All was not lost, although most of it was; I had lost all my clothing except what I had on, my wallet, money, identification, sleeping bag and mat, tent, and my souvenir rocks, which I didn’t really miss and was happy to be rid of the extra weight. I still had a small shoulder pack in which I kept my journal and pen and my remaining food: several slices of bread, what remained of my jar of peanut butter and my ever-present container of garlic salt.
I didn’t take much time to mourn my losses but noticed a bridge not too far from me that spanned the river, so I crossed into what I imagined and hoped must be Portland. I found a visitor’s center which confirmed my hopes but I couldn’t find a good place to catch a ride south. I was tired and had lost patience for waiting on the side of roads so I just started walking south through the streets of Portland. I didn’t have a plan and wasn’t sure how I’d make it the remaining six hundred odd miles home so I just walked.
My hopes were raised when I passed a Methodist Church and some of the members were out front doing some weeding. Though I hadn’t attended a Methodist Church in some time I still felt like here were my people, plus Methodists are known for social outreach and aiding those in need. I was sure to receive some help, perhaps a little money, or food, or maybe a place to sleep for the night. With new-found joy I approached the group and told them a little about my story, how I had been hitching back home and lost my backpack on the train and had nothing left, and I inquired if they could offer any assistance to aid me in my plight. Their reaction was far from what I expected and not only was it unhelpful but it was actually cold and disdainful. I felt ashamed, for myself, and for them. This isn’t what John and Charles Wesley had in mind when they began their church based upon their method; this wasn’t the good news, but instead it was turning ones back on a stranger. I tried a different line of inquiry hoping they just didn’t understand, I couldn’t conceive that these members of my church family would turn me away without even a measure of kindness. In the end however that was all I received, a small measure of kindness, as one of the older ladies in the group gave me a half-smile as she wished me good luck.
So with a half-hearted smile to fill my stomach and an insipid blessing to keep me warm, I left and looked for a place to sleep, as it was growing dark. Not far away I found a bench under a lamppost in a remote corner of a small neighborhood park. It was a safe place, protected on three sides by trees and shrubs and well-lit. It was a long, cold night but thankfully I had been able to pull my jacket off the train so I had some measure of comfort as I lay on the bench and tried to sleep.
But sleep was difficult to come by with the sounds of the city in the distance and other neighborhood activity nearby. These sounds exacerbated my feeling of loneliness somehow and I longed to see some friends again and to talk with someone that I knew and who knew me. The light and shadow cast by the lamppost upon the surrounding shrubs gave them character and depth and animated them to my mind. As I sat up and scanned the foliage I could begin to discern distinct shapes within their branches and leaves. In time I realized that I was in the company of numerous animals and fantastic creatures who were interested in making my acquaintance and sharing their stories with me. Suddenly the night was not nearly so lonely as I began to converse with my new friends, these shrub-creatures, and inquire of their habits, proclivities and adventures. There was Mr Frog who was recovering from a very difficult day, and he was joined by Rat-Man who fancied bowler hats and dainty foods, farther along was a group of squirrels and a porcupine discussing recent events over tea, and further into the trees lived a troll, not particularly handsome, but with a good nature which made up for his physical shortcomings. I shared my difficult predicament with them and they all expressed concern and offered me encouragement, telling me that tomorrow would certainly be a better day. Mr Frog could relate and was certain things would look brighter for one of us or the other; and he guessed it would probably be me that things would take a turn for the better. I consoled him as well and also wished him a better tomorrow. Eventually the night passed and the morning began to awaken, and with the gathering light my friends slowly faded back into the foliage and disappeared among the shrubs.
I continued my walk south, not sure of my plan, but I sensed that I was beginning to lose my ability to cope with my situation, and that I needed to find some help soon. I perceived that my emotions and my mind were fraying around the edges, and this awareness gave me insight into the mental difficulties of others who live permanently on the streets. I was afraid of losing my mind and my grip on reality and this scared me and made my heart grow with concern for anyone in a similar situation. Living on the street, the loneliness, existing on the margins of society as a pariah, enduring the elements, with little food and fear of attack at night, can take a tremendous toll on a person.
I begged for some change and called my mom. I explained my situation and we worked out a way for me to get a Greyhound bus ticket home, leaving the next morning. That night I found shelter under a pickup truck canopy in a store lot where these canopies were sold. I found one laying on the asphalt, opened the back hatch and climbed inside. It was cramped and it was cold laying on the asphalt, even with a piece of cardboard underneath but I felt safe and nobody knew I was there. I passed the night, sleeping a little, but waiting with anticipation for the bus that would arrive to pick me up early the next morning and take me home.
8:00 am arrived and I was standing at the bus stop expectantly. I had the address listed on the ticket and the correct time but the bus didn’t come. A few minutes passed and I began to worry. I couldn’t conceive of another night spent on a bench or under a truck canopy, or another night without anything to eat. As I was considering this possibility, a Greyhound bus turned the corner, but stopped on the other side of the street, heading the wrong direction. Like my error with the train, I grew confused and I determined this must be a different bus since it was on the northbound side of the street. I watched the bus unload one or two people and I grew uneasy and anxious. What if it is my bus and I’m about to miss it because I’m on the wrong side of the street? I called out and started to run towards it as it moved away from the curb. I didn’t get very close by the time the bus turned the corner and disappeared, leaving me standing alone in the street. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was and why didn’t I walk over to it and just ask where it was going? Why did I wait so long just watching it, assuming it wasn’t my bus? Oh what a sorry idiot I was, and a stranded one too.
Frantically I found some money from some frightened soul who probably thought I was out of my mind and I called my mom again. I had come unglued by now and she could hear it in my voice. She talked me back down to a place of relative calm and said she’d work it out, to stay with her, not to worry, that she needed me to keep it together. After a call to the bus company she called me back at the pay phone where I stood in a daze, and told me there would be another bus that I could take the following morning. That was good news of course, but I heard it as if through water, muffled and distant and drowned out by the sound of my own thoughts and emotions crashing down around me. It was a beautiful sunny, late August day, with just a slight crispness in the air, hinting of fall coming soon. I could appreciate as I stood digesting this news that someone was enjoying the weather but I couldn’t find any joy in it. I was stuck another day in purgatory.
I thanked my mom for all of her help, assured her I’d be okay, told her I loved her and hung up the phone. I don’t remember the rest of that day. I suppose I lived it, since I did get on the bus the next morning, but I have no recollection of anything that happened after that phone call until the next morning when I got on the bus, sank into my seat and fell asleep, finally, finally heading home.
(to be continued)