There is a cafe in Portland, somewhere in Old Town, which serves the most delectable crepes. It is on the second floor of an old brick building, surrounded by other old brick buildings and has only a small sign hanging over entrance on the street. I do not remember its name or how exactly I stumbled my way up the dark steps one hungover December morning, but the breakfast, though it was lunchtime for the rest of the patrons, was delightful. So was the smiling waitress with the auburn hair. I remember, after eating, while I sipped my coffee, feeling quite joyful indeed. I smiled at the waitress, and then in the corner of my awareness, I felt a gloom. I turned. There was a man staring angrily at the wall, a spoonful of soup paused half way to his mouth. His lower lip, half hidden by an unruly beard, quivered. Then it struck me; there was something familiar in that unwashed, bearded face, and faintly I recognized the pinstriped shirt and wool cap he wore.
"Sam?" I asked cautiously. The head turned slightly, slowly. A look of confusion, weariness. Recognition.
"Peter." His face lit up with a smile, although the word was reticent. I walked to his table and, uninvited, sat across from him.
"How are you?" The question was always a little strained with Sam. His life was, plainly, odd. For three years he had lived in an old school bus, moving about the city from parking spot to parking spot. Every six days or so, the police made him move.
"Me?" A smirk arose from the corner of his lip. His eyes laughed. "Fine." I laughed too. I do not know why. Sam finally swallowed the spoonful of soup. "You?"
"Fine now." I took a drink of coffee. "I had a hangover until about twenty minutes ago." Sam shook his head with the sympathy of similar experience. "Dave and I were out till three."
"How's Dave been?"
"Good. We were actually talking about you last night."
"Yeah, we were wondering how long you'd keep that bus."
"What?" I set my coffee on the table. "When did that happen?"
"This morning." He smiled. My face filled with wonder. "It's in the river." A larger smile. I sat back in the chair and motioned with my hand for him to continue. "I had to get rid of it, after yesterday." He was silent for a moment and pushed the half full soup bowl across the table and beckoned to the waitress. He ordered a cup of chamomile tea. "They saw me," he said, continuing, "harvesting my special crop."
Sam was a farmer, a "guerrilla permaculturist" as he called it. His special crop was marijuana. It, like his other crops, was planted throughout the city on empty plots of land. He grew corn, wheat, potatoes, beans and a scattering of other foods I cannot remember. It was all quite illegal, but honestly, who notices a few dozen potato plants growing in an empty lot or cornstalks between the trees at the park? No one. Occasionally a crop of wheat or rye would be cut down by the city, if it happened to be too close to the road. More rarely, some knowledgeable stranger would help himself to a portion of the harvest or a landowner would develop the previously barren plot of land. On the whole, however, Sam had been able to grow a majority of his food this way, and this, combined with the profits from pot sales, kept him quite well fed.
"I should have saw them." He continued. "Damn it, man, I usually look for cops before I go near the field, but yesterday, I don't know. I must have lost my wits." The special crop, unlike the others, was on the outskirts of town, in the midst of three acres of blackberries. "I parked too close. I walked right in the field without really looking around. It's stupid man; absolutely ridiculous how stupid I am."
"You're not stupid."
"Yes I am."
"No, you just got relaxed."
"Yeah? I guess you're right, but either way, I should have saw them. Their car was pretty obvious. But what did I expect, a squad car?" He laughed. "Anyway, I walked right into the field, harvested a few plants and then walked out. Simple, right? It took maybe five minutes. Then I walk out, and as I'm covering the path, I hear footsteps in the grass behind me. I knew it was a cop. I knew it. So I kept messing with the bush, listening. 'Take it easy, pal.' I hear. God, what a prick. He had that cop voice. That damned voice of superiority. 'Let me see your hands.' He says. 'Nice and easy.' I didn't move. I didn't know what to do.
"Finally, I say, 'Pardon? Parle-vous Franc?' It threw him off.
"Put your hands up.' He says really slow.
"Parle-vous non Anglais.' I answer. I still don't know what to do. I hear a second set of footsteps. Then a different voice.
"What's going on?'
"The perp's speaking French, I think.'
"Turn around!' I ignore the command. There is a pause and almost without thinking I crash down the path, past the weed and through the bushes concealing the second path. I hear them behind me, running, screaming. Blackberry bushes tear at my legs. I haven't cleared the second path since Spring. Then I'm in my van. I put the key in upside down. Damn. I turn it over, start the engine. There's a cop in my side mirror, and then I'm gone. But they're after me. A goddamn Celica. That's what they were driving. Hell, no wonder I didn't notice it.
"What a rush, though. I mean, what an absolute thrill." His eyes were glittering. "I've never had so much fun in my life, or been so terrified." He paused. I waited for a blistering account of the chase. It never came. "You know what saved me?" He said after a moment. I did not answer. "Pure freaking chance. That's it.
"I came around a corner, and there it was; a bus barn. There was even an empty spot in a row of short buses just like mine. The gate was open. A big bus was coming out. It was perfect. I swerved behind the bus and into the parking spot, and by the time the cops rounded the corner, mine was just another in line. They drove right past. I pulled out and drove the other way. It was that simple." Sam shook his head, almost with disappointment. "After I drove back into town, I found a garage and hid until early this morning. Then splash; no more bus."
"What about all your stuff?"
"I've got what I need." He pointed to a messenger bag on the seat beside him.
"That's it? But you had"
"A bunch of junk." He cut me off. A surly look had risen in his eyes. "You know, watching the bus sink, I was filled with a feeling that this was right. I mean, it's been fun, but this isn't me."
"What do you mean?"
"This vagabond life." He sat back in his chair. I was beginning to see something in Sam I had never before seen. "This beard." He touched it with his fingertips. "This filth." He swept a tuft of dust from his chest. "I've been trying to convince myself that I am something I am not."
"For three years?"
"For a lifetime." We shared a look then of which I cannot describe. In a sense it said I did not know Sam and that I would never understand the point he was trying to make. But I think I did. Independence is a hard life. Only the strong among us ever truly attempt to live in its graces, and only the strongest of them succeed. Sam was simply not strong enough so he was set to fall, if such a thing is a downward motion, into normalcy.
"So what now?" I asked after the moment had passed. He was gathering in his bag and reaching for his wallet.
"I'll go home, I guess."
"No," he smiled, "I have a house in Vancouver." He threw his tip on the table and stood up. "See you around Pete."
"Sam." I nodded.
I listened to his footsteps until they disappeared in the clamor of the restaurant. I shook my head and half smiled. Then the questions began; the whys. I suddenly wanted to know Sam; to truly know him.
I dropped a twenty on the table and headed for the door. My step was quick, but by the time I reached the street, Sam was gone. I shrugged my shoulders and that was it. I never saw him again.