“I came to the woods to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In February of 2013, I moved to the woods along the banks of the Fore River, on the south side of West Commercial Street in Portland. Alcoholism, and the consequences thereof, had brought me from the palace to prison to a halfway house to motels and couches and shelters and the street. At long last, I was truly free. I wasn’t on anyone’s couch. I didn’t have to check in or sleep toe-to-head with others in a sardine can. I had no keepers or keyholders, no white coats or blue coats. At 47, I was living with a little black dog in an orange tent in the dawn shadow of the Casco Bay Bridge.
I’d always wanted a place on the water.
In the months that followed, these woods gave me back my dignity, my sanity, my spirituality and my smile. Bella and I soon became part of a growing outlaw community down by the river. Although this community’s membership often changed, we forged strong relationships, hatched big plans and had many adventures.
The area’s proper name is Yard 8 — a rail yard owned, most recently, by Pan Am Railways, a freight company based in Massachusetts. Some called it Hobo Jungle, but it wasn’t really the Hobo Jungle of Portland (that’s down off St. John Street). We called it Sherwood Forest.
When I escaped to Sherwood that winter, I was struck by the sharp contrast between the trees and the trash. But snow covers many sins, and there’s an inherent beauty to any stretch of woods. I walked among birch and more birch, maples and apple trees, stacks of brown and burnt dock planks and black, creosote-soaked railroad ties. There were clearings, beaches, a granite seawall, and then the river that feeds the sea.
I thought it amazing that progress had left this tract of urban wilderness untouched. But in August of that year, crews of half-orcs showed up and began destroying ol’ Sherwood. Smoke-belching bulldozers broke trees at their shins and ripped them out of the ground, then scraped the earth bare to prepare for the pavement of an expanded shipping-container terminal and Phin Sprague’s new yacht yard.
No one on the warm side of the window will care much about this. I mean, it’s not Congress Square Park, and pavement equals progress, yes? But to us, this was not just another hobo jungle being clear-cut. Sherwood Forest was falling. Our home.
I first heard about Yard 8 when I was in prison the first time, in ’06, after five convictions for operating under the influence (Five! Who does that, right?). A fellow inmate, originally from Boston, described this dock in Portland ruled by the homeless. He said he and others would tent there and party and fish for lobster and bass. The group took care of its own, he said, and the cops never bothered them. It was a hobo village open to any locals who needed shelter, and often visited by brothers and sisters of the rail, who brought drugs and culture from far away — both gladly shared around the campfire.
I’d thought about tenting and I knew a lot of homeless campers. Bella and I had slept outside and in squats late into the fall of ’12, but we’d been doing the couch thing during the most brutal of the winter months, and I’d had to ditch my sleeping bag (’cuz nylon zippers really do suck). Then I got an orange two-man (two-child, really) dome tent (thank you, Grace Street Ministries), and after my last host went to jail, I managed to get a sleeping bag from a friend. So off we went.
I’d been to Sherwood a few times before: once with Kosmo Kabir to retrieve a cup, left at his abandoned campsite, that the Captain swore Kosmo had stolen from him, and again during a spice-fed odyssey one night in the middle of a blizzard (during which I’d lost my Zippo). I went down there a third time with the Obamaville crowd — a group of suspect characters, led by a good friend of mine, who lived in Yard 8 — to check out a tent they were willing to give me (they’d also found my lighter).
This time, with half my belongings draped around me on a warm late-winter day, Bella and I headed for the woods to stay.
We walked down State Street and stopped at Amistad, the mental-health community center, to have someone tell my friend Rob, the Major General of Obamaville, that we were moving in. Then we continued up Danforth, took a left down Tate Street, and hung a right at the bottom, following York Street past the park and downhill, where it becomes Beach Street. We passed the spot where a broken fence obscures a path to the old train tunnel (this will figure into our tale later on).
From Beach, we crossed West Commercial and entered the fenced-in train yard, then crossed the tracks and quickly found the first trail into the woods. The trees were still bare, the birches like a crowd of skeletons, the cold ground littered with garbage — the remains of past seasons’ camps.
Still, Bella was excited and so was I. We located the Obamaville clearing, but all the tents were gone. Piles of burnt planks and railroad ties blocked our view of the water. We decided to camp there anyway. Carefully following the instructions in the package, I set up the orange tent.
The sun came out and the breeze was kind, the tent was new and wonderful, and so was the whole situation. We unpacked and unraveled and explored. We sat on the seawall for awhile. It being early in the season, Bella and I were the only ones there.
For the first time in the longest time, we were on our own, beholden to nobody. Everyone should feel at least a moment of such freedom. God bless the woods.
“A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. The soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my game, and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.”
— Satanta, Kiowa Chief; born 1820, died, by suicide, 1878
While learning about the history of Sherwood Forest, I noticed some similarities between the natives and the tramps who’ve lived there in the past. Both had oral traditions, so neither kept records or, it seems, ever managed to get a deed (treaties don’t count for much). The written history of marginal places like this usually begins when a group of Europeans confiscates the land to squeeze a little yen out of it, killing or evicting the locals in the process.
