An unexpected turn occurred on what was supposed to be the last day of my recent trip out west. I ended up on an errand of mercy that extended the trip and forced me to contrast the rest of the country, or at least big-city life, with what we have here.
While at the airport for my flight home, I received a call that resulted in a detour to another city to help a friend who was in the hospital and to handle some post-release logistics for him. Everything worked out well, and the details are not important. What will stay with me longer was my unexpected stay in this city I didn’t know. It was like walking into somebody’s house before they had a chance to clean up for visitors, only more human and more depressing.
Patients and visitors shared the waiting room at the small hospital I was visiting. I heard people talk about 15-hour waits in the emergency room as if they were routine. An older homeless man advised a young man, recently homeless after escaping his abusive father, on what symptoms to report for the best chance of being admitted and a chance to sleep indoors for a few days.
Then I thought about access to medical and social services in Portland. Challenging as the system is here, I would much rather be From Away than actually to have to be Away.
In L.A., I stayed with affluent friends and visited other affluent friends at the kinds of places affluent people congregate. If you know the city, it is easy to avoid the places where people are struggling. Thanks to the mountains, you even get to see some wild country from your car window. I didn’t have that luxury when I was helping my friend.
My hotel was not close to a freeway, nor was the hospital, so every day I had to drive through neighborhoods that are probably described as “transitional” or “at risk” in news stories and city reports. On block after block immaculately kept row houses with manicured lawns and brand new trim shared common walls with burnt out, boarded up properties. Or they stood alone, the houses on either side demolished. Pride of ownership was at war with decay in whole sections of the city.
Busy corners were overrun with panhandlers, several times as many as I saw even in California. They created gauntlets for cars traveling in every direction, the way as a kid I imagined it was like to drive in a third-world country. At one intersection, a group of fit-looking young guys descended on the first cars stopped by the traffic light. They held five-gallon plastic buckets between their knees and drummed fiercely for a moment before holding the empty buckets uncomfortably close to the cars’ windows. The spectacle was both entertaining and intimidating.
While the drummers were drumming, older, more emaciated men (all the panhandlers I saw were men) walked between the rows of cars. They favored badly worn cups from fast-food joints. Some asked for money, some carried signs, some tried to make eye contact, some tried to avoid eye contact. One gentleman lifted up his shirt to show his scars. Most of them said, “God bless you” regardless of whether they were given anything.
The same range of panhandlers were at most traffic lights along my route to the hospital. There was also a new development at almost every intersection: at least one and usually several people who never got out of the street. They stood in between the lanes, stepping towards cars as they drove by, trying to get them to slow down or stop. If a car showed any hesitation about passing, they would move toward it and stick out their cups. They were particularly dangerous, because they skewed toward being the most derelict and the least steady on their feet.
It shames me to say that once I got over the shock of seeing raggedy men standing in the middle of traffic, my principal reaction quickly became annoyance that they were holding me up. They were all a far cry from the occasional cardboard sign-holding “Traveling, ran out of gas” panhandlers on Franklin Street at Marginal Way, some of whom actually look like they could be traveling and might have run out of gas.
Since coming back, even more grateful for living here, I have wondered if I was looking at the ghost of Portland Future and if so, what I can do to make it not come true.
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.