INTRODUCTION: The city of Portland, where I live, is the urban center of a county with more than fifteen thousand homeless people. That figure includes not only people who sleep on the street and in shelters, but also those who sleep on friends’ couches, in cars, and in transitional housing. People often offer various explanations for why this is: the abundance of social services, the minimum wage, the way the Northwest’s moderate climate enables people to live outside for most of the year. In 2009, Oregon ranked first in the nation for homelessness per capita. I wanted to investigate this; to see who these people are, and how they get by. So I spent the summer of 2011 talking to some of the homeless population here in town. That’s how I met Eddie.
I was riding my bike around Southeast Portland, heading back to my friend’s house, where I was watching her dog. On Yamhill Street, I spotted a man standing in front of a brown Westfalia, running a razor blade along the rim of its silver VW ornament. He was wearing a black Eckō-brand t-shirt, leather hiking boots, and baggy Carhartt jeans with little side pockets and a hammer loop.
I stopped and told him about my project. “Interview me?,” he said. “About what?” His fingers were greasy and calloused, and he used the razorblade to clean his nails. Like so many bands out of the psychedelic ’60s, he kept his hair in a Prince Albert: bowl-shaped, pressed flat against his face, bangs slightly feathered in front. “Ah,” he said, “just make something up.”
He had blue eyes, the dry wrinkles of a smoker, and a divot so deep on his left cheek that its shadow looked like a mole. When he stepped to the van’s open side door, I followed.
The Wesfalia was spotless. On the corner of the tiny interior kitchen counter stood a digital alarm clock. Beside the clock, a red, one-gallon gas can stood next to a tall bag of pipe tobacco. In a box on the floor was a tub of margarine, a can of oatmeal, batteries, sugar, and next to the door: a clear plastic coffee container, the bottom inch of which was filled with pee.
I told him I needed to run to get my recorder, but he started anyway: He was sixty-four years old. He had just sold another VW bus—his home before this one—for $5,000, and he was searching for a room to rent. This is part of how he made his living, fixing and selling Volkswagens. “Let me go get my recorder,” I said, “I’ll be right back.”
He replied, “I might be somewhere else. I’ll have the blinds drawn.” When I returned minutes later, he was sitting inside his van, staring through the front windshield from the back bench seat. The sliding side-door was open. He told me he was born in London, bought a cheap motorcycle when he was fifteen, became a mechanic, selling bikes on the side. I asked Eddie what it was like growing up in London in the ’60s, and what it was that made him want to come to the US.
EDDIE: You know, geez that was a struggle through there. It wasn’t that good. I lived near Gatwick Airport—which is the second London airport— and I’d go there in the early ’70s and just look at the people that were coming from America. They were all dressed in, like, North Face clothing with Nikon cameras. You could see they had nice shoes, and we had crappy shoes. I never had a pair of shoes like this in England [taps his finger on his clean, leather high-top hiking boots]. Nobody did. I looked at these people and I thought, “Wow. They’re doing way better than us.” It’s like another planet. They’ve got cars with wings on the back; a car as big as a boat, you know? You can seat eight people in it! Motor homes. Stuff like that. Is there anything the Americans didn’t have?
INTERLUDE: America is a nation of immigrants. On the surface, Eddie’s seems the classic immigrant story: Americans seemed to have it all, so he moved here to try to enjoy some of the good life. Yet with Eddie, there was a slight but clear contempt for the Americans, too.
EDDIE: Yeah, let’s go back to the early ’70s, because it’s critical there, with the changes that were going on. They went to the decimal currency in England, and there were brown outs on certain days; there were even blackouts on other days. So you’d go to the local café in a busy downtown open-air “mall” area, if you like—and I knew the lady in there, Barrel, and she’s still keeping the place open. She’s got this double-burner, gas, French camp stove—it’s got bloody big burners—and she’s making coffee on a camp stove, and I’m thinking, this is like a Communist fucking country, man. This place has had it. You know? This is civilization. This is crazy shit, man.
And I’m forgetting half the stuff. There were all these little bits of added changes, layers of changes, and I’m thinking, well, it just isn’t going to get any better. Plus the motorcycle business is taken over by the Japanese—not that I care—and I figured, yeah, it’s time to move on. So I sold all the motorcycle stuff that I had, and bought myself a VW Bus, fixed it up, and I went traveling for five months in Europe, picking up riders. They shared the gas, and I went all over Europe, five months, about eleven thousand miles, and went everywhere. Went everywhere.
So I got back to England in February of 1974 and it was a huge anticlimax. And right in there was the gas crunch of ’73. The gas price doubled everywhere. It kind of went right by me, really, until I got back to England and the place was dead. I mean it was close to, like, tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street. It was dead.
