Amidst the swirling smells of oven-baked goodies, motor oil, incense, human sweat, coffee, and cigarettes, people shuffle along the mottled pavement of this downtown street each moving toward his or her important destination with a hurried step. Others whizz by on bicycles, hugging sidewalk curbs, soaring precariously on the fringes of motorized traffic like anti-fossil fueled martyrs. Overhead a jet casts its smoky trail across the sky and fills the air with sonic thunder that temporarily overwhelms the city sounds of revving engines, human voices, and various industrial actions that otherwise sing like an urban symphony into the perpetually soggy Pacific Northwest sky.
It is another noontime rush in downtown Portland, Oregon. People are hustling and bustling, hurriedly on foot or wheel racing the clock and each other for a quick bite of convenience only to race back to another cycle of the daily grind. However, all is not in such accord at Sweets bakery, a tiny little gourmet patisserie off Burnside Street. Here, routine, order and one little woman are quite upset and making a very big racket.
The little woman is Ms. Tempest Sweets, the owner of Sweets Bakery. She is shouting at Mr. Chuck Morris or King, as those in the street roots community call him. On this particular day, King, in his typical urban-nomad style has taken up residence on the sidewalk in front of Sweets Bakery, much to the displeasure of its owner. Sadly, urban Nomads or The Homeless as their housed counterparts more often call them are accustomed to this sort of contemptuousness that comes between having a heart and having a home. As such, it is not surprising to see the petite baker trying to shoo King off like a bug, stray dog, or cat. King, unperturbed, sits cross-legged on the pavement belting out Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Jimmy Cox in a voluminous blues voice that, for all her efforts, Ms. Sweets cannot seem to overwhelm.
Laid open in front of King’s seated frame is a cardboard guitar case that holds a few dollar bills, five quarters, three dimes, two nickels, and one me, Penny. Yep, this little copper coin has seen a lot go down on these metro streets and seen more change than the bottom of a wishing well, except for change of heart, that is.
“Mr. I am trying to be nice about this …” Ms. Sweets begins.
“… sweet as a butter crème cupcake, I would say,” interrupts King who seems quite amused with his retort. His eyes crinkle on their outer corners tracing patterns that extend outwards like beams of sunshine to betray his age less than his smile. Ms. Sweets, on the other hand, is not so amused.
“Look, I am trying to be nice about this, but if you do not leave, I am going to call the police. Why don’t you realize you are not welcome here?”
King’s smile fades. He stops strumming his guitar and sets it on the pavement, leaving its case open for business. With a more serious tone he answers, “Ma’am, I realize I am not welcome here, I am not welcome anywhere. So, where the hell am I supposed to go? I ain’t trying to disrespect no one or cause trouble. I am just trying to go about my business and get by same as you or anyone else so why can’t we be friends?” King looks directly into Ms. Sweets eyes, pleading.
Ms. Sweets sucks in her breath and clenches her little hands into white knuckled fists. Her face reddens. She is livid. At a loss for words she sputters, “Mister, look, I have work to do. Are you going to get the hell off my property or do I have to call the police?”
“Well, Ma’am, the sidewalk is not your property; it is public property, and that means I own it just as much as you, so I’m staying. Yes, ma’am, I intend to stand my ground because the only thing I am guilty of is not having a roof over my head and if that’s a crime then you go ahead and call the damn police; that’s your business.”
“No! That’s my business!” Ms. Sweets shouts back as she points toward her storefront, and stabs the air emphatically.
“Yeah, well, that’s my business!” King counters as he points toward his guitar case. He seems to be losing his mellow mood growing frazzled, frustrated. What can a person like him do? No matter what he decides, he stands to lose.
“Have it your way, old man!” Ms. Sweets shouts as she spins on her heel and disappears through the front door of her bakery. She soon re-appears armed with a phone and holds it intently to her ear as she paces amongst the elegantly framed treats of her spotless storefront windows. When she finally slams down the receiver, she smiles to herself and goes back to her cakes and pies, humming. King, paying attention, sighs, but picks up his guitar and starts playing the guitar riff from Come as You Are by Nirvana. Even when there is no audience, King announces what song he is going to play. This time, however, he spares his usual formality and simply shouts out to the empty sidewalk, “This one’s dedicated to the sweet lady at Sweets Bakery!” He kicks his right leg in the air and launches into the first verse
Come, as you are, as you were, as I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest, as a friend, as an old Memoria
A young woman with a shaved head and a rainbow tattoo on her neck walks up and tosses a few cigarettes into King’s guitar case from the pack she has in hand, “Right on, dude, Nirvana Rocks!” She gives King two thumbs up. He nods, offering a smile, never missing a beat as she walks on.
