporters? I forgot to give my boss back the flashlight I borrowed. How many times did I say the phrase, “For fuck’s sake” in my head tonight?

Then, while stopped at a red light on Burnside and Broadway, I am yanked out of my mental whirlpool of nonsense. In my peripheral vision I see a full energy drink can fly out into the crosswalk, spattering the asphalt with sugary green liquid. Then four human bodies also fly out into the crosswalk directly in front of the car next to me. Three of them begin beating the hell out of the other one. I couldn’t ascertain the race or nationality of any of them, but I could tell that they were all male. The three attackers were each using both fists to pummel the victim, who was crouched down in the crosswalk with his hands raised trying to deflect the blows. He was getting hit by a 6-fisted blur of male anger. Relentless and rhythmic, like a propeller of pain.

When you see a fight in reality, it isn’t anything like what you expect. Most of us only see fights on TV shows and movies. There are a lot of acrobatics, big dramatic swings, and punches that land with a certain satisfying dubbed sound effect. People can take a beating in a choreographed fight scene like they are superhuman and impervious to pain. In reality, fights are scrappy, sloppy, and soundless. And they are usually over very quickly.

This guy was taking an epic beating and just didn’t go down. He kept sitting up as the punches landed, and he wasn’t covering his head at all. In a second, I recalled some of the most brutal cinematic scenes I’d ever watched. Robert De Niro boxing in Raging Bull. Jared Leto getting destroyed in Fight Club. Edward Norton curb stomping the thief in American History X. Watching this real-life violence happening mere feet away from me made me very angry.

So here’s what I did.

Nothing.

Nothing at first. But I’ll tell you why.

As much as I’d like to tell you that I flew out of my truck and beat the crap out of those guys, I didn’t. I’m not a superhero. I’m just one man. One exhausted and worn out man that needs to get home to his family. I don’t have body armor like Batman. I don’t carry knives or guns like some do. Hell, I don’t even have a baseball bat in my truck. My life is not Walking Tall, Death Wish, or John Wick. You have to choose your battles, and I’m not choosing this one.

I don’t have a radio on me to call for backup. I don’t have the support team of 5-6 other people who will have my back if I jump into a fight. I don’t have any clothing on that would at least signify some level of authority like I do on shift. I’m alone out here with no advantage. I’m just some random driver in his 40’s daydreaming about his bath at home. If I were to get out of my truck and try to scare them off, I could then become their target. They already have no problem beating the shit out of somebody with witnesses just feet away. Why would they hesitate to attack another person who, in their view, attacked them?

Even if I did have a gun, do I want this scenario? I hypothetically pull a gun and yell at them to stop. They don’t, so I fire a warning shot. They all pull their own guns and start a firefight with me in the street. We then recreate the LA shootout in the movie HEAT except that it’s 2am and I’m outgunned. I might get one of them, but the reality is that I would get shot up and die and some of them would get away. I am not interested in starting a gunfight on Burnside tonight, or any night.

I don’t even know this person, their relationship, or the situation. At least at work I have the noble cause to protect patrons from harassment or physical harm. Who are these men to each other? In fact, there are a few scenarios where the guy getting beaten might actually be the bad guy and deserve it. Maybe he sold them a bad batch of dope and somebody overdosed. Drug deals, stolen goods trafficking, anything involving the potential of ripping someone off. Maybe he raped one of their sisters and this is revenge. Maybe he was trying to masturbate on a stripper at the strip club nearby and was kicked out. He could have sexually harassed one of their girlfriends in the club. I just don’t have any background. There’s no way I am going to risk my health and life over a stranger that I can’t ascertain motives.

Another thought I had later was this. It could also be a gang initiation, with more senior gang members back in the bushes watching to see if their initiates can successfully beat up someone on the street. If I were to involve myself I might then have 3 more people backing up the first 3 and all turning their attention on me. They might be using their fists now, but could easily escalate to pulling knives and pistols.

It didn’t look like a hate crime to me, nor did it look like gay-bashing. I also don’t think that the victim was a homeless person or mentally ill (easy targets). I have no idea what motivated this and never will. I do feel like I have the responsibility to keep everyone as safe as I can and prevent bodily damage, but this situation didn’t feel right to me at all. It’s just a shit-show that I don’t want any part of.

In my 20’s maybe I would have jumped in there, in my naivety and dumb youth. In your 20’s you think you will live forever and are impervious to being hurt. In my 40’s I know better. I’ve lost too many friends to death in the last decade, and I’ve had my share of medical problems. We are mortal and something will eventually kill us. I know I’m not going to live forever, and I’m not Superman, The Crow, or Clint Eastwood. I’m married with kids now. I have a responsibility to get home at night. People rely on me and need me. I don’t want to spend the night in the ER. I don’t want to die tonight. I want to grow old with my wife and send my kids to college. To do that I’ve got to get home. Every night.

I can see how people freeze up and don’t act.  It’s surprising and surreal when you see violence right in front of you. People always say, “It just happened so fast!” And it’s true. And time does kind of slow down due to your hyper-focus on the situation. It would be easy to just sit in my truck and watch this unfold through the movie screen-shaped windshield. Just like watching a movie at home. That’s what everybody else did. The other drivers just watched dumbfounded as the beatdown happened.

I recall studying the Kitty Genovese case in Sociology classes in college. A woman was attacked and stabbed in an apartment complex courtyard. She called for help and numerous people looked out their windows and saw her or heard her. But they turned back to their TVs and went about their night, not even calling the police or coming to her aid. The attacker returned and she was raped and stabbed additional times. The police were finally called, but she died of her wounds on the way to the hospital. Her case has been studied in Sociology classes ever since. This lack of action has been called the Bystander Effect. It’s the “I just don’t want to get involved” idea, or the “I might get hurt also” theme which prevents people from intervening in a clear situation which requires it. I certainly had these same thoughts tonight. One takeaway is that people’s cowardice in the face of violence resulted in this woman’s preventable death.

So, after a moment of hesitation and shock seeing this beating right in front of me, I did something. I laid into my vehicle’s horn and didn’t let up. I also put my truck in park and revved the engine as loud as possible. I knew that the door guys in Mary’s Club were just feet away, and I suspected that one or all of these men probably just exited from there. The sound of a horn for longer than a second gets everybody’s attention. When somebody hasn’t noticed that the light turned green, the quick pip-pip is how you honk to alert them. The longer honk is for the asshole that just cut you off in traffic or threw some garbage out the window. But when you hold down you horn without any break at all? That’s you announcing that something egregious is happening. Try it sometime. A horn honking longer than 10 seconds is impossible to ignore. You’re going to go look. Same with a revving truck engine. Both of those together might make you think that there was a car crash and that people might need to be pulled out of their car, or ambulances called. That was my hope.

I also wanted the three assailants to think that maybe I was crazy and about to drive straight into them to stop them from beating this man to death. The sound of a revving engine from a nearby truck aimed at you typically makes you rethink the activity that you’re doing. It had to sound like an airplane was about to take off on Burnside Street. Gripping the steering wheel grimacing in shock and anger, I probably looked like a mad driver in a Road Warrior movie.

Like I had hoped, my honking and engine revving got the attention of the door guys at Mary’s strip club and they came right out. The three attackers ran off in three different directions, of course. The two bouncers assisted the victim in getting up and getting to the sidewalk. Seeing him walk on his own with minimal help made me happy. Although I would hope that he gets to a doctor soon in case he needs stitches or has a concussion. But with him safely in the hands of two other guys in my profession, I felt like he was going to be ok. They can call for any additional services he might need.

The whole incident felt like it took 10 minutes but honestly it probably was just seconds. I bet it felt like a lifetime to the guy getting his ass beat. I feel bad for that guy and I’m not honestly sure that I did the right thing in this situation or acted quickly enough. Maybe I should have started filming the incident on my phone instead. Not all of these work stories involve me making a perfect call all the time. Because you just can’t. You just do the best you can in each situation and hope for an 80% success rate. I feel guilty I couldn’t immediately stop the beating or catch those guys and make a citizen’s arrest. They got away with it scot-free. I worried about that guy and wondered why they beat him so mercilessly. I thought about him for a long time afterwards, and had dreams about that random crosswalk beatdown for weeks. Walking around downtown in any major city after hours is fucking dangerous. He probably didn’t do anything to those bastards to deserve what he got. And three against one is chickenshit in my book.

