Karen Berry is a poet and novelist. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon, where she is aided in her writing endeavors by excellent coffee, small dogs and the constant sound of rain on her roof.
|Sidewalk Living Photo Courtesy of Karen Berry|
Working in Old Town
Each morning I see them, the urban campers,
street people, homeless, whatever
you call city people who live outdoors.
In alcoves and underpasses, in tents or exposed,
buried under piles of sleeping bags, blankets, carpet mat, tarps,
the occasional floral comforter or baby blanket, some bright
acrylic throw with kittens, puppies, or cartoon characters,
curled up beside shopping carts
heaped high to the point where I fear they will topple,
ringed round with tied-on bags of cans, bags, what looks
to my eyes like trash, to the eyes of the owner like treasure.
The carts are dystopian pack animals.
Always, someone wanders off or collapses
(these streets ring with sirens, firetrucks and ambulances)
and a person goes to the hospital or the morgue.
A cart goes abandoned. Gleaners descend
pick through with practiced efficiency,
seeking hidden cash, warm socks, something
in the piles and bags worth stealing.
The cans go first, dragged like a body
to the store for swift redemption.
The cart is wheeled under the bridge,
a wild horse to be corralled by someone else.
I am asked now and then for money for food.
There is free food all over this neighborhood.
The stores sell single cigarettes, sugared wine, malt liquor.
Street corner entrepeneurs sell the harder stuff.
Any money put in an outstretched hand goes directly
To the slow death of addiction. Occasionally, though,
a face of unsurpassed beauty, a street Jesus,
a homeless Madonna, someone with a sweet dog.
I cannot turn my back on a sweet dog.
I drop some money in a filthy, mittened hand.
“God Bless you.” “Have a blessed day.”
What are these blessings, called down on my head
by those with cracked skin, blackened teeth?
If God has His eye on the sparrow,
how do these lives serve Him?
Lives so open to vision and judgment,
carried on in alleys, on benches, in public bedrooms
folded up each morning at the daily rousting.
I left my home in the suburbs last week, drove
to book group in my Honda CRV, listened
to a new CD all the way there, singing. Rain
swamped the streets, but I was dry. The table
groaned with Trader Joe’s food (there was brie),
the wine was lovely, a swirl of dark fruit on my palate.
A friend showed me a pin in the shape
of a Benson Bubbler, Portland’s corner fountains,
tri-headed, antique bronze, a quaint civic landmark,
a point of Portland pride, those fountains.
In Old Town, I want to say, they are more than that.
I see pit bulls held up like toddlers at the playground,
lapping water with their huge pink tongues.
In the mornings, I see people at their morning toilette,
clothes open, private parts freed and soaped,
sluicing sweet, free water over forgotten skin.