I. The Silence (December 2013)
It was the last city council meeting of the year on a frigid, snowy evening two weeks before Christmas, and the immediate future of the Whoville encampment was on the line. A few days earlier, the police department had made public its intentions to evict the 50-person camp sometime within the coming weeks.
The thought of so many people being tossed back onto the streets around Christmas time had prompted a community response unlike any I had seen before up to that point. In the hour or so before the meeting, the plaza outside City Hall quickly became a crowded scene with protests, press conferences, and media interviews simultaneously occurring as council members started to filter into the building.
As I walked back and forth between people and cameras and bursts of energy, my stream of attention kept being interrupted by a sole figure, one of the few faces in the plaza that I had never seen or met before. She stood silently amongst the chaos in the center of the plaza, bracing against the wind and the cold, holding a sign that said, “Have Mercy”.
There was something about her presence, something about her simplicity in the moment that made me pause every single time I walked by her. Others noticed as well, nodding toward her as they passed in recognition of the space she was holding. When I walked by her for the last time on my way into the building, I felt a small lump form in my throat.There were nearly fifty speakers that night, most who used their two minutes passionately pleading the Council to spare the encampment. Halfway through the speakers, an unfamiliar name was called, and I looked up to see the woman from the plaza, holding her sign as she approached the podium.
She stepped up, held her sign up to the council, and spoke softly into the microphone.
“What about those of us who aren’t safe within four walls? What about those of us for whom a tent is our home?”
And for the next minute and forty-nine seconds, she held the entire room in silence.
The effect on the crowd was immediate and profound. Within seconds, I saw people start to stiffen, tear up, grab the hand of the person next to them. Others closed their eyes, a few with their hands in prayer formation. As I looked around, I felt my stomach tighten as the lump in my throat grew larger.
When I looked up at the Mayor and the Council, however, I saw a very different sight. They sat in obvious discomfort, and their facial expressions ranged from forced smiles to wide-eyed looks of terror. In all the years I had attended Council meetings in this town, in all the dozens of times that I had stood at that podium and attempted to appeal to their consciences through my words, and in all the times I had watched others more powerful than myself do the same, I had never seen the Council anywhere near as affected as it was in that moment. I kept my eyes straight on the Council members, watching them sweat out the seconds.
As the powers-that-be shifted uncomfortably in their seats, the entire room was holding a communal energy of great power, and she was at the center, anchoring that power from her physical position directly between the figures of authority in front of her and the populace behind her.
After what seemed like an eternity in a moment, the two-minute buzzer broke the spell that she had held over the room, and immediately the Council members snapped out of their discomfort. The crowd, on the other hand, stared at her in awe as she walked down from the podium towards the back of the room, several of them with tears streaming down their faces.
I was also in awe, and tears were streaming down my face as well.
* * *
The encampment was not only spared through Christmas, it held on for another three months after that. And while I have no doubt that it was a variety of factors that swayed the Council towards that decision, my mind consistently goes back to that 109-second moment in time when a young woman demanded mercy from those in power by so effectively holding silence.
II. The Noise (A Few Weeks Later)
The phone woke me out of a sound sleep. I quickly reached over and fumbled for it, instinctively sensing that it was an emergency and not a wrong number.
“Alley? Are you there? You need to get down here. Please.”
The caller was panicked and in tears, but I still recognized the voice immediately as one of the local street kids who was camped down by the river a few miles away.
“Stitch? What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s Casey. He needs to get to the hospital. I need your help. Please.”
I sat up and shook myself awake, trying to make sense of what was occurring. I momentarily wondered why Stitch had called me instead of 911, but the terrified urgency in his voice quickly overrode my need for details at that moment.
“I’ll be right there,” I said and hung up the phone, scanning the room for my waterproof boots. As I briefly recalled the two-hundred foot stretch of mud between their campsite and the nearest navigable path, I looked out at the pouring rain and mentally prepared myself for a potentially soaking and treacherous trek. I found my boots, threw them on, and five minutes later I was driving towards the riverbank.
The sun started to peek out from behind me as I drove, and as I pulled into the parking lot closest to their location I was granted exactly enough light to safely navigate the terrain before me. I ran down the hill toward the path and then across the tracks where I knew to climb up and cut into the woods. From there, a maze of endless mud pits and boulders eventually led me to their encampment, nestled between the tracks and the river, so well-hidden that they had avoided detection for nearly a year at that point.Stitch was standing outside one of the tents as I approached. He waved me over and bent down toward the tent next to him. I stooped down and peered in, and saw Casey keeled over, rocking in pain as he struggled to breathe. His skin was pale and clammy and he was severely disoriented.