Heal well, stranger.

I got home safe tonight. And it ended up being both a shower and a bath night.

 

 

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Two Sides of the Concrete

I worked the stage at a ska show tonight and caught dozens of crowd surfers. I didn’t expect that at a ska show. If it was any type of rock show, metal, punk, industrial, alternative, then sure. Surf away. But tonight’s roster of 90’s ska bands did not particularly make me prepare for the catching of human bodies. I was eagerly awaiting watching the crowd skank and sing along, but my mistaken expectations were blasted by the drunken phalanx of crowd surfers.

I was in the zone tonight. I caught dozens and dozens of people coming over the crowd into the pit. Not one person was dropped or injured themselves (or me). I even waved my stage partner away suggesting I could just catch most of the people by myself. I caught one guy at least 10 times. It was an all-ages show, he looked about 15, and he was having the time of his life, so I allowed it. Usually we might tell a person who keeps coming over that after 3 times, you’re done. If you come over again we will kick you out. But he wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t hurting the people underneath him, and he thanked me each and every time I caught him. And the kid probably weighed about 110 pounds. So I just kept catching him and planting him gently down on the concrete. Gave him a brotherly pat on the shoulder and sent him on his way to surf again. Hell a couple times I caught that kid with one arm, planted him on the ground, and walked triumphantly back to the side of the stage. Sometimes people in the very front row that watch me catch people all night will smile at me or give me a high five. Occasionally when the show ends, people will come over and thank me for working so hard catching people.

Lots of crowd surfers tonight did not approach the pit at the front of the stage. Instead they got passed back to the rear of the room, so I didn’t even have the opportunity to catch them. I wondered if this was a thing at ska shows, passing people to the back instead of the front. All crowds are different. Sometimes a person would climb up and start surfing but the people underneath them weren’t interested in carrying him, or weren’t even packed close enough together to make surfing a reasonable expectation. So they sort of sank back down to the floor, or if they were unlucky, they just fell between the people and landed on the concrete. When I spot this from up front I would usually grimace and say in my head, “Charlie don’t surf!”

When people did crowd surf towards the front, I would wait until they got close enough to the stage barricades, then stand up on the step and grab whatever limb was closest to me. Pouncing like a tiger shark. I would pull them towards me and the crowd would assist by pushing them towards me also. Then I would go for their chest area, grab them securely, and pivot, stepping down from the step and letting their legs dangle. People usually can orient themselves and use their own feet to land. Some inexperienced stage guys will just grab whatever part they can, like their ankles. Then they sort of panic or freeze up and forget to let go of the person’s feet so that they can use them to land. The other stage guy will be going for the chest or shoulders and carry most of the weight. I used to see people grab a person’s feet and then not let go while the other person missed their upper body or dropped them entirely. That happens sometimes, you just can’t catch everybody. But with a staff person stupidly holding the surfer’s feet up, they land on their head and shoulders unnecessarily. That hurts. What you are supposed to do if you end up with the person’s feet is immediately put their feet down on the floor and let go, moving on to catch the next crowd surfer. There were several teachable moments where I yelled to the new staff over the deafening music, “Don’t hold their fucking feet! Put them on the ground! Don’t let their head hit the floor!”

Catching human bodies from a height over my head and putting them safely on the floor is indeed a unique skill set. I’m not even sure how to describe this on my resume. “Extensive experience depositing live sweaty human bodies from the crowd surface to the floor without injury. Background in tackle football, physical restraints, and discrete eye-hand coordination.” With all the intense physicality of this position, I am happily surprised that I haven’t suffered any major injury working the stage besides a jammed finger or two and a bruised back. I could easily suffer broken fingers, torsion injuries, a sprained back, rolled ankle, injured neck, or a concussion. My stage partner had to leave during a show to go to urgent care when he sustained a concussion working the stage with me. While catching a crowd surfer, they inadvertently flailed around in such a way that they kicked him in the skull. Hazards of the job.

Tonight I left the stage for my 30 minute dinner break. I kept my radio on at the table quietly. I was taking pictures of my dinner to show my wife how healthy I was eating when I heard an unusual radio call. I heard one of my managers talking about how he just called the cops on a patron that just spit in his face. He gave his location which was twenty feet from where I was eating dinner. I immediately left my food at the table and fast-walked through the restaurant and out the door. I found him there with several other staff talking to a couple in their 20’s. I didn’t get the story until later, but I could tell that the man was very intoxicated and they had ejected him from the venue.

My security manager and a bar manager were standing in such a way to prevent the patron from leaving the doorway area. Another manager was in the background on the phone with the police. Yet another manager walked up next to me and we stood there waiting to see what happened. I discreetly took a couple photos of the couple, which always helps later in describing them in our reports. He will also be banned from our property, so having clear photos is key. Spitting in someone’s face falls under simple assault and battery and you can be arrested and charged for it. Which this guy is about to learn.

This guy was attempting to drunkenly argue with the staff about what happened and started filming us with his smart phone asking us our names. When he got to me I told him he didn’t need to know my name. A random citizen walked up to scan the scooter that was right in the doorway, and drunk patron started interrogating him as to why he was being detained and asking him for his name. We all told him that guy is an innocent bystander and doesn’t work with us. He wasn’t wearing a STAFF shirt and he didn’t have a radio, genius. The scooter guy said, “I’m not telling you my name, jerk,” and flipped off his camera. I would love to see this footage from his phone.

Sure enough, drunk guy thought it would be a smart idea to charge and start trying to push past the manager whose face he already spat in. He thought if he could push him out of his way he could run away before the cops arrived, I suppose. And leave his girlfriend there with us? Getting in to a pushing match with the bouncers on the sidewalk mere feet from passing traffic is a terrible idea. And it’s very easy to move from a push to a punch.

This is the point where I clicked into automatic mode from all my previous training. I think I said, “NOPE!” and reached over to grab his arm and pulled him away from the alcove he was in. The staff next to me grabbed his other arm. Drunk patron continued to struggle so instead of putting him up against a wall I decided to put him down on the ground. I’d like to say that I strategically planted my leg in front of his and pulled him along, causing him to essentially tip forward and touchdown on the ground in a prone position. The proverbial “Sweep the leg, Johnny” move. But, in reality, I kicked his foot out from under him and helped him land face-first on the concrete. Then we each held his arm by his wrists and biceps and I dug my shoulder into his back. He kept struggling and yelling so I moved further over his torso and put more of my weight on his back. His girlfriend was screaming in the background. I removed the still-recording smartphone from his hand and handed it to another staff person. At this point I said, “Since we have now put hands on him, could we please call the police again? It’s a bit more urgent now.”
The second phone call was made.

He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and kept trying to wriggle around and push his way up off the ground. This only results in cuts and bruises. He wasn’t feeling it then, but tomorrow morning he is going to feel like he was hit by a truck. If only he knew how many homeless people had urinated on this very spot that he was laying on. I started saying reasonable things like, “Stop struggling. You’re going to have bruises all over tomorrow and I don’t want you to have bruises. Calm down.” Of course never in the history of the world has telling someone to calm down ever done anything but rile them up. I should know better than to say that. Concrete hurts. I was trying to relate to him with some humanity, but you just can’t use reason with drunk people.

Within minutes the police arrived and instructed the drunk guy on the sidewalk with two staff holding him flat to cooperate so he wouldn’t get hurt. The officer came to my side with handcuffs ready and I moved my hand further up his arm so he could be cuffed. I’ve never been arrested, so the sound that the handcuff made was new to me. It was very dramatic and final. The clicking sound reminded me of the sound of the hammer of a revolver being pulled back. There’s really no arguing with handcuffs. I moved his arm to his side and the officer and I put his hand behind his back. Then he handcuffed both of his hands together, pulled him up and put him in the back of the police car. The sense of relief was palpable for everybody.

We talked with the police officers, telling them the story and giving them our information. The manager who was spat on pressed charges so they took our boy to jail. He also thanked me for intervening in that situation. We are a team, and when I heard that one of our team was being spat on, I ran to help. It’s what anybody should do. I want us all safe. I went back inside to wash my hands and look for any cuts on my hands or arms. I took some deep breaths and calmed myself. I finished my dinner, then went back to the stage to continue to catch crowd surfers until the show ended. Tonight is going to be a night for a hot bath with Epsom salts when I get home.

