My Portland Epiphany

Submitted into Contest #249 in response to: Write a story about a character driving and getting lost.... view prompt

1 comment

Contemporary Inspirational Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

WARNING: The story contains profanity.

“Goddamnit!” I yelled as I pounded the steering wheel. “Have you ever heard of appropriately placed signage, Portland?!”

This was the third trip across the wrong bridge, leading me exactly where I had been before — the wrong place. I just wanted to get home, which meant I needed to find the entrance to I-5. Well, I would do that using my Map app, but my stupid iPhone battery doesn’t hold a charge anymore, and it gave up the ghost two hours ago. And, these stupid road signs that say, go this way, and turn that way, then you get on a bridge, with beautiful views of a Reindeer flying over the city, and Bamm! I-5 is nowhere to be found. I’m lost again.

I shouldn’t even be here. I didn’t want to come, my boss made me. I guess It’s good to be the king. He sent me to do the press check at the printer in Portland, all the way from Seattle. He cheerfully explained it wasn’t a long drive. Just do your usual commute from West Seattle, but instead of taking I-90 to Bellevue, go South on I-5. Thank you, Captain Obvious. You’d be able to be in Portland by 10 am, do the 15-minute press check, and be back on the road home by eleven. “Heck, I’ll even pay you for the full day if you’re home early.” That’s so kind of you, Jerk.

Actually, that didn’t sound so bad. It got me out of working on the giant mind-numbing Excel spreadsheet, compiling addresses for our sales force. You tell someone you can write calculations in Excel, and suddenly, you’re the man from then on. But I hated going to Portland. I don’t know the roads; there are all those homeless camps, and protesters, and frickin’ Flannel everywhere. Ugh! Seattle has its problems, but it’s not as bad as Portland.

As I aimlessly drove around, looking for any sign of a sign home, I finally gave in. Alright, I’ll do it. I’ll find a gas station and ask for directions. I need some coffee anyway.

“What the f…?” I trailed off, turning my head. Walking down the sidewalk under a bridge without a care in the world, an absolutely stunning woman was rocking nothing but a completely sheer black dress and shiny knee-high combat boots. Her long Auburn hair flowed in slow motion as she turned her eyes to me and smiled.


When my eyes stopped jiggling in my skull, I realized I had run into the back of an old white panel van. “Crap!” It serves me right for gawking. But you couldn’t blame me. You don’t often see naked women walking on the sidewalk, under a bridge, with no one around, in a city you don’t know, while two big guys get out of the old van and walk up menacingly to your car with crowbars in their hands. “Craaaap…”

“There was nothing I could do as my car was being driven off, following the van, while I watched from the sidewalk,” I told the officer.

“And the woman? Where did she go?” she asked.

“I don’t know. She disappeared once I hit the van.”

“You’re lucky you came out of this without a scratch. We’ve been hearing reports of this carjacking gang pulling this scam off, and many of the people have not been so lucky. OK, well, I’ve got your information. We’ll let you know if we locate your vehicle. You have a good day now. Enjoy your stay in Portland.” She turned to go.

“Umm? That’s it. What am I supposed to do? I don’t have my car. I’m supposed to be driving back to Seattle today. I live there.” I said, shrugging my shoulder with a disgruntled, pleading look.

“If you need a place to stay, that bus stop can take you to the Lloyd Center area, where there are several hotels, or you can head downtown and go to the train station. You can get a ticket home. You should be able to get a taxi service from either of those locations if you need to travel around,” she concluded, making it clear she knew I was a big boy and could handle this myself. “Have a nice day,” she said once again as she drove away.

“Well, shit.” At least I was getting paid for a full day. Not sure about tomorrow. I’m not leaving for home without my car, I decided defiantly. At least for today. With my luck, they’d get my car back, and then I’d have to figure out how to get back down here. I thought as I jumped off the bus and walked to the DoubleTree. Think of this as a vacation. I had to laugh. Portland was the last place I’d ever go on vacation.