The lunch rush is passing its peak; stragglers hang about. Above the dirt and grime of my ground-level view, mounting clouds that a moment ago were but casting sporadic droplets of water now gently weeps into rain that grows steadily. Water crashes against the city streets with a force like an attack. People run from the liquid pounding fists that would flush them down the drains like the dirt and oil pushes muck from the gutter into the dank, muddy depths of the Willamette River. The wet stream of pitter-pattering grows into a torrent that shoots from the sky like bullets from a machine gun. So loud is it that I do not hear the rhythmic addition of soles on concrete before I realize there are feet about me. People’s voices murmur curiously low. A whistle blows, an engine bellows, tires screech. I begin to feel anxious, sick, green like acidic human sweat from a holding hand that dulls my shiny face with oxidation.
King is also nervous. He is shuffling about his belongings, seemingly, trying to resist the urge to run away from the police officer that is closing in like an uneasy feeling.
“Sir, please turn around. I need to speak with you,” says the officer to King whom, facing the opposite direction, looks disoriented, nothing like the man who just a moment ago so eloquently spoke of standing up for his rights. He is mumbling to himself, frantically sifting through newspapers and plastic bags, which hold all he owns in the world. The situation is tense; even the wind seems to be holding its breath. My thoughts grow uneasy as the discontent and confusion reflecting in King’s eyes.
It is cold and wet, but King’s face is flushed with heat, breath fast and shallow: panic. He moves anxiously, eyes wide. He hardly gives a second glance to the police officer. What distracts him? Finally, with what seems like considerable effort, King turns toward the officer. All but attentive, his eyes do not meet those of his inquirer but instead scan the ground, trees, and pavement. I notice a small crowd of people beginning to gather like keen concertgoers arriving early for a good spot at a standing room only show.
What is he looking for? I wonder of King. The police officer has a quizzical look upon his face as if he is asking himself the same question.
“Howdy officer, it’s a bit drizzly out isn’t it? But, you know, I have a feeling the sun is going to shine on us, at least a little, before the day is through.” King flashes the officer his most winning smile.
“Sir, I’ve been called here to investigate a complaint about someone loitering in front of Sweets bakery and disturbing the peace. Can I please see some identification?”
“Sure thing officer, I ain’t here to cause no trouble.” King pulls on the chain around his neck and fishes a metal tag out from underneath his shirt.
The officer disregards King’s attempt to make polite small talk, “Sir, I would prefer to see a state issued picture I.D.”
“With all due respect, I would prefer that I had one for you to see but this here dog tag is all I got, but I can assure you, it’s as legal as an eagle, got it from Uncle Sam when I was a tunnel rat back in Vietnam.” Kings blinks his eyes tightly in three rapid successive squints as he jerks his head to the right to shout over his shoulder, “Shut up! I know he already knows!” Behind him, the small crowd stirs with murmured excitement.
Ms. Sweets has turned her open sign to closed and come outside where, beside the police officer, she stands nervously wringing her hands, compulsively darting her eyes from her store, to the officer, King, the crowd and back. The anger that had her reeling not long ago now shivers her timbers: panic. Feverish, her almond eyes are full of uncertainty and desperation as she interrupts the officer’s dialogue to blurt out, “Please, officer, can’t you just get the guy out of here? I am trying to avoid not become a spectacle. This is getting out of hand, people are beginning to stop and stare and …”
“Ma’am, please, I need you to remain calm. There are procedures; I have to follow the law, Ma’am and I’ll need to speak with Mr. …” the officer, somewhat flustered, cocks his head to the left and reads the tag dangling around King’s neck now laying on the outside of his shirt, “… Mr. Morris, I’ll need to speak with you, Ma’am, Mr. Morris, and any witnesses so I can fill out a report before anyone goes anywhere.”
