“Four years ago,” he says, cupping a soft, meaty hand near his sternum, “I had a beard down to here.”
With a more-pepper-than-salt ponytail, Kevin Ketchum is clean-shaven, wearing a blue and green plaid button-up over a blue t-shirt. I tell myself he has dressed up for our interview.
Immediately I want to ask about those razorless years, during which he must have watched Portland change immensely from the outside in, as the buildings rose around his slapdash sidewalk nest. Did he stand on street corners with a cardboard sign, training for the vaguely elevated caste he’s attained of Street Roots Vendor? And if so, what did the cardboard read? Who stopped for him? What kept him from taking advantage of Portland’s inexhaustible resources for the homeless and depraved? What finally inspired him to shave?
Ketchum’s chaliced hand, held under his heart, slowly drops. His uncertain smile twists, and falls. Perspiration forms across his kind, round face.
I do not know if the sensitivity I feel right now is his, or mine. It may be both.
I am not a veteran interviewer, nor a seasoned, scales-for-skin journalist. In fact, since we met here for coffee in the Westmoreland neighborhood, I have mostly projected my stories upon him, as passerby are wont to do, when I asked him specifically to share his:
Ketchum was born and raised in Portland, and never really left. In the early Eighties, just out of high school, he worked at the Hilton downtown, paid $155—half a paycheck—for a studio on SE 12th and Belmont. The building is still there. Rent has risen since then, just slightly.
Back then, Huey Lewis and the News rattled the radio, and Ronald Reagan occupied the oval office.
“That was when you first started seeing people sleeping in their cars,” he says, looking out the window. Eye contact between us is rare.
Were there no homeless people?
Ketchum remembers “bums, winos and transients” living under the Burnside bridge, but seeing families sleep in cars in the Reagan years was his first evidence that the economics had changed.
“When families are sleeping in cars,” he says, “you have a more serious condition. People aren’t choosing that.”
Rents were not skyrocketing then; jobs just seemed to vanish. Evictions arrived, people moved outside.
When did you lose your job?
“I did alright in the Eighties. I did restaurant work, and when I lost a job, I was always able to get back in.”
Eventually, Ketchum found himself working in a plastic molding plant, Molded Container, in Southeast Portland, where now lives an Orwellian cluster of mysteriously quiet townhomes.
Ketchum had one week off a year until the plastic factory shut.
“I worked mindlessly, he says. “It was nothing spiritually fulfilling.”
He shifts his focus from the window to me, finally, and beams at me like a grown boy elated that someone is still listening.
He says the corporation moved to a more “business-friendly community” somewhere in the Midwest. (Online records show the corporation—founded here in 1957—is still located in Sellwood.)
“I think the problem is that Portland discourages business from coming in,” Ketchum says. “There’s a lot of environmental concern, you might say.”
Or, he suggests, it’s got to be the “right kind” of business.
“It puts people out of work,” he says, “but on the other side, whatever they put in, puts other people to work.”
Though he identifies as a “deeply-rooted Christian,” I wonder if Ketchum’s quasi-Buddhist perspective has kept him afloat all these years, still able to smile despite living in only a ‘sleeping room’—a situation he resists describing in detail but I sense is not particularly safe or comfortable for him.
In ages-old tradition, the young man Ketchum ventured north to work on a pollock processor vessel out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, called the Ocean Rover.
I tell him that every summer, I commercial fish in Bristol Bay, northeast of Dutch.
Kevin’s face brightens. We reach out for a high-five, and instead our hands clasp. For a long, quiet moment, we exchange waves of empathy, even brotherhood.
I’m don’t think I’m projecting this time: we’ve both been soaked by the mad ocean, pushed to our physiological and mental edges by interminable days and nights of grueling work through high seas and big storms.
Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to that edge. Some never leave; others never escape.
I feel oddly connected to this man, to his story. Suddenly, it is our story.
I tell him how, at the beginning of the recession, I lived in my car, near penniless, with my girlfriend and dog, for months on end; that the sunroof broke and the rain poured in while we slept; that the police tapped too often on our windows as we reclined in sleeping bags, reading ourselves to sleep by headlamp.
“Yeah,” he says, “you have to find three or four places to alternate, so you don’t raise any eyebrows.”
For me, I wondered, where was this kind of support back then?
The community of people who just get it, whatever it is—whether commercial fishing, homelessness, or drug addiction—supports the survival of the individual. I never had that—in fact, out of judgment, I had refused even to communicate with other homeless people.
For me, the vast hopelessness set in quick—the kind that, fermented and concrete, leads to chronic homelessness. Young and arrogant, I refused to apply for social assistance and unemployment, figuring I had to pull myself—and girlfriend and dog—up by my bootstraps. That’s what the free market said I was supposed to do, right?
What’s your relationship to drugs?
Ketchum’s reply rolls off his tongue, an unpoetic recitation: “I haven’t smoked marijuana in twenty years. Alcohol in twenty-five. Wish I could say that about tobacco.”
This time, I choose compassion and understanding over judgment and criticism.
Where do you see yourself, and Portland, five years from now?
“I’m really discouraged about all this housing they’re building. A lot of people need housing. But that’s not happening. People are moving here, and people on the streets are going to keep living on the streets.”
This paradoxical reply seems to me to make perfect sense: developers will continue building housing, but those who really need it aren’t going to get in, except perhaps in the future affordable condos of what was once St. Francis Park.
As much as I now operate in a world of “paradigm shifts,” “elevated consciousness,” and hopes of Bernie Sanders taking office, it’s humbling to note that there are still millions whose base needs are not being met.
As for Ketchum, he says, he’ll be glad to be “puttin’ around,” doing what he’s doing.
“I discovered that I enjoy sales,” he says. “So maybe if the right sales position comes along…right now, the newspaper works for me. I get to meet people, and maybe something will come from that.”
“I keep saying that I want to leave Portland,” he says, “but I grew up here. I’ve had my good times here and my bad times here. I just know where everything’s at.”