Free Carrots and Sugar Cubes for Life

April 13, 2007 at 1:33 pm (Cussed Dumbers, Waxing Nostalgic)

It was the last day of January, 2006. I was scheduled to work 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM at the mothership, the store located at the last light-rail stop in the fareless square of downtown Portland. Soon after counting in and assuming my position behind the cash register, sitting on a stack of milk crates by the door, there was a tap at the window. An African American gentleman, dressed in military camo and sporting dreadlocks, was flipping me off and mouthing the words, “You fat motherfucker…”

Guess it’s gonna be one of those days.

The neighborhood is an eclectic mix. Secretaries, school kids, and business types mix with crackheads, lost teenagers, rehabbers and various street people. Toss in drug dealers, punk rockers, city leaders and the occasional misdirected celebrity, and you have our customer base. We get ’em all.

An elderly black woman walks in. She looks tired, and is moving slowly. She glances at the headline on the front page of the Oregonian. “Oh my. Missus King is gone! Lord, I feel tired…” (Coretta Scott King had recently passed away.) She counts out fifty cents, and starts to move away.

Outside, the downpour of rain continued. “Would you like a plastic bag, ma’am? Just cuz you’re made of sugar, doesn’t mean you won’t melt…” I’m full of nonsensical witticisms, especially at ten in the morning.

She stopped. “What did you say?”

Yikes! I’m gonna get in trouble for sexually harassing a seventy-year old.

“I said, ‘Just cuz you’re made of sugar, doesn’t mean you won’t melt’?” I said it like a question, hoping to soften any misunderstandings. I flirt endlessly, but don’t want a complaint like this on my record.

“Honey, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me in a LONG time! I got to write that down.” She fished out a pen, repeating the sentence as she wrote. A middle-aged guy in the newly-formed line asked what she was saying, and she told him.

“That’s nice. I’ve heard that before,” he said.

“Really?” I asked. “I just flung it out there off the top of my head. I don’t think it even makes sense, in retrospect.”

The lady looked at me. “Honey, I know what you meant, and it made my day!” She departed, maybe not with a spring in her step, but with a renewed vitality. It sorta made my day, too. 

As the day goes on, the crowd shifts, getting rougher. Street musicians compete for space, and behave well most of the time, but now and then they encroach upon each other. This day, for example.

On the corner, we have Senor Santa, a middle-aged Mexican guy with a trumpet and a taste for coffee with whiskey.. He will wear a Santa hat until mid-February, then it turns into a leprechaun’s hat, which stays until August or so, when the Santa hat comes back. He’s very nice, animated, and speaks virtually no English. We get along fine.

There’s Theo, a black man about my age, who plays acoustic guitar and sings Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra songs. Beautiful voice, and very listenable. After six months, we chatted, and I discovered he stutters. You’d never know to hear him sing.

On the down side, there’s Keyboard Guy. He’s been around the local music scene as long as I have. I used to see him at every concert I went to, back in the day, dealing small-time, scalping and hustling. Lately, he sits on the sidewalk with a Kenwood portable keyboard, banging away like a chimpanzee and moaning vile, hateful lyrics, mostly aimed at Portland Police. There’s a collective groan when folks see him coming, and customers frequently ask, “How can you stand listening to that all day?”

I point at the radio and say, “That is what Metallica is for…”

Today, though, the radio wasn’t drowning them out.

Keyboard Guy starts his trademark caterwauling, a tribute to Tom Waits and Dr John, but without substance or intelligence. (I believe the song was “Fuck the police; fuck the police!”) Senor Santa was playing some vaguely recognizable riff. And then a new face. A teenage kid with an electric guitar and PigNose amp sets up and begins repeatedly playing the intro to Roadhouse Blues. After about ten minutes, my head is beginning to pound, and even worse, I can’t hear my favorite Pantera song over the din.

I poked my head out the doors, scanning the MAX platform. Under the awning where a business associate is giving away cell phones, (and $10 gift certificates to our stores) the poor kid on the front lines gives me a pleading look. “Can you do something? I can’t hear to call in credit approvals!” I commiserate, and decide it’s time to call Clean and Safe.

Clean and Safe is a private security company, mostly staffed with retired police officers and military personnel. They are paid by a downtown business collective to deal with public nuisance issues, like graffiti, panhandling, drunken disorderlies, and so on. It frees up Portland Police to deal with more serious crimes. They cruise around on bicycles and on foot, and can usually handle our in-store security issues. Perfect for a situation like this. I called it in, requesting that they ask the musicians to move, or at least move farther apart. It sounded like a bad junior-high marching band.

Boss Whitney had gone to lunch. He is good at dealing with situations like this. Since I couldn’t leave, security would have to take care of it. And soon they did. One of the senior officers, a fellow in his mid-fifties I’d guess, rolls up on his ten-speed and dispatches Senor Santa with a couple of sentences. Roadhouse Blues Kid sees this, and leaves without being told. (Can you say ‘warrant’?) Since I had to ring up a customer, (and mop up the sixteen-ounce cup of hot chocolate they spilled and didn’t tell me about,) I missed the next couple of minutes.

