Streetbooks

In summer 2010 I was lucky to be a part of a wonderful, budding project called Streetbooks. It was an amazing experience in which I got to speak to people that I would never find myself normally speaking to and I learned a lot from it. Here is the writing I did after I had a chance to volunteer at the Skidmore Fountain with Streetbooks.

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Summer weather has finally arrived in the beginning of July. It’s before noon on a Wednesday and it’s already warm enough that I take off my sweater. I walk down a lonely empty street, there is only one man walking down the same path in front of me. He turns to look who is behind him and I wonder if I am walking too close and if he suspects I’m going to mug him. But all suspicions and fears of that would surely fade away upon looking at me, a petite person that offers a smile at him. The man turns into a parking lot and I continue on my way.

The Skidmore fountain is in my sight now, it’s a peaceful scene. The eye-catching Street Books cart is in front of the fountain, shaded by two majestic trees whose branches seem to be reaching towards one another, creating a green canopy. The water from the fountain sprays the back of my legs as the breeze picks up. Laura is at the cart with Lauren and a young woman named Celia. Behind the cart are large arches, which make me think of European architecture. Beneath the arches are a group of people which presumably are living on the streets. They talk amongst themselves, people leave and people join in.

When I arrive at the cart a woman named Katleah is there, selecting some books after returning some she borrowed the previous week. Her situation is much brighter than many other Street Books patrons. She is currently not living on the streets, quite a feat for a person lived outside for years as she struggled with addiction. Her make-up and piercing make her beautiful, a shimmer of glitter illuminating her face, the bright turquoise blue of her eye shadow highlighting her clear eyes. She has backpacked across the country. Originally, she was from Georgia and has experienced homelessness in New York, San Francisco and Portland.

She was worried Laura would think she stole the books she borrowed and was anxious about finding the Street Books cart. She says she appreciates Laura’s project and says she’ll be back next Wednesday, to talk to Laura about her life’s journey. She leaves with her friend. Unfortunately, Katleah didn’t make it back to the cart the following Wednesday, for reasons unknown to me.

For a while it’s only the four of us (Celia, Laura, Lauren and I) at the cart. Celia and I start talking, she is Laura’s helper. She was there during the early stages of creation, before the dream became reality. She asks Lauren and my name a few times, which is completely understandable considering she’s been up since four in the morning and having biked to a meditation center, then to Skidmore fountain.

The media attention the project has received has inspired many people to donate books to the cause. That morning two women, Judy and Rachel, came separately and donated books, both getting ready to go on their way before being thanked. Laura takes down their names and tells them that she posts them as donors on the Street Book blog. More people come by the cart, attracted mostly by such an odd looking contraption. A shirtless man walks right up to the cart.

“Are you looking for something in particular?” I ask.

“Che Guevara, got anything on Che?”

“I don’t think that we do.” I look through the small collection in the drawer, not spotting anything. I ask Laura and she confirms that there is nothing on Che, but she can take requests if he’d like. He says he’ll put in the request.

“You interested in Che?”

“I know all ‘bout Che. I want my friend to gain more knowledge, you know? Knowledge.”

He has a little black phone blasting some rap music. Laura asks him for his name.

“Zach. Can’t give you my last name. I know too many people. Just Zach, can’t give you my last name.” He tells us that he knows a millionaire and that he is going to work for him. He has plans to go to university to study history. He talked about the Egyptians and ancient Rome, claiming he knew everything there is to know about their history. I think he just wanted someone to talk to and we were willing to listen. He is only 20, but his 21st birthday was just in eight days.

Two guys with skateboards show curiosity in the cart and walk up.

“Hi, take a look at the books, see if there is anything you like” says Lauren.

“Got anything on pirates?” The man has got on an eye patch with a skull and crossbones design on it, as well as on his cap. He is wearing brown, baggy overalls typically seen on contractors or construction workers and his ears are pierced with neon pink gauges. He looks in the drawer and there’s not any book on pirates, but he puts in a request.

He sticks around for a bit and gets to talking to us. One of the girls asks him about his eye patch. Apparently, the eye patch serves a greater purpose then just for looks. He served in the war, in the army. One day when he was in a tank, driving through the streets of Iraq, a missile was aimed straight at them. He explained that the driver swerved, trying to save his team and avoid being hit. Unfortunately, the missile hit its target. Upon impact, he says that his vision got impaired, resulting in 90% vision loss in his eye.

“What’s your name again?” I ask. He says something that sounds like “Foxtrot” to me, but upon asking Laura later, she thought he said “Boxcar”.

“So you like pirates?”

“I actually got a pirate in my family.” He smiles. His mom researched their family history and way down the line, she found a famous pirate, and I sense he’s proud of this.

“I can’t remember his name, but he was famous. My wife calls me Captain Foxtrot” (but it could have been “Captain Boxcar”).

