Portal / by Akira Ohiso


A homeless man shovels leaves from the sidewalk median next to Safeway. The median is tree-lined, but the ground is filled with trash and jettisoned car parts. Safeway does not do a good job of maintaining this pedestrian space. An emergency exit with a ramp and overhang provides shelter for those living outside. Human feces dries in diarrhea drips down the wall, haphazard umber wipes on napkins and old clothing, an empty pack of Marlboros.

The man finds a metal utility plate in the ground and clears it sedulously. He walks around it, talking to it as if he has found a portal to somewhere else. He moves two rocks to each side of the portal like the lions, Patience and Fortitude, who guard the entrance to the New York Public Library. He is proud of his industry. The rocks bestow reverence.

The world is indifferent to his behavior until he moves into the proximity of passerby or car. Then the world braces for interaction, arcing their traversals and eyes away from him. The extended blare of a car horn, the quickened pace of a mom and child, the violent bravado of men in groups.

I watch from my apartment window as he spends the next two hours clearing leaves into a neat pile. He takes intermittent breaks, reviewing his progress and ability to control his immediate self-imposed task. He seems to clear leaves as a basic need, not a choice. It’s repetitive, obsessive, and focused. His behavior both confirms and annihilates his existence.

Maybe he’s outside the matrix? Maybe he sees the horror underneath the historic American narrative. We are just as evil, murderous and immoral as we portray our enemies to be. The portal is a way out or a way in.

Near the new corner building that used to be a Burger King and a gas station -how dare “they” replace a Burger King and a gas station- I notice an abandoned crow’s nest tucked between the roof of a bank drive-thru and a security light. Crows adapt and thrive among us even when our actions don’t have their best interests in mind. Their intelligence and tribalism are a formidable defense against extinction. A murder of crows is badass. They can live among the ruins of our civilization if need be.