I took a wrong turn off the freeway and managed to get lost in downtown Portland. This isn’t new for me, but this time I saw things that had me making a mental note that I’d like to come back when I have more time. Consequently, I find myself taking a walking tour through the area when I meet a street vendor who’s selling newspapers.
Luke has sad eyes that pull me in immediately. He’s soft-spoken and polite as he offers the local entertainment rag for just a buck. I hand over a bill and tell him he can have the money, but I don’t really want the paper so he can sell it again to someone else.
“Oh, no, you really do want it,” said Luke. “It’s an award-winning publication with so much information from great writers; you will really enjoy it. I’m very proud of this newspaper, so trust me; you should read it.” Luke is almost pleading, as if not taking the paper is akin to rejecting him. I tuck it in my bag before I ask where he is from. He launches into a tale that has my heart breaking for the very open guy who wears his feelings on his sleeve.
“Originally from Chicago. I had a great life there for a long time. I practiced Chinese medicine and we were doing really well. Then I was involved in a really horrible divorce. I tried for a long time to do that whole thing with sharing time with the kids as a single father and all that. Then things got bad with business so I had to get another job, and things got really bad. I just worked all the time so I couldn’t see the kids and everyone was mad. I just left. Caught a bus to San Diego. Not sure why I went there, I was thinking warmth and beaches. You know, California sunshine and all that. Then things got really, really bad.”
Luke takes a step closer as the sidewalk gets crowded with pedestrians waiting for the light to change. I ask how long he’s been in Oregon and the neatly groomed 52-year-old shrugs and avoids the question. Instead he offers, “I have never panhandled or begged. I got really depressed, I mean, like horribly. Have you ever been depressed? It takes over your life. They don’t really have any help in California. I couldn’t stay there since I would have to spend another $80,000 in schooling in order to be able to practice there. Here, things are getting better. My family keeps in touch with me now. Everyone but my daughter, that is. She’s still mad at me, but my son calls and texts. I didn’t get a happy Father’s Day call, though.” I ask if he’s homeless.
“No, not anymore. Oregon has great programs to help people. Through an outreach program I have an apartment now and I’m just starting to have to pay rent. It’s on a sliding scale. It’s based on how many papers I buy. I’m a vendor, an independent contractor, so I’m paying 30 percent of the rent right now and it will go up as I do better. Some days I only make $7 or so, but on days like Christmas I’ve made as much as $100. I’ve been doing this for a year now.” He tells me where I can get a shower and do laundry once a week for free. I can get a meal if I sign up with the shelter and volunteer to work at odd jobs in exchange. He reaches into this bag and hands over a little book listing all the shelters with phone numbers and addresses. It offers practical advice on staying warm on the streets and how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning in the process. There’s a coupon for a free HIV test, as well as a warning that you must submit to a tuberculosis test in order to stay at the shelters.
He asks where I’m from before he asks where my favorite place to visit has been. I tell him that’s tough, but Colorado pops into my head. “I loved New Mexico,” he shares. “We were married there, my wife and I. It was so incredibly romantic. It was a tiny little place between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Absolutely spiritual. I liked Taos, too. That was 1977. Such a long time ago.” A wave of sadness washes over him and I reach out to hug the man with the very deep soul. He holds me tight for a long time, then lets go and steps back. He smiles and puts his hands together in prayer and bows to me in farewell. I left wishing I had bought every damned paper he had.