Monday, February 10, 2014

Jǫtunheimr

It's been one hell of a week; hell as in ninth-circle, because a winter storm struck the fair City of Roses with a ferocity uncharacteristically blustery and frigid of our mild Pacific marine climate. Hence the title, which is the name of the realm of the terrible frost giants in Norse mythology. Roughly five inches of snow accumulated between the first dusting on Thursday and the onset of freezing rain late Friday, which covered the snow with perhaps up to an additional half-inch of ice, making for treacherous footing. Not much by Midwest, Great Lakes, and North Atlantic standards, but it was enough to shut down a city that owns only fifty-five snow plows — a city typically more concerned about how storm water runoff affects the water quality in the nearby Willamette river than with snow accumulation — and certainly more than enough to freeze a man to death on a bench outside the Greyhound station a few night ago (hearsay).

Tuesday night is when it all began. In spite of the cold wind predicted to surge past the Columbia Gorge I elected to see if I could tough it out near the Northwest industrial area I'd been spending the past three nights. Underscoring the deficiencies of my "homeless swag", by around ten in the evening my folly was made apparent when my tarp was uprooted along with its stakes and the wind transformed my Backpack Bed™ into an ice coffin while still somehow insinuating its way inside and whipping through my sleeping bag and clothing. The only thing I could do was pack everything back up and walk the two-and-a-half miles to the Imagio Dei church across the Willamette river on East Burnside, where I hoped an emergency overnight warming center would be open. It was, thankfully, and so I ended up sleeping there the five nights, on a mat alongside 149 other desperate homeless people blindsided by what we probably all thought would just be a spot of bad weather to shrug off after an uncomfortable night or two.

I was just asked by a friend what it's like to stay overnight in an emergency warming center. Think of it as like being inside a pressure cooker full of volatile temperaments and incompatible and often hostile subcultures, cliques, and individuals. Lone wolves, hard-core druggies, street drunks, punk rock kids, runaway kids, Vietnam vets, working-class stiffs recently shit out of luck, people tormented by severe mental illnesses ... we all file in at nine o'clock every evening when the Red Cross volunteers open the doors and give each of us a foam mat and an emergency blanket, then escort us to a taped-off spot on the floor about three feet wide by six feet long. Whereupon we try not to kill each other before the lights are turned on at six the next morning and everyone's turned out an hour later; not really any different from other scenarios in which people of different persuasions and from different walks of life are forced into a situation of constrained co-operation, whether it be in a stadium full of flooded-out refugees from a hurricane or aboard a grounded cruise ship — only we street people tend to be more incendiary, by both nature and nurture. In spite of all that everyone was mostly well-behaved, aside from Saturday when in the morning it was discovered that a man had sexually harassed a girl and stolen five cell phones and later that night two guys almost got into a serious fight right next to me. Fortunately for me fatigue, sleeping pills, and ear plugs ensured that I was able to get adequate sleep. Not only that, I even managed to score a couple nice military surplus wool blankets on my first night, which I hope eventually to replace my sleeping bag with. It could have been much worse, in other words.

Even though it only snowed on Thursday and Friday it was bitter cold outside during the past few days because of the twenty-mile-per-hour winds and temperatures below freezing. While there were a few emergency warming centers open during the day I eschewed them because of my lone-wolf temperament. Besides, I didn't really feel like I was stranded between the ugly options of braving blizzard conditions or navigating my way through a squabbling morass in a malodorous room until Friday morning, when the library downtown was closed and the city of Portland decided to shut down — that's why this post is late; the library just re-opened today. Friday and Saturday found me meandering around Southeast and Northwest Portland drinking and smoking weed, essentially squandering deposit refund money I could have used to purchase stuff like an extra pair of long johns ... but, hell, I was homeless and had to amuse myself somehow with nowhere else to go but a cardboard-mattress Jerry Springer Show! I did manage to locate what may be a promising location to relocate to in Northeast Portland, about five miles out of downtown, which I will check out as soon as I have the bus fare for the commute. Besides, I didn't get frostbitten, or even mildly sick.

These past couple weeks haven't been very pleasant for me and have brought to my awareness most painfully just how inadequately prepared I was to live out on the streets again after so many years indoors. Even with my nice backpack I still have a lousy sleeping bag that takes up half of the backpack's space, a Gore-Tex™ coffin hotel that seems to be ill-suited for winter weather despite its durable construction and the obviously high quality of its materials, only one pair of long johns, and a Columbia jacket that is little more than a water resistant windbreaker. And, I'm sleeping on the sidewalk beneath a busy interstate freeway. In short, I need to gear up and get out of downtown, and start taking my situation more seriously in the meantime.

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