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Chapter 17: Streets of Portland

     


ThinkLink: Have you ever been alone in a big city, or someplace you didn’t know your way around?

       A clock on a bank building flicks on the time -- 1:14, and then the temperature -- 52. I walk in the dark along an empty street toward downtown. In a big city like Portland I figure people'd be out in the middle of the night, but nobody's around. It's just rained. There's a fresh, sharp smell in the air. I splash through puddles on the street and watch the colored pictures the neon lights make on the wet pavement. A light-colored car turns the corner and I step back into a doorway.


       What if Montgomery does a bed-check in the middle of the night? When Tony ran, Pat said they put out an APB , had Cops looking for him all over the state. I push back deeper into the shadows and the car goes by. No printing on the car door. I let my breath out in a big swoosh. Beats me why Tony gets such a rush out of prowling the streets.


       On the corner I see a restaurant all lit up. Red neon flashes on and off. Lucky's -- All Night . I edge up to the window. All dark tan and dismal inside. I walk past slow. Nobody there but the counterman , so I walk in.


       "Too late to get something to eat?


       "Nah, but it's late for you to be out, ain't it?"


       "Just got into town. I'm looking for a friend, but I'd better not wake him up in the middle of the night."


       "What'll it be?"


       I finger the change in my pocket. It's the last of my spending money from Eagle Crest. There's three dollar bills rolled up, but I'm not sure how many quarters I saved to call Mom on the pay phone. I hate to spend any of it. "A doughnut and a glass of milk."


       "That'll be a buck. Come far?"


       "Not too far. I got a ride down from Seattle."


       "Don't be out there on the street this time of night. We got a curfew here."


       I nibble around the edges of the doughnut to make it last so he won't try to sell me more. Or tell me to go back out on the street. But he ignores me and goes through a door into a back room. I hear voices. At first they talk low and I strain to hear if the counterman's calling the Cops on me.


       Then they start to bellow at each other and I know it's not about me. There's crashing and banging, and a man comes rushing out of the back. He peels a dirty apron off over his head and throws it on the floor. He yells back at the counterman, "That's it, Ken. I'm leaving. Wash your own greasy pots. The shelter's better than this."


       The counterman follows back in and watches him go out the front door. "Damn bum," he says. "It'll take me all night to clean up that mess."


       "I can do it," I tell him.


       "You're just a kid. I need..."


       "Try me. I've washed dishes before. I'll do a good job for you."


       "You can't do worse than that shithead." He looks me over. "The job's only Friday and Saturday nights. You come to work at six at night and leave at four in the A.M. Pays two-fifty an hour, cash after every shift."


       "But I thought minimum ..."


       "You want it or not? I can get plenty of bums in off the..."


       "Sure. I mean, I do."


       "We don't do much trade after midnight. That's when you clean the kitchen, mop the floors, clean the counters -- that kinda stuff. What you can't do is go in the storage room and sleep like that no good son-of-a -...!"


       "I'll show you." I knew I could take care of myself. My first night in town and I'm making money already.


       "OK, come on back to the kitchen. He left one hell of a mess."


       Mess is no word for it. Water and food scraps are smeared across the floor in front of the dishwasher. Pans and dishes piled up on the counter. Grease all over the stove. I get the gunk off the floor first, and then I load the dishwasher. Every time Ken comes back to the kitchen, I'm hard at work. I scrub the counters and the stove, put the pans away, and mop the floor. It's almost five when I finish.


       Ken comes in and gives a whistle. "Job's yours if you want it. Come back tomorrow afternoon by 5:30 and I'll find some grub for you to eat before you go to work at six."


       I follow him back into the front. Ken opens the cash register and pays me in dollar bills. "It wasn't quite four hours, but you did a good job, so what the heck. Here's ten. I'll put a sack with a couple of leftover muffins on the counter for you. Take 'em along for breakfast."


       "Thanks, Ken. I mean Mr. Uh…"


       "Ken's fine."


