Creative Essay Stories

What I See in Thawed City Streets

Written as an account of an actual walk through the streets of Portland this January 9, after a single day of non-freezing snow-melting weather — one of Portland’s iciest weeks on record.

Portland is back to usual tonight. The rain is steady and the smell of donuts moves like an invisible steam through the streets. People hunch their shoulders and look down as they walk because it’s still cold from the freezing spell and no one uses an umbrella. I get off the bus at NW Couch and Naito, not far from the waterfront. There are tents set up along Naito, out in the rain, just feet from the yellow-lit shelter of an overpass. I don’t know why this is — some city rule? — and as I walk by, I catch a glimpse inside a few tents where zippers have been left open a little. Some have light in them.

It feels good on dry skin to be outside, after spending a week inside sick. I’ve spent hours in front of the computer. Today I read about the homeless crisis in Denver, where police are cracking down on encampments. There are articles everyday about the nationwide crisis, the majority reporting from Western cities with weather conditions more hospitable to homeless life.

In the Denver article, there were photos of the encampments. A kitten cuddled in blankets in one photo, framed by the small opening in the tent entry flap, and it looked cozy. Cozy, the thought entered my head. I read further about the woman who lived in the tent, with the kitten, and about her fear of people walking by at night. Anyone can get in her tent, if they want. The cold is only one fear. Cozy. Private embarrassments are a strange discomfort.

On the bus on my iPhone I read that a woman died over the weekend here in Portland, in the snowstorm this past weekend. She was last seen taking off her clothes in a parking garage. It was 27 degrees at one point on Saturday. The article said she had been late to pay something like $330 and was evicted months ago. She was 52 years old. Before the eviction, she declined services and help form the housing organization. She died of hypothermia in that parking garage.

I walk under the Burnside Bridge. I love this part of Portland, ground rails and cobblestones and few signs for anything. At the Max Station under there, a skinny girl smokes and I can see one strip of belly exposed between several open coat layers. She’s telling a guy a story. He stands squarely in front of her, his legs wide like a football player. He’s still as she flails.

a skinny girl smokes and I can see one strip of belly exposed between several open coat layers.

Another woman down the way in one thick coat, covers her face with a mask. I wonder if this is because it smells of urine down here sometimes. It doesn’t tonight, the snow or cold washed it away, or something. I keep walking up Couch St through the empty park blocks, patches of dark green, the cars rounding them, with their lights like intermittent searching spotlights. No one there looks like they’re being searched for.

There is a bluish skeleton of a new building, across from the Pearl Bakery standing at least ten dozen stories tall. I remember a parking lot at one point there, a memory of that corner feeling airier than the rest of them down here comes back. It’s easy to cast the new building as a monster, especially standing without illumination yet, in the rain, towering above the downcast faces. After a while and after too many hours on the internet, these sites begin to look digital to me.

I keep walking. A girl with pink hair, tight black jacket and black tights looks up at me as we pass, and appears sorry at first to make eye contact, but then like a coy coquette with porcelain doll skin, she smiles and looks down, with a shyness so precious I recognize it as if it was my own face. An imitation of the shy pixie girl in the movies, a weak smile hiding what turns out to be real guts to the audience’s delight. Somehow I feel like she is aware of this too. I used to do it.

 then like a coy coquette with porcelain doll skin, she smiles and looks down…

A block later, a woman with bright yellow pants, baggy only around the calves, with a face of asymmetrical wrinkles which looked like it could peel right off, brought a cigarette to her mouth while she muttered aloud, and stared dead straight deep into my eyes. I held hers, and nothing changed about her flat but focused stare.

What happened? I want to shake her. You look at me like we are both real!

I’m walking up the block to Powell’s and a man is coming towards me. He stops in the middle abruptly blocking the sidewalk, his stance wide so that his feet straddle a large puddle below him. He stares down at his cellphone. “What?!” He yelps and stays still, open mouthed looking at his phone. I walk around him, although I want to push him. My hands go deeper into my pockets, my shoulders spike, and I’m overtaken by anger. An anger I don’t know how to own.

“Blocking the sidewalk! C’mon!” I see myself muttering walking away, although I can’t remember now hours later, if I did.

Everyone looking at their phones, I think, as I run my fingers along the smooth surface of my own phone in my pocket, to make sure it’s still there.

Outside Powell’s, a man asks three people going into the bookstore with stuffed backpacks for money. They say no. I usually say no. He doesn’t ask me, he asks the couple closer to him.

“You got a dollar for a place to sleep tonight?” Before she says no, maybe he can sense her answer, he says, “you’re probably thinking, that crazy nigger on the corner asking for money.…” She pleas, “nooooo…” it slips out of her mouth slowly like the words are made of goo. “I’m sorry….” Still gooey.

“Don’t be sorry,” he says playfully. “Sorry is a sorry word. Be confident!”

I stand at the corner, my back to the panhandler and take out a buck. I wiggle through the small crowd outside Powell’s and hand him a dollar, make brief but certain eye contact.

“Thank you,” he says quietly. I wait near the sorry woman as we all watch for the light to change so we can cross the street. She says sorry again, but not to the guy asking for money. The man she is with has whispered something to her, causing her to apologize again, sharply this time. “But I didn’t have a dollar!”

I walk home and eat all the chocolate I find there — a lot of it — because I can’t help myself.

Featured image courtesy of New York Times.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

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