AARON: So that’s why you came out, though? I mean, when you first moved out here, that’s how you ended up in Oregon?
EDDIE: Well, you know, the whole process of getting older, getting into my mid-twenties where you can look back at these things.
I’d got all these addresses in America, mostly in California. There’s a trick to applying for a visa—there’s a whole protocol involved with that; you have to know what to say, or how to do it. I didn’t have a clue. I just told them what I wanted to do and they said “No, we won’t give you a visa.” So then I bought an Air Canada ticket, and I went to the American Embassy in Vancouver. And the guy’s name—I can’t remember his other name—but his first name was Xavier. And that guy—which I still resent—he counted my money. He wanted to know how much money I had. He wanted to see it. And he counted it.
EDDIE: Because he wouldn’t let me in the country if I couldn’t take care of myself. So he gave me a visa for—I forget what it was—like a couple of months or three months or something. And I had no intentions of coming back. The only other place where they counted my money was East Berlin.
AARON: [Laughs.] That’s a horrible parallel.
EDDIE: There you go. Think about that.
INTERLUDE: In the Statue of Liberty, a sonnet welcomes immigrants with the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss’d, to me. / I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Eddie didn’t feel so welcome. The first thing he found here was distrust and hostility.
EDDIE: I came down to the Bay Area: San Francisco. I stayed with some people down there. And I moved around; I stayed with different people in different places in Berkeley. I was there when Nixon resigned. I was there when the Vietnam War was over. So I was right there at the end of the hippie period in Berkeley. And I’ve been back to Berkeley—it’s nothing like that anymore. It’s just a yuppified place and I can’t stand it.
And then I got myself a girlfriend where I lived up in Berkeley. I was doing good. I was selling cars… you could buy them for two hundred bucks, clean them up, sell them for eight. And I wheeled and dealed all kinds of stuff; I was selling stuff on the street—these wooden mirrors—and I was making real good money out of that. This was back in the arts and crafts period of, you know, the hippie period. People were making candles and jewelry. I was making really good money.
AARON: And this was still in Berkeley?
EDDIE: Yeah, that was Berkeley. Back in the hippie days. The corner was Ashby and Telegraph.
INTERLUDE: Even if life in a car resembles helplessness and vulnerability, only a very crafty person could make a car their home. Imagine your living space reduced to a single room. Now cut that room in half. Could you arrange all the necessities of life in that space? Could you sleep, eat, and dress in view of passing traffic? Eddie can. But that doesn’t mean he prefers it out here.
America loves only certain types of scrappy wanderers: the dog who survives off trash, trotting miles until a nice family finds it by the roadside. Or the impoverished, hand-to-mouth youth of some movie director or pop star who, after a few lucrative hits, will never again have to eat cold food from a can. But Eddie’s story, if it has a “type,” might sound more like that of a huckster, some shady hippie who’s probably never held down a “real job” and who uses his money for drugs. But Eddie had never done drugs in his life.
EDDIE: Yeah, so ’75 was a good year. And probably for about two weeks, before Christmas—and we had no way of planning any of this—we were probably making a thousand bucks a day, thirteen hundred bucks a day. Just racking in money. And I was selling VWs as well, you know, fixing VWs and doing that stuff.
So me and this girl, we decided we’d go and take a trip over to Europe. Actually, in that year I’d lived well—you know, not like a king, but I lived really decently—and saved sixteen thousand dollars. In 1975.
AARON: That's a lot of money. That's a damn lot of money.
EDDIE: Well, if I’d known at the time, I could’ve come up here and bought one of these huge houses for sixteen thousand dollars [ points to the nice, refurbished houses to his left, across Yamhill from the Walgreen’s lot.] I didn’t know that.
INTERLUDE: Did you hear that? Sixteen thousand dollars. In 1975. So much for the old, clichéd idea of homelessness. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never saved anything close to that much money.
EDDIE: Yeah, and all of this time—you know, from when I overstayed my welcome—I was an illegal immigrant. When I went back to England, now I’ve got to reapply for another visa to get back in. Well, I met a guy, an Australian, and he told me how it was done, alright? What they want to hear. They don’t want to hear the truth.
So, he said they want assurance that you’re going to come back, you know? So it’ll be like a letter from the bank saying, “he has adequate funds to finance his trip to America, and the standing order payments on his house will continue to be paid in his absence,” and all bullshit and blah, blah, blah. Well I got a letterhead from a girl I knew who worked at a bank, and somebody else typed it up and signed it with a phony name. And then the other one was a motorcycle dealer that I knew. He wrote me up and said, “Yeah, he will be on his annual vacation in the United States, blah, blah, blah.” And that kind of thing. So you just send that stuff in and the visa comes back; they gave me an indefinite visa.