“He’s been fighting bronchitis and pneumonia for a few months now, and he’s been super weak,” Stitch told me when I climbed back up. “We took him over to the ER last week, but they wouldn’t admit him. And then we couldn’t get him to the clinic last Sunday because we didn’t have a ride, and then he got real bad the other day. I called 911 yesterday, but they told me that they couldn’t dispatch anyone out here without an address or exact location.”
I glanced around and thought for a moment. The nearest “address” was the car dealership nearest to the parking lot where I had left my car.
“Can you drive him to the hospital?”
I shook my head. “I can’t safely transport him in my vehicle. And I’m not sure that you and I can even carry him safely up there. But I’m going to get someone to come down here and help.”
I took off back through the woods, dialing 911 on my phone as I reached the top of the path near the parking lot. I described Casey’s symptoms to the dispatcher and gave the address of the car dealership.
As a fire truck pulled into the driveway I waved them over toward the back lot. The truck followed me up to the point where the lot ended and the hill down to the path began, but the driver stopped as soon as I started waving them down the hill. I turned around and ran back up the hill as he started to climb out of the vehicle.
“What is this?” he yelled angrily as I approached.
“I’m about to ask you the same thing,” I replied, matching his anger. I pointed down the hill. “He’s back in there. I’ll lead you there to him. Come on.” I turned to head back down the hill.
“Back there? Down by the riverbank? Like in a homeless camp?” He scoffed without waiting for me to answer. “No, absolutely not, we’re not going down there.”
For a second I was in utter disbelief as to what I had just heard, but quickly snapped out of it and turned back around, furious.
“That man down there has been sick for weeks, and if he doesn’t get to the hospital, I truly think he’s going to die down there. And making sure he gets to the hospital is YOUR JOB. So do your damn job and get back behind the wheel and follow me down there. OK?”
He glanced back at his colleague for a moment, who shook his head. “Where is he, at the bottom of this hill? Can’t he get himself up here? We came to check him out, but I’m not driving down there.”
Check him out? It was clear from his tone, his language, and the lack of an ambulance on site that not only was he convinced that Casey’s current condition was not serious, he was annoyed at being sent out for what he was viewing as a welfare check at a homeless camp.
I momentarily tried to control myself but then just exploded in anger.
“No, he can’t get himself up here. This is an emergency. That’s why I called 911. I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but I’m telling you right now that if you don’t go down there and do your f**king job, getting fired will be the least of your worries. You will regret this more than you can possibly begin to imagine, mark my word.”
I stood there, shaking, as shocked as he was at what had just come from my mouth. He muttered a string of obscenities under his breath and turned back towards the truck. Glaring at me angrily, he started it up and slowly started to drive down the hill. I ran ahead to guide them toward the path.
At the intersection, the truck stopped and the driver jumped out once again. “We can’t drive past here,” he said, pointing at the narrow path ahead. “Where is he?”
“He’s way back in the woods there,” I replied, pointing down the path. They followed me to the tracks on foot but once they saw me start to climb up the dirt ledge they once again shook their heads.
“That’s not a path,” one of them said. “Where’s the path?”
“There is no other path. This is it,” I said and continued climbing up.
At that moment, I heard Stitch yell from the woods. I turned around toward the voice, and saw him struggling toward us with Casey on his back. Everyone helped to lower Casey down, and as soon as the driver saw Casey’s condition his expression immediately shifted from annoyance to grave concern as he reached for his radio to call for an ambulance. They quickly ferried Casey up the hill past Stitch and I. We hobbled after them, struggling to keep up.
A minute or two later, the ambulance pulled away with Casey in the back on his way to the hospital. Stitch and I were soaked to the bone and covered in mud, and as we made our way back up to the top of the hill I offered to take him back to my place to shower and clean up. He accepted, and as we got to my van I made another phone call, this time to a fellow advocate and trusted friend.
“Hey. Can you go to the ER and meet Casey there? He’s in the ambulance now on his way and I’m soaked and covered in mud and I don’t trust that they’ll actually treat him unless someone who they perceive as having power is insisting on it. At least that’s been the theme so far this morning, and I’m not taking any chances at this point.”
