It was a beautiful morning in downtown Portland. I’d just walked my lady friend to her office in the sort of spring sunshine that brings the promise of cook-outs, and beach trips, and pixies in cutie sundresses. The morning was bright and clear, and people on the street smiled at each other as they passed. Smiles filled with the type of understanding that comes from many months of winter rain, and accompanied gloom. Life was good that morning, and we could all feel it.
I turned onto Burnside and was confronted by a middle-aged homeless man beating the shit out of a fire hydrant, with what appeared to be a rolled-up newspaper.
His body heaving with anger, but he made no sound. Just furious smacks ringing out against the morning traffic, complemented by grunts of exertion. The light changed, but I made no move to cross the street. This was way too interesting. What could possibly be going on in his head? Shaggy homeless dread locks flying through the air, framing the thin sheen of sweat that had developed across his forehead. The light changed back and traffic moved once again, drivers staring on in a mixture of shock and horror and intrigue, not trusting their still sleepy eyes and the sight that confronted them before they’d had a chance to enjoy their second cup of coffee. This is Portland, but keeping it weird has limits. There must be limits, and a middle aged homeless man absolutely beating the snot out of a fire hydrant with a rolled up newspaper at 8:53 in the morning is simply unreasonable.
The man stopped and stared at me. I stared back. It’s best not to show fear in these types of situations, but to play it cool, like this is nothing new or out of the ordinary. I shrugged, as if to show him that I understood, and in a way, I did. Who hasn’t been there? Society, and the need for acceptance is what holds us back from such acts of casual, yet intentional violence. But a man removed from those constraints is free to act accordingly. Perhaps I’d just witnessed something beautiful.
A crowd had gathered at the intersection, a mixture of downtown office workers and joggers and tourists; we all waited for the light to change. A tattooed punk with a bike stood next to me, having seen most of the incident. An older couple of affluence, complete with their Portland Guide book and expensive Japanese camera stood slightly behind us, peering at a map, trying not to make eye contact.
Suddenly, the man was back in action. Grunting and swinging, beating on that fire hydrant once again with what remained of his rolled up newspaper. Clearly fighting demons that I would never understand. The punk and I shared raised eyebrows, and exchanged shrugs of, “well, what are you going to do?” while the tourists swore under their breath about the ‘homeless problem’ in downtown Portland.
The punk turned to them in a voice hard with pride, and said, “The fuck did you just say?”
The tourists, clearly startled and overwhelmed, first with the savage beating the homeless was laying down on an innocent fire hydrant, and then by the accusatory tone of this tattooed beast, replied, “Someone should do something about him, he’s clearly on drugs, at least our homeless in San Francisco are well-behaved.”
I studied the black swirling letters on the punk’s neck, as they bulged to constrain his anger. “Fuck you, and Fuck California!” He shouted as the light turned, and the masses swarmed into the street. And he was right. The homeless may be crazy here, but they’re our homeless.
As he crossed the street, I was able to read the letters on the back of his neck, “Rose City Pride”