Culture Shock

photo/Tom Perry
photo/Tom Perry

Culture Shock
From the Portland Ghetto to Freeport, U.S.A.

by Robin Rage

“Never trust a survivor … until you find out what he did to survive.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard

So, I ended up getting evicted from my Portland ghetto apartment. Forced to leave the chaotic confines of the first home I’d had in eight years. Eight years! And the only solid home that Bella (my little black dog) had ever known, and the one and only universe that Bella’s Maine coon cat, Mrs. Haversham, had ever known. She’s never been on the street, like Bella and I.

Eek! The sky was falling. Or so I thought.

Not to worry, true believers, we didn’t end up back on the street. Gosh, no. We ended up moving to Freeport, U.S.A.!

Sometimes a blessing can sting at first, and this certainly stung. When I first got the old apartment, which we called The Vatikan, I really underestimated the effect the street had had upon your humble narrator, even housed. For the longest time I still never left the house without a full backpack, the guitar, same combat boots, same “healthy dose of hyper-vigilance.” I was like a homeless person with a home, and actually living on the same street as the shelter and the soup kitchen (Oxford Street), just on the other side of Franklin, the arterial that cuts Oxford in two. Living on that ghetto corner provided me with no opportunity to rejoin the world of citizens. My world remained the Nation. I still ate at the soup kitchen, held peer-processing groups there, got my mail there, and there I’d find fellowship. My friends, my clothes, my attitude, the way I presented myself remained very street. That’s different than being a streetnik. That’s just street sick.

My girlfriend, who’d been with me when I’d first left the woods [see “Sherwood Forest,” November 2014], lived with me for nearly a year, but eventually left, and when she did there was nothing left but street. I recall this lodger I had, this homeless heroin addict, saying, “You know, the only people I’ve ever seen come to your door are the homeless.” And I hadn’t thought about it, but it was true. Over time my boundaries, already slippery and guilt-defined, only got worse. I broke the first rule of the newly housed, advice dispensed by all those who’ve lost their housing and ended up back on the street: Never let your homeless friends crash on your floor.

I did.

At first, immediately post-break up, it was just G-Raff, my twenty-something woman-grrl intern, but she was harmless. I knew this because she would disappear whenever I took in “lodgers.” I would go through spells when a person could stay at my place (always in the outer-room, called “steerage” or “the darkroom;” never in the bedroom, “the Zendo”) for $10 a night, or weed, or spice. And God bless you, lads (and you know which of you I’m writing about), but these weren’t people that I would hang out with for any other reason.

Still, it had become my norm, and with so many people dying from opiate overdose, anyone not dead was now considered healthy. Two + two = five. The Emperor is wearing some stylin’ threads.

I wouldn’t have left the place on purpose. When I lived on the Fore River I used to declare that they would never chase me out of Portland, scoffing at the peeps who camped so far out that it was easier for them to shop in Westbrook. Just as I’d felt years before while burning out in Augusta, I truly felt that “the revolution” was in Portland, on the streets of Portland, and that’s where I’d be.

But it wasn’t to be. I got evicted, the Freeport apartment came up, things fell easily into place and I was off to another town, a safe place where I knew no one. I swear, my first week in Freeport was just a mix of fear and guilt. Fear due to change, which I fear even in its healthy forms. And feeling like a fish out of water, as though some coat was going to show up at any moment and say, “A mistake has been made. You don’t belong here.”

Crazy, right? As I am.

The guilt came from being in such a safe, beautiful area. There don’t appear to be any homeless here. This is crazy to say, but so desperate was I for the street and its normalcy (to me) that when, on my second day in town, I spotted two elderly gentlemen sitting on a bench, I automatically thought, Ah, thank God! Alcoholics! But, you see, they weren’t alcoholics at all. They were just two elderly gentlemen sitting on a bench.

One morning I saw what I thought must be some sort of street protest down on Main Street, bikers included. Of course I had to walk down and scope it out. Protest? No. It was an “Isn’t America Great?!” kinda thing. I don’t think they have those in Portland. And another thing — unlike Portland, in Freeport the fire department doesn’t automatically send a ladder truck with every ambulance dispatched (“Why would we?” a fireman here said).

A friend voiced concerns that the homeless could follow Bella and me to Freeport, but it’s not so. There’s no “hustle” in Freeport. Or, rather, only corporate hustle. There’s no street hustle — no begging, bartering, blatant shoplifting, car-shopping. I mean, at the smoke shop (on the far end of the village, of course), they actually keep the packs of little cigars in the humidor out back. You just grab a pack yourself. How bizarre!

It’s rather like Augusta was to me back in the ’70s (not to sound too old) — you know, you can leave your lawnmower out in the yard, unlocked, even. The locals are friendly, the church is welcoming, great couple of A.A. meetings. It’s like — bear with me, because I’ve been watching nothing but mountain disaster movies lately — I have friends who are still up on the mountain, dying. Not from cerebral edema or lack of oxygen, but from good pharmaceuticals or bad heroin. And it sucks. Bad. High suck factor. But, no worries, at least about me, loyal viewer. I came down the mountain, left the mountain, at least for a bit.

If you add it up (and I have), I’ve been either in an institution, on the street, or living in a ghetto for the past eight years. The name of the song, you see, is “Street,” in the key of P.T.S.D. Get it? Thought you would. When I was on the street I used to tell peeps I was the richest man in town, I felt that so many people cared about me. But now it’s as though Jesus jammed a lucky horseshoe straight up my ass, I’ve been so lucky.

I’ve definitely had some advantages. I wasn’t always homeless, or poor, or disadvantaged. No, far from it. I got to start the game of Monopoly with more money, more dice, and more cash every time I passed “GO” than a lot of my peeps had. That’s what really gets me. The only reason to feel any guilt would be if I were to forget the street. And that, true believers, is impossible.

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