The Dali Lama of Hillsdale
Conquent's office in Portland is in a great creative space -- an old bungalow in the Hillsdale neighborhood with high ceilings, wood floors, and a lot of character. Unfortunately part of that character comes from the homeless guy who lives under the bridge next to the office.
Doug's not really a problem -- he's quiet, keeps to himself, only talks about getting a gun when he's really drunk… When we meet in the parking area, or as I walk past the garbage and recycling on my way to the coffee shop, he always says, 'Good morning, neighbor.' But any time I've tried to engage him in any real conversation, it becomes pretty clear why he's homeless -- the man just isn't all there.
He rambles in a way that almost seems coherent, but just doesn't fit together. His topics might be frightening, but he's just so damn folksy as he talks about how the city has no right to throw him out and the kids keep messing with his stuff, and he was somewhere once when this thing happened but there isn't quite enough detail to understand where he was or what it was that happened.
Mind you, he's functional in the sense that he works hard collecting cans and bottles, keeps himself safe (his bivouac is tidy and secure and kept dry by the old Capitol Highway bridge). He scores food and cooks over a small open fire that he keeps just small enough to keep the cops from shutting him down. The cops know him, and he knows when to clear out his stuff before the cops do it for him, and when to come back after they clean up the camp.
But this blog isn't about Doug, it's about the people I find dropping things off in the parking area for him. These people aren't your 'help the homeless at Christmas' crowd; they have some personal attachment to Doug.
I had a long conversation with a man wearing driving gloves and a suit who pulled a bag of cans out of his Mercedes. He spoke about Doug almost reverently, mentioning that at one point Doug was training to be a priest, and what an amazing person he is, finding his own way in life and making it on the streets.
Other people around the neighborhood know about Doug and talk about him in the same, almost proud way a parent talks about their child graduating from Harvard. They see Doug as a rugged individual who has made life choices and is living the simple life in the midst of our urban jungle. Sort of Grizzly Adams in the city.
Most of these folks have never talked with Doug, and the impression I get from those who have talked with him is that they edited the conversation into something that makes sense for them. He's almost a living I-Ching where the answers that you seek are reflected in the lack of answers he provides.
I don't think there's really anything wrong with this either. One homeless guy next to the office is quirky, and Conquent's quirky enough that I'm not really worried about what our clients will think. And his presence gives something to the community that they need.
Ironic as it may be, the perception of Doug provides a spiritual touch point for the American Dream -- the rugged individual living by his own rules outside the corporate/political structure.
It's just too bad that he's a crazy homeless guy…
Dec. 17, 2010: Please see my blog posting Farewell to Doug -- the Dali Lama has moved on