Readers: this is a recent essay about the homeless that first appeared on my Substack newsletter. I occasionally post these pieces on the blog in hope of persuading readers to subscribe to that newsletter and support this project. You can find the newsletter at https://mattlove.substack.com/
I toured the Rhododendron Garden for the first time and reveled in its immediate soothing effect on the various American disturbances unsettling my mind. After the tour, I bought an annual pass and knew I would return on a regular basis and sit on a bench under a 30-foot rhododendron and write or do nothing at all except gaze upon a lake and waterfowl.
What a fine morning and different walk, meaning not through my local homeless encampment, to begin it. Sometimes, I force myself to take a break from observing the New American Diaspora. You have to make a conscious effort to to avoid it and I was doing exactly that.
Out in the parking lot, I decided to keep walking down the boulevard and meet up with a creek that I suspected was laden with beaverwood.
The boulevard ran along a socialist golf course and I passed a kid teeing off on the 14th hole, a par four, dogleg left. He smacked it down the middle. I saw a concrete path to my left that paralleled the 14th hole and took it, while watching the kid hit his second shot. It faded to the right and hit some branches of an oak tree. He had 50 yards to the green to get up and down for par. Something down the path arrested my attention: a lone tent pitched off to the side near the creek. If I kept on my present course I would walk within inches of it. I wasn’t really in the mood to observe, let alone interact with something related to the New American Diaspora, but this is how it always unfolds.
I stopped for a moment to watch the kid hit a wedge to within eight feet of the hole. I could watch him putt and then turn around. Or I could keep going to down the path. I kept going and soon found myself standing in front of the tent. I peered inside. How could I not? I had never seen the inside of a tent of a member of the New American Diaspora.
It was an expensive three-person model. The flap was wide open. No one was inside. There was water pooled on the floor. I saw a cot with an expensive sleeping bag strewn across it. I saw ear buds, a flashlight, a tiny propane stove, various toiletries, empty bottles of booze, cans of beans and other items I associated with someone living on the streets. The contents inside the tent exuded a definite male occupant and the condition of the interior and surrounding disarray of other items, including a bong, barbecue and bicycle parts, suggested strongly to me the tent had been abandoned. That’s certainly nothing new. Tents, shanties, RVs and other makeshift domiciles are abandoned all the time.
I made a second visual inspection. I saw something else resting on the cot: two journals, a hard back Dickens-like red and black ledger and a pink softcover composition book with silver glitter encrusted into stars adoring the front.
Journals! A writer resided in this tent and kept a journal, possibly two! They were abandoned like the rest of gear. I had to read them. I had to know what was going on inside the mind of the writer. This was like finding gold and you weren’t even looking for it. And these were nuggets gleaming in the crystalline stream, not flakes in the black sand.
There they were, five feet away. I could grab them and only put one foot inside. I was saving something important human from human ruination.
It all added up to an excellent rationalization for a writer who always remembers Joan Didion’s priceless and true line: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t step inside. It felt like an obvious violation. I resumed walking down the path, and my rationalizations resumed as well.
The kid walked off the green. I didn’t know if he saved par or not.
My mind raced:
The tent had been obviously been abandoned. How long is something abandoned before it can be claimed? I once taught a one-period high school writing workshop on such an ethical dilemma It was about a bike chained to a power pole that no one came back to unlock.
Okay, I would come back the next day and see if the journals were still there. That would make it more ethical?
What is my duty here as a caring person? If that tent and the journals end up in a landfill,what good does that serve?
I kept walking down the path. It ended just past the 14th green onto a dead end street. I wheeled right and beheld the remains of a homeless encampment of seven or so dilapidated vehicles, including a milk delivery truck that appeared as if it had taken a direct hit from a bazooka. In fact, the whole encampment looked bombed out or fought through, like Stalingrad. No one appeared to be still living there. I thought about exploring it and then decided otherwise.
The unsettling of my mind began again. I simply can’t escape it, even when I purposely try to find refuge in nature. There I encounter members of the New American Diaspora, on a logging road in the Coast Range, along a river outside Drain, in the willows along a lake near Klamath Falls, in a national forest surrounding Sisters. Everywhere in Oregon. Yes, even on a holiday egg nog and cider stroll at the port in Bandon where a homeless joins carolers and sings “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
I turned around and headed back to the tent. I was taking the journals. If I had established one rule in my ongoing mission or adventure or observation or documentation or whatever I am doing with this story it was this: when an opportunity help or learn more arises, and they always do, you must ACT RIGHT THEN. You cannot wait for tomorrow when you’ve mustered courage or better reflected or developed a strategy. ACT RIGHT NOW. I’d blown so many incredible opportunities the past year by not sensing the moment to care or learn and I was done with that feckless approach.
Move! Got to move! I walked up to the tent. I looked around. No one was in sight. I found an oak branch on the ground, one with a kind of claw at the end. I extend the claw into into the tent. I grabbed the edge of both journals. I yanked the claw toward me with all my might and the journals flew into my hands in almost balletic fashion. (I’m not making this up.) I cradled them under my arm like a football and headed back toward the Rhododendron Garden. I had never stepped inside the tent.
Was I a thief? I’d wrestle it with that question later. Perhaps I’d saved a masterpiece of a memoir, illustrations, comics, a fantasy novel, a collection of Bukowski-like tales of depravity or something totally new to American literature because what was going in was totally new in American history.
As I walked, I noticed the journals were damp. I wanted to read them right along the golf course but I forced myself to wait.
Just a peek. I stopped. I thumbed the Dickens ledger. Nothing! Nothing except a first name and a phone number on the inside front cover.
I opened the pink journal. I scanned its pages and found mostly blank pages, but also stray words, a list and doodles in different colored ink written/drawn in a scratchy script that to me felt like a female’s. One the very last page was a page of prose written in orange and pink ink. At first glance, I couldn’t read it.
Why write on the last page of a journal before filling the rest of it? Over my long career as an English teacher who required students to keep journals, I had come across a few writers who inexplicably skipped pages and jumped around, but the one I now held was the most extreme in this oddity.
I hustled to the car and drove to my favorite dive bar to better scrutinize the journals. Since there was only one page of prose, I doubted any chance for discovering a major literary revelation, but then again the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” is a mere 14 lines.
The bartender poured me an ale and took I took it to a table near a window for extra light to decipher the handwriting, which on first inspection, was nothing like I had ever seen and I’d seen thousands of samples.
The last page of the journal read:
Don’t fuck with
I just got my phone last night. I miss you too and also want to let you know I’ve been holding the spot I cleaned up a lot. I think things look and feel more comfortable.
Your homie Rich came to see you but you weren’t here obviously.
(unintelligible words) …you get this note. I also got a phone for you. You need one. I gotcha.
I am going to get some (unintelligible words). Just call you and make sure you’re good. Like you’ve been gone for days. I love you.
It wasn’t what I had initially hoped for, but as I read the passage over and over and constructed an interpretation, it occurred to me that I had discovered something much richer and encouraging than a literary diamond in the squalor: a message of caring, of helping, of nuts and bolts survival, and at the end, of love.