But in that illegal immigrant period, I drove for twenty-four years with no driver’s license and no insurance.
AARON: God. And you didn’t get caught once?
EDDIE: No accidents, no. But that’s how careful you have to be, you see? The person without the driver’s license, ninety-nine percent of the time, is going to be a much better driver than the person with a driver’s license and insurance. Because you can’t have an accident—you can’t have a wreck if you’re an illegal immigrant. Like Mexicans, there—they’ve got to be careful, you know? Especially these days.
INTERLUDE: “Especially these days.” Meaning the era of terrorism and profiling, maybe. A time when authorities in Arizona were pulling people over and demanding their papers. For Eddie, it seemed that outsiders were outsiders, no matter their nationality or how isolated their individual existence.
EDDIE: Anyway, after that, let’s see: California. You know, went to Europe, came back. I was doing the mirror thing again, but that wasn’t working out too well. We did the World of Plants & Crafts, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. And it was about the time of that World of Plants & Crafts, I don’t know, for some reason I saw a school bus in the newspaper. It was like thirty-two, thirty-five feet long, something like that. So I went over there and checked it out, and the thing did not run right at all, man. They wanted like eleven hundred bucks for it and I said, “I’ll give you six hundred bucks for it,” and drove it away—it wouldn’t do more than forty miles an hour, and it’s blowing smoke all over the place, and it’s a pretty long drive back to where we’ve got to go, so I stopped it on the side of the rode, opened the hood, looked at it. It was the choke. The hand-choke was stuck. So I just cut that thing loose, unscrewed it, and boom: it was a go-er. It wasn’t never that fast anyway. I mean, the top speed on it was about sixty miles an hour.
So, it didn’t have all the things you really need to go traveling in, but we just loaded that thing up and traveled right around the United States. I loaded it up with mirrors, and sold mirrors on the street in San Antonio—Texas mainly—and down in Florida. Went all over. Yeah, that was a good bus, man; that was a good six hundred bucks worth. When I got to—well, all the way from California, and ended up in Oregon with the bus—I sold it eventually for fifteen hundred bucks. So all the gas that went into it, pretty much, we got back.
AARON: Paid it off. Free trip, essentially. Did you sleep in the bus, then? The whole time?
EDDIE: Yeah. Yeah. We lived in the bus. It had a refrigerator, a stove. It didn’t have any plumbing for toilet or showers, but occasionally we’d pull into, like, a campsite somewhere and kind of, you know, figure it out and then duck into the showers. And nobody ever said anything.
Then I got to Portland, and that’s where me and her parted company. She decided to go to Hawaii, and I never figured out what the hell I’d be doing in Hawaii. You know, the way I am, rough and ready, fix cars, do that—what, am I going to be doing that there? Plus the fact that they’ve got a lot of rusty things in Hawaii, and I don’t want to be fixing rusty cars.
So that gets me to Portland. All along, I’d worked on motorcycles. The VW is basically a gigantic motorcycle engine, particularly the Bug engine, but the other ones, the air-cooled ones, are like that, too. So I just continued with that theme, you know? I was always looking for something else, but then I got myself a cheap place to be out on Sauvie Island where I could work on cars, so I just kind of sloughed off twenty-nine and a half years on Sauvie Island.
AARON: You like Portland, though?
EDDIE: Portland? Not really. I mean, I’ve been so many other places. I was talking to a German friend of mine. He was saying how he was up one time in Stockholm, in Sweden. I mean, you should see it. You should see how nice that is, how clean and tidy and smart and spiffy. It’s almost too clean. But it’s not perfect, because they said long ago that Sweden had the best Socialist system—social system, social welfare, and all of that crap, you know—the best one of the lot. But apparently the Swedish people didn’t agree, because they were committing suicide at an alarming rate. So they analyzed it and looked into it, and then they figured out what it was. It’s that the Swedish government had completely taken the gamble out of life.
AARON: Too predictable. That’s interesting. …So do you like to gamble, then?
EDDIE: No! I don’t gamble.
AARON: No, not proper gambling, but I mean like a lifestyle: like you don’t like knowing what’s going to be waiting for you in six months, three months?
EDDIE: Well, I suppose that would be nice, but I can’t predict what that would be, so I don’t even think about it. I’m just living for the moment. Hour by hour, day by day. Whatever happens. I could have a heart attack tomorrow. I don’t care. Any time’s good. That’s my retirement plan, is a good heart attack. Yeah, right in the middle of a good dream—hopefully. What more do you need? Leukemia? Huh? Senility?