       When I walk back out onto the sidewalk, I see the sky's starting to get light. I look at the number on the door of Lucky's -- 1829. The street sign on the corner says Emory and Liberty Streets. Emory. That's the street Pat told me to look for. Not only have I got a job, it looks like it's close to the place Pat told me about, where kids can stay and no questions asked. A lucky day at Lucky's. I scoop in fresh air.


       Liberty Street toward downtown is all tall buildings looking like stacked blocks against the just-light sky. The building across from me is covered with black glass and I can see the clouds and other buildings shining on its side. Then the sun breaks through and the glass lights up all over. I always thought of big cities being dirty and scary, but this looks like a place in a science fiction movie, shiny and modern. Almost deserted like the place has been evacuated by aliens.


       A clock on a building says seven. The street begins to fill up with cars. A bus stops on the corner and a bunch of people get off. Cars park at meters and men and women in suits get out and go into the buildings. Ahead I see what Pat was talking about: "There's a place called the Square in the middle of downtown. It's like a park with big buildings all around it, but it has bricks instead of grass." He told me to go to the southwest corner, the highest spot. "You'll find lots of street kids there. That's where I hang out when I'm on the outs , so maybe I'll see ya."


       From the top corner I can't see much beyond a sidewalk restaurant and trees in big concrete tubs. But inside, off the street. White columns make it seem like a great building that's open to the sky. Wide steps go down past a waterfall to an open space in the middle, all covered with bricks with the names of people on them. I've never seen such a place.


       I wander around, catching all that's going on. The smell of fresh-made coffee drifts out from the restaurant. A man opens a cart into a little kitchen and a serving counter. A woman sets up buckets of fresh flowers, yellow daffodils and red tulips , like the ones Mom planted last year.


       I go back to the upper corner. Near the outdoor restaurant, a girl is shouting into a pay phone. I don't mean to listen; well, yeah, I guess I do. I can't keep from hearing anyway. She's talking so loud, people in the big buildings all around the Square could hear every word, at least if they were hanging out windows.


       "Mom! Let me tell you, Mom!" she screeches. Then she shuts up and listens. "It's not like that, Mom. Will you let me talk? Mom? ... Mom! Just hear me, Mom. I need to talk to you." She sounds like she's crying now, but trying not to. "Mom, can I come home? Please?" I scrunch my shoulders, thinking I ought to move on--but I don't.


       "Mom, I know Pops don't like me, but can't I come home for just one night so I could talk to you? Mom, listen to me, please." Then it gets quiet. She's getting an earful, I guess. She gets red in the face and she rubs her eyes. "I don't care what he says. I hate him." She kicks at the bricks. "I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean that. Can't you ask him nice? I could sleep over at Aunt Milly's. Hell, I could sleep out in the yard. ... I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean ... It's just that I need to talk to you."


       She takes the phone down from her ear and stares at it. "Shit," she says. "She hung up on me." She walks over to where a girl's sitting on a low wall.


       I feel sneaky, listening to the stuff she's saying, but I still hang around, waiting to talk to one of them. To ask about Pat. To find out what's going on around here. When the girl from the pay phone walks away, I walk up slow, giving the girl on the wall a chance to look me over. I figured that out at Fire Oak. Never come up quick on anybody, especially if they don't see you coming.


ThinkLink: Have you seen homeless teens? What do you think that you would do if you became homeless?

       I sit down on the wall, a couple of feet away from her. She's got long curly hair, blonde once, maybe, but streaked brown now. It frizzes out around her head and doesn't look like she's combed it in a month. She's got on a dark-blue nylon jacket, sizes too big for her and a long, crinkley skirt over black hightop work boots . A small khaki duffel bag's tucked against the wall behind her knee and a tall, skinny, homemade drum leans up against her leg.


       She doesn't pay me any attention, so I move a little closer. Then she meows. I do a double take and then laugh. She turns, gives me a stare and scoots on down the wall a little.


       "You got a cat in there?" I point to her floppy jacket.


       "Yeah. How'd you know?"


       "Unless you purr, it's got to be a cat."