Later, after the concert was long over and we were all writing reports about the incident, somebody looked for the guy’s mugshot on the Multnomah County Jail website. Sure enough there his smug face was, facing pending assault charges.

My job is certainly a strange one with unusual expectations and outcomes. For most of the night my job was to prevent bodies from hitting the concrete by catching crowd surfers in the concert. Then, for a moment, my job was to put someone down on the concrete and hold him there against his will. The exact opposite parameters. People saw both sides of the concrete tonight.

After the concert was over and people were streaming out to head home, I noticed a young blonde girl standing by the door probably waiting for her parents to come drive her home. She was looking at me longer than she should without saying something or smiling. I was definitely sweaty, exhausted, and disheveled at this point in the night. But she stepped forward and said, “Thank you for catching me.” I smiled back at her and said, “You’re welcome. Glad you had fun.” I remembered her now. She came over one time. This may have been her first concert, and it seemed like it was her first time crowd surfing. I remember her floating towards me looking nervous and anxious before I caught her and lowered her down. She had a good landing and walked out of the pit with a huge smile on her face.

“Thank you for catching me.”
That short little interaction of earnest human gratitude made my night.

 

 

Prom Night

 

“Look! There’s a rhythmic ceremonial ritual coming up.”
-Back to the Future

I never went to my high school prom. The party line on that is that my girlfriend and I just broke up unexpectedly a few weeks prior, which we did. The truth is I probably never would have gone anyway. I was a bit of an outsider and that just really wasn’t my social scene. I never was part of any cool inner clique. I never would be remembered as part of the in crowd, the cool kids, or the beautiful people. Rather happily, I was an outlier. On prom night itself I probably had a movie night at my house with my other dateless nerdy friends watching John Carpenter movies and drinking Mountain Dew until the wee hours.

I was the kid that kept to himself and excelled academically. High school was easy for me and I knew I was going straight to college after. I didn’t care in the slightest about fashion or fitting in, as evidenced by any photo of me in high school. I was reading H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker as soon as I finished my assigned classroom reading. I chose solitary activities like radio broadcasting and yearbook staff. So I was either in a room talking to myself over the microphone about music, or in a darkroom by myself developing black and white photos. I did attend lots of high school functions, but as an observer photographing the events and not participating in them. I watched everybody else have fun through a camera lens.

I spent my high school years discovering and delving into music. Playing vinyl records was, to me, attending church. Reading or deciphering song lyrics before the internet existed was like memorizing ancient holy tomes of scripture verses. Becoming an acolyte of the church of Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Judas Priest album by album until I owned their entire discographies brought me spiritual happiness and enlightenment. I also worshipped at the altar of Van Halen, Metallica, Pat Benatar, and early Pretenders. Amen and hallelujah, my big brothers and sisters of rock.

I also started volunteering as a disc jockey on my high school radio station, KRVM 91.9FM. I got to play music I deemed important over the radio for other people to listen to. Going on record-buying trips at The Record Garden in Eugene was such an honor. The radio station would give me a purchase order to buy records for the station and review them. I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world to be entrusted with this duty.

I never played any sports in high school. None at all. Instead I started taking drum lessons when I was 16. Any hand-eye coordination or athletic prowess I had was only showcased when playing drums. I found playing drums to be a mathematical exercise in ambidextrous rhythm making. A workout for the body and brain requiring stamina, control, and precise calculation of patterns and timing. And yeah, I liked hitting things with sticks.

But back to prom. I had gone to a couple high school dances with my girlfriend before splitting up. I remember walking through the crowd with our arms around each other while Guns N’ Roses (of all things) was playing in the cafeteria. We hung out for a few songs and then left so we could go make out. Notoriously, we once got kicked out of an arcade for kissing and making a spectacle out of ourselves. That’s a badge of honor I wear proudly to this day.

Now, decades later, I find myself working security at a high school prom at the music venue where I work full time. Many groups rent out our venue when we don’t have a famous touring band playing there. So I’m familiar with staffing fundraisers, weddings, anniversaries, work parties, and even high school proms. The proms provide their own Police officer on premises, so our job becomes less security and more dance chaperone.

I couldn’t help it, but I was looking up in the rafters for a bucket of blood to be dropped on Carrie White. I would have been like the Amy Irving character trying to stop the slow-motion humiliation of Sissy Spacek. In my revisionist daydreaming of the movie, I also would have gotten to kick John Travolta’s ass. Luckily, there wasn’t even any crowning of the prom king and queen like in the Brian De Palma film. No popularity contest rating of the most popular echelon of high school representatives.

My high school prom (that I didn’t go to) was many years ago. Watching all these kids tonight pushed a lot of memories and feelings out to the surface. I haven’t gone to any high school reunions at all. I believe I found most of my cohorts and chosen family in college, not high school. I do retain a handful of good friends from back then, but I just didn’t bond as strongly with people until college. I barely stayed in contact with anyone from high school after graduation. I think I wanted to compartmentalize that period of my life and put it behind me. It wasn’t particularly a bad time, it was just….high school.

The kids tonight are having the time of their life. Or they want it to look that way. Everybody is taking selfies and uploading SnapChats of them dancing with their friends. There is so much pressure for this night to be all things to everyone. I am stricken with how grown up these kids look. Times have changed, indeed. The young men in my graduating class didn’t have full beards or tattoos. I don’t recall them being so tall or filled out either. And the young women here tonight wearing shiny dresses and makeup could pass for 26-year-old businesswomen. Absolutely nobody in my class was this physically mature or developed. Some of these young ladies look like glamorous sexed-out actresses or models. And there was so much booty shaking and twerking I thought I was at a strip club. I had to remind myself that everybody here is about 17 or 18 years old. Exactly how old to you have to be to get a boob job in Oregon anyway?

There was a mass exodus of attendees leaving the prom about an hour and a half in. They had other better things to do that likely involved drinking alcohol and having sex. Hotel parties and homes where the parents are away are calling them. Some coworkers and I would joke quietly, “Somebody’s getting pregnant tonight.” Although I remember being 17 and not knowing nearly  as much as I thought I did. Sadly, the late hours of prom night are most likely to just bring fumblings in the dark, bad sex, and disappointment.

At one point the crowd got so animated that one guy was able to get up on top of everyone and crowd surf. This was definitely something that I had never seen before. Crowd surfing at a high school prom. I thought some of the young women would be angry with him for potentially ruining their expensive hairdo or damaging their corsage. Not so, everybody held him up as he fist-pumped along to the song. I was moving towards them to stop him when the DJ lowered the music and said, “No crowd surfing, no crowd surfing. Gotta keep it safe, everybody.” Thanks for doing my job for me, friend.

I was so interested in people watching and figuring out who was who. I could see the hyper-popular people that everyone wanted to take a photo with. I smiled when I saw the nerdy academic types clumping together. I loved the people who didn’t go along with the norm and wore exactly what they wanted to wear. They had their own quirky fashion style and didn’t care about fitting in. Nobody was being a wallflower either. Everybody was out on the floor in some way. I nodded with recognition when I saw the yearbook photographers doing the exact thing that I used to to. Documenting the event without participating in it. But with a valid excuse and something to keep their hands occupied. Their classmates are going to look at these prom photos for the rest of their lives.

I see so much fresh-faced optimism and innocence here tonight, along with some awkward naiveté. For most of us, the age of 18 is when we are at the peak of our beauty, health, and attractiveness. We haven’t been burdened with the grind of life yet. We haven’t been worn down by failures, tanked relationships, or lost jobs. With some exceptions, we usually haven’t been tied down with early pregnancies, major deaths in our families, or debilitating health issues of our own. We haven’t yet suffered crippling credit card debt, divorce and alimony, student loans we never pay off, a foreclosed home, or medical bills that bankrupt us. We aren’t jaded and cranky yet, and the future still seems like a wonderful dream. At 18 the world is still your oyster, and the world hasn’t broken you yet.