To find out more, I went to the Maine Historical Society to see William Barry, author of Maine: The Wilder Half of New England. (If you want to be a proud Mainer, steal this book!) According to Wild Bill, the original inhabitants of the Fore’s shores were probably the gentle Armouchiquois. Back when the People of the Dawn were hitting their mid-morning stride, hunting and fishing and fighting to the north and west, the fertile earth in this part of the province allowed the Armouchiquois to grow fields of corn, beans and squash, in addition to fishing the rivers and bays.
Fresh produce didn’t much interest our white forbearers. The serious coin was in furs. No one was trading gunpowder for turnips, and this may be what kept the Armouchiquois out of the Euros’ sphere of influence, at least for awhile.
So, what happened to them?
“Well,” said Wild Bill, “a good dose of King Philip’s War, followed by a chaser of King William’s War, did a lot of damage.”
King Philip’s War started in 1675, when English colonists clashed with natives led by Metacomet, who the English called King Philip. Metacomet was killed in Rhode Island — and then beheaded and quartered — in 1676, but hostilities continued until the Treaty of Casco was signed up here two years later. King William’s War (named after the English monarch) lasted from 1688 to 1697, and pitted New England against New France (Canada) and the Wabanaki Confederacy.
The natives lost that one, too, and other battles followed, but more Indians were killed during the Colonial Era by European germs — small pox, cholera, measles, whooping cough — than were killed by Europeans. During the Great Dying of 1616-19, an epidemic wiped out over three-quarters of the People of the Dawn. (The ranks of tramps and hobos have been decimated by another disease: alcoholism.)
When Maine became a state in 1820, Portland was its capital and soon became its transportation hub. In 1832, the Cumberland and Oxford Canal linked the Fore with the Presumpscot River, thereby connecting Portland to Sebago Lake. Ten years later, the first train rolled into town on the Portland, Saco & Portsmouth Railway, bringing passengers from East Boston to the station at Commercial and Union streets. Four years after that, in 1846, the Portland Company was established on the eastern end of the waterfront to build locomotives that ran on the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which connected Portland and Montreal.
With the railroads came the unemployed drifters who’d ride the trains from place to place. There were bums (who never worked), tramps (who avoided work whenever possible), and hobos (who traveled in search of work). By the turn of the 20th century, there were thriving hobo camps on the outskirts of all the Maine railroad towns: Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and, yes, even Yarmouth. The local cops mostly ignored or tolerated these travelers. The property they occupied was usually either undeveloped or owned by railroad companies “from away.”
As with the natives, we have few records of the hobos’ history in Portland. We do know that during Prohibition the campers started selling illegal hooch, apple jack, made from the fruit of the apple trees along the river. This illicit trade attracted the authorities’ attention on more than one occasion, but demand was strong enough to keep it going through the Great Depression. The population of Sherwood and other hobo jungles grew in the thin years and thinned out in the fat years.
We have names of individuals arrested for vagrancy and illegal distilling of spirits back then, but Yard 8 has essentially remained outside the jurisdiction of the Portland police. Officer Dan Knight, the bicycle cop who patrols downtown, once told me after a game of darts that back in the days before the shelter for alcoholics opened on India Street, police would often bring inebriated transients to Yard 8, where they knew the hobo community would keep an eye on them.
Those days, of course, are long gone.
“Blow up your TV / throw away your paper / go to the country / build you a home / plant a little garden / eat a lot of peaches / try to find Jesus / on your own.”
— John Prine, “Spanish Pipedream”
I remember waking up that first morning in Sherwood Forest and seeing a beautiful sky over the ocean and a huge tanker looming just a couple hundred yards away.
The next morning I found out who really owned the place. It was another sunny day, and Bella and I were hanging out in the tent. We didn’t have enough water, but I had a little spice (chemically treated herbs that mimic the effects of marijuana; legal at the time, but since banned in Maine). Then Bella started barking.
We were approached by a tall, stocky, cop-looking sort of citizen with good teeth. It was my first encounter with Rick Fowler, railroad cop. The Sheriff of Nottingham said Bella and I were trespassing on Pan Am’s property and had to move. After he checked my ID (no warrants — amen!) we got to talking, and he casually mentioned that this land was being sold and would soon be developed.
“I expected to find more people out here,” I said.
“There will be,” Fowler replied. “Tents come up and I take ’em down. I work Monday through Friday, from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., and if I don’t see your face, well, there’s really nothing I can do.”
Hint taken. After he left, I stashed my gear in a pile of burnt planks and headed into town. We needed more water anyway.
In the days that followed, I preached the virtues of Sherwood Forest to my fellow homeless, like some Biblical prophet from the wilderness. My newfound life of simplicity and self-sufficiency even made me a little arrogant. As the weather got warmer, I started putting down “shelter people.”
“No, I understand,” I’d tell the skeptics. “Some people are just afraid of the woods. Some people just need to know they have a white coat watching over them. Yeah, I get it.” Eventually, answering my call or their own, others followed me down there. Robin started to get some Merry Men.
The first group to join me was the teen center cast-offs, including a couple who left the center because they wanted to actively couple. One of those kids, 17-year-old CeCe, ended up staying in Sherwood even longer than I did.