“Of course. No need to explain, I’m headed there right now,” she replied in a soothing voice. “Go home and take care of yourself. Are you OK? What happened?”
“I’ll explain later, but long story short, I’m now more aware than ever that the existing power structures are perfectly willing to simply let someone suffer and die unless and until someone else with social capital makes a whole lot of noise about it.”
III. The Echoes (Recently)
Staring out the window of the train, I tried hard to fight back feelings of hopelessness and déjà vu. I was headed down to Eugene for the first time in many months after receiving the news that yet another acquaintance had died on the street, this time only a few blocks away from where I last had lived down there.
Despite nearly two years and a hundred-plus miles of distance between myself and the community at hand, the news had brought on the same level of pain, emotional turmoil and crushing secondary trauma that had been a constant throughout my years in Eugene. I felt numb and dissociated, haunted with the helplessness that comes with knowing that no matter how hard I fought, no matter how hard we all pushed, people we loved were still going to die on the streets no matter what we did. And while I knew this trip was necessary in order to process and deal with my emotions, I was also dreading it. I didn’t want to face it, I didn’t want to process it. At that moment, I simply wanted to forget it.
When the train stopped in Albany, an older man sat down next to me. He immediately pulled out a large sketchbook and started to draw, connecting his new lines to an already complex series of miniature abstract images. Ordinarily I would have been fascinated, but in my numbness I was simply relieved that he was keeping to himself as I didn’t have it in me for small talk. I kept my head toward the window and tried to empty my mind as much as possible, but after a few minutes I sensed that I was being stared at.
I turned my head. My instinct was correct, he was staring right at me.
“Are you an artist?” he asked.
“Do you know the Dali painting, the one with the melting clocks?” he asked me.
I nodded again, warily but obediently, sensing immediately that I did not have the luxury of ignoring him.
He smiled. “It’s about the balance and paradox of time and memory, you know. And power. That painting, it’s called The Persistence of Memory. Think about that, that’s important. Because it’s the memory that persists. The time, even the place is often irrelevant. The power is carried in the memory. What you do now matters later, what you have done in the past may matter significantly at some point in the future.”
“It not only persists, but it perseveres,” he continued. “I like to riff off of Dali sometimes, and I often remind myself of the perseverance of memory. Actions become memories, and those memories seep into the cracks, like Dali’s clocks are seeping down. They lie in wait as seeds down there, and then they sprout when you least expect them to. Sometimes, long after I lose hope, I then learn that seeds that I planted end up bearing valuable fruit.”
He paused for a moment. “It’s like sound, right? From my perspective, my scream ends not long after I stop screaming. But whether I hear it or not, that scream echoes, and my lack of perception of that echo has no effect on whoever may hear that echo and whoever may be affected by that echo. The echoes retain power long after I let go.”
I wasn’t sure if he knew who I was and was offering specific advice to me, or if he was merely offering random babbling wisdom to a random stranger as some folks around here tend to do. But at that moment his words took on an entire universe of meaning.
He smiled at me while nodding and went back to his drawing. I sat there, dumbfounded but no longer numb, not knowing what to do or think other than to take out a notebook and write his words down as accurately as I possibly could.
* * *
A few hours later, I was walking downtown near the bus station when I heard someone yell my name from behind. I turned around and there was Casey, running toward me with a big grin on his face. He grabbed me for a hug and started to talk a mile a minute.
“I’ve been looking all over for you! They told me you left town. Oh my god I’m so glad I found you. I’ve been housed up for six months now just north of Mapleton. You need to come visit me. I was finally able to get SSI and OHP and my pneumonia’s been clear for a year now and I’ve got this great place on a piece of land right not far from the river. Let me tell you how to get there. So you know where the main intersection is right? At 126? OK, so you make a right so you’re going north…”
I became too overwhelmed at that moment to follow his words. I had known through friends that Casey had disappeared from Eugene the summer before, but nobody I knew had heard from him and I had feared the worst. But not only was he alive, he was healthy, housed, and looked ten years younger than the last time I had seen him.
I burst into tears and hugged him while thanking every god that was listening for this beautiful moment, this rare happy ending. I thought back to that horrible rainy morning on the riverbank, and then thought of the words of the man on the train earlier that afternoon, and I hugged Casey even tighter.