I couldn’t help but think about how for most of these kids, this is going to be one of the milestones of their lives. This night, no matter what happens, is the night that everybody remembers and talks about for years to come. They might even tell their kids about it. Your parents might display a framed photo of you and your prom date for a long time after you wish that they would take it down. Some of these people you will never see again. Some of these friends will later end their friendship with you, disappear, or die prematurely.

But during the dance, you assume that you will always be such good friends with these people. Not accounting for moving far away, getting married and having kids, traveling for your job, or just losing the shared history together. Or simply growing up and growing apart. For many this signifies the end of high school, and therefore the end of childhood. It’s the beginning of adulthood; moving out on your own, starting college, taking time off to travel, or joining the military. Whatever your calling is, wherever the winds of adulthood set you down. And there is no going back. It’s becoming a memory as we speak.

I realized that to these kids, I’m just some middle-aged guy sitting at an access point looking bored. And I guess I am. But I’m remembering where I was and who I was those decades ago. Nostalgia is a powerful drug. It is certainly a surreal experience to watch this prom decades after my own prom. It’s no wonder that my favorite music and movies all come from the 80s. I’m also realizing how bad most of the music that they love really is (it’s fucking terrible honestly.) Pop music has honestly devolved since I was in high school. I hated all of the songs they played until the very end. Music today just doesn’t energize and inspire me like it did when I was younger. Music was better and more innovative in my day. Lyrics were like poetry and actually meant something. Get offa my lawn, kids. I took satisfaction that for the final big songs, the DJ played classics from my era and the crowd went wild. The crown danced to those old classics from Journey, Bon Jovi, and David Bowie.

Mainly I’m watching them with envy and happiness. I’m happy that this night went off without any problems and that they all had so much fun. One of my favorite moments was when one of the nerdiest, goofiest kids there who had been dancing like a fool for most of the night started a conga line. All the other students joined in. The jocks, nerds, goths, miscreants, trust fund kids, and the beautiful elite. They all were part of this spontaneous moment of unity and brotherhood. They will never again in their lives all be joined together in equality and solidarity like that. Celebrating their graduation from high school and the beginning of their adult lives.

To be young and optimistic again. To be young enough where all of your accomplishments and greatest moments are still ahead of you, not behind you.

Back to the future, indeed. Hug each other longer than you think you need to. Tell your friends that you love them. Kiss them on the cheek. You will never be here again.

Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each sensation a little bit stronger
Experience slips away
Experience slips away
-RUSH, Time Stand Still

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ascension of the Dirt Wizards

In a previous chapter I wrote about the depressing reality of homeless people living on the streets of Portland. I continue to encounter the homeless population on my post-work walks, and continue to have lots of thought about them. Sometimes I see something different that actually uplifts my spirits at 3am.

First let me lay out the different levels of homelessness that I observe as I walk around the city after my shift.

Level 1: UNPREPARED

These are the people who you see sleeping on the sidewalk or in a doorway without any supplies. They just have the clothes on their back and maybe a jacket or blanket. It can be startling to see these people because at first glance they appear to be a dead body on the sidewalk. Especially if the blanket is covering their face and they are out in the middle of the sidewalk. They are splayed out on the sidewalk as if they were dropped there, and they may be using the curb as a pillow. When I’m walking by them I slow down and walk close to them to listen for their breathing or snoring. So far I haven’t found a dead person.

These are the people who I assume are suffering from debilitating mental illnesses. They most likely were discharged or kicked out of a residential treatment home and are off their medications. Or they might have had a psychotic break or are in a fugue state. They truly do not know who they are. It is as if they just gave up wandering the streets cussing at ghosts, and just dropped to the sidewalk from exhaustion. This patch of concrete qualified as their best option for sleeping quarters tonight. The Robert Duvall character from the film THE ROAD embodies the kind of person I’m talking about. Disheveled, confused, unrecognizable, and struggling to remain lucid and functional. They have no protection from the elements, no gear, and not much hope. The song that always pops into my head when I see these people is “Scarecrow” from Ministry. The spoken word phrase repeated throughout the song is, “They live…without hope.”

Level 2: PREPARED

These are the people who have been doing this for longer and have acquired some necessary resources to make their night on the streets more tolerable. They scouted and chose a business doorway to make a little hovel for the night. Sometimes they choose one under a street light, and sometimes they choose a dark doorway. But they have a sleeping bag and often a backpack of belongings that they use for a pillow. If someone were to try to steal the backpack they would be awakened by their pillow moving. They often have found a tarp or cardboard and have put it up in the doorway for a wind break and rain protection. Often I see a cardboard pizza box, some water bottles, and a small shopping cart with them. They know what restaurants give out food at the end of the night. People at this level have the skills and resources to provide some privacy and defenses against the weather.

Level 3: NETWORKED

These are the people who have found friends and established a small mini-community of campers. They have networked and created a cohort. They utilize the soup kitchens and food donations services. They all have individual tents and often have collected wooden pallets to put them on. They have flashlights or camp lanterns inside of their tents, and safety in numbers. Some of them have cell phones. They circle their proverbial wagons in a larger area under a bridge or in a grass area with bushes and trees. Their tents are secured with bungee cords. I’ve even seen small campfires set up in the middle of the circle of tents with people sitting in lawn chairs drinking. It’s an interesting tableau of modern city homelessness for sure.

Looking at this established homeless camp, it’s almost like a twilight zone commentary on American suburbia. They are living the American dream available to them, while we all chase the American dream of our own that we were sold. They have found social groups and BBQs, camping outside from necessity and not a desire for nature on a vacation. We value our cars, jobs, houses, spouses, kids, and all the competition that comes along with it. They value sleeping bags, a working tent, gifted food, and their shopping cart full of their life. Some of them spend much of their day traveling around finding the resources of food and recyclable cans and bottles. Some hold up signs asking for money or food. Collecting the treasure of aluminum cans and glass bottles that can be traded in for a dime each earns them buying power. We work a job to collect a paycheck that we use to buy things. When we go on vacation we end up doing what they do every night. For a week or so we have no responsibilities. We get away from worrying about bills or our jobs. We sit around a fire and drink alcohol with our friends outside in nature before falling asleep in a tent.

Level 4:  ENTRENCHED

These are the people who I alluded to at the start of this chapter. Some people have been homeless so long that they have achieved stasis and embraced it as their permanent lifestyle. They don’t care about getting into a residential center or finding a job. Some might say they’ve given up, but some might that they have come to peace with living off the grid and existing as a homeless person. They aren’t achieving anything better, but they aren’t decompensating or losing anything either. They are exactly where they are and have accepted it. They are the zen homeless.

My coworker has lovingly dubbed these elder statesmen of the homeless community the Dirt Wizards. They do indeed appear as bearded Gandalf-like men using walking sticks that could easily be mistaken for magical staffs. They stride over the dirt fields on missions unknown to us. A pagan procession. A Wiccan walkabout. I believe that they mentor the newly homeless in the ways of survival and acquiring resources. They wear cloaks or wraps similar to that of Jedi Knights. They often have trinkets on their wooden staffs that I assume are talismans or amulets. We are pretty certain that they are out there casting spells. They are keeping the land, and those who sleep upon this land, safe. Charging amulets to bring food and valuables to the vulnerable tent sleepers. Powering a huge invisible shield of protection over this area. Checking in on their brethren at their outposts. Guardians of the night, they are the wandering nomads of the neighborhood.

Maybe the mysterious spell work that they do is why I haven’t found a dead homeless person yet. I like to think that is the reason.

Occasionally you will see the dirt wizards travel in groups. Seeing six of these men walking slowly together reminds me of the Mystics from the 1982 film The Dark Crystal. These four-armed healers slowly hobble across the land and play a large part in the film. I always listen closely to see if they are chanting like in the movie, but never quite hear it. A group of dirt wizards could certainly be formidable opponents. I would certainly give them a wide berth. I wonder what a tweaker thinks when they see a group of Dirt Wizards walking around their turf. They must just think it’s a hallucination. But I can confirm, the benevolent dirt wizards are indeed real. And I’m happy that they are out there, working their magic.

When I see them walking around the berms downtown I sometimes nod or bow my head in reverence, as if seeing shamans out on a vision quest. I would never disturb them on their journey, but I will acknowledge and thank them from afar.

