The Walgreen’s on Southeast Belmont sits on the east side of 39th. The busy road becomes a heavily car-trafficked cut-off from the bars, shops, and foot traffic west of there. It’s quiet in the warm morning sun, and Street Roots vendor Jeffrey McCall steps in and out of the sun, taking shade under the covered area of the store entrance. After six months of working this spot, he has built a comfortable relationship with Walgreen’s, so standing on the property is permitted in his case, a nice relief for summer days. He shifts his weight back and forth, foot-to-foot, bouncing in and out of the shade in a slow, repetitive rhythm. One of his regulars dubbed him “the dancer,” because of this constant motion, an unconscious habit formed to alleviate the strain of a life spent working on his feet. On this hot summer morning, he seems to be swaying to the pace of the July day.
He says that he doesn’t feel all that removed from the crowds on Belmont and Hawthorne on this side of 39th. In fact, he has pretty steady business, a slew of regular clientele, and a great relationship with the staff and management at Walgreen’s. He has friends in this part of southeast, and the area has grown into something of a niche for him and others. In the course of our conversation, two Street Roots vendors stop by, (one of them is the vendor who first connected Jeffrey to Street Roots) and invites him to a 4th of July barbecue. We also chat at length with Steve, a regular from the neighborhood, who regaled us with jokes and stories of his military days.
Regulars have routinely approached Jeffrey to ask what his story is. Many are simply curious, but others are looking for someone with whom to share their own experiences, for someone to relate to them. It seems that folks everywhere have fallen on hard times, and Jeffrey looks like just the kind of guy to approach to chat about it. With his Street Roots baseball cap and tan from standing in the sun, Jeffrey has the look of a baseball coach or some other easily approachable community figure.
He is happy to share his story to those that ask. He enjoys the constant interaction with people that this work affords him, and says that he would still come out on the weekends to sell Street Roots were he to find a full time job; he likes the people that much.
Born and raised in Canby, Jeffrey made his way to Portland through his time playing college baseball at Clackamas Community College. He played shortstop and center field. Eventually he began working in ship repair yards, and spent 20 years with a sandblasting and painting company. It was job-to-job style work, but consistent, and a good living. In 2008, like so many other jobs in the nation, work began to dry up. Jeffrey eventually joined one of the common narratives of the recession and found himself jobless. Nearing 50, he found it hard to get new work when most companies were hiring younger workers in their early 20s to do the jobs that were still available. For a while he lived back in Canby, then Gresham, eventually moving back to Portland and starting his Street Roots gig. He says it was Street Roots that began to pull him out of the “stupor” that he lived in for the first years immediately following his job loss.
It isn’t hard to observe the years of hard work that are worn on Jeffrey’s body. His foot-to-foot shuffle, the tan from hours in the sun, the fact that he’s still out working everyday. “Everybody’s gotta hustle,” he declares. He seems to respect the hustle, the will to do whatever it takes. “I’ve got friends that are doing cans and bottles every night. They are doing it 7 days a week. That’s their gig.” Reflecting on the last six months, he challenges the idea that falling on hard times necessarily equals doom. “I may be homeless,” he argues, “but I’m still surviving.”
For now, he’s found himself in a routine that works. Recently he took a few weeks off from selling the paper for a landscaping job, and was surprised by the response: People missed him. They worried he wasn’t coming back and they didn’t like it. It was a positive affirmation of his place in the community.