By Kirk Noonan
Pioneer Square in downtown Portland is bustling. Teens, in a large
circle, kick a beanbag-like ball back and forth in a game called hackey-sack.
Classical music, from hidden speakers, flutters among the babble of
the city. At a nearby Starbucks coffeehouse, urbane couples sip steaming
cups of mocha java. Many others, on the sidewalk, smoke cigarettes,
read magazines or chat as they wait for a light-rail train.
The Square, as locals call it, is an entire block that was turned
into an amphitheater. Here, concerts, festivals and protests take
place. Beneath the glow of old-style street lamps I approach two teen
boys who are smoking cigarettes and striking a "dont mess
with us" pose. Before I can introduce myself, another teen points
at me and says to the two teens, "Watch out, man. Hes 5-0,"
street lingo for "Hes a cop." The teens look me up
and down, curse, then stomp off leaving a trail of smoke.
A few blocks away from Pioneer Square where there are no bright lights,
lattes or classical music, I meet three young panhandlers on a dark
corner. As I introduce myself, two grab their bags and leave. Only
one, who goes by the nickname Traveler, agrees to talk.
"I have freedom, man," says Traveler, explaining why he
lives on the streets. "Im not tied down to a specific place
or job. I can go and do whatever I want."
Traveler, 22, wears layers of clothing that include two ponchos,
a leather vest with tassels and an overcoat. His corduroy hat covers
his brow and nearly conceals his tired eyes. Wisps of stringy facial
hair dangle from his smooth face. He has lived on the streets for
four years; and in that time, he says proudly, he has hitchhiked across
the country several times. Traveler also professes to be a Christian,
though he admits he struggles. "Im not living the life
I should be living," he says. "Sometimes that bothers me.
But one of these days Ill sober up."
Traveler is a self-proclaimed street-corner poet. "I read my
poetry for spare change," he says. At night he stays under a
bridge in a sleeping bag that he counts as one of his most prized
possessions. A few months ago Traveler lived in a Christian shelter.
He says his life was changing for the better, but one day he walked
out and started smoking marijuana again. Life on the street, he says,
is not all that bad; plus, he claims, it has fortified his relationship
with the Lord.
"A lot of my day-to-day life is living by faith in a way that
people who proclaim to live by faith cant comprehend,"
he says. "I start out with nothing each day and have faith that
God is going to give me something. He hasnt let me down yet."
After talking with Traveler I search for his fellow panhandlers who
so quickly dismissed me. When I catch up with them, they reluctantly
agree to talk. Cherie is a soft-spoken 18-year-old with a silver ring
hanging from her nose. She has lived on the streets for three years.
"Im not out here because I have to be I like to
travel," she says, trying to convince me. But then, unexpectedly
and without prompting, she lets her guard down. "My family couldnt
afford to take care of me and we didnt get along anyway so I
left. Its hard living like this, but it makes me appreciate
the good times I do have."
Cherie seems anxious for the interview to end, but continues to talk.
She says if people believe in God its fine with her; but she,
like many Ill meet tonight, has not given Him much thought.
"I respect people for their opinions and beliefs and Im
not going to hold it against them, but I havent read too much
about it," she says. "I have no idea if God ever existed.
If He was standing right in front of me, I might believe it. But I
dont believe in things I cant see."
As she picks up her green duffel bag, indicating the interview is
over, I ask what she has hope for. She turns around, looks me in the
eyes for the first time and says, "To be happy and get out of
With that said, Cherie leaves. Its almost 10:30 and the temperature
has dropped below 40 degrees. I walk a lonely stretch of sidewalk
where window displays advertise clothing from Ann Taylor, Saks Fifth
Avenue and Abercrombie & Fitch. As I round a corner I meet Kevin
and Bobby, both 18. Kevin wears a black leather jacket adorned with
punk rock group logos and clunky black boots.
Kevin says he spent 11 years going to a Christian school, but that
hasnt seemed to leave a lasting impression. "If I am going
to believe, it needs to come to me," he says. "Its
not something that can be put on me."
He says he gets drunk to relax and looks forward to the drinks hell
consume tonight with his friends. Bobby says he used to attend church,
but quit because it was boring and nothing there compelled him to
come back. "I dont really think about God," he says.
"I believe there was a man named Jesus, because of the Bible,
but I dont know about Him creating the earth in seven days."
Nearby, standing at a phone booth, are three naïve-looking 15-year-old
girls. Two of the girls say they have made commitments to Christ,
but would never tell their friends about it. "I dont tell
them because they never ask," says Monica, the quasi-leader of
the three. The other two giggle and give each other high fives as
if in victory.
I venture near the Willamette River. Music pulsates from a nearby
Irish pub. Long lines of 20-somethings dressed in evening finery wait
to enter trendy clubs. In front of the Paris Theater, where local
punk, Goth, ska and industrial rock bands play, I meet Kate*,
Angie and Will, all 17-year-old high school juniors.
Kate sports a Mohawk-style haircut, combat boots and several earrings
in each ear. She says she and her friends were attracted to the punk
scene because it reflects their interests in art, music and fashion.
As we talk, it is apparent that all three are well-spoken, intelligent
and satisfied with their undeveloped philosophies. When our conversation
shifts to God, Kate says, "I think she is a nice woman and she
is pretty cool because she lets me and my friends be here."
Angie pipes in that God is whatever people want Him to be. "Everyone
is so different and has so many different views about religion. I
dont think we can ever find common ground," she says. "People
need to have something to believe in, but everyone needs to find out
for themselves thats whats really important."
Will used to attend church with his family and even helped lead worship
by playing guitar for the worship team. But he soon found other activities
that interested him and eventually fell away from his church and faith.
"I felt like I had a lot of other things to do before committing
myself to a religion," he says. "I think I have a lot of
time in front of me where Ill have religion as an option."
Its nearing midnight when I meet Luke, 17, and his friends.
They stand on one of Pioneer Squares busiest corners. Luke says
he and his companions try to pattern their lives after their favorite
hip-hop and rap artists. Most in Lukes group wear baggy jeans,
gold necklaces and backward or tilted baseball caps. When a limousine
full of teen girls pulls up, Lukes friends whoop and holler.
One of the girls in the limousine stands in the sunroof and teasingly
acts as if she is going to lift her shirt. The teen boys rush into
the street and begin pounding on the windows. The driver of the limousine
When Luke was younger he says he liked going to church. But as he
grew older, he says "hypocritical" sermons turned him off.
"I went to a church and all they talked about was tithing,"
he says. "I thought youre supposed to talk about God at
Though he has religious roots, Luke does not think the way he is
living is wrong. "I believe Jesus died for me," he says.
"But I dont feel bad when I smoke pot or get drunk. Im
not doing what God wants for me; Im doing what I want for me.
Im a teen. Im supposed to have fun."
When I ask what the night still holds, Lukes 16-year-old friend
Adam says, "We will go to a hotel tonight and party, drink, smoke
and have sex. I have to be blunt about these things were
only going to be teens once."
Moments before I get on the train for my trip back into the suburbs
I meet Jose, 22, who plans to party with friends tonight. "When
I die Ill come back and do it again until I get it right,"
he says. "Eternity is boring; youve got to mix it up here
in this life."
If only Jose knew the real truth, I say to myself, as the trains
Kirk Noonan is news editor for the Pentecostal
Some names have been changed.