Until last week, I never knew Roger’s last name. He’s always just been Roger, the guy who sells Portland’s Street Roots newspaper in front of Trader Joe’s. My sweetie and I have seen him every week, in every weather, for the five years we’ve been shopping there.
"Good morning, you two,” he says, as we walk up to the store.
“Morning, Roger,” we answer. “How’s it going?” or “Nice weather, huh?” (in an appropriately ironic tone—this is Portland, after all). On the way out of the store, we stop and buy a paper. Street Roots is a local, grassroots newspaper covering issues relating to the homeless and working poor. Its vendors are homeless; selling Street Roots gives them an income. Vendors have established spots around town, and if you’re in Portland any length of time, you’ll meet them. “Sorry, I bought this one from Roger at Trader Joe’s,” I always tell the guy at Powell’s Books. He nods and smiles. Roger has some loyal customers.
“I’ve got a poem in this issue,” Roger might tell us. “Page five.” We shoot the breeze for a couple of minutes. He tells us about his family sometimes, how his parents are still going strong in their eighties. We tell him what we’re up to the rest of the day. As we turn to go, he says, without fail, “God bless you, and all your loved ones.” It never sounds rote; it sounds, every time, as though he means it from his heart.
“You, too,” we say, and wave. “See you next week.”
If only one of us shows up, Roger invariably sends his regards to whichever of us is missing. The only exception came at a time when, between my writing deadlines and my boyfriend's work, our schedules were so nutty that only one of us could get away do the shopping. Roger still said hi just as warmly, but after a couple of weeks, he stopped asking after whichever of us wasn’t there. After almost two months, things finally calmed down, and we again appeared at Trader Joe’s together. Roger was visibly relieved. “There you both are!” he said.
“Thought we broke up?” my boyfriend asked.
“I was a little worried,” Roger said, and grinned.
Last week, a different vendor was in front of Trader Joe’s. On the way out of the store, we stopped and bought a paper. “Where’s Roger this week?” I asked. The vendor was handing me the paper; he turned it over, and pointed to a headline.
Roger had passed away in his sleep, in the downtown hotel room he’d occupied for years. When he didn’t show up at Trader Joe’s, his customers left messages at the Street Roots office, asking if he was OK. It’s only now, reading articles about him, that I’ve learned he was a star pitcher in high school with the talent to go pro, and alcoholism that kept him from getting there. I’ve learned he was only 60 years old. I’ve learned his last name was Gates. I still don’t know the rest of his story, beyond the bits and pieces he'd shared with us over the years. I know that he’d endured hard miles; that you could tell by looking at him. I know he had a patient and gentle kindness that he extended freely; I know he believed all people were worthy of love; I know he looked on each day as a gift.
We miss his warmth, his smile, his humor and his unshakeable optimism. We’re grateful that our lives intersected, if only briefly, once a week in front of Trader Joe’s.
God bless you and all your loved ones, Roger. May you rest in peace.