The next afternoon, I began spying on my best friend. There were some logistical aspects that I hadn’t considered. I got off work at five and drove to the homeless shelter – called “Gimme Shelter” – where Malcolm volunteered. When I got there, it was a little before six, but it took a while before I was able to find a good parking spot. Fortunately, I was able to get a place in front of the bus station that had a clear view of the entrance to Gimme Shelter.
I waited. And waited. Six o’clock came and went, and I began to wonder if he had gone out through another door. Just as I was contemplating giving the whole thing up, the door swung open and Malcolm came out, pushing his ten-speed. He was dressed in what he called his “uniform”: a faded-but-clean Army surplus jacket, surplus OD backpack, faded-but-untorn jeans and a pair of Chuck Taylors. He waved to someone inside the building, mounted his bike and pedaled off.
I slid down in the seat and turned my head away as he passed. I’d have to remember to bring a hat and sunglasses next time. Once he was a block down the street, I started the Mercedes and pulled out. There was no trouble following him. He rode pretty quickly, and I was able to hang back a block and match his pace without causing a traffic jam. Good thing that Portland drivers were so laid-back; if this were like Philadelphia, where I learned to drive, I’d have every other driver on the road honking at me and flipping the bird.
I tailed him to the river without difficulty, but ran into another problem: crossing the Willamette. Portland is called, among other things, “Bridge City.” This is due to the number of bridges spanning the Willamette River, which is the east-west divider for the city.
I almost lost him at the Steel Bridge because the pedestrian/bike path was down below the level of the span used by cars. I had no choice but to drive across and wait. Fortunately, he whizzed right by me at a stoplight. It was well past dark, and if I hadn’t seen him right then and there, it was unlikely that I would have picked up his trail again.
Once we had gotten past the Convention Center and basketball arena, it was smoother sailing. The street grids were more regular, and I was able to pace him from a block behind all the way back to his apartment. He dismounted his bike, carried into his apartment and closed the door.
Well, that was a whole lot of nothing, I thought. I parked across the street and waited for perhaps a half hour, but nothing happened. Feeling foolish, I drove back to my place and again left the car down the street.
The first shift was a bust, and the second wasn’t any better. That Wednesday, I repeated the process, but lost him at the bridge. I drove straight home, feeling foolish.
On Friday, Malcolm left Gimme Shelter at the usual time, but instead of heading towards the Steel Bridge, he headed north. My pulse accelerated: he was up to something. He pulled up to a large homeless encampment under the end of the Broadway Bridge. He locked his bike to a cyclone fence – good luck with that, I thought – and walked into the cluster of tents. I pulled to a good vantage point across the street and slumped down to watch.
About eight years ago, I worked for an advertising agency in the Pearl. This was a trendy neighborhood adjacent to Oldtown. There weren’t many homeless people there at the time, but there was some spillover from the grittier parts of Oldtown. The homeless folks kinda freaked me out at first, but I came to realize that the vast majority of them were harmless people who’d had a bad break. I even got to know a few of them by name.
In the last couple of years, the homeless population had exploded. Now it seemed like huge, messy tent encampments were everywhere downtown. So were the problems that went with them: trash, graffiti, drug dealing, prostitution, theft. The city government seemed unwilling or unable to deal with the problem. I found my compassion stretched thin, and found myself wondering why, if they were on the street all day, that the campers couldn’t take some time to clean up the garbage that was strewn around many of the tents. Seeing the many “help wanted” signs in stores downtown, I wondered whether a lot of the campers would rather just hang out with their friends and get loaded all day rather than try to find work.
These thoughts were troubling and overly simple, but persistent. It felt like a Fox News commentator had invaded my brain. I knew homelessness was a complex and nuanced problem without an easy solution, but it was hard to look at the squalor of the camp that Malcolm was walking into and not be worried.
The people there seemed to know him, and greeted him warmly. I strained to see what was going on in the waning light. He stood in the clearing in the middle of a group of tents, casually chatting with the people there.
There was a tapping on the passenger side window, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a scruffy man in a long overcoat standing there. “Want something?” he said.
“What?!” I asked, not really understanding what was going on.
“If you’re looking for something, I got it,” the man said. “Got some H, got some go-fast, got some weed. Whatever you want, boss.”
Ah-ha. White guy in a Mercedes parked in Oldtown – this guy was a drug dealer figuring I was some dork from the suburbs looking to score. I waved him off, “No, man. I’m fine.”
He was persistent. “Look, boss he said. “Whatever you need, I can get it. Uppers, downers, laughers, quackers. You name it.”
Quackers? I thought. What the hell? “No, man, really,” I said. “I’m just waiting on a friend. That’s all.”
The man turned and moved off quickly, casting suspicious glances over his shoulder as went away. He must have thought I was a cop. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
I looked back over at the homeless camp. Malcolm had unslung his backpack and was pulling out white bundles and handing them out. Holy shit! I thought. Here he was, doling out, well, something, right there in the open! I stared, wishing I had thought to bring a pair of binoculars. I squinted, trying to get a better view of what was going on.
Malcolm continued to pull the white bundles from his backpack and hand them out to the campers. They seemed very thankful, but they weren’t giving him anything in return. Also, the bundles seemed suspiciously large. I was no drug expert, but these seemed to be the size of the baggies that the cops showed off to the press when they made a big bust. If Malcolm was handing out thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs to the homeless and getting nothing in return – well, it didn’t seem like a really good business model. Maybe they were his distributors, and he would collect the money later. It seemed wrong, though.
As I was watching, Malcolm handed one of the bundles to a short man with a mane of wiry red hair. The man received the bundle with gratitude, smiling and shaking Malcolm’s hand. Then he sat down in the dirt and pulled off his shoes. He peeled the white bundle in half, then pulled one of the halves onto his feet.
They were socks.
Malcolm had swung by the homeless camp to hand out socks. I sunk down so that my eyes were level with the car’s windowsill. I wasn’t trying to hide; I just felt low. I had gotten all worked up, thinking Malcolm was pulling some drug deal, and here he was handing out socks to the unfortunate. I felt lower than a snake’s belly.
Malcom finished handing out his socks, and hung around shooting the breeze with the campers for a bit. Then he unlocked his bike – which no one had even come close to – and mounted up and pedaled off. I waited until he was a block away then started up and pulled out behind him. When he disappeared down the embankment to cross the lower bridge, I didn’t care. I drove across the bridge and went straight home.
Still feeling like crap, I decided to call Janet and tell her the whole thing was a load of bull. Malcolm might be acting a little moody, but he was no drug dealer. I had let my libido cloud my judgment and make me think ill of my best friend. To hell with Janet – it was time to call this foolishness off.
I dialed her number, it rang a bunch of times, then went to voicemail. I hung up and tossed the phone on the futon. After a minute, it buzzed. I almost let it go, but then grabbed it and glanced at the screen. It was a text from Janet: “Cant talk 2 U right now. Malcolm just came over. Lets talk tomorrow.”
Let’s not and say we did, I thought sourly. I made a grilled cheese sandwich and some soup, and ate it while watching the first hour of Apocalypse Now. Then I went to bed. Another fabulous Friday evening in the Williams household. I tossed and turned, but couldn’t fall asleep. I just kept wondering what Malcolm and Janet were up to at that moment.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I dug an old copy of Cheri and jerked off to Madison, 21, from Fresno. That helped, but not much. Tossing the magazine back onto my dresser, I noticed that it was eight years old. Madison, from Fresno, was now pushing thirty. I wondered what her life was like now, and if she was even still alive. A depressing thought. I threw out the magazine, took a shower, went back to bed, and lay there staring at the ceiling until it was late, late.