CeCe brought her then-boyfriend, Troy, and Bruno Marz, and a young orc-creeper who was tagging along with Bruno. Troy could erect a tent like an Eagle Scout — without tent poles, using random remnants of other tents — so he and CeCe had shelter, but Bruno and the creeper had to sleep in the “guest tent” (Kosmo’s ripped and discarded tent from the previous season). That tent couldn’t withstand much wind even before it was torn, and sure enough, Bruno and the half-orc fled in the middle of the first stormy night.
We soon discovered that Obamaville’s shady occupants hadn’t left the woods after all — they’d just moved as far east as one could go in Sherwood, having set up camp next to a chain-link fence. The Major General had four followers in the East End Village, as they called it (some peeps also called it SkinnerVille). CeCe ended up falling for the youngest of the East Villagers, and that caused some craziness, but that’s another story.
One night, two figures came staggering into Obamaville seeking shelter. I directed them to the guest tent, and they didn’t fare much better than Bruno and the half-orc had, but one of them made it through the night: an old traveler who called himself the Ragman. The Ragman told me some of Yard 8’s hobo lore; for example, at one time the place was called Cassidy’s Hill.
The Ragman’s partner, Brian, came back the next day holding his constant prop: a 40-ounce of Hurricane malt liquor. He’d just pitched his new 12-man tent west of Obamaville, in a spot we called the Grotto, next to the graffitied brick foundation of some bygone building. Brian was a sweet guy, a fifty-ish former fisherman, still good-looking and healthy for his age and wear. He was talkative — a little too chatty in the morning — but I knew his story before he told it, just from the bottle in his hand, because his story is my story, too.
The population of Sherwood Forest was growing. I’d convinced Kosmo to return, and he set up his tent-tarp-and-blanket wigwam in an area we referred to as Sleepy Hollow. The Ragman abandoned the guest tent and made his home in a hole in the middle of a tall pile of charred planks. Wary of another run-in with Fowler, I eventually decided to move my tent from the Obamaville clearing to a spot down the road and closer to the river, and CeCe and Troy joined me there. We called this new neighborhood Deadman’s Point.
In those early days, most of us went into town at dawn to avoid Fowler, get water, eat at the soup kitchen, and acquire other necessities. The Ragman seldom left Sherwood, and when he did, he always walked alone. He’d dig blood worms at low tide and sell them on Commercial. At night, he’d fish for stripers off the China Clay Docks with a young newcomer, Jake, whose girlfriend bought him a fishing pole and a tent, which he pitched in Sleepy Hollow.
On our side of the window, the winter of 2013 never seemed to end. Frozen snow turned into cold rain, sunny days were scarce, the biting wind ever present. As much as I ranted about the virtues of the woods, the weather was never among them. After a storm, you could count on all your shit — even the stuff inside the tent — being damp for days. Our books were all permanently swollen. I stopped wearing sneakers and wore combat boots, tired of being fooled by one sunny day into having wet feet for the next three.
During the day, I’d busk with Halifax, and/or Kosmo, and/or Crazy Johnny, and/or Pip and Uncle Bob, and we’d use the coin to buy spigitti (spice) and ciggies, in that order. (Halifax would buy coffee instead.) When the shit falling from the sky got too thick, we’d hit the library (Bella, too, being a registered service dog — amen) or hang out under the awnings of the old Portland (now definitely not) Public Market, or in the cave-like entryway of the former Fotoshop store (now Art Mart) on Congress.
One night that spring, we gathered for a council meeting in Haymarket Square, a large clearing to the west of Obamaville. The meeting ran late, and we were all tired. Bella and I got into our tent on Deadman’s Point, and I got ready to read more Che Guevara, but Troy and Brian were still talking loudly, sitting on a log nearby.
We operated by candlelight after dark, and I was always the one to acquire the candles. Brian, medicated as ever, needed a candle and wouldn’t let it go. Finally, exasperated, I broke my taper in two and gave Brian the other half. Troy helped him to his tent, stumbling through the darkness.
We all overslept.
“You just moved a hundred yards down the road!” Rick Fowler, railroad cop, exclaimed with a smile the next morning. The excuses I uttered weren’t worth the breath necessary to carry them. As Rick wrote me up a court summons, he said, “You guys really need to clear out of here. There was a fatality out here just last night. I’m surprised you folks didn’t hear it. Fire department was here. A man burned himself up in his tent a little further down.”
I hadn’t heard anything. Later that day, discussing it at council, no one else had, either.
Brian wasn’t at council. Nor was he passed out on the docks. It was the Ragman who tearfully told us the dead man was Brian.
Brian had (apparently … hopefully) passed out, and the candle had somehow set his big tent on fire. It was surmised that he died of smoke inhalation. We went to his campsite in the Grotto. All that was left was a circle of burn — evidence of either a departing spacecraft or an incinerated dome tent.
And I’d handed him the candle.
Fowler had discovered the East End Village, as well. The Major General and his contingent, blaming Brian, pulled up stakes and headed out to the Frontier, on the Portland-Westbrook border. Jake, the newcomer, decided enough was enough and left the woods for good.