       She unzips the jacket a little and a tiny black-and-white face pokes out. Its eyes are dull and matted with dry pus . No use telling her, but that cat has "I'm going to die–soon" written all over it.


       "You want it? I mean I like it and all, but I got no place for it. I tried to get it to eat, but it won't." She leans over and strokes it with one finger.


       "I don't either. Have a place, I mean. Why'd you get a cat if…"


       "Some asshole dropped it off from a car stopped at the red light." She gestured with an elbow toward the intersection. "Dumped it out the window into the gutter. Almost got run over, but I grabbed it. That was two days ago and I can't find nobody to take it."


       "Sorry. Wish I could." I don't really. A sick cat's the last thing I need.


       "I'm Vonda," she says.


       "John."


       "Sure you don't want it?"


       I shake my head and change the subject. "What's with that girl, the one on the phone."


       "Oh, her. Step dad's on her case all the time. Her mom says he won't let her back in the house."


       "Uh-h-h. That's tough." F reaks me out to remember I got a step dad now. What if Norman won't let me see Mom again?


       She goes on talking about the girl on the phone, how she's going to have a baby and wants to get off the street. "The doctor at the clinic told her she needs some pills and stuff, and regular meals."


       " What'll she do?"


       "A couple of places help girls find a place to live and somewhere to have the baby, that kinda stuff. Trouble is, they're all filled up right now. That's why she thought maybe her ma would let her come home for a while." Vonda ruffles her matted hair, like that'd neaten it up. "Guess she'll just have to wait it out."


       A guy on down the wall gives me the evil eye. He's almost as scruffy looking as Vonda, dirty hair, baggy clothes, a bedroll tied with a rope under his arm. "This guy bothering you?" he asks Vonda.


       She shrugs. "Nah, Jake. He's OK."


       "So what're you hanging out here for? Get your kicks outta watching us?"


       "I'm not watching you. I'm looking for somebody. Pat Douglas. You know him?"


       "Maybe, maybe not. Who wants to know?" Jake says. He's a couple of years older than me, but shorter and skinnier.


       "John..." I think for a second. "John Douglas. I'm his cousin."


       All three of them look at me different now. "I'm Kate," the other girl says. She's got white-blonde hair, cut choppy and short, sticking straight up like a boy's grown-out crew cut. She looks me over, but friendly-like, not mean. She's got on all black clothes with metal studs and chains on her jacket. And lipstick so dark red it's almost black. "You new in town?"


       "Sort of. Pat said I could stay with him, but if he's not around..."


       "There's a guy called Pat who hangs out some," Kate says. "We don't go much for last names. Gone for a long time, but he showed up here one day last week. I ain't seen him lately." I turn away, discouraged. "Hey, don't look so down. There's lots of ways you can get by 'til you find him. You got any money? If you got some, you can come in with a bunch of us and rent a room for a night."


       Vonda and Jake laugh and Kate grins at me. "It's funny 'cause we had seven kids in a room last month and the manager kicked us out at five in the morning."


       Jake pinches his nose. "And that cat. It stinks. Vonda, you gotta do something about it before tonight. I ain't gonna listen to it all night." Jake turns to me. "Man, you couldn't step over the bodies to get to the can, and the shower ran all night."


       Kate nods. "If you come around here about ten tonight, we'll try to collect enough dough for a room in some different place. Where they don't know us. One of us'll pay. Then we'll sneak the rest in." She shrugs. "If we don't come up with enough for a room, I know an empty warehouse we can get into. I stayed there two nights last week. You could go the Youth Shelter , but you have to get there early and stay all night. It's OK, I guess, and they have a place where you can clean up."


       "Thanks," I tell her, "but I think I'll try this place of Pat's first. I found Emory Street already, but which way is Emory and Twenty-third?"


       "That way," Jake says, as he points down the street toward Lucky's . "Emory goes past a little park."


       Vonda looks serious. "Be off the streets at night when you can. Don't go down under the bridges unless you're with some kids ya know." She shivers and wraps her arms around herself and the kitten.