Between my walking by the homeless tent campers whispering, ‘Sleep in safety’, and the Dirt Wizards blessing the sleeping sidewalk citizens, we might have this section of the neighborhood covered and protected. Hell, I might even join them someday. Part of me would be proud to join the noble ranks of the guardian angels that are the Dirt Wizards. May the ascension of the Dirt Wizards continue.

 

The Long Walk

I’m walking out to my truck after the shift is over, starting the surreal post-work trek. Now it’s dark, about 2:30am, and the city has changed. Neon lights dominate the nightscape, but it definitely isn’t as tourist-friendly or fun any longer. The hot spots that were bustling seven hours ago are now all locked up and dark. Homeless people have set up their cardboard boxes and blankets in the doorways, trying to stay warm and unmolested until sunrise.

I walk past empty parking spaces and notice the bits of broken glass on the sidewalk. Somebody had their window shattered and their car broken into, a sadly common occurrence. I see new glass on the ground just about every night. I always advise people to not leave anything that somebody might consider worth money visible in their vehicle. Nothing, not even a phone charger or a compact disc. People cruise around on bicycles casing vehicles, looking for something you left on your seat or the floor that they could sell or trade for drugs.

When I see the little bits of blue-green broken safety glass, I know that someone’s night was ruined by thievery or simple vandalism. After having a fun evening downtown, they find their window broken out and their personal belongings gone. I’ve had my vehicle broken into twice prior to working in the service industry in bars and clubs, and a third time recently after working a shift downtown. It’s a devastating feeling that makes you lose faith in humans. Glass beer bottles don’t shatter the same way as car window safety glass does. All the broken bits of cubed glass pieces are about the same size. It reminds me of the worthless plastic emerald baubles that my daughter plays with. Glittering prizes on the concrete. Uniform treasure chest gems. It’s as if some demented child had a bag of blue raspberry jolly rancher candies that they didn’t like, crushed them all up, and left the pieces all over the sidewalk. They do make a satisfying crunch under my boots as I walk over them, shaking my head. Occasionally I’ll see black cubes of broken glass on the sidewalk.  These are from a tinted privacy window, and look like pieces of obsidian. If it’s raining and the broken pieces are in a puddle, it looks strangely like boba tea.

Over time, these pieces of broken car window glass gather in the straight cut lines of the sidewalk. The ones you avoided stepping on as a kid lest you break your Mother’s back. I assume they get pushed to the crack by people’s feet, bicycle tires, wind and rain, perhaps even some sidewalk fairie magic. However it happens, the sidewalk cracks end up filled with these little sparkly glass bits. Lined up perfectly straight as they are, it almost appears intentional. It also reminds me of a line of ants walking along the kitchen floorboards in my home. Those industrious little bastards that find one crumb of food, then within minutes invade your house, set up communication lines, trade routes, and a governmental infrastructure. Marching ants, broken glass. The street lights bathe the tiny glass chunks in artificial nocturnal light, making them glimmer and twinkle like overgrown nanobot electro-ants.

The streets are relatively empty and quiet now. The entertainment hub of the city is still. The rapid pace of downtown has finally slowed, as if sedated. It feels like the city itself is on heroin. Occasional emergency vehicles race by on their way to a crisis. People walking around downtown after 3am are typically up to no good. Most normal people are home already. Bars and clubs stop serving around 2am and close by 2:30am. People are usually where they are going to end up staying the night by now.  The daywalkers are asleep. The hours of 3am to 6am are primarily filled with homeless people switching locations or scavenging for food in restaurant garbage bins. Mentally ill people wander around yelling and cussing at people who aren’t there. Tweakers coming down from their high, desperately looking for more. Thieves casing cars or stores for valuables. And the occasional lycanthrope or vampire looking for blood sustenance.

Sometimes I will walk the extra long route to my truck, or just walk around in an ever-widening circle. Often I’ll just walk, destination unknown. I’ll decompress, listen to the sounds of the city, and watch for anybody who’s up to no good. I continue doing my job of keeping people safe even after I’m off work. I can’t turn it off. Am I looking for trouble, or just trying to expand the ring of safety around my job? I’ve followed people looking sketchy/tweaking, walked people to their car, helped with medical situations, and called the police on criminal activities. I helped catch two people vandalizing buildings. On two occasions I’ve chased men out of parking garages who were about to break car windows with a metal pipe. Filming them with my smart phone is usually an effective deterrent. I watch for drunk women stumbling to find their car. Or more precisely, I’m watching for other men who are taking an interest in them as targets. Always watching.

The seedy underbelly of any major city is the same. I feel a bit like Charles Bronson in the 1974 vigilante film Death Wish. Except I’m not walking around with rolls of quarters rolled up in a sock. Nor am I riding the subway with a pistol waiting for a mugger to attack me. But the general idea is there. I’m putting myself out there and waiting to see if something happens. I’m no superhero, but maybe I can at least ensure that this small little square on the map is going to be safe tonight. Just this small 3 block by 3 block grid is mine, and nobody is getting raped, mugged, or killed here. Instead of just getting in my truck and driving home like a normal person would, I’m purposely walking around downtown Portland at 3am seeing what I can find. Or who I can help. I just don’t want anything bad to happen to anyone on my watch. And apparently my watch bleeds over with no discrete ending point. My personal end of watch might be when I finally get in my truck and drive home.

I walk past a metal stop sign with just the frame of a bicycle still locked to it. Last night it was a full and complete bicycle with wheels and a seat. Chains, pedals, and a basket. All of these part are now gone, and the remaining frame lies on the sidewalk as if it fell there.  The white bike frame looks like the skeleton of an animal that has been picked clean by scavenging vultures. Completely stripped. Brittle bones on concrete, a dismembered steel corpse.

A road flare still shines bright red like an arc-welding torch on the road. Evidence of some previous car wreck earlier tonight, these road flares never get cleaned up. They continue to burn and smoke and turn to ash, even in the rain. Long after the cars are towed away, reports filed, and people taken to the hospital, the burning road flares advertise the previous trauma that happened here. They remind me of a lightsaber from Star Wars, broken and sputtering on the ground after being damaged in battle. Not all three feet of a functioning light saber, just a centimeter of plasma extending from the hilt. The flare itself looks like a stick of TNT, or in this case, the hilt of a Sith weapon. The other neon sign colors reflect off of the wet asphalt. The street surface itself winks reflections of color on and off, on and off. But that red road flare is the brightest light of the night, cutting through everything like a beacon of despair.

I often refer to the denizens of the night as zombies. This is more accurate than you might think. The homeless population and mentally ill people obviously wear cheap clothing that is purely functional. It can be unclean, tattered, and torn up. Psychotropic medications can certainly affect one’s gait, presenting in the shuffling lurching walking that we see in George Romero’s zombie films. Various psychiatric conditions can affect movement and coordination. Neurological disorders can affect balance, cause loss of sensation or dizziness, and trigger seizures. Tweakers also have their own twitchy agitated mannerisms. These can include obsessive behaviors like pacing or repeating the same activity or statements over and over. You’ll see scratching, swatting, manic babbling, and various other repeated tics. The phenomenon of ‘meth mouth’ is the terrible condition of someone’s decayed and missing teeth after prolonged methamphetamine abuse. This looks exactly like the gaping zombie mouths in ‘The Walking Dead’. Hard drug use, malnutrition, and general perils of living on the street can cause skin sores and bleeding. You can understand how at 3am, through tired eyes, the people skulking around the streets would literally appear to be zombies.

I’m pretty much at DEFCON 1 when I’m walking around after work. I’m wide awake and vigilant. I’ve already worked a long challenging shift. I’ve dealt with drunk, entitled, and irritating people all night, and my patience is at its lowest point. I think that this is when it happens for most people. Exhausted, you have let down your guard. You just aren’t paying attention, your focus is elsewhere and your hands are full. Messaging on your smart phone, digging in your pockets for keys, and carrying a to-go box full of food. Texting people about hooking up or heading home. You make the mistake of thinking that you are safe. And that is when they get you.