We discussed having some sort of ceremony for Brian. (Halifax, the anarchist musician, remarked with a grin, “I guess a candlelight vigil would be inappropriate.”) We burned sage and cedar and sweet grass for the old fisherman that night, tossed flowers onto his purified campsite and more flowers into the dark, drifting river.
Find rest, Brian, my brother. You were a good man. One of us. Another library closed. Amen and aho.
The tragedy prompted someone out there to start handing out battery-powered candles to the street people. I saw one inside the home of Captain Rick Palmer, who’d fished with Brian, but none of us ever saw an electric candle in the woods. Before he left Sherwood, Troy somehow acquired a bunch of solar-powered lights, which worked magnificently and ended the candle ordeal. Thanks again, Troy.
“Not jumping is a good thing.”
— Bekkah Moon
I should write a few words about the docks. They ran the length of Sherwood, roughly parallel to the seawall, extending about 30 feet out into the river. There’d clearly been a fire, or fires, over the decades. Most of the middle section was gone, save for dozens of gray pilings poking out of the water, and there were multitudinous gaps in the decking that remained. Still, you could easily venture onto the docks, if you dared.
In the new century following the arrival of the trains, Maine’s paper industry blossomed. A key ingredient of high-grade, glossy paper is kaolin, also called china clay. The chalky white mineral was shipped to Portland in large quantities and unloaded at what became known as the China Clay Docks, or Clay Wharf.
The china clay trade only lasted until the 1920s in Portland, and by the ’50s the docks were abandoned, the shoreside storage buildings razed.
But how did the docks burn down?
Delta Force Dude (Ret.), the oldest member of the Major General’s retinue, told me at Amistad that a guy working on the waterfront wanted a certain day off and didn’t get it, so he took 20 gallons of gas and burned the China Clay Docks. This was in ’87 or ’88, he said.
During a feast of barbecued striper, B&M Beans and Mueller’s noodles, the Ragman told me a group of Prohibition-era railroad hobos resented working the docks, and one named Crazy Crisp burned them down when the china clay shipments stopped — to make sure they wouldn’t start again.
I made inquiries at the historical society, the fire department, and even the police department, but nobody I spoke with had any answers. Early one morning, thinking I was dialing the fire marshal’s office, I mistakenly called the Portland Fire Museum, where a retired fire administrator named Steve “Gig” Hasson answered the phone. Gig confirmed that the docks caught on fire several times after they were abandoned, though it was never determined who set the blazes. So both Delta Force Dude and the Ragman could be right.
My strongest lead came courtesy of Pat McBride, of the Maine Irish Heritage Center, who connected me with longtime West Ender Vicky Dylewski. Vicky has a black-and-white photo of the docks on fire, taken around 1959, when she was a girl, from the window of her family’s home. It’s one of many historic snapshots she has of Yard 8 in those days.
Vicky remembers her father sending her down there with a potato sack to collect pieces of coal that fell off the railroad cars and give them to West End families too poor to heat their homes in the winter. She and her friends ventured inside the boxcars to rip off pieces of cardboard boxes and use them to sled down the hill. Her mother wasn’t too fond of these activities. The tracks were dangerous. Numerous people, including one of Vicky’s relatives, were cut in half by the trains of Yard 8 last century.
Vicky remembers seeing the working hobos down there in the ’50s. They were clean and well dressed, she remarked, not at all threatening. But by the late ’80s, she started to encounter rougher characters in those woods. There were tire fires at night, fresh piles of garbage in the mornings. She documented this, too, including a photo of a crude boat someone was living in just a couple years ago.
“We called the police, but they did nothing,” she said of the boat people. “I mean, if a storm had come up on them, they would have drowned, but [the police] did nothing.”
“Dude, these people see how we roll: shirtless, muscular and tanned; dirty, wild and free. The dudes probably wish they could be us, and the women probably wish they could be with outlaws like us.”
After our second encounter with Officer Fowler, we decided to move to Haymarket Square, the beautiful clearing in the center of Sherwood, right on the river, where we’d been holding council. Bella and I stayed on the water side, near a massive pile of railroad ties and burnt wood. Kosmo pitched his patchwork wigwam on the forest side, and CeCe set up across the path from him.
By May, CeCe had broken up with Troy. He left, but several others had arrived: D.J. and Hunter, and sometimes Chance, stayed in Sleepy Hollow; Trotsky and Santos, both anarchists, slept in a clearing in eastern Sherwood they called Fort Apache. Halifax and Che came down to stay, tentless, in the middle of an overgrown path we called Faerie Lane,and Rachel and Dana made their home upon a large granite slab by the seawall.
On warm nights, we all gathered in the square. A covert campfire burned, and food and drink and spigitti were shared. We played music and danced and talked about gardens and fishing and revolution. Che taught us how to roast roots and which bugs to consume. Yum.
