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The Home Hotel

August 3, 2009

The real you by =Sha-X-doW on deviantART

There used to be a “hotel” in Portland that was notorious to street paramedics.  Located on SW 2nd Avenue, between Burnside and Couch, across from the Salvation Army.  We knew the address well, and unfortunately, we were often there at least once per shift.  Paramedics in the really large cities probably have numerous places like the Home Hotel, but in Portland, during the 70s and 80s, few places rivaled the desperation one would find on the second floor of this transient venue.

As a young, naive EMT (not quite a paramedic), I had much to learn.  My first call to the Home Hotel was an eye opener.

The call came in just before shift change, about 7:00am. My partner and I were in a bleary-eyed stupor from a night of sleeplessness, brought on by the constant needs of a city that never sleeps.  She gave me no warning of what I was about to encounter – not to surprise me, but because it was so normal – at least to the medics who worked downtown.

We parked out front and my partner strode with passive indignation towards a set of double doors. There was no sign to indicate this was a hotel.  The doors looked like a battered set of service doors; wooden; without windows; and non-inviting.  I followed my street-wise partner through the doors and into a world I never would have imagined.  It was dark and we immediately encountered a set of bare stairs leading to the second floor.

Photo by Brenton Cleeland -

Photo by Brenton Cleeland -

At the top of the stairs there was a large open room. A wood stove sat in the middle of the room and five or six men were slumped in chairs around the room.  I was struck by the presence of a wood stove!  This isn’t the gleaming image of the Portland I knew – the glass buildings, the gleaming architecture, the well-healed business people.  This made me think I’d stepped a 100 years into the past, when this building was probably constructed.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw there were more than just a few people in the room. There were about a dozen, some were asleep (I hoped) on the floor, some propped up in the corner, and no one seemed to notice our arrival.  The colors were dark – everything was dark.  The clothes worn by the men in the room, the bare floor, the walls, the only thing clean and bright in the room were the uniform shirts worn by my partner and I.  We were quite the contrast.

I found out over the course of the next few years that those bright white shirts gave us the illusion of being angels. The people on the street treated the Buck Ambulance paramedics differently than anyone else they encountered.  We weren’t cops, we weren’t detox workers, and we weren’t tourists (or business people) invading their territory.  We were their helpers and we were treated with respect.

For some reason Sherry knew right where to go. She made a u-turn in the “lobby” and proceeded down a very dark hallway.  I followed.  Though she was only five-feet tall, she walked with commanding presence.  There didn’t seem to be any fear in her as she strode down this dark hallway.  She entered the first open door she encountered.  I followed.

filthy” doesn’t even begin to describe it…

If the scenes we had entered just moments before weren’t shocking enough, I certainly wasn’t prepared for what we found in that room. Though the original building was built with 12-foot ceilings, the walls in this “room” were only eight-feet tall.  Across the top there was chicken-wire, to keep the inmates clients guests from climbing over – or to protect them from others.  The room was barely six-feet wide and eight-feet long.  A small, army-style cot, with a filthy (“filthy” doesn’t even begin to describe it) mattress, and no sheets.  Next to the bed was a coffee can.  It was filled with cigarette butts, and a dark, coffee-ground like substance – this was emesis, from the man lying on the cot.  A classic symptom of the dying alcoholic.

Photo by Oliver Hammond -

Photo by Oliver Hammond -

The room reeked and it was all I could do to keep from retching. The strange mixture of odors: blood, vomit, feces, urine, alcohol, sweat, and filth.  The man was unconscious.  No one was round to seek information.  We put him on our gurney and took him to the ambulance.  On the way to the OHSU emergency department, Portland’s version of “County General,” Sherry started an IV and gave him oxygen.  I remember my nose itching, but I was afraid to touch it – so I was trying to scratch my nose with my elbows.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time.

And so began my dive into the dispassionate world of the inner-city. Over the next few years, my heart grew harder and harder.  My gleaming white uniform shirt was like body armor.  I too developed the strut of one who is large and in charge.  Though, unlike Sherry, I had the size to back it up.  My future visits to the Home Hotel didn’t fill me with shock and awe; and I was no longer repulsed.  I was just indifferent.  Dispassionate.  Cynical.

It was a surreal life to live. They” never told me how it would affect me – long-term.  Who knew those images would be burned into my neural pathways for life.  Here, even 30 years later, I can recall that visit as if it were this morning.

But here is what really fascinates me. So many people tend to look down with disdain on the broken people of this world.  Subconsciously, we judge others and compare ourselves to them.  “At least I’m not like that poor loser.” We breath under our breath.  “At least I’m not like that!”  However, but for the grace of God, there I go.

Why is it we think we are all that? Why is it that we think we are better than others because of genetic chance, geographic opportunities, or family history?

My brother-in-law has particular disdain for all those “native” bumper stickers. His point? “Yeah, you live in a great state.  So what does that say; you have smart parents?”

The fact of the matter is, we’re all in this together. The sooner we realize that we all share the same home, the same planet, if you will, the sooner we realize that we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper – and that we need to look out for each other.

For the past several years, I’ve been trying to peel back the veneer that has hardened my heart. It’s not an easy process.  I’ve grown pretty hardened.  But at least I recognize that.

  1. K. C. permalink
    August 4, 2009 1:12 am

    There is a universal truth in the WORLD. Thoes people who are on top of the heap can NEVER feel for those who are not so fortunate as them.

    If it were not so there would be no problems with humanity.


  2. Karen permalink
    August 4, 2009 11:57 am

    I like the comment, “we’re all in this together.” We really are…


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