By Stephanie Haugen, The Portland Tribune, July 21, 2013
“How fast can you really turn your life around to be the way you want it to be?
“I can completely change my life in three years. Three hundred and sixty is the number of angles in a circle and close to the number of days in a year. Divide that by 90, which is close to the orbital period of Mercury. Based on three elements – legal, marketing and medical – I can expect to change my life entirely from 2013 to 2015. You can expect significant change in life every seven to eight years, whether you plan for it or not. My yogi told me that once.”
- John Wedell
His name is John Wedell.
He is simultaneously the most recognized and least understood resident of Forest Grove.
He’s standing in front of the News-Times office on Pacific Avenue, wearing red oven mitts, three wristwatches, two coats, binoculars and a toothbrush — the latter propped in a paper cup that’s strapped to his belt.
He’s also wearing his helmet.
A staple in winter, summer, rain or shine, the red helmet is one of Wedell’s most identifying features. The other is the puzzling, possession-packed carts he herds back and forth across Forest Grove.
It’s easy for people who’ve never talked with Wedell to make erroneous assumptions or feel uncomfortable when they see him. Some have called police to complain about his carts blocking the sidewalk, or about how “someone needs to do something about this person,” said former Forest Grove police Capt. Jeff Williams.
Williams makes a case for compassion. “People have different needs,” he says. “A lot of the time we’re too busy to find out someone’s life story, but if you take that time, you find out there’s a whole story there.”
Wedell’s story is difficult to piece together for many reasons, including his selectiveness about what he reveals. He details jobs and college degrees, for example, while remaining vague about “health problems” and sleeping arrangements.
Despite such limitations, Wedell’s story still includes not only a surprising personal history but an impressive amount of empathy from his 21,500 neighbors.
For every business that “blacklists” him, as Wedell says, others find creative, generous ways to support him. For every person who ignores him, others make a point of saying hello, stopping to talk or treating him to coffee.
Of the many John Wedells roaming sidewalks across America, this one, at least, is loved.
Outside the News-Times doors, Wedell picks up the latest newspaper, one of many papers he stores in his cart alongside old receipts and crumpled napkins. He is particularly interested in reading about the weather. He follows hurricanes in the south, hail in the Midwest and whatever storm is heading toward Forest Grove.
“You’ve got to know how to weather storms,” he says.
John Wedell holds up his planetary booklet on Pacific Avenue near Grendel’s, one of his favorite restaurants (he loves the cheese toasties).
Wedell has endured all kinds of tempests over his 66 years, but he had a calm, sunny childhood, growing up wealthy and educated in San Francisco.
His mother was a nutritionist who trained at Johns Hopkins Hospital and his father was a neurologist, Wedell says. He had two brothers — James, now a doctor in California, and Steve, a teacher in Astoria — as well as cats, dogs and a duck that ran around in the basement.
During those “golden years,” as Wedell calls them, he played the piano, wrote his own music, read hundreds of books, played touch football in the streets, went to 49ers games, attended the symphony and flew to Disneyland, he says.
The first devastating storm struck during high school, when Wedell’s father died of heart problems in his 40s.
The family traveled around Europe for a while after that.
He returned to the U.S. and attended Carleton College in Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and studied piano.
He can still play Chopin’s etudes and diagram part of
Newton’s law of gravity.
Wedell says he earned master’s degrees — in physics from the University of California at Berkeley, and in business from New York University.
He says he taught math, physics and computer science, and programmed computers for oil companies in Africa and the Middle East, where he also worked for Arab phone companies.
Wedell wants people to know these things about his background. “That’s very, very important,” he says.
He says he never married or had children, but for three years he lived with a Cherokee and Dakota Sioux woman named Virginia whom he met at a country-western bar.
About 20 years ago, he stopped working, began collecting a pension and followed his mother to Forest Grove.
Wedell has called many places home: New York, Minnesota, Nigeria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. He’s lived in houses and high-rises, cities and suburbs, and now lives in Forest Grove with his cart and wagon.
When asked about his math and physics skills, John borrowed a piece of paper, and in about 30 seconds scribbled out part of Newton’s law of gravity, along with a list of the planets in our solar system. “I’m a mathematician; my mind thinks mathematically,” he says. “If it’s not mathematical, I don’t understand it.”