I eventually acquired a new tent, a little blue one, and donated my orange two-man to Kosmo. One night I had a problem with a skunk nosing around my tent for the dog food I’d foolishly left outside. So, the next night, once assured that Kosmo was spigged-out asleep, I crossed the square and scattered dog food around the edges of his abode. A few hours later, I heard Kosmo yelling and smacking the tent walls to scare the intruder away. I continued this practice for several nights, and the skunk soon became known as Kosmo’s Cat.
Trotsky liberated a large, tan dome tent from the Meg Perry Center when the group lost its space on Congress Street. It was set up on the eastern end of Haymarket Square, and became a kind of café. Halifax, Trotsky, Santos, Rachel, Maggie, Drummer Boy Dave, Crispy, Snax and a couple others would sit inside half the night and talk about art, science, Mahler and revolution, drinking instant coffee by candlelight.
“I can see it clearly from the SoPo bridge,” Halifax told me one evening. The dome was so obnoxiously obtrusive that we took to calling it the Big Arrogant Penis Tent.
As summer approached, this was how we rolled…
Up at 5 a.m. to simmer in the cold, gorgeous dawn, smoke a butt, sip some coffee. Santos would walk around and give everyone a pre-wake up. Bella would stay at the bottom of the sleeping bag until the last minute, and would often still be in the bag when I pulled it out of the tent. Then I’d remove the big comforter I used to line the floor, the books and clothes and bags of other stuff. I’d collapse and pack up the tent, put everything fabric into a garbage bag, and stash it all inside the burn pile.
We’d try to be out of there by 7 a.m., before Fowler made his rounds, and the timing worked out well. When you hit the Amistad parking lot that early in the morning, the dude in the red pickup hands out free cigars and donuts. Some of the Merry Men could stay for breakfast and the gamut of what Amistad offers the illers during the day. The rest of us, shirtless and dirty and tanned, continued up State Street, smoking our cheap cigars and carrying instruments, then took a right on Congress (acquiring newspapers along the way) and banged a left onto Preble to grab breakfast at the shelter’s kitchen. (I have to send out a shout to Preble Street Resource Center. Thank y’all so much for what you do. It always throws me when a bunch of white coats actually care.)
We’d split up again, or not, after breakfast, and busk or hit the library or try to find a spot where we hadn’t already been white-papered by Officer Knight or threatened by white-haired security guards (Matlocks and Golden Girls, in our parlance). By late June, we’d all been banned from the Portland Public Market property (Halifax had actually been arrested there for refusing an officer’s command to sit down), One City Center, the Nickelodeon block (for singing “The Lesbian Song”), most parking garages, the park behind the Metro Pulse, school grounds after hours, and Monument Square (for smoking, of course).
There were food banks and clothing closets and appointments to go to. We’d get together in Congress Square Park (a.k.a. Clock Park) a couple times a week for peer-support circles, and once a week for a native smudge ceremony. Sometimes, with Maggie’s assistance, Halifax and I would acquire flags. On days when the sun would blaze, we’d head back to the Fore in the afternoon to swim and hang up the wet shit.
“The woods are possessive.”
— The Ragman
Beginning a century ago, Portland’s connections to the rest of the world spider-webbed. In 1913, the State of Maine overnight express train connected Portland to New York’s Grand Central Station, and in 1930, The Gull provided passenger-rail service from Portland to Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1916, the Million Dollar Bridge to South Portland opened, and a decade later, U.S. Route 1 linked Portland to highways running the length of the East Coast.
Along with all the commerce and tourism, these new connections brought more dispossessed wanderers to town. And whether you hopped off a train or were dropped off at the highway, abandoned ship or strolled over the bridge, Yard 8 was a short walk away.
The oral tradition of the yard’s transients, shared with me by the Ragman and other old-timers, includes more than a few tales of ghastly deeds and ghost stories.
In the late ’60s, a pot farmer named Hadrian Bennet was allegedly killed, while sitting by a campfire one night, by a hobo named Ephraim Ziegler. After the murder, it’s said that Bennet was skinned and his body tossed into the Fore. According to the legend, Bennet’s ghost disturbed the spirits of the natives buried there long ago. In the early ’70s, ghost hunters and mediums went down to Yard 8 to try to communicate with the dead. And in the mid ’70s, a small Satanic cult held rituals in these woods — several well-known names among the membership.
Che, the Ragman and a few others all reported seeing the same ghost in Sherwood: a northern-Euro spook wearing a blood-stained white t-shirt. Another common sighting is the cloaked figure of Death, lurking, as usual, just on the edge of sight. Yet another story concerns Amtrak…
“On Amtrak’s first ride, they came across a black guy, impaled by a pipe,” someone will say.
“Vampires. When the train went by, the passengers saw his body hanging from the bridge.”
Che has a feeling for environments, and he stated several times that he could feel an oppressive energy in these woods. I never felt anything from Sherwood and the Fore but good energy, though there’s been plenty of tension there in recent decades.
Two major developments impacted the population, and relative peace, of Yard 8. The construction of the Casco Bay Bridge, from 1993 to 1997, robbed the homeless of the old bridge tunnels they used for shelter. And the construction of Mercy Hospital’s 42-acre Fore River campus, from 2006 to 2008, further limited campers’ options. Unless you wanted to sleep in the park like a citizen, it was the Hobo Jungle off St. John, or Sherwood.