       "We look out for each other," Jake says, "but sometimes…" He shrugs. "Watch your back."


       I already know about watching my back. "I got a job already. It's only two nights on weekends, but I'll be OK."


       "A job, huh? You got a work permit ?" Kate asks me.


       "No." I hadn't thought about that. When I worked for Roy Fletcher in the gas station last fall, the teacher who did the job placement at school gave me a form for Mom to sign. Now I can't give my right name, let alone get a form to her. I don't dare give Ken my social security number . "I'll be sixteen in July and the guy didn't ask for one."


       "No matter," Jake says. "You can't get no steady jobs around here anyway, just pick-up stuff. A day here, a day there. No one's gonna hire you if you don't have no permanent address. Kids here, most of 'em do…other things to get money."


       Vonda scopes out the Square. "You got a regular job, you keep it if you can." She looks back at me and smiles. A nice smile. "And, hey, we didn't mean to chill ya out at first, but we thought maybe you was a weekender , one of those groupies that come down looking for the glamour of street life."


       Kate nods. "Man, everybody's after you here. It's like we're the pioneers . Wagons in a circle ." Vonda and Jake groan. "Didn't you guys have no history classes at school?"


       "Nah, I musta missed that month," Vonda tells her. "Besides, it's more like we was the Indians, roaming our own turf , and they're the locals pushing us off 'cause they want it all for themselves. I seen this movie ... "


       Jake scowls at her and she shuts up. "I gotta pick up some stuff and deliver it. See you guys later," he says.


ThinkLink: Did you ever wake up in an unfamiliar place and not know where you were? Can you think of some times when you had a hard time deciding what you should do?

       

The girls wander off and I sit down on the red brick steps. The sun's higher now, and it warms the back of my jean jacket. Traffic's slowed down some and it's almost quiet. I lean back against my sacks. I feel my eyes get heavy.


       Nick runs across the kitchen and tackles me around the knees and pushes me over. Lori grabs me around the neck and helps him drag me down. Mom is cooking. She keeps at me to do my homework and tells me to get washed up for dinner. Red comes in and tells one of his corny jokes and I moan. Pete yammers to me about not doing my chores the perfect way, meaning his way. I start to get mad.


       I wake up with a jerk. I look around quick to see where I am and what's happening.


       "You're OK," Vonda says. "Just sleeping is all. I been hanging around the corner, watching to see nobody hassled you."


       "Thanks." I look for the kitten in her baggy jacket, but there's no bulge there. "Found a home for the cat?"


       "Yeah, some man getting off a bus took it. Hope he takes good care of it."


       My stomach growls out loud. "I got two muffins my boss gave me. Want one?" I pull the wrinkled white sack out of my bag of clothes.


       "Sure. I didn't have nothing this morning. There's a church over on Tremaine Street that gives out sandwiches at noon, and there's a place for street kids called Greenhouse over on Oak. A different church puts out dinner there for us every night. You got some place to eat tonight?"


       "Yeah, I get dinner where I work before my shift starts, but I'll remember. And thanks for watching. I'd better go up to Pat's place and see if he's there."


       "I get it. But remember to come around. We're kinda family down here, you know. And take care of yourself. You know what they say: it's a meat market out there."


       "You, too." I watch her as she walks away, thinking about girls being out on the street.


       I walk back down Liberty to Emory and turn right. I follow the street alongside Lucky's . Another counterman is there when I peer through the window. I walk on toward the park, looking at numbers on houses: 2391 ... 2355.... I see what I'm looking for: 2321. It's an old, beat-up two-story place set up on a bank that's a couple of feet above the sidewalk. The house was bright blue years ago, but the paint's all faded and peeling now. The front yard isn't much either, just a patch of worn-out lawn and a couple of straggly bushes. The porch across the front of the house tilts off to one side.


       I lose my nerve and walk on down the cracked sidewalk past the house. I feel dumb barging in, asking for a place to stay. Then I turn back and walk up the steps. I gotta go somewhere. Might as well be here.



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 Updated on 9/30/03

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