A Portland-flavored Tale of Two Cities

In which I remember that photography’s a kind of semi-fiction anyway, so I leave the photos out. With their imagined interpretations, perceptions, projections. Even mayoral photo-op shots are truth with lie, both at once. Juxtaposed with street photos, it’s easy not to know which is which…

It was morning, and I was out at W. Burnside St. & SW 15th Ave. It was a Monday in September, and I wanted to get a better shot of a painted wall I’d photographed the day before for my next book. As I confidently turned the corner around Day and Night, expecting to see that wall with my camera, I stopped short, surprised to see an elderly couple (60s plus?) was in that space, the same spot I thought I might stand to take the photo. I stopped, flummoxed. I decided to pretend I’d intended all along to walk to the corner and cross the street. Embarrassed cat style.

Across the street was a bus shelter. I stood next to it and looked back. The woman was still helping the man stand, steady, and walk slowly and stiffly out from under the pine tree where I think they’d slept. I had nowhere to go; my destination was that wall, “Rose City,” it said. My perception: No, he was not drunk.

For a few intense minutes, they stood facing each other. I was too far away to hear, but it seemed like she was trying to… reassure, to keep him going. Not because he had a hangover. Their bodies were sore from laying on the dirt all night. From walking to collect lots of cans. I imagined she was telling him how she’d get something for them to eat after cashing in those bags of cans, to wait, she’d be back soon. When she seemed satisfied he was alright, she picked up her cans. I took a quick photo, their story still making itself up in my head, repeating like it does:

It was morning. After their third rough night sleeping outside, the woman helped her husband stand and steady himself before they walked slowly and stiffly out from under their pine tree in a slow waltz. They stood facing each other, as she held his shoulders and talked into his face, convincingly. He was sorry. He couldn’t believe he’d let this happen, but she said, No, we are going to be okay, we are. True they’d just been evicted. Rents raised, and here they were, last paycheck of the social security paycheck-to-paycheck given to the landlord, and the landlord pointing to the street. The landlord would rent their place out for 60%, 80% more per month now. That landlord would never serve them at a soup kitchen, but oh, maybe when the check-out girl says, Want to give 5% of your tab to help the homeless? he would. Or not. But they would make it, she said. Finally, she seemed satisfied; he’d be supported by the wall till she got back. She picked up two bags of cans. “We’ll be okay. Be right back.” She walked toward fantasy as he leaned against Rose City, cane in his lap. A dog daycare was across the street, nonprofit, but my god, don’t they let you bring your pet to work in Portland these days? The images repeat, as they do, take shape, as they will.

She is walking down the sidewalk, past Enterprise toward Fantasy, as he leans against Rose City, cane in his lap, head in his hands. He’d been crying. He missed his son, who he hadn’t seen in four years. I decide I may as well cross to SW 15th. I stand next to a light pole to look back once more, and see a torn flyer had been pasted there. It was trying to say something about housing, but it was torn away, too emotional. It pictured Portland’s mayor & wife in that photo that looks like they’re telling secrets none of us will know. A wealthy mayor wouldn’t have occasion to walk right here, or see this pole, or this flyer with his face on it, or what the window display of the Fantasy for Adults shop across from the Jaguar dealer says. Maybe he’d drive by. But you can’t see any of this from a car.

Fiction, or is it; imagined interpretations, perceptions… but whose. Even mayoral photo-op shots can be truth or lie, or both at once. Juxtaposed with the street, it’s easy never to know which.

Flyer on Burnside