Old Yard 8 hobos say the trouble really started when the local drunks showed up. Several spoke of a retaliatory stabbing that happened about 10 years ago. But there’s talk of many stabbings down there, and when you hear those stories, you have to consider the shady nature of woods culture. Don’t ask why you never heard or read about it. The answer you’ll get will either be a.) The cops don’t care about dead hobos, or b.) It’s a conspiracy.
According to Delta Force Dude, there have been at least 18 deaths in Sherwood since 2003…
- In 2004, someone was robbed of $6,000, stabbed, then tossed into the Fore.
- In 2005, three hobos drowned, but one of them was a Navy Seal. Hmm … how could he have drowned?
- Also in 2005, two girls were assaulted in Haymarket Square.
- In 2008, two people (an old-timer and a newcomer) were killed by a pair of hobos from the Congo (the Congo?).
- In 2010, three bodies were found on the tracks, still in their sleeping bags.
Whether those crimes happened or not, most agree that law enforcement has increased down there over the past decade. The hobos blame the local drunks; the locals blame the Spirit of the Woods. Numerous people cited Brian’s death as the reason things “heated up.”
When I asked about reports of violence in the woods, the police said they couldn’t verify anything as serious as the incidents listed above. (To which the old-timers say, “Of course they’d say that.”). Checking with the crew of the Bramhall Fire Station, which responds to all the shenanigans down on the Fore, I was told, “No more stabbings than in any other part of town.”
Rick Fowler has a simple explanation for his increased presence: he lives closer to Yard 8 than the previous officer, who lived near Bangor, did. Rick became a railroad cop a couple years ago, after 25 years with the Maine State Police. His beat includes 275 miles of mainline track, from the New Hampshire border to Canada, as well as some 150 miles of branch lines. He has no partner.
Rick was always fair with us, and we never despised him or any of the Portland cops who showed up. We were outlaws and they were policemen. “They play their games and we play ours,” as Santos said.
Rick refuses to call us “campers” or “tenters.” He sticks to “trespassers.” And he denies ever shredding any tents. “It’s not my property,” he told me. “I’ll pull the stakes out and hopefully they’ll get the message.”
Rick said he’s seen a lot of temporary “trespassing” on the job so far, but no permanent campsites, and no ghosts.
One evening, after hours at the Preb, I ran into Crazy Johnny’s mom, Gypsy, skulking around the otherwise empty quad with three push carts. Why, I asked, was she still there?
“I have no place to go,” she told me. “I’ll probably end up on the steps of the church, or at the bus stop, unless I can find some young stud who wants a good bedding.”
Gypsy, a.k.a. Ruth, was 72 years old and a mother of three (two financially and socially successful kids, and Crazy Johnny). She was also a witch and a member of the C.I.A. and the New York C.S.I. — ever on the lookout for alien life forms.
Could I bring her to the shelter? No. Family? No. Caseworker? No. So, figuring I had no other choice, I decided to bring Gypsy down to Sherwood.
Before we left, we were lucky to encounter Smitty (one of the Major General’s contingent), who heaved one of Gypsy’s carts over the fence across the street from the shelter, into the no man’s land behind the parking garage. That left us with only two carts to deal with, and we were able to enlist Santos, who’d been jamming at the Clock Park, to lend a hand along the way. Still, our pace was agonizingly slow. Where the hell was Crazy Johnny?
“When we get to camp, I’m gonna put some death magic on whoever’s messing with me and Johnny!” Gypsy declared.
“Holy!” Santos cried. “Positive attracts positive! Death magic? It’s shit like death magic that probably landed you here to begin with!”
We finally got to the edge of Sherwood. Santos took the two carts to Fort Apache. I ended up carrying Ruth the last quarter mile, in the dark, with Bella as our guide. We made it to Haymarket Square, and after a warm welcome from the tenters who were still awake, Ruth was ensconced in the Big Arrogant Penis Tent, where she would remain for the better part of a month.
“There’s no Dan Knight, no white coats, no signs, and all these animals!” she exclaimed. “Why would I leave?”
Ruth had to rely on other members of the tribe to bring her food and water. She attended circles and councils and smudges, and had a natural groove with the forest creatures. The birds and the varmints — even Kosmo’s Cat — would show up in her dooryard for food and conversation. “I do magic with the hawk,” Ruth declared, after three nightly visits from this huge bird of prey that perched atop a birch bordering Haymarket Square.
Ruth’s primary attendees were “Sundance” Chris, who kept her company during his first week of woods life, and Little John. Some of the other campers would come to her for spiritual consultations, spells or other witchiness, and some of the older fellars would visit for a good ol’ fashioned bedding.
Sundance was in his early thirties, smart and charming and from a good economic background. But he was too much like me (an alcoholic) and had followed a similar path here. When he drank or puffed or smoked the spigitti, he presented such a change in personality that we began referring to him in that state as “the Goblin.” I loved Sundance, but the Goblin drove me so insane that often I’d threaten him with physical violence just to shut him up.