There are moments where one or two people are walking towards me on the sidewalk. The first thing I do is look at their hands to see if they have anything in them that could be used as a weapon. If they have their hands in their hoodie pockets then I assume that they have something I won’t like in there. I’m usually acutely aware of anyone behind me, but I’ll look in the reflections of store windows to verify. Then I make a mental note of their clothing, hight, build, and features in case I need to describe it later for the Police report. Then I make eye contact with them and do not look away. I’ll slow down and pull my hands out of my pockets. I’ve already planned on what to use around me if necessary. The brick building wall, the parking meter, the concrete garbage can, the parked car. All are valid unyielding and painful objects to throw someone onto as hard as I can.

I never listen to music when walking around at night for obvious safety reasons. But I’m a huge music fan, and a song usually makes its way into my brain. In this instance I channeled this Marilyn Manson song from Antichrist Superstar called “Kinderfeld.” Glaring at the approaching men and gritting my teeth, these lyrics empowered me:

This is what you should fear
You are what you should fear
This is what you should fear
You are what you should fear

If any of them starts talking to me or asks any questions, I’m ready to move into the street where I can’t be backed up against a wall. There is no valid conversation that needs to happen between us at this time. Asking me for a light or a cigarette is just an excuse to get my hands occupied and to get within striking distance. I don’t smoke, but even if I did I’m not stopping and having an interaction with anybody at 3am.  I usually ignore them or shake my head and say things like, “Nope”, “Move on”, or “I can’t help you.” What I really want to say is something more like this: “If you step to me I will put you down on the concrete. Hard. If you fire one shot at me I will call in an air strike and drop napalm. Your jungles will burn. Broken Arrow. Scorched earth.
Keep. Walking. Motherfucker.”

But this isn’t a movie and I’m not Charles Bronson. The men walk around me and even move further away, giving me a wide berth. My hands relax a bit and I listen to their footsteps get quieter as they walk away. Now I just hear the sound of my breath. In and out. Inhale, exhale. Right now there is nothing else in the world except the calming sound of my own breathing.

The agitated mentally ill street person walking toward me is yelling and cussing, “Motherfucker! Goddammed cocksucker! I’ll kill you!” He is flinging his hands around like he is swatting at an enemy who isn’t there. Throwing punches at ghosts. I keep my eyes locked on him and walk slower, taking my hands out of my pockets. Paranoid schizophrenics need clinical supervision and medication management, not a solo 3am walkabout. He doesn’t even see me. I don’t register to him at all. I am certain that whatever phantom person he sees is in crisp focus, while I am a blurry shadow moving by in the background. His hallucination nemesis is more real to him than I am. And he would rather fight with him than me anyway.

These are the dark thoughts that orbit around me as I walk the long walk. These little moons that I’ve named paranoia, fear, defense, and anger. Perhaps someday a catastrophic event will occur on the planet of me that will knock these satellites out of their orbit. But until then….my eyes are wide open and my fists are clenched.  And I’m finally going home now; I’m done walking for tonight.

It’s a very fine line between vigilant and paranoid. And I don’t think I know the difference anymore.

The final line of one of my favorite films resonates strongly with me. At the end of the 1995 film SE7EN, Morgan Freeman’s weary voice leaves us with this:

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.”  
I agree with the second part.

 

 

 

 

 

Homeless thoughts

I encounter a lot of homeless people in my job as security staff. Some I see so often that I know their names and their basic story, and where they like to sit to ask for money. When possible I’ll bring out some extra pizza that wasn’t purchased and is about to be thrown away. I’ll give it to the homeless people outside. Everybody deserves to eat. It’s truly staggering how much perfectly good food is thrown away every night.

On my way to my truck after I’m off work, I always walk past numerous homeless people sleeping in doorways, or bolstering their bed with blankets, tarps, or cardboard. It’s going to be cold tonight. If they are asleep I usually look and listen long enough to determine signs of life. This would be their exhaled breath in the cold air, snoring, or just their chest moving as they breathe. If they are awake and we make awkward eye contact, I’ll nod at them and smile. I am no threat to you, friend. I recall the scene in THE EXORCIST where the homeless man sits in filth and asks Damien Karras, “Can you help an old altar boy, Father?” If they aren’t already hunkered down in their temporary fort against the elements, they are traveling around like nomads carrying their gear in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Some have a sleeping bag wrapped around them. Others have multiple backpacks and shopping bags hanging from their arms. Some push shopping carts around. Some carry large pieces of wooden pallets or cardboard boxes over their heads to build a sleep structure with. They look like river explorers portaging their canoe over land. Hell, I think I might have seen a homeless person actually carrying part of a broken canoe once.

Using the pallet as a floor, they can sleep on that and not get soaked by the rain. Or, worst case scenario, soaked by spilled cheap beer or vomit. Tarps become walls and roofs. Cardboard boxes become walls, and wind and rain shields. If they can acquire an actual tent, it’s like they’ve won the lottery. Body heat is retained inside, rain and wind is deflected, and you even have a small modicum of privacy. There is definitely safety in numbers, so clumping 5-6 tents together is smart and very common. Some people like to complain about the homeless tent camps blocking sidewalks and being unsightly and unsafe. I’m pretty sure that at 3:30am the people complaining about that are home safe in their beds. I’m the one out walking around at that hour, and I’m happy to step around the tents. These same people are probably also deathly afraid of a raging gang of homeless people crouched together inside these tents, laying in wait to ambush the next pedestrian so that they can rape, kidnap, and murder them. And if this scenario has ever actually happened anywhere, I’ll eat that tarp. Homeless people are trying to stay warm and sleep, not assault a passerby. And until those huge churches that preach ‘love thy brother’ actually open up their doors at night and operate as a homeless shelter, they can all shut their sanctimonious and judgmental pieholes.

I love seeing dogs with homeless people. That might sound odd, but I just love dogs more than I do most people. Also I had it explained to me once how the life of a dog living with a homeless person might not be that bad comparatively. In fact, it could be better if you look at it through this lens. A dog who lives with a homeless person is never without their owner. Our dogs are so domesticated and reliant on us that they really just want to be with their owners all the time. You can walk out your front door, forget something, and come right back in the house and your dog will start wiggling its entire body it is so happy to see you. They greet you like you’ve been gone for two weeks when it’s really only been two minutes. Do any humans react that way each and every time they see you?

Most of us leave the house for long periods for our jobs, school, and other activities. So we aren’t there all day. Our house dogs are either alone for those long stretches, or we have to board them at doggie day care. That can be fun but it’s a lot of canine stimulation, and they still aren’t with their owner. Some dogs get bored and howl and bark all day. Or they destroy things around the house waiting for us to return. Things like shoes, dog kennels, banisters, chess boards, bed frames, doors, piano legs. I might know this from personal experience. A dog living with a homeless person is always with them feeling important and needed. They are keeping their human safe. If I was sleeping in a tent at night alone, I would sleep ten times better with a dog in there with me to growl at any approaching danger. And it is positive touch and companionship.

Further, it reminds me of studies showing that having a pet benefits older people by giving them a reason outside of themselves to get up each morning and feed/exercise the dog. Some other creature is relying on you to get up and take care of them. This can counter apathy, loneliness, and depression. Especially involving empty-nest syndrome when all of the kids and grandkids have left the house. People live longer if they have pets to care for.  The mere act of stroking a dog’s fur has been shown to lower blood pressure and calm anxiety. Homeless people certainly struggle with loneliness, social isolation, depression, and anxiety. Some people probably do not get touched at all for the entire day. They receive no physical human contact like we all take for granted. No handshakes, fist bumps, hi-fives, hugs, holding hands, kisses. I couldn’t even guess how many of these I get daily. Multiple dozens probably. I guarantee that the only touch some of these people ever get is from their dog licking their face.

Some people don’t want to give a homeless person money for fear that they would spend it on drugs or Old English 800 malt liquor. Then some animal lovers carry around dog food in their car for the sole purpose of giving it to dogs that are with homeless humans. Or they’ll run into the store and come out with some dog food and a deli sandwich for them. I never see starving dogs with homeless people. The dogs are sometimes better fed than their 2-legged companions are. Lots of dogs aren’t allowed to sleep in the bedroom, or sometimes even the house. They are relegated to the garage, basement, or even a dog house in the yard. Dogs that live with homeless people are with them all day long, and then as a bonus they get to sleep curled up right next to their humans. No worries about tracking some dirt in from the yard, or getting dog fur on the brand new comforter. So bless these homeless dogs, I’m so happy to see you here with your people.