Hope. Time. Persistence. Perseverance. Echoes.
* * *
The following afternoon, when I got to the station for my train back to Portland, I learned it had been delayed another hour. I was hungry, so I headed to the bar across the street from the station.I ordered a beer and some chicken fingers, sat a few seats away from everyone else, and glanced around while sipping my drink. Immediately I noticed a man at the end of the bar staring intently in my direction with a look of recognition in his eyes.
I averted my eyes and immediately cursed the train for being late. Drunken confrontations in public establishments were one of many reasons I had left Eugene in the first place, as my political work had eventually made me into a target and I had no longer felt safe in public. I saw him rise up from the barstool and walk toward me, and I tensed up as my heart started to pound, instinctively anticipating conflict.
He sat down next to me and ordered another drink, I could tell immediately that he was on at least his third or fourth. He turned toward me. I kept my head down as the bartender watched us both warily from a short distance away.
“What, are you afraid of me or something?” he asked me after a moment.
I opened my mouth to snap back, paused, swallowed my words, and started again, realizing in my initial sputter that this was a moment where surrender might be more effective than defensiveness.
“Yes, actually, I am afraid,” I replied as steadily and calmly as I could muster. “You seem to know who I am, so you probably know I get yelled at a lot, so yes, in this moment I am afraid of you and I am afraid of conflict. In my experience, when someone spots me from across a bar and comes over to talk, it usually doesn’t end well.”
His eyes widened for a moment, and then he started to laugh. “Well, I’m not going to yell at you,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “But I must say that your response is a bit amusing, considering that you got up in my face and yelled at me once. And I never would have admitted it then, but I’ll tell you straight up here and now that you scared the living crap out of me.”
I looked into his eyes, examining his facial features as I pleaded with my memory to cooperate. While he seemed vaguely familiar, I could neither place him nor the incident he had just referenced. He laughed some more as he took another swig of beer.
“Let’s see….” he started, with obvious amusement in his voice. “I believe your exact words were… ‘if you don’t go down there and do your effing job, getting fired will be the least of your worries…’ “
My memory jolted and my stomach clenched up immediately, the incident with Casey at the riverbank already fresh on my mind after running into him the day before.
“Ah. Yes. Of course,” I said as calmly as possible.
I literally have no idea what to say, I thought to myself. I wasn’t sure if he was looking for an apology or a punching bag, but I was determined not to cater to either role despite my fear.
“I literally have no idea what to say,” I then blurted aloud to him.
He gulped down the rest of his drink, waved at the bartender, and pointed at the empty glass for a refill.
“You don’t need to say anything to me. You were in the right that day.”
I looked up at him, shocked at what I had just heard.
He continued. “Yep, you were absolutely in the right. My behavior was inexcusable that morning, and what sickens me most in hindsight is that such behavior was typical, everyday reaction for me. It was normalized.”
He looked at me for a moment with a look of distress and then continued. “And your reaction was also normalized to your situation. Not only were you in the right, but the very fact that you knew you had to be there in order for him to get the help he needed…that is what sickens me the most.”
His voice had suddenly gotten quite loud, and the bartender looked over again and raised an eyebrow at me. We’re fine, I mouthed towards her as he continued on.
“Heh, yeah, I can see that now. I couldn’t see it then, but I do see it all differently now. And that morning was a part of that. I didn’t get it immediately. But now, nowadays…”
I still had no idea what to say. My heart was still pounding although my fear had subsided, and my mind was racing in a million directions at once. He shifted on the barstool, sat back and looked at me quizzically for a moment. Suddenly his face softened and he leaned in toward me.
“I’m sorry I scared you. I’m sure that lots of folks aren’t nice to you at all. But I still have to laugh a bit. To be honest, based on that morning I didn’t think you knew how to be scared.”
I finally knew what I wanted to say. Well, to be honest, based on that morning I didn’t think you knew how to be kind or compassionate. So let this stand for both of us as a moment in time when our surface-level assumptions were satisfactorily disproven…
And yet I bit my tongue and only shrugged, hoping that this was one of those moments where silence would speak louder than noise.
At that moment, the train pulled into the station, announcing itself with a deafening blast of the whistle. I grabbed my bag, pointed toward the train and nodded, and made a quick exit.
* * *
Author’s Note: Names and minor identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.