A corner of contrasts


Selling newspapers for one dollar per copy.

Leaving my dentist’s office late yesterday morning, I walked eastward a few blocks, staying parallel to the MAX tracks where the light-rail trains run. I hadn’t been downtown in a while but I came upon a scene that seemed so ordinary, yet struck me as emblematic of our times.

On one corner of Southwest Third and Morrison, there was a scruffy guy in a weathered Pittsburgh Steelers jacket selling copies of Street Roots, a newspaper focusing on homelessness and poverty.

On the corner directly south was an equally scruffy guy, playing the cello and hoping for donations from passersby.

Nothing out of the ordinary, right? We’ve all seen variations of this scene in cities across the United States.

But yesterday I seemed to take it in with fresh eyes.

Steelers guy was standing directly outside Starbucks, a name synonymous with global retail sales, and Sephora, an upscale purveyor of beauty and skincare products.

Cello dude and his instrument case were set up outside the entrance to Pioneer Place, a shopping mall with four blocks of street-level and underground retail shops and restaurants, and across the street from a spendy six-screen theater complex.


Street corner musician in downtown Portland.

Each was hoping people could spare a buck or two. That they were doing so in such close proximity to places that sell $4 coffee drinks, $10 movie tickets and who-knows-how-expensive perfumes struck me as at once ingenious and ludicrous.

Here you have two guys, obviously down on their luck, doing something positive to earn themselves a little money. Neither one a panhandler, but each of them wisely set up at an intersection where they might benefit from the generosity of downtown employees, shoppers or tourists.

At the same time, it seemed more than a little sad that folks are reduced to doing this to get by on a street corner with corporate logos representing American capitalism. This isn’t a diatribe against any particular company or even against a political and economic system that favors private enterprise. Rather, I suppose it’s nothing more than a reflection of a moment in a time and a recognition that there are “winners” and “losers” in every society.

I have no idea what circumstances put those two guys on the corner. But I can say I got my money’s worth when I bought the newspaper from one and paused to listen to the other.

Thanks to Street Roots, I learned about a Portland author who has written about “The Iron Riders” — an all-black 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps commissioned in 1892 to travel the West and Midwest collecting geographic and topographical information for the military. Thanks to the cellist, I caught a glimpse of one man’s talent.

One thought on “A corner of contrasts

  1. I always try to buy a Street Roots and chip for the street musicians, especially if they aren’t that talented. They are putting it out there and trying. They haven’t given up. The Street Roots guys are trying to make an honest buck. A lot of us are one paycheck from being in their position, and one bad break will do it for the rest of us. God bless them all.

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