The acute air thickens as an anonymous voice erupts over the crowd. “He’s a Vietnam Veteran for Christ’s sake! Leave him alone!” Ms. Sweets blushes with either anger, embarrassment or both, the attention proving to be more than she had bargained.
The officer looks similarly uneasy though less frantic as he scans the crowd for the rogue protester, but before he can find it, another voice of protest calls from the opposite direction. “He’s paid his dues!” Another likewise follows. “Yeah, show the man a little respect!”
King is anxious disoriented, confused to his surroundings, oblivious to the cries in his defense though they are in accord with his own. The eyes gawking only inches from his may as well be a million miles away. He seems frightened.
“You know where I go, what I do, tracking every move. What do you want from me? You sent me down in those holes and didn’t think I would come back, but I did so you had to come up with another plan, one that would punish me, proper.”
King’s fervor builds in intensity and incoherence. A bead of sweat slides down the right side of the officer’s temple: fear. His hand moves slowly up to the hilt of his gun, poised, ever slightly trembling.
Thick sounds of wailing, moaning, heavy machine gears, brakes fill the air. A school bus slows, screeching to a halt at the red light in front of Sweets bakery. I can almost hear the squeaky sounds of little children’s noses pressing curiously up against the glass fogged by their baby’s breath, straining to get a better look at The Homeless. Their little eyes look entranced, curious.
However, there is one little girl noticeably crying, a slightly taller girl, probably the little one’s sister has her arm around the little one’s shoulders, as if to reassure her; don’t worry, everything is going to be alright. Don’t be scared. No one will hurt you. The rest of the children are all transfixed. Some of them open their windows to get a better look; the bus driver is tapping her fingers nervously upon the steering wheel impatiently, anxious to get away from a situation that would no doubt cause her to have to do a lot of explaining to kids, her boss, and over reactive parents. Looking up from the traffic light into the rearview mirror, she yells at the children to close the windows. They pay her no mind.
The officer notices the bus but keeps his eyes fixed upon King. Finally, the young officer shouts with as much volume and command of authority it seems he can muster. “Sir, now you better listen and listen up quick because I am only going to say this once, put your hands behind your head, spread your legs, turn your back to me, drop slowly and I mean slowly to your knees. Keep your hands above your head and lay down on your stomach.
King glances toward the officer, but seems oblivious to the gun aimed directly at him. “You think I do not know about the little microchips you have been putting in me. You can’t take me to jail. I am jail. You locked me up outside!” The crowd surges like a swelling wave of energy that expels heat but tries not to transmit sound. King spins around, his hand reaches out to point an accusation and one fateful finger in the direction of the officer.
BANG! Like a thunderous whip, the stifled atmosphere of contained crisis cracks. A shriek of a woman’s voice follows; the crowd disperses. People scatter across the street slinking like guilty shadows touched by the sun. The few who remain huddle in shock about King who has collapsed to his knees. No longer comprehensible, a gurgling sound and a weak watery cough emits from his throat; he is still trying to argue a point to some unseen condemner as a thin trickle of blood spills over his worn, weather beaten lips falling like crimson tear drops onto the concrete to mingle with those of the rain. Like the sky, his eyes fill with clouds.
At once, I am lost in a sea of rampant feet that kick, stomp, and scoot me around the pavement. Confusion and chaos abound; the noise that pierced the silence and shook the small crowd around me with fear like tectonic friction shakes the earth moments ago now leaves but a few to stand bewildered, silent, in shock and disbelief.
In kind, the rain relents; ominous clouds begin to fold like billowy drapes, parting to reveal a sliver of blue that, for a moment, casts out a meek, but forceful beam upon the disgraced sidewalk like a beautifully glaring spotlight reveals an ugly truth. You were right, King. The sun did come out today after all. Then, as quick as it had come, the sunshine vanishes. All is dark. I realize it is not necessarily for the hiding sun as much it is for a powdered, doughy, soft human hand, which has scooped me up from the street along with the other change that spilled from interior of King’s overturned guitar case.
I hear the now familiar voice of Ms. Sweets, coming from above me as I jingle in what is most certainly her pocket. “What a horrible mess!” she laments. In the distance, a sirens song of emergency response vehicles wailing their frantic cries, grows louder, closer, rushing to clean up the streets and wash away the sin of an innocent man’s demise.