What Are They Talking About?

Feb 21st, 2014 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

Nick KemperOn my way home from work last week I dropped off some items at our corporate office in lower SE Portland, and then took the old 99E through town to get onto I-84. I passed some kind of soup kitchen/homeless shelter and there was a line going out the door about a half a block long. A lot of people had duffel bags and other items. It was a cool day, but warmer than many days previous. As I sat at the light observing the line of people I couldn’t get over how animated they all were while talking to each other. Every group of two or three people was carrying on some kind of conversation. I kept thinking, what are they talking about? What are the things that a homeless person discusses with another homeless person? Compare that line to the line at the post office or the line at the airport. Put a bunch of non-homeless people in a line and they all stand there pretending that there’s no one to talk to. It reminded me of the line of kids waiting for the school bus — everybody chatting, a few yelling, some jostling, someone grabbing something out of someone’s hand and throwing it.

When I worked in NW Portland, what is now the renovated Pearl District, we were right under the I-405 freeway so we had a lot of homeless people around our storage facility, all the time. Some were regulars. At one point I lived nine blocks away, so I walked back and forth to work every day in my uniform with epaulets on the shoulders, so some of them started calling me “Cap’n.” So I was like the Captain of the Homeless People. It was a pretty laid-back group, as you can imagine. I don’t remember them asking me for money all that often, which unfortunately is some kind of commentary on my appearance. Many of them slept behind our lot, up under the bridge supports, and every once in awhile we’d find a pallet leaned up against the fence where they were climbing up and over to try to rifle through the cars, but generally, they created little trouble.

At one point my boss got to know an old guy who lived in a trailer out in the industrial district. My boss moved the guy’s trailer into our lot and let him plug into the electricity in exchange for “security work.” Olin was a strange dude, predictably. He once told me how the government had cornered him in a public restroom and stole his wallet. He also claimed that a 1970s movie with Carol Burnett, WW and the Dixie Dance Kings, was part of some kind of conspiracy against homeless people. He had been there, during the filming in San Francisco, and although I couldn’t really understand who had done what to whom, I did get the sense that he was just disgusted with the whole affair.

Olin finally had some kind of falling out with my boss and I didn’t see him for about a year or so until I was downtown in a pay-and-park lot shuffling cars around. He walked up wearing a suit and a beret (but still hadn’t bathed or showered in weeks) and handed me a letter in an envelope. The typed letter explained in about four very complicated pages how my boss had treated him unfairly. Heck, he didn’t need to explain that to me. I could’ve written about 40 pages of my own.

If you’re around homeless people, it’s easy to see how mental illness and drug problems reduce someone’s functionality. In the past few years we’ve seen the demographic change, unfortunately, as so many people became unemployed in 2008/2009 and just haven’t been able to dig themselves out of the hole. I don’t live or work downtown anymore so I don’t rub shoulders with the men and women in the line outside the shelter, but I do see more homeless people 20 miles out in the suburbs, which is a definite indicator that things are getting worse (or not getting better.)

Somehow, though, seeing that line of people, men and women, ranging in age from late teens to late 70s, all engaged with each other and smiling and laughing and gesturing, helped me to understand that they haven’t lost their humanity, or at least the good part of their humanity — connecting with others. Whereas, when I make a joke to the lady behind me in the line at the grocery store, she backs away and reaches for the mace.

What were they talking about?

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper

www.TowPartsNow.com