I sat in the bar and stirred my Long Island Iced Tea while I chatted with Betty, my insurance agent, my partially charged cellphone to my ear. I told her my story of why I was traveling for work in Portland and how I was distracted by a naked woman and then got carjacked in the process. She laughed. She laughed! Then she made some snide comment about how I should keep my eyes on the road. “Betty, even you would have had a sore neck from whipping your head around to look,” I retorted. She apologized with a chuckle.

“So, you’ve seen Aphrodite?” said the bartender as I hung up my phone.

“Sorry?” I said as I took a sip of my drink.

“The lady in the black dress,” he said, emphasizing ‘dress’ with air quotes.

“Oh, yes. Not worth losing my car over, but yep, I’ve seen her. How do you know of her?”

“Oh, she gets around. Has quite a reputation lately. She and her brother have started their insurance, carjacking scam back up. They like to target people from out of town. Get their eyes on her and WHAM, leave them sitting on the curb,” he concluded.

“Pretty effective tactic, I have to admit. If she’s so famous, why haven’t the cops caught them?” I took another drink.

“Never any witnesses. They like to employ down-on-their-luck homeless as allies. Then, they somehow disappear. Of course, the homeless won’t talk,” he said, wiping the bar down.

“Fucking homeless. It’s bad enough they trash the city; now they’re complicit,” I swore.

“There aren’t many jobs the homeless get offered, friend. They offered the job to me, but I refused. I didn’t want to dig myself any deeper,” he said with a serious look on his face.

“Oh, sorry. You were homeless?” I asked him, feeling sufficiently chastised. I realized the clean-cut kid behind the bar couldn’t be more than twenty-five.

“I’m still homeless. Finally, digging myself out of that hole I jumped into. People just don’t understand how difficult getting yourself out is.” He shook his head and went over to face the product, tidying like a pro. “You’re like a fly in a spider web. You try to stay still so you don’t attract the spider. But then, without struggling, you never have a chance to free yourself from the trap… It’s brutal, man.”

“Wow, you paint quite the picture. You're still homeless? You don’t look homeless.” Such a stupid thing to say, I thought with regret.

“The title of Homeless,” he used the air quotes again, “has lots of definitions and affects all sorts of people. Yes, I’m homeless, though I have a place to stay. I depend on the kindness of others to offer me housing. But it is temporary, and I can be out at any time. If my teacher decides I’m gone, then that’s it. I’m working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.

This could happen to anybody, too. You could be the most successful lawyer, Fuck up, and lose everything. Next thing you know, you’re living out of your car. Then there are the working poor, who lose a job, lose their paycheck, and find themselves literally kicked to the curb. Or people bankrupted from injury. Mentally ill who age out. Drug users who don’t care for anything but their fix. Abused teens and women who have had enough and are hiding. Military that are damaged and fall out of the system. So, my story is rather boring, but here I am.

I live in the basement of a person I used to respect, my old art teacher. We bumped into each other at the shelter where I was getting dinner. He was a volunteer helping out. I have somewhere clean to lay my head. I can clean up and have an address I can put on a job application. I have access to a computer to look for employment and services. That’s how I found this job. On the streets, you don’t have any of that stuff. Makes it really hard. The folks here at the hotel were nervous, but they took a risk and have been great, helping me get back on my feet.”

“That’s great. You should be proud,” I said, not really knowing what to say.

“I shouldn’t be dishing like this. You enjoy your drink, and let me know if I can do anything for you,” he said.

“No, no. This is really interesting. I’m stuck at this hotel until at least tomorrow. I’d be happy to chat more if you wanted to share. I’m pretty homeless right now, myself…” What a dick thing to say, I thought. “Sorry, man. That was so tone-deaf.”

“It’s cool. No offense taken. There ain’t nobody here, and it is my job to entertain. I might as well educate,” he said, taking a big breath.

“Only if you want,” I said, seeing his stressed body language.