“Check that out,” Wedell says, pulling a black, egg-shaped stone out of his pocket. “It’s a dinosaur egg,” he says, his brown eyes squinting from behind slightly swollen lids. The stone is heavy and solid, but feels fluid in the center. Wedell says he bought it in Astoria.
He pulls a small, soft-covered, weathered book out of his coat pocket — a guide detailing the location of all the planets for each date of the year.
He uses the egg and book to determine the amount of energy the planets will emit each day, which helps him adjust his energy levels accordingly.
“It’s like having a cup of coffee in the morning,” he says.
Wedell’s day usually starts around 4 or 5 a.m. after a night of “camping out,” which is as specific as he will get about where he sleeps.
He rounds up his cart and wagon and starts walking through town.
It’s a slow walk. Thirty feet forward with the cart, back to get the wagon, 30 feet forward with the wagon, a few more feet forward with the cart, back to catch up the wagon again, a little farther with the cart, and so on, inching his way across Forest Grove.
When Wedell walks, he slumps his shoulders and glues his eyes to his steps, as if he’s playing a slow, shuffling game of hopscotch, his concentration broken only by the call of his name.
Along his route, he likes to stop and watch for rabbits and squirrels in the parks. “This town has the most acrobatic squirrels. And they are not shy,” he says. He’s wearing socks on his hands like long, formal cotton gloves.
Wedell also likes to read. He spends hours in the Forest Grove City Library. And at the Pacific University Barnes & Noble store recently, he purchased a blue test booklet and pamphlets to refresh his memory on topics he studied in college — constitutional law, German grammar, psychology. “I like that it has to do with the brain,” he says, pointing to the psychology booklet.
Sometimes he hangs out in a restaurant, such as Caffe Montecassino, where he sat one day last winter, wearing a red beanie, holding his helmet and talking about the Super Bowl game he’d recently listened to on the radio.
“The old home team blew it,” he said of the San Francisco 49ers’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But he was more worked up about the elaborate halftime show featuring superstar Beyonce Knowles.
“Millions of dollars and the rest of us have to camp out,” he grumbled. “That’s what’s wrong with our country — no money for schools or health care, but money to put on a spectacle like the Super Bowl.”
While talking, Wedell keeps his eye on his cart and wagon, which are rarely more than a few feet away. As always, he sits near a window where he’ll have a good view of them on the sidewalk.
A diverse, puzzling, ever-changing collection passes in and out of the carts: paper coffee cups, a funeral home calendar with scribbled-in squares, blankets, shoes, 10-pound bags of sugar, house plants, discarded Christmas wreaths, cardboard boxes, real-estate signs, political signs, a jug of olive oil with something floating in the bottom, an old-fashioned wooden letterbox, chunks of plywood, a whole frozen chicken, long sticks, tarps, pine cones, flowers, saltines, a carrot, energy drinks, cherry blossom branches, bamboo and a blue leopard-print tote bag.
“Just the essentials,” says Wedell.
Former post office employee Leslie Oglesby once told Wedell he should recycle all the paper in his cart, “but he says, ‘No, no, that’s my life,’” she recalls.
“You hate to lose it,” Wedell says, pointing to the cart. “It has everything you have in it. But I have lost one, and I guess you move on.”
Wedell is easily the most visible of Forest Grove’s homeless residents.
Unlike many others, however, Wedell has a pension that covers his food costs and could probably cover occasional lodging if hotels weren’t so “finicky about check-in procedures,” he says.
Wedell’s mother — who declined to speak with the News-Times for this story — still lives in town, although Wedell is prevented from seeing her by a restraining order she filed in 2007 at the Washington County courthouse.
The order was allegedly sparked by her son’s profanity, reckless burning of candles and food, property damage and other problematic behavior she details in the order.
“‘I do a lot of walking,” says John, who stopped in to buy new shoes at Fryes Action Athletics on Pacific Avenue. Kyle Vanderkin and store manager Marine McBeth help him find the right pair.
Wedell seems to respect the order, which his mother renews each year. “She’s suffered too much,” he says. “She’s in too much pain. She doesn’t want company anymore.”
The problems do not appear to extend to non-relatives. There are no reports related to Wedell in Forest Grove police records or at the county courthouse beyond the restraining order.
The order does, however, provide a clearer understanding of Wedell’s appearance and lifestyle, stating he has been “diagnosed schizophrenic” and “will not take medicine.”