I never knew much about Little John — not even whether his real name was John. I was Robin Hood, so he decided he must be Little John. He was far from little. He was a huge, deep-voiced ogre with a limp and a goatee and a drinking problem. But he too was a regular presence in Sherwood, and a watcher of Gypsy.
One day Little John disappeared. A bunch of Merry Men and I were heading back to Sherwood in the afternoon and stopped at the aforementioned path to the bridge tunnel to drain some veins. Who should pop out of the underbrush, jumping up and down like an ogre on crack? Why, Little John. Huge peeps like that are pretty scary when they’re all fucked up, and one by one, we all exited. Bruno Marz, the last one to leave, told me Little John tried to bugger him! As if! There is no buggery down in Sherwood.
Our busking group that summer was usually Uncle Bob on tambourine, me and Kosmo and Halifax sharing guitars, and Pip holding a sign that pled: “Please support your local street artists. PINK GELATIN SKELETON.”
While busking in late winter, we’d met this woman-girl, Rose Elizabeth, and I encountered her again that spring. She lived on the West End, worked, and for some reason started showing up in Sherwood. During our second encounter she’d given me a beautiful chunk of quartz and I was really under the impression that we had a connection. I told Halifax about the gift, and the next day he showed up with a stone of his own. “She gave me one, too,” he said.
Well, I thought, I’m not up for that. I encouraged Halifax to pursue her. Besides, interesting things continued to happen in Sherwood.
We’d been acquiring abandoned bicycles for awhile, Halifax having the idea that we could fix them up, ride them and sell them. The bikes were chained to a log in Haymarket Square. When we returned one evening, they were gone.
You know, it really sucks when people rob the homeless. There are actually people out there who go around raiding camps during the day, when the occupants are gone. Not only were the bikes missing, but several of our caches had been discovered and looted, as was Dana and Rachel’s setup on the slab.
What to do? Dana and Rachel decided to leave. At council, Trotsky claimed to know who the offenders were, and further investigation proved him correct. It was decided by council to conduct a mission of retribution. The next night, Trotsky, Santos, Catya, Snax and Sundance left Sherwood dressed in black. They returned the next day with our bicycles and a bunch of new sleeping bags.
Late one night not long after that, Rose Elizabeth brought Sue to the forest. Sue was a member of our peer-support circle. She and her pit bull, Diamond, found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly homeless — still working, but homeless. Che hooked her up with the tent of a missing camper (Jeremiah, I think), the Ragman fed her, and Maggie visited her to make sure she wasn’t too scared, which she was. We all are at first, I guess.
Another night, Bella and I were late getting back and Gypsy was gone. No one knew where she was. Who was supposed to watch her? Ah, Little John was drunk on the job!
It turned out that she and the Ragman had been playing horseshoes in the pits we’d dug in the square, and Gypsy had received a sign. A crow had appeared, sending her a message from a sick friend in town, so off she went.
For whatever reasons — probably laziness, weariness and spigitti — Sundance and Bella and I ended up sacking out in the Big Arrogant Penis Tent. We slept past 6 a.m. the next morning, when we were rudely awakened by — who else? — Rick Fowler, railroad cop.
“I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness if the law had not said ‘thou shalt not covet.’”
— Saint Paul, Romans 7:7
Krunk! Krunk! Krunk!
Rick banged on the poles of the Big Arrogant Penis Tent. I’d already been caught twice, so I was sure I’d get arrested this time. We did the normal drill — gave Rick our IDs, were told to gather our stuff and meet him at his truck when we were done.
Bella and I split. Just didn’t feel like being arrested at that moment, and without thinking too deeply about it, I bolted. Sundance found me about half an hour later, at Kelia’s, and passed the message that Fowler wanted to see me ASAP. So we walked back, and after I handed my guitar and Bella over to Sundance, Rick politely arrested me.
I have been arrested before. Drunk. Always drunk. Well, I wasn’t drunk this time, and it was District Court, and it amounted to only one night in jail. The only thing I was really worried about was Bella.
But I had no reason to fear. I wasn’t alone: I had a tribe. Sundance, having received both support and death threats (“If anything happens to that dog…”), watched Bella that day and scored a couch in town for the night. (You’ve always been the hero, Sundance, really. Thank you.)
Friends waited to bail me out, if need be. Rose Elizabeth pedaled her bike from the woods to the Preb to the jail and back again, searching for Bella and my real name. (The problem with using tag names: when you find yourself in a situation like this, nobody knows who you really are.) Upon my release — occurring, as do most joyful releases, in cold rain, with only shorts on — I returned to the woods.
People continued to drift in and out. CeCe brought another man-wife to Sherwood, Tom, and this time it stuck (they’re still together, as of this writing). We recruited Travis, a homeless addict fisherman: “Dude, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but if you put me in a boat, I’ll take you anywhere.” Travis started a drive to clean up Haymarket Square, which was beginning to resemble the scene around the airplane in that movie Alive. “Jesus, dude! No wonder the cops don’t want you here!”
