GG (it stands for Gangsta Geisha) was rearranging her stuff under the I-405 overpass on a Friday afternoon, a few days before the winter solstice. The temperature was in the 30s, and she was lightly dressed and wore a blonde wig that sparkled in the wintry sunset. The Christmas tree outside her tent was a little tousled, its lone streamer coming loose. She’d had lights, but now she hasn’t.
“They steal my artwork, they’ll watch you work then steal what you're making. It’s no hustle to steal someone else’s muscle,” she said.
She showed off an abstract painting done in acrylics. GG had finished it the day before by painting a large “G” on top of the design, then left it outside her tent with some of her other belongings: a beaver pelt stretched on a frame, some metal shelving, a shopping cart that acts as a pantry, a bike with a kid's trailer, and driftwood.
GG has been living outside for four years. She used to be in an apartment over Next Adventure on Southeast Grand Avenue, then things unraveled, and she lived in her Chevy Trailblazer for a while. That was impounded at Northwest 19th Avenue and Thurman with several other vehicles that were green tagged, although hers, she said, was the only legal one.
She came to Northwest Portland to use a woman’s shelter.
“The beautiful ladies at Rose Haven have been a wonderful help for me,” she said.
Then she moved into a tent at Northwest 16th and Overton Street.
Would she move to one of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed full-service camps that will house hundreds of tents?
“No, absolutely not. I didn't come out here to be rounded up and silenced. I came out here to live out loud,” GG said.
This sheltered strip of Northwest 16th Avenue was swept of tents in January 2022, but recently has been repopulated with about two dozen tents.
She came with baggage. “This is stuff that we build because we're constantly having to move and then tear down. With the rain and the elements and whatever, we are always constantly having to rebuild.”
GG sees herself as an artist and an activist.
“Gangsta Geisha is my superhero I developed few years back,” she explained. “Art is my life, it's my warfare and my religion. Art saved my life. When I've had nothing else, I've had art.”
Living on the street is a form of protest.
“I do it for my heroes. Gangsta Geisha I developed to help disenfranchised people, but I do it for my heroes Malcolm X., Martin Luther King, Jr. Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Colin Kaepernick, and my son, Marlon James Wilson. He’s my hero, he's 10 years old.”
The boy lives in Troutdale with his father, who has remarried. “It’s very hard to get ahold of him,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears.
GG said she is awaiting $16,000 in pandemic unemployment benefits which she has been too busy to track down. She would, however, move to an apartment if one was available. “I’m ready. I don't know how many of my nine lives that have left.”
GG recounts recent assaults, just in 2021, include being maced in the face on her 49th birthday for rummaging in someone’s recycling at 1.30 a.m.; being punched in the eye on Valentine’s Day, such that her left retina is now more sensitive to light than is comfortable; and being abducted by a taxi driver who pulled a Glock pistol from his glovebox when she said she wanted to get out. Two weeks ago, says, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. “I'm going to be half a century on Jan. 26,” GG said.
She calls herself a “lone wolf” on the street, because she has not partnered up for security. However, she feels she can count on her neighbors in the tents to either side. Watching from a few yards to the south is Chris, a big white man in a Seahawks jersey. To the north is Vampire Apache.
“He's Apache, and he says he's a vampire, but yeah, he looks out for me," GG says. "And my good friend, Chris. But other than that, I'm out there alone. I stand alone, but that's OK. I knew I was going to be alone. Even before I moved out of my apartment.”
As she talks, there are interruptions. A man crosses the street to bum a smoke, but GG was about to ask him the same thing. An African American woman, maybe early 20s, stops to ask where she can get bottled water. GG offers her a drink from her plastic water bottle, which has her afternoon cocktail, coconut water and vodka. “I like to hydrate while I dehydrate,” GG quipped.
A white guy in his 40s comes by stapling flyers to trees in search of his lost bike. It was stolen from his apartment building garage. They chat amiably and socially distanced. He asks GG if she’s seen a certain man who might know more about the bike, but she has not.
Drugs, to her, are making street dwellers into zombies. “There's a lot of people that are hooked on heroin and blues (fentanyl), or whatever, and it's making them do things that I don't even know if they're human anymore. It’s a zombie apocalypse.”
She speaks rapidly and jumps from subject to subject, rarely completing a thought.
“People know me as GG, but I was born Amy Jo Wilson. I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I moved to Portland 20 years ago. I've been to three universities, I'm really, truly a blessed woman,” she said.
They were Baptist Bible College, which is now Clarks Summit University (dual major psychology and theology), Rutgers University Camden campus (English major) and Concordia University (teaching English as a second language).
What does she like about Portland?
“The fact that I found my son's father and had my son here. I love the trees. I love our parks and our forest.”
She just finished reading Seth Godin’s motivational book “Poke the Box: When Was the Last Time You Did Something for the First Time?” She writes poetry and is working on a musical.
“Four years ago, I put my stuff in storage to come and do research on housing assistance and social injustice. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about classism, racism and the war machine as the trifecta keeping us from our spiritual growth as a nation and in humanity. I'm trying to build bridges and connections where there were none.”
Her SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) card ran out last year and she has had trouble getting it reinstated, especially since she does not have a phone. But food is usually at hand. Strangers left a flat of bell peppers by the side of the road near her tent, and a pineapple in her shopping cart. “People have been very generous, they've been dropping off boxes of food with a lot of Trader Joe's stuff in it, and a lot of salad stuff,” GG said.
She’ll definitely be here for Christmas. Talking of connecting with her son brings tears to her eyes, again. But GG likes this spot under the bridge.
“It's a decent spot. I mean, really, it's about what we bring to it.”