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.