AARON: I like your retirement plan better than going down slowly, much better.
EDDIE: Aaah no, you don’t—nah, nah, you’ve just gotta go. Yeah. I mean, eeee, all the things that people die of. Most of the people I’ve known, they’ve died. Some of them were younger than me. Now, one of the owners of the Alexis Restaurant on Burnside—the Greek restaurant—Ilias Bakouros, the cook. He’s dead. He was a friend of mine. And he was kind of a crazy guy, like Zorba the Greek—just exactly like that—and he was also a great guy, a goodhearted guy. And he’s dead.
EDDIE: 2008. I didn’t get any information regarding that he’d died. I didn’t know he’d died, because I was out in Battle Ground and he’s on Sauvie Island. So then I found out that I’d missed his funeral, and there’d be a memorial service with the Greek Orthodox Church—I think it’s on Glisan—forty days after he'd died. So I’m standing there, and I get a distinct double buzz in my spine, like: “buzz buzz,” and then there’s a pause, “buzz buzz,” then there’s a pause, “buzz buzz.”
AARON: You’re thinking that’s your friend getting in touch with you?
EDDIE: That’s all I can think of. It doesn’t make any sense at all that that would happen, in a church, in a memorial service. He’s telling me, “I’m still here.” Now, I don’t believe in life after death; I think this is something that people invented. And yet, you know, what the hell do I know. I could be wrong. So you have to keep an open mind on that. I have no idea. I’m cynical enough to say to people, why people like us would go on to an afterlife I can’t possibly imagine. Only because we say so. Because we’re egomaniacs. That we think that we’re worth saving. If you had any humility at all you’d figure when you’re dead, you’re dead. You know? I have a tendency to think that way, but then, you know: buzz buzz.
Now, I had a brother. He was older than me by about six years. I was away from home in a school. Like a boarding school. And he’d been killed in a scooter accident, riding one of these goddamned infernal scooters that these people ride around on. That was 1963.
AARON: How old was he?
EDDIE: I was seventeen. He would’ve been like twenty-two, twenty-three.
INTERLUDE: Despite all the contextual and tangential information about automobiles and global economic shifts that Eddie puts into his life story, he only mentions family once. It’s here towards the end, about his brother’s death. That’s not to say that he’s being morbid, only that the shortage is revealing. Family, like our geographic homes, is part of our origin story. It’s part of our identity, and it often grounds us as we change and move from place to place. For Eddie, family seems to do the opposite: it functions as a window through which he views his own independence, his staunch individuality, and—maybe—his alienation.
EDDIE: So I was in this boarding school, and I remember having this—well, I didn’t know where he was. I was quite a long way off from where he was, and I didn’t know what hospital he was in. I didn’t know where he was. But I was looking out this window, and I told these other guys, I said, “I’ve got an overwhelming urge to go—to go over there.” And it turned out that on that day, at roughly about that time, that’s when he died.
AARON: Wow. Now if you don’t believe in an afterlife, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t believe that there’s some sort of nonphysical, or—
EDDIE: I don’t know. I don’t know what all that means.
AARON: But that is really—that’s not a coincidence.
EDDIE: No— So, you note these things in life. You know, there's not many of them.
INTERLUDE: This is interesting, too. Eddie never mentions loneliness. He mentions friends, mentions an ex-girlfriend, yet in their absence, not loneliness. Where are all the people who attended Ilias Bakouros’s funeral, which he references? Did he not contact them now that he’s without a home? Most people I know get uncomfortable eating at a restaurant by themselves, let alone spending months on end in a van with little companionship. We’re mostly social creatures. There is a small percentage of us, though, that prefers to be alone. Some of us thrive in it. Others are just barely able to stand it.
AARON: Is that your only brother? Or only sibling?
EDDIE: No, I had stepbrothers, and a stepsister, but I was never close to any of them.
No, I didn’t have anything—they say blood is thicker than water and all that crap, but I never had any problem with that. No. It’s how you are connected to a country, and you get to your mid-twenties, like I’ve said, and you look back and you think, “This ain’t much. I want to try something else. If I don’t like it there, I’ll go someplace else.” Just move around, you know, and feel no attachment. I never felt that I really had a family. I never felt that I had a country. I never really felt that I belonged anywhere. I don’t feel like I belong here. I’m an American citizen, for whatever that’s worth.
AARON: But you still don’t feel like you belong?
EDDIE: No. I’m a foreigner here. You know?
AARON: Where do you feel like you do belong?
EDDIE: I am of the planet Earth. That’s it. That’s—you know—that’s it.