Wedell insists he’s physically and mentally healthy. He refers more generally to “health problems,” “stress” and “allergies.” These, he says, are what forced him to drop out of his New York University Ph.D. business program after he’d completed all his coursework but not his thesis.
Wedell has apparently seen a doctor, at least as recently as 2007, according to the court file, which notes “doctor bills” his mother helped him pay.
“I resisted medications for seven years, then took them for three years, but stopped,” Wedell says. “They really worked, though. The pain — emotional, dental, whatever kind of pain you got — they knocked it all out.”
Town full of friends
In 2006, Forest Grove was the birthplace of a countywide interfaith network to address homelessness. Local churches provide services ranging from a food pantry to two weekly free meals to a severe-weather shelter to a rotating family shelter.
Wedell has used the severe-weather shelter at the United Church of Christ, where he also stops in occasionally after the Sunday service, looking for cookies.
“We try to accord him with as much dignity and welcome as we do to all of our guests,” says Pastor Jennifer Yocum, who makes a point of greeting Wedell by name and looking him in the eye.
In Forest Grove, it turns out, that attitude extends far beyond church doors.
“He absolutely hates guacamole,” says Rigo Lopez, 22, who works at his family’s restaurant, La Sierra, and makes sure guacamole stays off Wedell’s dishes.
“Did you know they give you a free birthday meal there?” Wedell asked after his birthday last January, still gleeful at his good fortune. “It may be cold outside, but it’s a real emotional high. I really had a stellar birthday.”
Free birthday meals aren’t part of La Sierra’s policy, but the restaurant makes an exception for Wedell, who goes there often. He always sits in the first booth on the left, Lopez says. In winter, he’ll order coffee and sit alone for hours, sometimes talking quietly to himself.
Although customers sometimes offer to pay for his food, Lopez has never seen anyone sit down with him.
“They should. He’s a great guy and he’s really funny,” says Lopez.
Forest Grove resident Gerardo Vergara and his two children have talked with Wedell at the library.
“It’s important for my kids to understand that people have their own way of living, and that’s OK,” says Vergara, who grew up in Mexico City and remembers his father driving him around the poorer parts of town, hoping to deepen his young son’s perspective on life.
“Life can sometimes be hard for people. It’s important to notice and to make an effort,” says Vergara, who occasionally treats Wedell to coffee.
He’s not Wedell’s only coffee supplier.
“Sometimes the regulars will buy him gift cards,” says Becky Jo Saxe, owner of BJ’s Coffee Co. “We’ll put them behind the counter for him to use when he comes in. He likes cappuccinos.”
Wedell also spends time at Safeway, a few doors down from BJ’s. During one 11-minute period outside the store, he gets words or waves from an elderly couple, a burly, 30-ish man in jeans and boots, Safeway cart boys Sean and Bobby, and a woman who hands him a voucher for $3.75 from the can return.
“Oh, thanks, dear,” he says, adjusting the belt on his sweatpants before he trips the door with his cart and enters to buy carrot juice. “See how friendly people are here?”
They’re friendly all over town. Chatting with Wedell for 20 minutes on the street almost guarantees someone will walk by and wave.
“Hey Johnn-aay!” yells a guy driving past in a white Pacific-Cab van.
“There he is!” John yells back, waving.
“Hi John,” says a woman riding by on a bike.
“How ya doin’ John?” shouts a man out of a Carpet MD van.
“Hi John,” a mom calls out on Main Street as she closes her minivan door and her young daughter hops out.
A woman hands Wedell a flyer with a picture of her lost dog. Has he seen it?
“Not today, but I have seen this dog,” he says. “This is a beautiful dog.”
“You don’t have a cell phone, do you?” she asks.
“I have email,” Wedell says.
And so it goes. Dutch Brothers employees give him energy drinks. Volunteers at the annual spaghetti-feed fundraiser at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church let him sit there “hour upon hour,” Wedell says, “and refill your plate three, four times.”
Forest Grove cops check up on him too, he says. “They don’t hassle you, but ask you how you’re doing and that kind of thing.”
Capt. Mike Herb says when temperatures hit the 90s, concerned residents sometimes call after spotting Wedell wearing his helmet and several layers of coats. But Wedell always tells the officers he’s OK and that he likes what he’s wearing.
“He is an example of someone who is not in the norm, but who has found a place for himself here. He’s a known entity,” says UCC member Eric Canon. “He’s doing what he wants to do and I think that deserves our respect, even though it’s different than we might have it for him.”