For a time I volunteered with the Portland Burrito Project. This is a national DIY group that feeds homemade burritos to the homeless population. Any city can start their own branch, as I understand it. In Portland we would collect donated food from Santa Fe Taqueria Mexican restaurant on Sunday morning. We would then take the food to an area Hostel and set up a food assembly line, making 100 veggie burritos. We then wrapped them all up, loaded up our warming bags, and drove downtown. We spent a few hours walking around looking for homeless people to feed. This was a great way to give back to the community and help out the homeless population, who are always struggling to acquire healthy food. I would often bring along some of the kids I worked with as a mentor, teaching them about community service. It would also open up conversations with the older kids about mental illness, running away from sexual abuse, and financial instability. We all got accustomed to scanning the street for homeless people to give food to, and what streets and onramps that they would typically camp near. If we found a homeless person asleep on the sidewalk with their backpack as a pillow, we would just leave a nice warm burrito wrapped in foil by their head. Hopefully they would wake up to the smell of a burrito and enjoy the magical gift of food from a stranger.

Of course, some people present as homeless when they are not. Or their chosen aesthetic of clothing attire resembles the disheveled bundled-up look of a homeless person. If you research the term “Homeless chic” you will see pictures of fashion models actually pushing shopping carts down the runway with oversized bags, wearing bland layered clothing. Highly paid fashion models are dressing like homeless people to sell overpriced clothes. I really don’t have the proper words for that nonsense.

I certainly cannot guess a person’s socio-economic status in the seconds I have while I approach them. Although we were attempting to help feed the homeless, there’s no solid way to actually be sure. There isn’t an ID card that proves you are homeless, nor would we actually refuse to give a person food who wanted some (unless they were aggressive or threatening us in some way). So we defaulted to giving just about anybody a burrito that seemed interested or hungry. A whole lot of people can appear homeless that aren’t.
But in my head I would play the game of ‘Who is about to get a free burrito?’

A) A truly homeless person.
B) A mentally ill person.
C) A street kid.
D) A low-income housing resident.
E) A tweaker actively on drugs.
F) Buskers/musicians/actors.
G) A desperately broke college student.
H) A resident of a treatment/recovery center on a smoke break.
I) People who just intentionally dress like they are homeless.
J) People who think that they are Marilyn Manson, Al Jorgensen, or Rob Zombie.

We quickly learned to avoid those people suffering from mental illness that are cussing to themselves and punching at the air. Same with drunk or high people. Some people would gratefully take the burrito, but then start telling me all of their problems. Or ask me to help them with some money, or a bus ticket to somewhere. I love to help people, but I have firm boundaries. I refuse to get sucked into anybody’s drama when doing this. I’m literally just here to give out burritos and walk away. I would think, “Put this in your mouth and stop talking to me.” And in an effort not to offend anyone that looks homeless who isn’t, we would explain ourselves in a generic way. Instead of saying, “We’re handing out free burritos to the homeless”, we would just say, “We’re delivering free food to anyone who is hungry.” People always asked us if we were a church group. Nope, just altruistic liberal hippie types who don’t want people to go hungry. Food is love.

Most people live in a false world of perceived security where they think nothing bad is ever going to happen to them. I am acutely aware that I am about two paychecks away from being homeless myself. With a few exceptions, most of my friends and co-workers would also become homeless if their paychecks stopped coming. I have a few friends who make 6 figures, but they are the minority. Most of us don’t have a savings account with anything in it for emergencies. We live from paycheck to paycheck, which still really is the norm. Virtually all of my friends have college degrees. Some have several. But that wouldn’t prevent any of us from becoming homeless if things went South. Once you stop paying your bills and your rent or mortgage, utilities get shut off and you get evicted or foreclosed on. The world owes you no guarantees. None of the people you see on the street planned or expected to be there, either. This sidewalk was not their goal.

If some severe medical injury happens requiring an ambulance or hospital stay, that could be it. A huge bill that you never recover from. Overwhelming debt with no ability to work and no money coming in. The #1 reason people declare bankruptcy in America is medical bills. What other huge life events could push someone into poverty and homelessness? Unemployment, a very bad divorce, gambling, domestic violence, being disowned by parents, rape, a public scandal, PTSD, mental health issues, a family crisis,  substance abuse, not being able to afford your medications, etc. If your paychecks stopped today, how long would it take you to exhaust your savings and any accrued vacation time? What about cashing out your retirement or selling your belongings to get money? Lord knows most of us don’t have jobs that would give us any sort of severance pay. Would I sell my car or plan on living in it? Which friends would let me couch-surf and for how long? These are my thoughts at 3am, walking past dozens of homeless people, wondering what particular sequence of events brought them to this sidewalk.

I’ve worked for social service non-profit organizations, or in the service industry, for the last 25 years. I’ve loved all of the jobs I’ve worked, but they certainly haven’t ever paid me well. Non-profits are funny like that. I am blessed with a robust network of friends and family that would intervene before I actually became homeless. I know that and am very grateful. But the point remains that nobody that I know is immune to the threat. We could all be homeless far quicker than we think. I still worry that I will be the guy in the line for a free meal at the Portland Rescue Mission, and sleeping under cardboard boxes in a doorway wondering why I went to college.

I feel so dejected when I see human beings sleeping outside on a sidewalk. We aren’t meant to sleep outside in the elements on concrete lit up by streetlights. I consider our homeless population to be the true streetlight people that Journey sings about. It makes me so sad and empty that this storefront doorway is actually someone’s bed tonight. It shouldn’t be this way. Mahatma Ghandi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” And by that metric, we fail miserably. Homeless people are sneered at, feared, ignored. They are the outsider, the non-person, a null value, they do not count. They are ridiculed, terrorized, and beaten. We owe them better than this. And we all could be among them tomorrow.

With my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my hoodie, I walk solemnly by each homeless person and say a silent blessing in my head.
Sleep in safety. Sleep in safety. Sleep in safety.

Each homeless person was once somebody’s baby boy or baby girl, an amazing and unique creation.

Your parents probably had all the hopes and dreams and optimistic expectations for you. They agonized over what to name you. You had your favorite foods and special toys. Physical features that you shared with each parent were pointed out and celebrated. Family members bought you presents and fed you on holidays. Perhaps, like me, you made forts out of cardboard boxes in your living room. Decades later you’re sleeping in a doorway with cardboard boxes for walls. When you were a child, people who loved you sung you to sleep at night to keep the bad dreams away. I wish that I could sing you to sleep tonight.

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I’m tired and I
I want to go to bed
Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don’t try to wake me in the morning
‘Cause I will be gone
Don’t feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go
Sing to me
Sing to me
I don’t want to wake up
On my own anymore
There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
-The Smiths, “Asleep”

Van Halen – Diver Down (1982)

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Van Halen. Van-Fucking-Halen. This rock band took me from being a little boy to being a young man. For others that band was Led Zeppelin or Kiss. But for me, Van Halen did it all. Diluted down to its most basic truth, early Van Halen is classic, raw, original, massively influential, and timeless. Later-era Van Halen is uninspired, cheesy, ballad-heavy crap. In my humble opinion, the departure of front-man David Lee Roth took the band from being in the rock genre to being demoted to the pop genre.

Those first six Van Halen records rock harder than most current rock acts. They show more musical proficiency and virtuoso soloing than any band currently on the radio. This albums are: VAN HALEN (1978), VAN HALEN II (1979), WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST (1980), FAIR WARNING (1981), DIVER DOWN (1982), and 1984 (1984). It was a perfect combo of the showmanship of David Lee Roth, the trend-setting guitar wizardry of Edward Van Halen, the impressive polyrhythmic poundings of Alex Van Halen, and the mediocre-at-best bass lines of Michael Anthony. Ok, you can’t have everything.

As with most young males who grew up in the 70’s, the first time that I heard “Eruption” changed my life. Eddie Van Halen redefined rock guitar solos with this 1:42 minute blistering assault. I had been listening to the big hits of the day on the radio. These were disco songs from Abba, The Bee Gees, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. But then this one short song by a new rock band took us all by the balls. Eddie introduced us to the notion of tapping on the guitar frets with both hands, playing with incredible speed without sacrificing melody, pick-rakes, pick-scrapes, and mastery of guitar tone and distortion. Thousands of young air guitar artists practiced along to this song, as did hordes of real guitarists as well.

