Good year, 1950

May 7, 2008

“Is your birthday really Friday?” I ask the wisp of a man leaning against the Post Office wall in Northeast Portland and panhandling for money. Thickets of wiry gray hair spill from beneath his maroon stocking hat. A beard partly hides sunken cheeks. His clothes are faded but clean.

It was our second encounter. I’d given him 30 cents a few minutes earlier as I left the building. He called out to me in a raspy voice that he needed money for his birthday. A clever line, I thought, more original than most I hear from street people. So I gave him my spare change. Call me uncaring, but I don’t usually give money to panhandlers for fear they’ll spend it on booze or drugs.

When I handed over the change, I was unintentionally brusque. Or I couldn’t hide my skepticism, I suppose, and strode off to my car a half-block away. Without thinking why, I walked back to the man and asked him my question, knowing we might share something in common—if he wasn’t lying. But to what end?

“Yes, Friday I’ll be 58,” he answers. “Born in Seattle, May 9, 1950.”

And then he begins carrying on about the state writing checks for mentally ill people but not helping someone like him with serious medical problems. I’m thinking, here we go, another B.S. sob story to wring more money from me.

“I’m disabled,” he says finally, tugging at his pant leg. I assume he’s about to show me a gaping wound or prosthesis. Slowly into view emerges a plastic bag taped to his ankle. It’s brimming with urine.

“I’ve got prostrate cancer. Had to have my testicles cut off. Cancer’s spread to my colon. I know I’m going to die, but it didn’t have to happen. I couldn’t afford medical help.”

He rambles on, not so much raving as wanting someone to listen.

I give him $5. “You’ve made my day,” he says. “Now I can get me something to eat.”

As I leave, I tell him I’ll be 58 in December. He smiles, then says: “Good year, 1950.”

I drive off but decide to double back. The post office wall is vacant. I find him crossing Northeast Broadway, heading toward the liquor store ahead on Ninth Avenue. He’s walking fast. I’ve been duped. But he veers east on Broadway, walks a block, and disappears inside the Village Inn restaurant.

I park and wait a few minutes. I should ask to photograph him, get his name, and tell his story. I drive home for camera and notepad. When I return, he’s not in the restaurant. I ask the cashier about the homeless-looking guy. What did he order? I’m surprised when he opens the register, pulls out a receipt, and reads from it:

“Coffee and strawberry pancakes.”