The Wheelchair Couple

Elmer the husky and I cruised the neighborhood at dawn. We rounded the corner near the Presbyterian church, where skunks often congregate on the lawn.

Down the sidewalk something caught my attention. Coming toward us was an elderly homeless man pushing an elderly homeless woman in a wheelchair. She smoked a cigarette. I could hear them talking but didn’t catch any of it.

I knew they were homeless because, well, I’ve seen enough homeless men and women in Oregon to recognize them, Besides, for six months, a battered van from the 90s had been parked on a street next to the church and I had seen a wheelchair of similar appearance resting outside the van. I presumed the couple were living out of the van and how that was possible existed well beyond my imagination.

The man veered the wheelchair toward an entrance of the church where a huge rhododendron stood guard. The woman took a drag on the cigarette, then reached up to clutch a branch of the rhododendron, She pulled it toward her, admired a purple flower, then extricated a phone and took a photograph of beauty, which itself was an act of poetry.

He wheeled her back to the sidewalk and started heading toward us. I knew I couldn’t get Elmer around them in an orderly manner so I crossed the street and gave them the right of way.

They didn’t notice me.

Thirty minutes later, Elmer and I headed for home down the same stretch of sidewalk where we’d encountered the couple. Two blocks away, I saw the couple coming toward us, only she was pushing him in the wheelchair and he was smoking!


I smiled, turned onto a street and made up a story about the couple.

Back home, I fed Elmer and poured a cup of coffee. Standing in the kitchen, I realized making up a story about the wheelchair couple wasn’t going to cut it. I wrote a note to the occupants of the van informing them I was a writer living in the neighborhood who wrote about the homeless. Would you be willing to share your story of homelessness? It’s worth $20. I provided my phone number and wrote that if they didn’t have a phone to write the story down, place it inside the envelope, and leave it under the rear of the car. Once I retrieved the story, I’d leave $20 in an envelope the next morning.

In all my investigations of/interactions with Oregon’s homeless population, I’d never conducted this type of story solicitation. It felt sort of like a kooky plan, but why not? There was nothing to lose except not knowing their story.

The next morning I placed the note inside an envelope and left it on a tote of possessions that rested near the van.

Two mornings later, I saw the note had vanished.

I have yet to see an envelop under the van. As of this writing, the van’s occupant hasn’t called me.