Leo’s Story: Downwardly Mobile

The grizzled, wiry guy on the bicycle waited for the light to change.  He was decked out like any long-distance road cyclist: helmet with rear-view mirror, gloves, cycling togs, panniers, plastic kid’s beach pail…the light changed, and I was off, leaving him to pedal wherever his wheels carried him.

I loaded up the big machines in the laundromat in the little town on the Oregon coast.  Laundry time happens every two weeks for me.  I’d rather do a bunch at once and get it over with.

And here comes my bicyclist!  Looks like he’s doing laundry too.  He needs change, but the change machine doesn’t like his crumpled dollar bills.  He’s off to McDonald’s to buy lunch and get some change.  Would I watch his stuff?  Sure.  I’ll be here for another hour.

He returns indignant: McDonald’s is so expensive!  He likes to go to Burger King because they have these pancakes for $1.89, and if he buys two that will carry him through the whole day…wait, says my brain.  This is not adding up.

I take a closer look.

His clothes are the clothes of a long-distance cyclist…but they’re old and frayed, and he’s wearing multiple layers that look kind of….permanent.  The shoes had been expensive, in their day.  The gear–his tent, sleeping bag, panniers–had seen a lot of time and weather.  What’s his story?

But look at him, he’s pale and shaking from hunger!

“Hey man, you want a quesadilla?” I volunteer.  His eyes popped.

“Yes, I’d love one!”

“Fine, why don’t you get your laundry started, and I’ll yell when it’s ready.”

I made two, loaded with cheese and avocado.  I love to feed people!

I handed Leo, for that is his name, a paper plate of food.  He inhaled it.  Color entered his face.

Time for me to put my things in the dryer and find out what was up with Leo.  One of the fun parts about living on the road is that I meet so many people with interesting stories!

From the get-go, it was clear that there was more to Leo than met the eye.  ADHD for starters!  A brilliant mind, but no solidity.  Mercurial, is the word that presented itself.  He was all over the place.

But I knew he had a story to tell.  I wanted to sit down with him and listen, if he wanted to tell it.  And he wanted to tell it, very much!  

His present strategy for survival, which got him through the terrible winter of 2016-17, is to use $5 a night of his $575/month Social Security check to camp in one of several State Parks along his route on the Coastal Highway of Oregon.  That way he can put up his tent, use the restrooms, and even get a shower if he has enough quarters (25¢ a minute for a shower).  The Visitors’ Centers have free hot coffee, and sometimes a fire in the fireplace.

I arranged to camp in my van at his destination park for the night.  We would meet for coffee in the morning, and he would tell me his story.

He found my campsite that evening.  Immediately he picked up on the guitar case that occupies my passenger seat.  I explained that it’s actually a giant ukulele, but since my left wrist is trashed, I can’t play it.

“When I was four years old,” he began eagerly, “I guess I drove my dad nuts bouncing around, so he handed me a ukulele, and that…just…did it for me.  I never did anything else in my life but play that ukulele, and later on the guitar.  I was playing in stage jazz bands before I was twelve.”

Somehow I didn’t think he was bullshitting.  I handed him the four-string guitar.  He sat down, looking again like a starving man, made some apology for his fingers being soft, and wrapped his hand around the guitar’s neck…

Jazz came out.  Really truly hot jazz, like that guitar was meant to play!

“Leo!  Man, you’re great!  What happened?  How come you’re not playing?”

He was riding his bike in downtown Portland, in the rain, and a near-miss with a car door catapulted him off his bike.  He made a one-point landing on his left hand….no fractures, but he damaged soft tissue, ligaments and such, and his hand has never worked the same since.

Weird, I thought.  My left hand has been through all kinds of soft tissue hell, too.  I can relate.

The day was drawing to a misty Oregon Coast close.  We strolled down to the creek that made its last tumbling rush to the ocean passing under a viaduct that held up Highway 101.  A soggy wind blew clouds of salty damp off the Pacific and into our hair and lungs.  We found shelter behind a bridge piling.

There Leo told me about his life.  He had married late, after a long run of playing professionally.  He had a daughter whom he adored.  He had stayed home, kept house, taken care of his daughter.

“I was the primary caretaker,” he said, and his eyes flipped through changes like mood rings.  I waited to hear the story.

His wife had gone into a professional field.  They bought a home in Upstate New York.  Life was good…except….his wife began to develop some disturbing behaviors toward his daughter.  I’m not going to reveal those, for the sake of preserving confidentiality; but I will say that although it would be difficult to hang the term “abusive” on them, they certainly push those boundaries.

These and other behaviors led to a constant state of tension.  He wanted them to go to couples counseling; she refused, so he went by himself.

One day she demanded a divorce.  He didn’t want to leave his daughter, but in order to save her from an ongoing ugly scene, he moved out.

Leo’s learning disorder kept him from going to college.  But he was playing in jazz orchestras again most nights, and made enough to keep himself.

After a few years his mother got sick, and Leo moved in with her.  He cared for her until her death just a couple of years ago.  She left him $30,000, half of which he gave to his daughter, who is now grown.  With the other half, he moved to the West Coast, hoping to start over.  He was playing in a jazz combo in Portland when he injured his hand.  He’d banked his inheritance, which he hoped not to touch.

Leo decided to move to Eugene, as he knew some people there.  He couch surfed for months, searching for work, until his comfort level with couch surfing wore out and he began to hunt for an apartment.  That was when he ran into the catch-22.

The apartment managers refused to rent to someone without a job, even though he had his grub stake of $15,000 that he’d carefully preserved.

Employers, on the other hand, demanded a permanent address.  

Leo went around and around like that, trying to find an apartment that would take him without a job, and a job that would take him without an apartment.  

He used up most of his money paying for cheap motel rooms.  Then he bought a tent and moved outside.

He spent all of last winter, with its record rainfall, pedaling from one Oregon Coast State Park to another.  There’s a 3 night stay limit, instituted by the State Parks so that they don’t become fixed homeless encampments: every three days he must pack up and move to one of the other State Parks along a 20 mile stretch of the Coastal Highway.  He doesn’t want to be associated with the homeless that live outside just anywhere.  

Darkness and silence descended, broken on occasion by groups of rowdy teens galloping back and forth under the bridge.

“If you could give someone advice, someone who was in the position you were in, when you were still kind of housed but knew you were headed toward homelessness, what would you tell them?”  I don’t know exactly why that question came into my head; it popped out, and I waited as he collected his thoughts.

“I’d tell them, don’t wait till your money is all gone before you move outside.”