At long last warm weather has come to Portland, Oregon, and with it comes a burst of renewed activity on the part of some of the more unique denizens of the Rose City.
In particular, one can’t help but be amazed at the sudden profusion of youthful panhandlers in the downtown area. I am of course referring to via rattus horribilis, or the northwest street rat. While it isn’t unusual to see one or two hardy individuals throughout the year, standing in the rain plaintively making the short version of their call (”Spare-change? Spare-change?”), the sunny spring weather brings them out of their dens and into the light. Blinking owlishly at the sun, they take up station on every streetcorner, and begin making their characteristic call in its full glory: “Do-you-have-any-spare-change-okay-have-a-nice-day”.
Like the cuckoo, which has evolved the cunning strategy of letting another bird raise its young, the street rat relies on others to do its foraging. In spite of, or perhaps because of this strategy, the street rat has developed some beautiful markings. And a remarkably strong and musky odor.
Standing on their corners the sunlight glints off a plethora of studs and safety pins, making them sparkle against the background of a black leather jacket. Bare legs can be seen through artfully ripped and torn pants. Sometimes camouflage coloration is employed, which ironically stands out dramatically against the gray concrete of the downtown area.
With the free time available because of their unique lifestyle, streets rats have evolved complicated social rituals and behaviors. For example, a great deal of elaborate posturing and preening is likely to occur when trying to impress a young female, with frequent scuffles and eruptions of profanity. However, all intertribal hostility immediately vanishes at the approach of the street rat’s natural enemy, the downtown security guard. As soon as the officer and his noble Segway approach, the street rats will band together and begin hooting, preparatory to flinging poo at the officer, all differences forgotten.
All in all, it is a magnificent opportunity to view nature at its most raw. I urge you to come downtown during these first few weeks of warm weather, before the local tribe of street rats has dispersed to other parts of the city, migrated to Berkeley, or been forced to get jobs.