In the Linfield cafeteria sat an automated espresso machine, newly installed, that poured out cappuccinos in layers. First, push the button—with your mug underneath, of course—and watch the coffee spill through the spigot, followed by brown-tinged milk and a sludge of foam. These ingredients are basic enough, but calling the monstrosity an espresso machine pushes the line on what is known, mysteriously, as truth. Although I never glimpsed the inner workings of the machine [for all I know, hapless monkeys might have operated it using hand cranks], I doubt it forced steam through finely ground, packed coffee.
Still, it was coffee with foam, and it satisfied many a tired college student who stayed up nights high on ecstasy, performing research on the best way to catch an STD. For my part, if I could afford to, I walked into downtown McMinnville to buy my coffee at the Cornerstone Coffee Roasters. These were the early years of the nineties, and the freshness of a new decade pervaded the air. In my mind, I picture my roommate and I sitting at an outdoor table, grasping at stray rays of sun. The pavement is wet from rain, and the fragrance of rain-sun-stone steams off the sidewalk. Ironically, the local homeless personality weaves up to the cafe on his bicycle, and this adds to the idyll.
Early in the year, I struck up a friendship with this homeless man, Bill*, and consequently, he joined us for coffee on more than one occasion. It wasn’t the first time I’d befriended what others considered to be the dregs of society. In high school, I sometimes dragged home young, smelly homeless boys, and not because I was the type to rescue strays. I desperately needed a connection with a kindred spirit. Homeless people are eccentric, on their own elliptic, because they don’t live in the center of society. Neither do I. But, as in the cyclical nature of things, young concentric people of the nineties often attempted to be on the fringe, too. They dressed as Bill did, in old tattered flannel jackets and t-shirts and jeans. In keeping with this “new” ideal of concentricity, my college friends and I frequently bought bottles of cheap wine, hid them in paper bags, and climbed up the railroad trestle until we were on the beams just below the train tracks. From there, we waited, by the schedule, for the train to rumble over us.
I first met Bill on the Linfield campus, as he sorted through the dumpsters behind the frat houses. He pulled his worldly wealth from these dumpsters, and stowed it in enormous garbage bags. Bill was a recycler. He was an alcoholic who recycled the bottles and cans of up-and-coming alcoholics who partied in a predictable manner. He knew the party schedule just as we knew the schedule of the trains. Year after year, the party predictability set a routine, and Bill detected when he would dig out the greatest treasure. Frat boys didn’t change, he insisted, not even as they moved in and out of their sacred houses.
He was right—not much about people changes. Small towns have their homeless characters writ across their souls. College students slum it in order to create new, independent selves. And frat boys never stop partying. Certainly, this is a lesson I’ll never forget, even if I’ve quarantined some of my life lessons, just as the body creates warts when it’s overcome with an infection it can’t fight off.
I only managed a year at Linfield, and that year taught me far too much. At the end of it all, after I’d survived my finals, and after most students had already left campus, I walked from my dorm building to the dingy one behind mine for a last confab with my friend Derek*. When I entered the vestibule, I immediately sensed danger, but being in an all-male building that housed multiple new fraternity recruits always gave me a bad taste in my mouth, if not a bad smell to light up my olfactory nerves. This was different, though. A group of about ten drunk frat boys instantly surrounded me when I neared Derek’s closed door. Their rage, as evidenced by their taunts and shoving, took me by surprise. What had I done? I had no idea.
The conversation went something like this:
One drunk frat boy whipped out his genitals and said, “Take a look at this, bitch!”
I responded in my usual, unimpressed way, “You know, I’d really like to, but I’ll need a microscope first.”
Further enraged, but inspired, several others exposed themselves to me while backing me up against Derek’s door. I pounded on it, hard. Derek tried to open up, but one of the boys grabbed the handle and slammed the door closed. In that short space, Derek realized I needed help. He [apparently] climbed out his window to rescue me because, in the blink of an eye, he was there.
Let me tell you about Derek: he’s an ex-physics-geek-turned-art-major. He’s tall and gangly with a shock of red hair and enormous glasses. He stood up to the obnoxious, buffed-out wrestlers or footballers, or whatever they were, and threatened to call the police. These being the days before cell phones, it was a simple matter for them to block the hall phone from Derek’s reach. So Derek ran off to find another one. Meanwhile, I took advantage of their distracted state to slip down and crawl out of my human prison. I hightailed it out the back door and catapulted into Derek’s open window, half expecting them to follow me. The mention of police, however, seemed to sag their sails.
Speaking of predictable, the police didn’t show up until long after I’d left the safety of Derek’s room [out the window again]. Later, however, they didn’t hesitate to respond to a trespass call. While in one of his physicist-turned-artist moods, Derek broke into the campus pool and swam lonely laps in the deep blue water. They arrested his ass because property and insurance liability, as we know, are more important than people.
People are predictable. They’re like automated espresso machines gushing out sludge at the push of a button. Homeless Bill–he was, perhaps, the most predictable of all. He drank. He weaved around town on his bike, and he collected cans. Once, while walking around town with him, he brought me to the backyard shed he rented from a friend. Bill wasn’t even homeless.
But some people’s predictability entails honor, and I’m ever-grateful to my friend, Derek. He was my true kindred spirit, not Bill. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing these days. But I do know he’s on his own elliptic somewhere–perhaps welding art installations in his spare time. Maybe he’s a dad. Maybe he’s a techie. Wherever, whatever–I raise my coffee to him, brewed strong from freshly ground beans, and remember Oregon in the nineties.
*I’ve changed these names because I don’t have permission to use the real ones.