Then I heard the yelling. A look outside showed a police car with its overhead lights blinking, blocking the MAX tracks. Two PPD officers had joined Clean and Safe, and the yelling was escalating. I couldn’t hear what the police were saying, but I could hear Keyboard Guy. “It’s art!! It’s free speech!!”

If eyes-rolling made a sound, there would have been a whoosh.

Two more cars pulled up, and then the clippity-clop of a horse. Cue the theme to Dudley Do-right! PPD’s horse patrol was out and about, and they respond when crowd control becomes an issue. With all the cop cars, and the subsequent crowd building due to blocked trains, it seemed a good idea.

Keyboard Guy is on his feet, his chubby 5’ 6″ frame backed up against the wall, with his keyboard, tip jar and other crap scattered around the sidewalk. He’s yelling, “If you tell me to sit down, I’ll stand up! If you tell me to stand up, I’ll sit down! This is art! This is free speech!”

The police ask him another question, and get a loud, unintelligible response. I see an officer get a grim look, shake his head, and reach out to take Keyboard Guy’s arm, to take him into custody.

I have watched endless episodes of COPS, and have worked downtown off and on for 25+ years. Lesson one- don’t be a smartass. Just answer their questions, or don’t say anything if you’re guilty. Don’t disrespect. If they decide to take you into custody, don’t put up a struggle. They have guns, nightsticks, radios and an endless supply of backup. If this buffoon had answered their questions politely, or just moved around the corner, none of this would have happened.

As they took hold of his left arm, he pulled away. What followed was like a gutter ballet; as Keyboard Guy jerked his arm back, three officers grabbed his two arms and planted him face first on the sidewalk, with a knee to the middle of the back. He’s screaming “Police brutality!” etc…They have him trussed in a matter of seconds.

When an arrest is made, and a horse patrol officer is present, I’ve often seen the horse move between the crowd and the arrest site. As it did this time. Horse and officer positioned themselves to keep anyone with thoughts of interfering away. In the process, collateral damage ensued.

Have you ever stepped on a sticky piece of paper, then used your other foot to hold down the piece of paper while pulling off the sticky piece of paper? Sort of a shuffle-dance?

That’s what the horse did to Keyboard Guy’s keyboard. It was like a scene out of Rustler’s Rhapsody.

“AUGHHHH!!! My KEYBOARD!!!” Now he was pissed! The police ran him out of sight, around the corner and into a waiting patrol car. Pieces of the keyboard were scattered about. An officer picked up the keyboard and stuffed it into a trash bag. The crowd turned its attention back to the delayed trains.

Customers started filtering back in. As I told the story repeatedly, laughing harder each time, I saw boss Whitney cruise up, smoking a cigarette and looking cool. “What happened?”

Before I could tell him, Master P, the store owner, showed up outside. He looks over the scene. “Did we get a bad guy?” I shrugged, but before I could begin my tale of whoa, the arresting police officer came in.

“Who called? I’m gonna have to talk to internal affairs over this one…” So I gathered the bosses around, gave the cop my info, and told them all the whole sorry story. I’ll be getting my first subpoena at this location over this one…

After the hoopla died down, I got a phone call. My older sister was being brought to Portland from The Dalles via ambulance, for an emergency medical procedure. The day was taking on a surreal feel, like we were trapped inside a Spike Lee movie. As I played phone tag with the hospital, trying to get info on my sister, Whitney was on his cell phone, making other kinds of arrangements.

“Okay,” said Whitney. “We’ve got shifts covered, if you need to leave to take care of family matters.”

At the last place I worked, I was fired for calling in sick. (Second time in four years.) When I told Whitney this, he said, “The boss used to work for a place like that. That’s why he does this. He believes what comes around, goes around. We’ve all covered for each other. It’s procedure, really.”

The rest of the day went smoothly. At work anyway. I skipped lunch and left an hour early. After getting drenched on the way to the bus stop, I made it to the hospital. Saw my sister. She’s home now, doing okay. And I finagled a four-day weekend, including Super Bowl Sunday!

I checked in with Whitney, to make sure shifts were covered. All was well, I wouldn’t be causing hardships on anyone. As I left to commence with my mischief, Whitney asked, “Do you remember which police horse it was?”

“Not really. Why?”

“Hmm. Wonder if it was the cream-colored one… I’m gonna make sure that horse gets carrots and sugar cubes for life!”

The street sounds have been quite pleasant of late…



  1. Gee Noah said,

    Man, I love that horse! That guy made my ears hurt real bad.
    Maybe we should hold a fundraiser to buy him a new keyboard……..NOT !!!!!!!!!!
    Thanks for the great news !!!

  2. Ike said,

    It’s to late, he has another keyboard. Plus side is he hasnt been seen in awhile or scoots as soon as clean and safe or even wackenhut show up.

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