His second home
Forest Grove is Wedell’s home only half the time. The other half he spends in Astoria, where his brother Steve lives.
“Helmet John — he’s an icon in this town,” says Noel Thomas, an Astoria watercolorist who has painted Wedell a few times.
“I’m drawn to people who walk a different route,” Thomas says.
The trip to Astoria often takes a lot of “getting ready and cleaning up” or just waiting for the right time, Wedell says.
“Sometimes it takes a week or month to rebalance yourself. You want to go when you’re well. It’s something you know inside yourself.”
There can be unexpected delays. One time, Wedell went to McDonald’s and had a lot of sherbet and sundaes. “It really mellowed me out,” he says, so he didn’t make it to Astoria that day.
And of course, there’s the matter of the cart. He can’t leave it just anywhere.
When he’s ready, he stores his cart, walks to Hillsboro with his wagon (a Christmas present from friends in Astoria), gets on the MAX and travels to the Portland train station, where he takes the bus west.
This watercolor, painted by Noel Thomas of RiverSea Gallery in Astoria, is one of several works inspired by John Wedell, whose brother, Steve, owns one. “He’s definitely marching to his own drummer, and I kind of admire that,” says Thomas.
“He warms my heart. I’m always entertained by what he has in his carts or what he’s wearing,” said Thomas, who recalls seeing Wedell picking up trash on the street after someone tipped over all the trash cans.
“He’s a perfectly happy guy and I admire that about him. A guy who walks by him on the street may be miserable, but John isn’t escaping from anything. He doesn’t need anything from us,” Thomas added.
Wedell says he likes being close to the sea, seafood and seagulls, which follow him around. “I feed them bits of bread and pasta,” he says. “They’re really talkative and have a lot to say, but they don’t necessarily talk like you and I.
“I’ve learned to understand them — a special way to communicate with them.”
Comeback in progress
Wedell has run into people who have hurt him, he says, especially in Hillsboro and Portland. That’s part of the reason he wears his helmet: he’s afraid of getting beat up.
Once, he read about a big gang fight in a local park. “I thought it was very ‘not Forest Grove’ and kind of scary,” Wedell said.
“I know what it is — to take a beating and rebuild your life,” says Wedell, who stays in Forest Grove, he says, because people know him and are nice “about 85 percent of the time.”
But he’s unlikely to stay in Forest Grove permanently, he says, because he has other plans.
Some are simple. Maybe soon, for example, he’ll “get back on using the gym,” he says.
He’s also thought about refreshing his piano skills. The piano mellows and focuses him, he says, and he’d like to play again.
But he’d need a piano and “I don’t have a long-term house where I can park it,” he says, musing about the possibility of keeping a portable Yamaha keyboard in his cart.
The bigger plans involve getting his career back together. He needs “a non-retirement income,” Wedell says, so he won’t have to camp out. “You can’t make it if you’re not on salary.”
When he was working, he says, he made $40,000 to $50,000 a year. He’d like to get back in that bracket.
“It’s not procrastination really. Well, some of it is,” Wedell says, smiling sheepishly. “My skills just aren’t tailored to the current environment.”
In lieu of medication, Wedell relies on the passing years to salve his pain and prepare him for a fresh start.
“Time heals most things,” he says. “Not always and sometimes it can’t be expedited, but most things.
“I’m still on the rebound.”
Jill Rehkopf Smith contributed to this story.
Today we present a story that at least six different News-Times reporters over the past decade have thought about writing: the story of John Wedell, Forest Grove’s most public private citizen.
The reporter who actually followed through, Stephanie Haugen, faced unusual challenges. John’s mother and brothers would not talk to her. John himself seemed sensitive about certain topics.
We thought long and hard about how to balance our concerns for Wedell and his family with our duty to readers to tell what is basically a one-chance story. We ended up including sensitive information that we knew would answer important questions about John, while at the same time minimizing potentially embarassing or harmful details.
We were able to confirm much of John’s background information — not all, but enough to feel his account is largely accurate.
Finally, we chose not to turn John’s story into a larger critique on mental health or homelessness. We were more interested in simply demystifying an unusual man and in highlighting the many community members who welcome him. We hope this piece will make it easier for others to welcome him, too.
– Jill Rehkopf Smith