Alex lived in Sherwood for awhile, until Kosmo returned one night to find Alex nakedly engaging with a similarly unclad fellow in his tent. He chased them out with a piece of railroad iron. Kosmo’s tent (my old orange two-man) was surrounded by empty spice packages and cans of Dust-Off (’cuz when you ran out of spigitti, there was nothing like a jolt of the ol’ Dust-Off). Several bras hung from the branches of a tree nearby.
We all brought women of questionable moral character down to Sherwood from time to time, but one time Kosmo brought the wrong one. He disappeared the next day and we found out later that he’d been arrested. As I went through my old tent during his absence, I yelled to Halifax: “I found another rock!” Rose Elizabeth had given him a crystal, too.
One warm spring night after that, I was heading home to Sherwood and ran into Rose Elizabeth in Longfellow Square. We talked and, before I knew it, we were locking lips. This was extraordinary and wonderful to a woodsman who’d successfully avoided any deep emotions, as far as the earth women went, for some time. I returned to the woods feeling dazed, but also kinda warm and fuzzy.
Within a few weeks, after magic and confusion, I found myself in a peculiar, but stellar, relationship with someone from the warm side of the window. And how it bloody happened, I still haven’t a clue.
“In the woods, everything’s kinda round, you know? But in the city, everything’s square, dig? That’s the problem with the city compared to the woods: too many corners and not enough curves.”
— The Ragman
Rose Elizabeth began showing up in Sherwood more often, and before long I was spending many nights at her place in the West End. I also quit the spigitti, ’cuz Rose Elizabeth didn’t care for it, at all. On one of my last nights in the woods, I’d brought Sundance down there, all spigged out, and it took so bloody long to get him settled in that we both overslept. Who woke us up the next morning?
Officer Rick Fowler.
Strangely enough, nothing happened. The Sheriff of Nottingham let us go, and actually gave me his digits so I could interview him for this story. Thanks again, Rick.
While working on this story that August, still trying to find out how the China Clay Docks burnt down, I called Cindy Scarano, this Pan Am panjandrum down in Mass. Cindy was friendly and helpful. She’s the one who asked me if I’d read in the daily about the sale of a big chunk of Yard 8.
I hadn’t. I was an out-of-the-loop woodsman, and most of the Merry Men were anti-media as a rule. I secured a copy of the Press Herald article at the library and brought it to council at Haymarket Square that night. Opinions were scattered, as usual. Santos examined the map that accompanied the article and thought Sherwood would be spared. But a closer look proved him wrong. Progress was coming. The only question was when.
August 13, 2013, 12:30 a.m.: “Hey, Rage, it’s Che, Wednesday evening. I went down to camp tonight. They’re clear-cutting. They’re cutting it all down. Maybe a third of Sherwood has been decimated. I just wanted you to know. I … be well.”
I got the message Thursday morning, the shock and dismay in Che’s voice conveying as much as his words. Goddamn, goddamn.
“Where will all of my little animals go?” Ruth asked the next day. “Where will we go?”
Where did we all go?
I stayed with my girl, and a few others (Halifax and Travis among them) were able to stay with theirs. Some of us (Sundance, Snax, Catya, Maggie) were forced back to the shelter they’d run from in the first place. Others went to the Jungle off St. John, or joined Matt and Smitty in the woods on the Westbrook border.
The Ragman hopped a train. Said he was going… somewhere. Smiles and Destiny, two newcomers, remained in Sherwood until the bulldozers just got too close. CeCe, as I mentioned earlier, stayed in Sherwood longer than I did, until she and Tom got hotel jobs and became citizens again. Trotsky found rooftops. Santos, who vowed he’d never be forced out of Sherwood, is still there, as far as I know.
By this past spring, Bella and I finally got housing of our own, and so had a few others. The woodsmen out on the Westbrook line, who once thought — like the Merry Men and the natives before them — that their territory was safe, have been harried by local law enforcement lately. Several other Merry Men just gave up. Now, as all good citizens prefer, their days consist of walking from the Oxford Street shelter to the soup kitchen to Amistad, and back again.
When I returned to Sherwood this spring with Fergi, a Salt student making a documentary about me, I was pleasantly surprised. Haymarket Square and the woods to the west, on the river side, were still there, though the bulldozers had decimated everything to the east.
Soon nothing of Sherwood Forest will remain.
Phin Sprague, who sold the old Portland Company complex on the eastern waterfront to build a bigger boatyard on the western end, originally planned to occupy 22 acres of railroad and utility land. Then Eimskip, the giant Icelandic shipping company, made the adjacent International Marine Terminal its only U.S. port. State officials decided to double the size of the IMT and connect it to the rail line, so they used eminent domain to take 17 of Sprague’s 22 acres. (Even the rich get screwed sometimes.) But Phin told the paper last August that he’s got an option to buy 10 or 11 more acres from Pan Am — the rest of Sherwood and then some.
Like I said, no one on the other side of the window is gonna care. Pavement equals progress. And they were never there, never got to experience the beauty that was life in that patch of woods by the river.
I was lucky, so lucky. Not just to have found housing — I’ve lived in much nicer buildings before. I was lucky to have been able to live in those woods, to have experienced that rare, pure feeling of liberty among the trees of Sherwood Forest.
“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
For videos of Sherwood Forest by Robin Rage, click here.