There is one scene in Saturday night’s Maybe it’s Because…(I’m So Versatile) workshop performance that made me remember something I hadn’t recalled in a while. It’s not one specific, singular memory, because the occurrence happened often, so I didn’t revisit a distinct moment, but the details came to me distinctly. In the show’s scene, a homeless girl approaches a few strangers sitting on a bench in Portland. A man is swiping a smart phone, the others are busily talking. The homeless girl says excuse me, wanting to ask where the closest Walgreen’s is, but before she can, the strangers quickly slide off the bench, startled or scared or something that causes them to scatter without hesitation, as if she’s a zombie straight out of The Walking Dead.
This brings me back five years to a restaurant I used to work at on Portland’s inner east side. It’s a Friday or Saturday night and I’m standing outside. The restaurant is under the Morrison bridge and above where I stand, the bridge’s underbelly blocks out a portion of the sky. It stretches above the length of the street, casting a perpetual gray, dull coolness all the way down until the street ends at the waterfront. I stand on the curb as I’ve done a hundred times, getting in a quick cigarette before the restaurant opens. I listen to the traffic on the bridge and overhear the conversations of the swelling number of people waiting in line for dinner.
This is a popular spot for homeless people to bum cigarettes, ask for food and change, and find places to sleep along the sidewalks at the base of one of the bridge pillars. The hungry patrons are standing in groups; some girls are dressed up in spiked heels- dinner here is the first stop on a Friday night itinerary of dancing and bar-hopping. People look at their phones and busy their conversations as a homeless woman approaches. She wears old faded men’s Nike shoes and keeps her mouth open all the time. She has only a few teeth and asks for change, getting nothing but alarm and scared looks. I also remember a pleasant homeless man who came by often, introducing himself as Wingnut. He appeared to be about 50 years old at the time. He wears glasses and never asks more than once for anything. He tells turned heads his plans for the day and the year, but rarely gets a dime.
People didn’t elaborately disperse at the restaurant in reaction to the disheveled street people–like what was depicted in Saturday night’s production–and rarely was there ever a scene. What so often was the case, Wingnut would be met with a sorry nod followed by a quick grab of a phone or some other quickly invented distraction.
This thing that so many are guilty of, and nobody is innocent from, was brought to the surface for a sold out audience of Maybe it’s because…(I’m so Versatile), as part of Fertile Ground Festival 2015. It is written and performed by the homeless youth members of “p:ear”, a homeless youth creative mentorship organization. Director, Angie Collins, and writing facilitator, Ann Singer, helped develop the script, providing two professional actors for a five-piece cast.
The script reads like a day in the life of three young homeless persons in Portland, beginning with finding food and ending with a discussion of where to sleep. It is a day that doesn’t see errands but just a continuous search to fulfill the basic needs: food, water, shelter, and transportation.
A day without a typical schedule unleashes the mind, making it sensitive to everything around it, inducing prolonged ruminations on the way things are, the structure and priorities of strangers’ lives in spaces we all share, in a world that was given to all people. It is a day, too, that seeks connection, meaning and compassion.
The cast members shift from monologues to short skits, illustrating common challenges for homeless youth. Sonya Carson reads from a script and rarely looks up (she is one of the non-professional actors) but makes for one of the most earnest storytellers that I have seen in a while. She simply tells the audience what it’s like to live on the street, homeless herself, and her performance to me doesn’t exist as such. It seems more that she is just reading from her journal. She talks about going to public feeds and potlucks for food. She explains which ones she likes and says that at some universities, students serve soup but not all of them are happy to be there. She avoids those ones. She talks about going to malls and watching people stand in line to see Santa (a job and tradition that truly bewilders her) and laments all the extraneous things she observes.
She is truly at a loss. She doesn’t understand how she could fit in. She wants to be a part of the energy, she says, but can’t get down with “all the extras,” continuing, “I feel like I’m in a world of make believe.” Her perplexed sadness drops each word like bricks. She observes people in a “busy life” and wonders what is the point if they are “not creating something.” She doesn’t trust people who live in fancy houses. Her good days are when “she remembers the soft music of games she once played”, and her bad days are when she has to find the will to “restrain ravenous tendencies.”
Chip Sherman and Amanda Anderson are professional actors and their performances bring necessary vigor to the script, but in a different way; they help round out the bigger picture and offer a general look at the experience of not having four walls to come home to. They dwell for a bit on the pressure they feel to find jobs. “It’s hard to get a job when you’re homeless,” Chip says. In a funny, smart skit, Amanda portrays a ubiquitous interviewer at “Typical Job Enterprises”. Chip is impressive and the interview goes smoothly making the job seem like a sure thing. Upon finding out he is homeless, Amanda tells him instantly, “we’ve decided to go in a different direction.” Good luck.
The different types of homeless youths are likened to characters of the media. There are the druggies, the rappers, and a “whole lot of outcasts, people with bad upbringings”. There are gutter punks and there are a few who pretend to be homeless, who think it’s cool or something, as Sonya explains. I wonder about the many artists, writers and dreamers who have found like-minded friends and opportunities at p;ear.
That’s when Mah steps to the front of the stage and delivers a poem entitled, “Independence Day”, with a flawless free-flowing slam rhythm. It is about the founding of our country and an enduring appreciation for the freedoms here in America. Mah is homeless and radiates an unwavering optimism that makes me curious and engrossed in thoughts of the education to be had on the streets and the dynamic of the conversations and exchanges happening out there, in a world I traverse everyday, on the same Max trains, but in perhaps a mindset estranged from a more basic, tangible reality.
Before finding a place to sleep for the night beside their bulging backpacks, Sonya, Chip and Amanda tell the audience that the Burnside bridge has lots of bums. The three sing this to the tune of “The London Bridge is Falling Down” and mimic the playground game of constructing a bridge by two people joining outstretched arms in a tower so that one another can pass through underneath. “And that’s a bummer!” they sing and as they do, visions of shopping carts being pushed along the Burnside bridge by howling and quiet men bounce around in my head.
The performance truly made me rethink those frequent, and often incoherent, conversations I’d have outside the restaurant years ago. So many times, I too would create a diversion, wanting to be left alone. It didn’t occur to me then that there could be a common ground between me and the woman with the old Nike shoes. Or I just didn’t think about it. But it occurred to me on Saturday that despite our different experiences, and because of them, or whether we spend more time on or under the bridge, there is a lot to be learned by listening to one another’s stories.