He was a stocky dude, short, round, stolid, compact, big arms, built like a tank. The first time I remember him approaching me was about six years ago inside the 7 Corners New Seasons grocery store (on Division St. and 20th Ave. in Portland). I was eating a plate of stir-fried vegetables in the little dining area there.
He presumptuously sat himself down across from me, with his greasy jacket and bugging-out eyes, and in a loud voice he asked me – or so I thought – if I would give him four dollars. Despite a pretty big language barrier, it was clear he was asking for money.
I was in a generous mood, I guess. I took four dollars out my wallet and placed it in front of him on the table. But his eyes just got even wider and more intense, and he leaned forward toward me and his tone got even louder as he finally succeeded (after several angry tries) in communicating that he was asking for forty dollars, not four, because he wanted to buy a bus ticket to Seattle.
I shook my head, I declined, I didn’t want to give him forty dollars. I said no.
He became very agitated. He asked again, he insisted, he raised his voice some more.
I said, “All right, never mind then,” and I reached to take back the four dollars I’d placed on the table, and his hands SLAMMED down on them!
I don’t remember how that interaction ended exactly, but I think he went away shortly after that. I may have bluntly asked him to go. I wasn’t concerned about offending him or hurting his feelings by then.
The next time I saw him was several months later, outside the same New Seasons store. He walked up to me aggressively and stood too close, peered up into my eyes forcefully, and asked for money. He didn’t seem to remember me. I found his demeanor intrusive, demanding, vaguely threatening. I refused him and walked away.
I don’t know where this guy lived (if anywhere) or how he stayed alive. I don’t know what country he was from or how he landed in Portland. Was he a refugee from somewhere? Anyway, when I saw him again years later on Hawthorne Boulevard (miles away from the 7 Corners New Seasons) he looked exactly the same. He had lost no weight (like I said, he was stocky and round, so he must have been eating something) and his hair was cropped the same, and he may have even been wearing the exact same greasy jacket. Again, he tried to arrest my attention and solicit money. I shook my head and basically ignored him.
Actually, perhaps his appearance had changed a little bit. Though he was no thinner, his pallor had lost some color and his expression was even more beaten down and exhausted – exhausted, I imagine, by sheer black loneliness among other things. I had the strong sense that he was utterly incapable of connecting with anyone, including other homeless people, or social service people.
I saw him a handful more times. Once was during the initial months of the COVID era and he held up a hand at me like a cop, and thrust out his hand for a shake, and it was nighttime, dark on the avenue and his manner was aggressive as usual, and I said “I don’t want to shake your hand” (this was, after all, the height of the pandemic scare) and I walked past him.
His desperation and alienation hit me like a cannonball. I felt certain that even if I, for example, shook his hand, it would do nothing to mitigate his existential chaos. Any offering I could put forward would just disappear into the black hole of him, like the four dollars I gave him the first time we met. He was like a walking vortex of hellish loneliness and need and demand. Instinctively, I knew it was a “give an inch, he’ll take a mile” situation. I had to shield myself. Though I didn’t exactly feel physically endangered, I felt a real energetic hazard emanating from him.
I still had the sense that he did not remember me, that he never remembered me from one encounter to the next, but was always testing out new techniques to extort or cajole money from strangers, or maybe simply to extract acknowledgement. His isolation was tangible and scary and very deep.
Perhaps the most dramatic interaction I had with him, beyond our first one, was also on Hawthorne on an early pleasantly-still-daylit evening in the spring or summer and I had just walked out of a Thai restaurant with a to-go container of yellow curry in my hands, and I saw him coming toward me on the sidewalk with his heavy steps, and I literally stepped into the street and walked around a parked car to avoid him and of course he saw me – I knew he would – and he made a horrible loud noise like “GAHHHHH!” followed by “I’M HOOOOONGRY!!! I NEED MONEY!!!” ‘’
So his English had improved a little.
I did not look back at him.
I think he’s gone now though. Gone from the streets of Portland, I mean. Somewhere. Possibly dead. I haven’t seen him in over a year. I certainly don’t miss him. And I would still abandon him to his peculiar suffering were we to meet again. I gave him four bucks once; that’s all I will ever have for him.
The black hole of who and what he is (or was) is much bigger than me, far bigger than anything I can have commerce with. My heart remains closed when I think of him.
His very existence testifies to the mercilessness of the universe. Or at least the cold mercilessness of a universe that borders my own.