I had a rather unsettling, if not bizarre encounter with a homeless person the other day. As I was scurrying to meet with a teacher I'm mentoring a 20 something guy sprang from a bus bench and asked if he could ask me something. We all know the drill here, but his youth and condition held me for a split second so I thought I'd just cut to the chase and tell him I was busy but here's a dollar. The dollar bill I thought was in my front pocket turned out to be a five and at that point the threshold is crossed. No turning back. He took the money and then rather uncharacteristically seemed to undergo a personality change. What followed was a rather speedy, rather schizophrenic diatribe complete with people from another universe and his anger at have ing the 5 dollar bill.
"Well, if you're angry about having it, you can always give it back," I replied. He wasn't going for that but seemed intent on continuing the conversation, one-way as it was.
I was done. I wished him luck and fought off the temptation to urge him to get help. I can still see the tattooed letters over one eyebrow. At first they looked like RFK. A homage to Bobby Kennedy? Not quite, just another use of some letters that might have been an R and a K somewhere. So what's the takeaway? That even homeless people can get angry when taking your money? That finding food and shelter come after finding mental health resources? Probably all of it.
That afternoon I had a scheduled visit from the cable TV guy. My signal boxes, like me, are old and need replacing. Since he lived in my neighborhood, we got into a quick discussion about some of the new places coming into our rapidly gentrifying corner of North Portland. Soon we focused on a jerk chicken place called Jamaica House. Just opened, it's been filling the surrounding streets with the aroma of cooking chicken. I mentioned that I'd seen a guy with dreads and a ball cap with a large cannibis leaf on it working over a BBQ placed in front of a Jamaican flag that adorns the old house where the restaurant is located. My technician, a Puerto Rican, originally from New York said he'd heard of the place and was wanting to try it also. He then launched into a diatribe about how one can't be too careful about assuming anything because it might just have been a non-Jamaican sporting all the cultural regalia out there cooking.
That afternoon, we walked over to the place, my wife and I, and entered the Jamaica House. Said cook emerged from the kitchen with a big smile and gave us a menu. Though the place was empty, it was still early enough in the afternoon so we waited. A woman sitting at the bar offered a comment about the uncharacteristic spring weather. The old house turned restaurant reminded me of a few similar places I'd seen in Texas. Only those were BBQ joints with red soda water and potato salad. They often had juke boxes, one in particular with only BBKing, Bobby Bland, and Little Milton records inside them.
We heard hacking from the kitchen; meat cleaver cutting up chicken...I hope. 10 minutes later we were home with our meals and the moment of truth was at hand. The chicken was OK, not memorable and rather bony. Present were a few parts most people don't eat. I must confess that I'm a chicken bone lover and eat most anything and definitely every part except a few. What passed for beans and rice was a large serving of rice, completely undercooked. Crunchy. Hard crunchy, not fried rice crunchy. The beans present I could count on one hand. That's right, five or fewer, no joke.
I hope this place makes it, but I have my doubts. Portland is a food town and people will vote with their dollars and their palates. I'll try again in a few weeks, just to see if anything has changed. In the same way, if I ever encounter that homeless guy again, and we are both not in such a rush to condemn, we'll see if a donation to his well being still makes him angry. You got to accept people and things were they are, not where you want them to be. At least, in the beginning.