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Joe the Writer

2008 submission by “Joe the Writer” (W. R. Jenkins and Alamelu Brooks)

My name is Joseph Henry and I am a writer. I write articles and short stories to keep a roof over my head and bread on the table. This week I live alone in a downtown Portland studio flat. Well it’s not much of a studio or a flat, but for this month it will be home to me. I am trying to become familiar with Portland. It is a beautiful place and I know it will help me be a better writer. Each week I try to expand the limits of my world a little more by finding new things to do. Like tonight I am going to take a long ride on MAX and then get something to eat at Mizu Sushi over on Third. I am a real fan of Sushi, and some of my friends gave it very high marks. I tried to get some dinner there one night last week, but I got there just as the chef was leaving the main part of the restaurant. I knocked on the window to try to get her attention, but she didn’t hear me.

Later tonight a group of fellow Portland writers are going there for dinner and then we are heading over to Backspace for some coffee and conversation before The All Girl Summer Fun Band starts their set. Last year I watched the band perform in Minneapolis and they put on a great show. I know they will do the same at Backspace and their concert will give a chance to have fun, and develop a network of Portland friends and peers.

You see, I am new to Oregon, and Portland. I came here a little less than a month ago after finishing my work on a series of magazine articles documenting youth crime in Minneapolis Minnesota. The project was both fulfilling and troubling. I think I made a difference by bringing first hand attention to the problems facing young kids’ survival on the cold streets of Minneapolis.  After a year of shadowing kids’ between jail and clinic stays, I had to break free from the emotional connection I developed with them. Sure, they were criminals but looking harder, beyond their harsh survivalist persona, a person could see they were kids first and foremost. Well, I sent a few emails around to my tight network of fellow digital scribes asking for possible investigative projects, or slick serial writing leads. My fellow writing friends all understand that the work of a freelance writer is interesting and rewarding as long as new material is readily available. I’m sure Minneapolis still had a lot of writing opportunities for me, but I felt much too close to the plight of the street teens.

I guess the story of Dawn helped me make the decision to look for other work. I met her when she was thirteen years old. It was early November, maybe the fourth or fifth of the month and Dawn sitting on a bus stop bench on Hennepin Avenue, near Washington Avenue. She was wrapped in an old tan blanket from head to toe. It was six PM and so very cold, so cold that the steam of her breath was the only way I could tell there was someone in that formless tent. The blanket gave Dawn a certain anonymity, and unisex quality. I was dressed for the weather. A hooded goose down jacket, heavy boots, and gloves kept the freezing air away from me. I asked Dawn if it would be all right for me to sit down next to her for a few minutes. At first she didn’t answer, but I persisted and slowly sat at the far end of the bench.

“Hi, my name is Joe, what’s yours?”

She didn’t answer, and pulled the blanket closer to her body.

“I won’t hurt you. Please believe me, I’m sure others have lied to you before, but you can trust me. I am a writer and I am here to get some food and shelter for you and others like you. Hey, we will take it a little at a time. Okay?”

She shifted her weight a little bit, and the blanket loosened just enough for a small bottle to drop onto the frosty concrete below the bench. I bent over, stretched my arm down, and grabbed it. What was in that little bottle, I’m just not sure. But earlier today it must have contained just enough alcohol or drugs to break this young girl’s resistance.

“Would you like me to walk to a teen shelter with you?”

“I can’t. I just can’t.”

“Okay, we can do that later if you decide you want to.”

I still couldn’t see her face, but I felt we were making some progress. Meanwhile, the mercury dropped below zero.

“Can I get you something warm to drink? Maybe some hot chocolate or coffee?”

“No.”

It went on like that for three more hours. I don’t know why she finally changed her mind and opened the top of the blanket enough to reveal her beautiful face. She must have brought her mother great joy on the morning her new baby girl was born. Her mother must have looked out at the new day, and celebrated the life of this new little girl by naming her Dawn. What happened after that beautiful day? Where did everything take a bad turn? Why has that day gone to be replaced by years of twisted reality? Dawn looked like the typical sandy blonde girl you would see hanging out by the escalators in the mall.

That night it was almost midnight when I walked down Hennepin Avenue with Dawn. She was going to a teen shelter for the night. I was glad and relieved that she got off the street, away from the street kids that carried weapons and dealt drugs. Tonight Dawn was safe, at least until the dawn of the next day. We arrived at the entrance to the shelter about fifteen minutes later where an old man in a tattered leather jacket and jeans was lying on the porch, across from the inside doorway. Three empty wine bottles were at his left side. As we stepped over him he said that he had come here from the old country…where his family had been herders for centuries.” He said that he had come here from the old country…where his family had been herders for centuries. Back to I think the wine was giving him a blurred trip to the old country. He ignored the cold, turned his head toward the entrance door, and fell asleep. I made arrangements for Dawn to stay there for the night. She didn’t smile, but it was easy to see the expression of happiness on her face. That night I went home to my apartment, grabbed a bottle of Coors, checked my email messages and dropped into bed. It didn’t take long before I was sleep, but the night was a short one, one that was interrupted by bad dreams of downtown shadows. In my dream I saw movement in the shadows surrounding the dark alleys and empty parking garages. The movements seemed so real, especially when the shadows were entered by an ambulance and three police cars. Then, the dream ended, it was six am and I was awake. I remember, or do I?

I remember! The clothes I wore yesterday afternoon are lying in a black, twisted heap at the foot of my bed, like some burned out wreck. With a shiver, I remember the shadow-dream from last night, but refuse to think about it.

I took a bus downtown and I remember it was very cold, but the shining sun brightens the morning and soon the shadows are gone. I remember the bus turning onto Hennepin at Washington that day and I remember stepping down from the last step of the bus. I remember seeing a blood-stained tan blanket lying on the icy alleyway near a group of parking garages and I remember hearing the police officer bowing his head while talking about the murdered girl named Dawn.

I was in my sacred writing space, when…the loss of that beautiful young girl hit me so very hard. I knew I would have to leave Minneapolis… at least for a while.

My time in Minnesota was a very difficult time for me, but I am convinced the move to Portland is helping me to cope. I will never forget Dawn, and the others like her and I’m sure I will go back there one day, but I am not ready right now. I have to write and heal.

© 2008 W. R. Jenkins and Alamelu Brooks

Alamelu Brooks
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