“They want you to want what they want for you,” he explained. “But I want my own place.”
I’d seen the tiny houses going up on Division. I asked Mike if he was working with the city, or perhaps a nonprofit.
He shook his head. Then his voice dropped to a whisper, as if he did not want the other men to overhear the plan he’d hit on.
“I got the Yellow Pages, and I called an architect.”
I must have been silent a beat too long, because Mike’s voice lifted an octave:
“He said he would try to help me. I need to call him again. I wanted to find a quiet place to call him today, but it’s too late now. He is expecting my call.”
His hand swept his head, and his eyes followed the line of men moving into the shelter; now there was a hitch of anxiety when he spoke.
“I just need to find a quiet place to call him.”
At the shelter next door to our apartment, dinner was served at 5:30 pm, but somewhere between 15 and 40 people were always milling around outside the blue door. Across the Willamette River, on the other side of the bridge, people coagulated in slow, colorful clots around different entryways and arches: the Portland Rescue Mission, the Union Gospel Mission. It rained all January, and people were always smoking in the rain, sheltering small flames with their hands. Smoking kills, as the label warns, but I found myself admiring these smokers’ commitment to its ritualistic aspects, even in the bone-chilling damp. Their lit cigarettes looked like miniature scrolls to me, leaking blue prayers.
I often found myself walking home at dusk with a bag of groceries, carrots leafing cartoonishly over the paper bag. “Excuse me, excuse me,” I murmured, wending through the men queued up for dinner service outside the shelter. Passersby could travel through this crowd like ghosts through walls. In their midst but also, somehow, by mutual agreement, invisible. I sometimes tried to make eye contact, but I often felt hot faced and flummoxed. I was very aware of my bags loaded down with fresh food, and of the safe, warm home waiting for me half a block away.