“That’s cool. Now I can say I know a pirate, right?” We laugh.

Soon, the laughter passes and he says he’s hungry.

“I’ve got this chocolate bar…” I reach into my backpack and give it to me and I realize that his friend is watching the exchange.

Foxtrot sticks it in his pocket. I should have realized that one bar wasn’t going to be enough. I’ll come prepared with more snacks next time. He tells us about faking English accents while sitting on corners in Portland, asking for money.

“Why do you do that? Does it make people give you more money?”

“No, I just think it’s funny. People are like ‘who’s this guy with the accent?”

Foxtrot’s friend is done hanging around and taps him on his elbow, and jerks his head to side.

“Come on, let’s go,” he says.

And just like that they leave, who knows if we’ll ever cross paths again.

For a while it’s mostly quiet, only Zach is still there, talking about things that at times I don’t follow. A very tall, older man comes up to the cart and he and Laura greet each other, obviously they already know each other. Roy is his name. He looks at the cart and talks about things he would do to the cart so that more books would fit in. Roy spots a few hardcover Harry Potter books.

“I want all those in hardcover.” Laura says she’ll keep an eye out for hardcover Potter books and hold them for him.

“You like Harry Potter?” I jump in.

“I haven’t read ‘em yet.” Laura introduces me and explains that I’m in her class at Marylhurst and helping out at the cart.

“Do you have some time to sit down and talk to her for a bit?”

“…How long do you think it’ll take? I’m meeting someone at 1:00.”

“I won’t take that long,” I say. “I promise”.

“Alright”. He walks towards the arches and sits on the steps beneath them. I follow.

“What’s that?” I point to the tattoo on his left forearm.

“It’s Goofy, upside down on his head.”

“Oh! That’s cool.”

“I used to work at Disneyland.”

“My grandpa used to work at Disneyland, he was a custodian. He always brought home really good things he found on the ground.”

“I was Goofy.” In the space of a few hours I had met Goofy and a pirate, I couldn’t help but smile. “I worked there for 17 years and also at Knott’s Berry Farm. Never took a day off.”

“What? Not even a sick day?”

He moves his head from side to side, “Nope.” He pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one up. Luckily the breeze moves the smoke away from us. A man walks up to us, asks him for a cigarette. Roy doesn’t look too pleased, but extends the cigarette box out to him.

“So, did you have any crazy experiences as Goofy?”

He makes a noise somewhere between a chuckle and a scoff. “Everyday. Little kids crying, pulling my ears, kicking me. Can’t do nothing, though. Goofy doesn’t talk.”

“Oh man. Does it get hot in there?”

“Nope, it’s got air conditioning.” I’m not sure how much into his past I should dig, but I figure it’s safe to ask him if he’s from Oregon.

“I lived on the Oregon Coast as a boy, joined the Navy then I moved to Southern California. My mom was dying so I moved back up here. She died in my arms. I been back here for… 13 years.” He blows out a long stream of cigarette smoke. A young woman comes up.

“Hi, can I have a cigarette?” Roy pulls out the pack.

“Here take the whole thing.”

“No, I just want one.” She delicately pulls one out, brings it to her lips and lights it. “Thanks.” Roy just gives her a nod.

“So what do you do now?” I ask.

“I live over at the Salvation Army now.” He looks at his Mickey Mouse watch.

“You like to read?”

“Naw, only read if I have to.” He looks at his watch again, and I know his mind is probably on his meeting at one.

“Thank you for talking to me, Roy.”

“Sure,” he leans in a little closer to me, the scent of smoke floating around him, “you’ll keep an eye out for the Harry Potter books for me?”

“Of course, I’ll see you around.” I walk over to the cart, happy to have met and talked to two people that normally I would never talk to.

“Hey Elizabeth,” Laura says, looking through her bag. She pulls out some money. “Give this Roy, for his time.”

“Sure”. Roy is still sitting on the steps. “Hey Roy, here. For your time.” I smile as he takes it.

“Thanks.”

I notice that Zach is walking over to Roy, then Roy pulls out his cigarettes again. Zach pulls out a cigarette, and I can only imagine Roy’s joy at giving yet another cigarette away.

In this moment, I’m happy, odd as it might seem. Yes, these people that I’ve talked and seen today have been through hard times, experienced things I can’t even begin to imagine. I’m not happy at their situation and I wish I could help them all. But, I’m glad that I had the chance to talk to Foxtrot and Roy. If it hadn’t been for Street Books, I would never have had the courage to talk to them. If it hadn’t been for Street Books, they wouldn’t have had the chance to escape from their reality for even a moment   by reading a book. At the same time, I realize I’ve done nothing to help them at all, but I’m not going to assume things about people anymore. I say my goodbyes at the cart and head home, back to my reality. I look back at the scene at Skidmore fountain as I walk away, looking forward to next time I can come back.

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