October 16, 2019

Their friendship went way back. 

Kerry met Andy at the Portland Rescue Mission some years ago — maybe six or seven. Kerry isn’t sure any more, and rubs his eyes as if to help recall the date.

Kerry hold sup a memorial poster of his friend Andy, who passed away in 2018

They bonded over dramatic —and sometimes fanciful — tales of life lived outside. Kerry swore he’d been blown up in Old Faithful, and Andy told of being chased by a California biker gang. Their humor gravitated toward the macabre: Kerry has been assaulted six times in the past 14 months, and he imagines what Andy might say, once he stopped chuckling, “That’s just Kerry’s luck.” 

Both had been close with their daughters, who were the same age. They talked about how good and smart the women were. 

And both men had tried — again and again — to get sober. 

“We’d be sober three or four months straight, then start drinking again,” Kerry said. “He understood. I understood. You crash and burn and then get sober for a while. Then you lose a job, a relationship. Your mom gets mad at you. Life just starts collapsing on you. It catches up with you.”

Andy was found dead on July 15, 2018, on a trail behind Portland State University’s football field. His pockets were inside out. Whatever he carried, or belongings he might have had, were gone. The medical examiner said he died of complications from chronic alcoholism.

The call from the Medical Examiner's Office came too late, about 10:30 that night, for his sister, Beverly, to visit his body.

“The hardest thing was that I couldn’t get to Andy right then,” she said. “I loved him. He was my baby brother. I’ve always taken care of him.”

Beverly was 8 when Andy was born, and she treated him little like her living doll. 

“His belly button came off in my hand. I thought I broke him,” she said. “I was broken-hearted until my mom explained that that was part of healing.” 

The family lived in a middle-class Southwest Portland home. As kids they played outside until their father came home, when they would follow him inside, where their mother always had dinner and a homemade dessert waiting. On Sundays, the family attended the First Presbyterian Church.

“It was a very happy childhood,” Beverly recalled. 

Andy was charismatic, but would often slip away to someplace quiet, private.

”He had this habit of disappearing,” Beverly said. “I can’t tell you how many times my mom would say, ‘Go find Andy.’”

Everything came easily for Andy, his sister recalls. He excelled at everything, could learn every skill. But then he’d always want to move on. 

He could have been a star athlete but declined to join organized teams. He could have been a musician with an ear for music and a knack for the piano and guitar, but he wasn’t interested in learning to read notes.

In school, he was a kind-hearted classmate who loved science and electronics, but he found classes a bore, and finally dropped out. He entered a mechanics program, then dropped out of that, as well. 

Andy finally did land a job he loved, selling hearing aids for Paul Willoughby. He delighted in tinkering with the devices and helping people hear. 

But he never did what was expected of adults — paid a mortgage or secured health insurance. He liked nice things but didn’t require them. He spent and shared his paychecks. He drank. And then, he lost his job.

Beverly couldn’t pinpoint when Andy became homeless for good, or when she stopped thinking it might have been his choice. There were parts of being untethered he loved. The characters. Being on his own. Being away from things. Once, Andy told his sister, he met a man living outside who was hard of hearing, and had broken his hearing aid. Andy rummaged around the area until he found a bike spoke, which he used to fix the man’s device.

To make a bit of money, Andy sold copies of Street Roots, securing prime spots in front of the Safeway on Southwest Jefferson Street for himself and his buddy Kerry. Customers and employees knew Andy well and supplied him with snacks of cake or fried chicken. 

Through the years, Beverly kept hoping Andy would stop drinking, return to the hearing aid business he loved and find an apartment of his own. Along the way she saved things that he might need — furniture, linens and kitchen supplies.

An abandoned shoe on a foot trail near I-405 where Andy died.

When he was on the wagon, his daughter, sister, and sister-in-law attended his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They threw him a party when he earned a medallion after a year of sobriety. He tried again and again to stay sober, but nothing stuck.

“I assumed he would get a foothold,” she said. “But every time he would get into a program, somehow he would sabotage that, and I don’t know why.”

Andy would drop off the radar, leading Beverly to fear the worst. When temperatures spiked or dropped, when the rain began or when a rare snow storm swept through, she worried. She told herself that was Andy being Andy, “like a little crab or a turtle that would pull into his shell, he needed quiet time to restore himself.”

She worried someone would hurt Andy — like the time he woke up in a doorway and a stranger, hovering above, punched him in the face with a pair of brass knuckles. 

“They didn’t know he was Andy,” Beverly said. “He was just a homeless person.”

Beverly still wonders, “Why?” Andy had a good start to life. Why was he homeless? Why did things end this way?

Few understand the pain in answering that question better than Kerry, Andy’s old Street Roots friend, whose own family and friends ask him the very same thing.

“I just drink too much,” he says with a shrug.

Today Kerry still sells Street Roots outside Safeway. But many terrible things have happened to him since his friend, Andy, passed away. 

A group of teens hit him over the head with a metal pipe, he said, requiring doctors to close the wound with five staples. Another teen struck him with a wooden baton fashioned with a length of chain while he was sitting under the Burnside Bridge.

He’s been excluded from the library because of alcohol (again), which is painful because it’s his favorite place besides the Safeway and the liquor store. And he’s been excluded from the Portland Rescue Mission because of alcohol (again), sleeping now on a bus that runs all night.

On a recent Friday, Kerry sits in the Street Roots office, working on his third cup of coffee. He rolls his suitcase nearby, along with his copy of American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan. He’s dressed in jeans, an Oxford and a colorful sweater, his thick hair brushed to one side. 

Between the assaults, a lack of sleep and the alcohol, he said, his memory is slipping. Other things are falling apart, too.

His daughter has stopped talking to him. And his mother keeps emailing, begging him to stop drinking. 

“She says she’s broken-hearted because of my drinking,” Kerry said. “She says she’s worried about me, that I’m going to die.”

Kerry paused then.

“When your mom says that,” Kerry said before stopping again, and rubbing his face, “it makes you think.”