“I was a troubled teen. My parents sucked. I rebelled. I was failing high school my senior year. There was no way for me to catch up, and I was tired of hearing about it, so I bolted. Ended up couch-surfing from friend to friend. Then, when my friends ran out, I found couches of people I wouldn’t call friends, but I needed a place to stay. Food is a powerful motivator to help you overlook bad behavior. I wasn’t into drugs. That was my parents’ thing. I was a tough guy, and my skills attracted the wrong type. One day, I tagged along and found myself in a situation. I was the getaway driver, and we got caught.

First-time offender, minor theft, smash and grab, being the driver, I got a slap on the wrist. A couple days at county scared me straight, and then, I walked free. I knew I couldn’t go back to where I was staying, but I didn’t have anywhere left to go. So, I found out what living under a bridge was like. Moving around from doorway to doorway, bench to bench, eventually making friends and finding a tent, or a pallet shack.

The cops kicked me out so many times. Occasionally, they offered a voucher for a motel room. I’d take advantage and stay there, but it was only enough to keep me off the street for a few days. I’d clean up, then go back to sleeping under a bush. This lasted for a few years. COVID made it impossible. Panhandling barely kept me fed. I lost a ton of weight and started contemplating getting involved in crime. Aphrodite is minor compared to other things I was offered.

Then, my luck changed. He served me a bowl of stew and recognized me. The funny thing is I didn’t recognize him. He had shaved his beard. I used to hang out in the art room, his class, when I was skipping classes. He turned an eye but always tried to encourage me to get my diploma. Eventually, I stopped going to his room and ditched school altogether. Anyway, we caught up over a couple of weeks at the shelter, and he offered me a deal. Sign a contract that I would get a job, and he’d offer me a place to stay. I was so ready to get out of the gutter. You want another Long Island?” he asked.

I shook my head at the sudden change in the storyline. It took me a moment to respond. “Oh, sure.” I hadn’t really considered how people became homeless in the first place. This story sounded so familiar because it sounded like mine. Except, I didn’t bolt from school. I finished and signed up for the army. “Dude, congrats on getting out. Really, that’s huge.”

“I’m not out yet. Still dependent on others. I'm saving money for my own apartment. My art teacher is great, but he can’t afford to keep me off the streets. That’s why I’m working so hard. He believes in me, and I appreciate his help. I intend to get my GED, and then next fall, I want to go to culinary school and become a chef. I work nights here, and any time I can, I go with Bob, my teacher, to the shelter where I have been learning to cook and serve people. It has been odd seeing so many of my friends, but most are happy for me.”

I was suddenly feeling the effects of two Long Island’s. The kid poured a strong drink. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“First, don’t be so quick to judge. Most people on the streets are good. Whatever reason they are there is usually sad and something that was not entirely in their control. It’s really hard to get out once you are there.

Second, volunteer at a shelter, or if you can’t do that, donate to charities that provide services.

I’m going to get off my soapbox now. My shift is up, and I need to get to my next gig. Salvation Army kitchen, here I come,” he finished.

“Would it be weird if I went with you and volunteered?” I asked impulsively. The kid had inspired me. I almost said I had nothing better to do, but thankfully, I caught my tongue and saved myself the embarrassment.

“That’d be cool. I’ll meet you in the lobby in 15 minutes,” he said as he walked through the swinging kitchen doors.

So that’s how I spent the rest of my evening. I joined other folks, dishing cooked carrots and chatting with anyone who wanted to talk. I was scared at first but realized I could have been one of the hundred people here, asking for a meal and a little kindness. It felt great. It made my missing car seem pretty insignificant. I did need to figure that one out, though. “Can I offer you some blackberry cobbler?” I asked a sweet elderly woman. She smiled, her plate out. My car was a problem for another day.

May 10, 2024 17:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

1 comment

David Winfield
16:12 May 12, 2024

NOTE: Apologies to all Portlanders, of which I am one. I love Portland, even more than Seattle, where I used to be a resident. This is a fictitious event highlighting the reality of those, myself included, trying to navigate the labyrinth of bridges and signage that one might believe is purposely vague and confusing. But regardless, beautiful Portland is my home, warts and all!


Show 0 replies
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.