by Leah Ingram, Contributing Writer
Street Roots vendor Mark Brown stands out from the crowd as he sells newspapers at the Hollywood Library. His infectious laugh and his eagerness to meet new faces might draw you in, but what will first catch your eye is his bright red Santa suit and free candy canes.
Brown is a father and grandfather, has lived in more states than he can remember and is currently married to the love of his life, Darla. He is an outdoor enthusiast and is actively involved in his church. Brown has not always had this stable of a life – he has lived through a volatile childhood, the tragic death of two of his children and three divorces. His life is peppered with relocations and changes and he describes himself as having German “wanderlust.” His travels take him on an inexplicable search for the “perfect place.”
Brown grew up in a small town outside of L.A. in a family where his father was mostly absent. Brown’s mother remarried, but his family life did not improve. “I think that they did the best that they knew how,” says Brown, “(but) we pretty much raised ourselves.” Brown was never close with his siblings, so he sought the company of friends. He and his best friend Tony sold newspapers together and would then take the money they earned to buy candy to resell at school. Brown expanded his small business and bought a “thing maker,” with which he could make small rubber toys to sell. He spent the rest of his time mowing lawns and playing in Little League with Tony. The two boys were inseparable, although not always diplomatic. “Tony and I taught each other how to fight,” says Brown. “He’d come away with a big ol’ fat lip and I’d have a black eye.”
Brown moved to Oregon and earned his GED. Shortly thereafter, he joined the navy, an experience which he says was “not spectacular,” but helped him to put some distance between himself and his stepfather. He was given an early discharge and began his extensive roaming. Throughout the years, he journeyed all over the United States, from Reno and Las Vegas to Phoenix and Albuquerque. He had three marriages and four children.
While travelling, he was able to renew his appreciation for nature, a place which he describes as being “closer to God. Quiet. Away from all the city.” He recalls his adventures with obvious fondness.
“I would hitch hike, when I didn’t have a car, towards the coast… I would say ‘Hey, I want to get off here.’ Then I would just march out into the woods. It was wonderful. You could see the stars out there.”
When asked what he was looking for on his wanders, Brown replies, “I always tried to figure this out. That’s a question I cannot answer. I’ll watch a movie and say that’s the perfect place — that’s where I want to live. There is no such place, at least that I’ve come across.” While terrain is vital, Brown maintains that community is equally imperative for his “perfect place.” Throughout his life, he has tried to influence people’s lives for the better. He started up several AA groups and he helped create a recovery house through Oxford Houses for alcoholics. “I think maybe I saved some people’s lives by doing that,” says Brown.
Nowadays Brown keeps the company of his wife, members of his congregation and people he meets while selling Street Roots. He is currently helping to start a recovery program with his church and is trying to make a positive impact in the congregation. In the future, he and his wife may pack up again and head to Texas but, for now, he calls Portland home.