This is true: in a concrete parking shelter behind the Portland Central Post Office, a seventy-two-year-old man named Floyd slept under a government surplus blanket. Floyd had worked on the assembly line at International Harvester in Rock Island, Illinois for forty years. He was married for forty-two years. I heard about Floyd from Dan. Dan runs a nonprofit called “Blanket Coverage;” he covers people with blankets for his vocation.
I do not make my living helping people keep warm. You might say I “cover them,” but that phrase would end “for a paycheck.” I write an obituary column.
I learned more about Floyd than about the deceased I memorialize. Six years of summarizing people’s lives in two-to-five paragraphs—exceed one column, you’re Section “A”–had given me a school yearbook view of the dead: “What’d you do? Who’d you know? Why’d you go?” Our staff (of three) prefers not to dissemble about our subjects, but we select which parts of the truth to report. Coroners and undertakers (as “funeral home directors” hate to be called) develop thicker calluses because they handle the bodies, but maybe that contact bestows a little honest humility. We’re more like newscasters who never move on to the human-interest story.
Obits sounded like a simple job: people die; I write about them. Pros—adequate pay, secure, home every night for dinner. Cons—slightly macabre, minimal prestige.
It’s never that easy. Other people make it look easy, and I watch them with envy and chagrin and, when my heart can manage it, admiration. Some days I even feel joy, this ball of gratitude and pleasure that inflates my chest, one bike tube pump at a time, when I watch their eyes and their hands and their cheeks and I can almost, almost feel what they feel. They seldom glance at me. I’m not really there. Not in the same sense they are. I am incidental. When people look at me, they don’t see me, and they certainly don’t see me seeing them. If we make eye contact, they avert. They sometimes react as they would to a homeless person. I’ve seen buskers have conversation with people. I once saw a young man sit down on the concrete and chat with the old woman who plays her five-string guitar here. I saw him reach out his hand to her and grip her palm, squeeze her fingers as if he were greeting his own mother. Maybe he was. But no one talks to me.
I’ve often thought I could pick their pockets. They don’t see me, they barely register me, why would they notice if I took their wallets? Would my hand even take physical form if I reached into their purses, their overcoats, their jackets? Would they suddenly feel me and the sensation would race to their eyes? Or would their blindness travel down to their nervous system and numb any awareness of that tug?
I sweep. I mop. I don’t have disinfectant but I have a bucket. I pick up dropped cell phones. I’ve lost count how many. Sometimes, if I can get to a listing and find “home #,” I will call and try to tell them where they can retrieve their property. But now almost every phone is locked and I don’t spend hours trying to guess security codes. I just leave them at the newsstand where the gal who works the pre-dawn shift gets to decide what to do with them.
I empty the trash cans into the dumpster. I go through trash. I eat. I find things to help me.Continue reading