I haven’t showered for three weeks ever since I moved down by the bridge. It’s been a long winter and that’s forced me to take cover. It feels like the rain won’t go away and even when it does my boots and clothes are soaked I feel trapped in a swamp. Not a normal swamp though. This one is filled with broken glass, jump shots, and the constant thumping and humming from the real world above. I guess I can’t forget to mention the occasional crowd that huddles up around miscellaneous bike parts in the southern end of the basketball courts; where the dirt connects with the harmless concrete. These events are like an auction of broken dreams. I can only think about the sadness that has sunken little children’s hearts when they discover their missing bikes, and tackle the idea that not everyone is trying to be their friend. Because of this, I try my hardest not to engage in any criminal activity, especially theft.
Most people give me weird glares down here because I look so young, even though i’m twenty which feels fairly old to me. The stare that I get is typically pretty tense. Squinted crusty eyes, frozen limbs, and a clenched jaw that looks like their teeth are wired together.
When I turned seventeen I started living couch to couch mainly with my good friend Bobby, who’s mom was too much of a softy to kick me out. In my opinion I consider myself a pretty solid guest. Never making messes, taking care of little chores when needed, and always open for a long talk no matter what the topic may be. Bobby’s mom used to get home late from work and I would be able to judge how long our nightly conversation would be just by how hard she slammed her purse down. If the slap of cheap leather onto the laminate counter was hard enough to make the contents of the bag jingle together, I knew i’d be up for the next hour. If all of that was followed by a loud sigh, I’d be too scared to even try and close my eyes. I was on and off at Bobby’s house for about a year and that’s when I decided I didn’t want to mooch off of people anymore and try to become more self reliant. My father taught me at a young age that you can only truly appreciate the things in life that you worked for, and even though these slurred life speeches were most likely inspired by the contents of the Old English bottle in his hand, I still believed him.
One thing I don’t like about the bridge is when the sun starts to set it’s almost like people lose all fragments of civility they have left. Personal belongings apparently no longer have owners and finding a place to sleep always leads to who can create more of a scene without getting the cops called on them. Luckily, i’ve been pretty free of altercations with other campers, but one night while I was sleeping on the river next to the mall I woke up to an older man picking through my stuff. He was barefoot and had scratches and scabs on his dirty toes that crawled up his battered shins. I’ve learned that if there's something you want to have when you wake up, keep it in your sleeping bag.
I don’t sleep under the bridge because I soon realized it’s impossible without getting escorted out by a husky man in a navy blue uniform with a flashlight that feels powered by godly forces. It’s the only weapon a cop really needs down there when they are bum hunting for campers. Once that sharp LED beam strikes your hideout, you know your time has expired. My favorite area especially on a clear night is North East of the bridge on the South bank of the Willamette River. This spot is tucked away in a cove of tangled ivy, and if you're positioned right you remain hidden from the path 20 feet above. Best of all, there is a tunnel that breaks through the trees which offers superb star gazing. It’s my little homeless heaven.
A few weeks ago at my favorite spot, I met an older guy named Jason. He is tall with a long dirty grey beard and hair that seemed to be cut at least every 6 months. As I was just about to fall asleep on my luxury ivy bed spread, he came barging down the steep slope and got caught up in the knotted roots. He flopped forward and flung his arms in the air like one of those inflatable tube people that are set up outside of car washes and gas stations. As he flew forward so did the black industrial garbage bag he was holding and all of its contents were now confetti in the crisp moonlit air. I tried my hardest not to laugh because I didn’t know if I wanted to give away my little hideout. He got himself back up and started picking up whatever he had in his bag, and for some reason I felt obligated to get up and help him. I unzipped my sleeping bag which let a frosty wave squeeze in and shoot down to my toes.
For the next 10 minutes we filled his trash bag back up with junk he insisted was important to him. He began to explain to me that he had been homeless now for the past 30 years after his wife had died in a freak accident, and the only thing that keeps him going is cleaning up the local parks and his favorite areas. We talked for the next few hours and it reminded me of how I used to talk to Bobby’s mom. Instead of angry ranting we were just able to talk about life. With the few hours I spent with Jason, I realized what I wanted to do with all of the time I had on my hands. The months that followed, Jason and I tackled every piece of trash that touched our most loved parts of Eugene.