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I was but a wee young lad when Van Halen’s debut album was released in 1978. I have vivid memories of standing up on the wooden box of my waterbed air-guitaring along to “Eruption.” If I was really feeling it, I would jump on the waterbed itself, starting a small tsunami wave in the bed, then jump off onto the orange shag carpet at the song’s conclusion. It’s amazing that waterbed survived. Of course, I was still too young to understand all of the sexual lyrical content in their songs. I actually thought that “Ice Cream Man” was simply about David Lee Roth’s summer job. But I do recall thinking that sex must be pretty great since this band was obsessed with singing about it. I would wager that 90% of the songs on the first six Van Halen albums are about sex or some permutation thereof. Who can forget the blond babes in the video for “Hot for Teacher?” We could discuss how Van Halen videos initiated many a boy into the world of masturbation, but some things don’t need to be dredged up.

The year I that I really got into Van Halen was 1982 with the release of their album DIVER DOWN. I had recently seen the music video for the song “Hear About it Later” from their album FAIR WARNING (1981). I was basically in love with that song. The video is a live performance that’s different from the album version. It’s a simple live video of them playing in front of towers of amps onstage. Don’t be distracted by David Lee Roth’s package in white spandex. I loved how the song was slightly unconventional and Eddie added lots of tasty guitar flourishes not on the recorded version. This probably surprised me at first and introduced me to the idea of songs morphing and expanding when played live. The whole song pretty much stops and changes for the amazing guitar solo break. It’s a perfect melding of vocal melody, guitar phrasing, and feel-good rock and roll. “Hear About it Later” is an underrated masterpiece.

Here is the video if you want to give it a watch:
Hear About it Later video

 

Then DIVER DOWN came out and I was completely hooked. This album was unusual because not every song was a radio cut that fit with all of the other songs. This is definitely their most diverse record. They put on five cover songs, which is quite unusual and goes against musical industry wisdom. I can’t think of another album with more than two cover songs on it. Not only is the album unique for having five covers, but it also has two instrumentals and an amusing a cappella outro of the classic cowboy song “Happy Trails.” Their hard rock versions of “Pretty Woman” and “Dancing in the Street” were quite successful, and I will always associate them with being a pre-teen and beginning my love of rock music. I really like the weird bubbly Pac-Man sounds in “Dancing in the Street.”

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There are some heavy rock songs like “Hang ‘Em High” and “The Full Bug.” I loved Clint Eastwood westerns so “Hang ‘Em High” connected western films and rock music.  Catchy pop tunes like the opening track, the Kinks cover “Where Have all the Good Times Gone?” And a groovy, laid-back summer song in “Secrets.” But for me the apex of the album is “Little Guitars.” The acoustic guitar intro from Eddie is gorgeous and leads into the actual song perfectly. The staccato guitar verses, quiet mellow interlude, optimistic lyrics, and sing-along chorus makes this one a distinctive and catchy-as-hell rocker. The inclusion of the ragtime cover song “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now) was a bold choice. I am sure that most die-hard heshers skip this song consistently. An interesting note is that their father Jan Van Halen plays the clarinet on this track. The beautiful instrumental “Cathedral” is just Eddie, a delay, and his volume knob, but he makes his guitar sound like a classical synthesizer. The other instrumental, “Intruder”, is wonderful tension-filled noise blending into the Roy Orbison cover.

When I bought the DIVER DOWN record on vinyl I immediately came home and recorded it onto a cassette tape so I could go mobile with it. Prior to the record being released, I just had to have a blank tape ready in the stereo and cued up waiting for that new Van Halen song to come on. Then cursing the DJ for talking over the song. I would have to listen to his lame attempts to sound cool every time I played the song. I brought my boom box out into my driveway and played it as loud as it could go. My little skateboarding buddies and I would practice skateboarding in my driveway as “Intruder” blasted my quiet Eugene, Oregon neighborhood. We were so little that why driveway seemed lie a huge and very dangerous hill. If we rode down my driveway, across the street, and up the neighbor’s driveway we felt like we conquered the half-pipe.

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The famous Van Halen triangle logo with the wings coming off of it decorated all of my school binders through middle school and high school. A Van Halen pin was properly positioned on my Levis jean jacket as well. I loved this album so much that I went to a scuba diving store to buy a bumper sticker of the red and white diagonal stripe that was used for the album cover. It is, of course, the loge that scuba divers used. But I put it on the back bumper of my 1976 Chevy Impala to show the world how much that Van Halen album meant to me. When the clerk asked me if I was a scuba diver I said, “Nope. Not once. But have you heard of Van Halen?”

As a young boy, I took dance classes at my parent’s suggestion. At first I thought it was cool because there was loud music on a great stereo system, I got to run around, and there were girls there. I was the only boy. Since I refused to participate in sports, dance was my exercise activity. But once I hit puberty, I got into rock music and realized this whole dance scene was not for me. I used to dread that anyone from my school might actually see me dancing at a recital around town. I didn’t tell anyone that I danced. While we danced to Broadway tunes, The Pointer Sisters, and Michael Jackson, I wore a Van Halen shirt with the baby smoking a cigarette from their album 1984. Sometimes I wore a Judas Priest shirt, just to throw in the question of heavy metal Satanism. It was my small way of revolution. Telling the world that I wasn’t really into this and that there was somewhere else I would rather be. Waiting for a dance recital to begin, sitting by myself with my geeky glasses on, I would hum to myself the Phil Collins song. “I’ve got better things to do with my time. I don’t care anymore. No more. No more.” Small as it was, those little Van Halen and Judas Priest rebellions got me through. I quit dance lessons soon thereafter and started taking drum lessons instead.

Flash forward to 1986. The new Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar was about to be played on the radio for the first time. I had my blank cassette tap all ready to record. I’d been a pretty big fan of Hagar’s solo stuff like STANDING HAMPTON and THREE LOCK BOX, so I was beyond excited that he would be joining up with the great Van Halen. “Three Lock Box”, “Bad. Motor Scooter”, “Heavy Metal”, and “Inside Lookin’ In” were great songs. I thought it would be a perfect match. But when I first heard the synthesizer intro to “Why Can’t This Be Love” I grew uneasy. My brow furrowed. There weren’t any guitars. Years later I had a similar reaction when I first heard Metallica’s ballad, “Nothing Else Matters.” I kept recording the broadcast of the 5150 album, but my spirits were a little crushed. I knew that an era was over. Van Halen pop had arrived.

I continued to see Van Halen live in concert, knowing that they would always put on a kick ass show and always play the old classics. I saw them headline the Monsters of Rock tour in 1988 with Scorpions, Dokken, Metallica, and Kingdom Come. Alex Van Halen does an incredible drum solo live. And, of course, Eddie rules. They still were very entertaining performers onstage, but they missed that certain something without Diamond Dave. I’m truly sad that I never got to see them with that classic line-up.

Their studio albums became progressively more top 40 and ballad-oriented, with predictable sophomore lyrics and simplistic song arrangements. They just didn’t have that unique spice that David Lee Roth clearly brought to the band. Even the album titles show the decline. OU812 and F.U.C.K. are the worst examples. These are album titles of cheesy juvenile sex-oriented high school bands, not the great and powerful Van Halen. It got to the point where I stopped buying their albums, which I never thought would happen. I didn’t even give phase 3 a chance. This was where they kicked out Sammy Hagar and replaced him with the lead singer of Extreme. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

But the great thing about music is that it lives on forever, and you can always relive your initial engagement and excitement with the songs. I have the first 6 Van Halen albums on vinyl from when I was a kid, and also on CD from later. DIVER DOWN went 4X Platinum, selling over four million copies. If somehow you haven’t heard this album you must check it out. I’m listening to it as I write this piece with headphones on. The power of music is truly amazing. As “Intruder” comes on I am transported to my driveway in Eugene 36 years ago. I can remember the goofy stickers on the underside of my skateboard. The sun is shining and I’m full of dreams of where rock music can take me. All of my great accomplishments are still ahead of me. I haven’t even kissed a girl yet. Nostalgia is a helluva drug.