[In the Shadows is a new biweekly column in which Mercury crime and cop reporter Matt Davis explores Portland's underbelly.—eds.]
Last Thursday afternoon, January 31, Nathan Wilson stood outside the Williams Market Barber Shop on the corner of N Williams and Fremont, gold teeth gleaming, talking on a cell phone in the rain.
Opposite the shop, bulldozers were demolishing what was once a Wonder Bread factory to make way for condos. Wilson had to repeat himself to be heard over the din. When he was done, I followed him inside the barbershop and showed him a picture of Portland Police Officer Mark Zylawy—an officer who was killed in a tragic accident while driving to work at the Northeast Precinct, five days previously. Did Wilson know him?
"Of course I knew the Z-Man," he said. "When he got off work he came in here. He helped keep the traffic flowing in front of my place. He was more of a community friend than a community police officer."
For a white cop in a predominantly black neighborhood, Zylawy was highly regarded.
"He was a good dude," said Wilson's fellow barber, Bryant Moore. "He was one of those dudes that would give you a chance.
"A lot of cops try to hide behind the shield," Moore continued, "but he was more respected because he wasn't disrespectful. He'd give you a break because this country doesn't have a clue [when it comes to its treatment of black people]."
Across the street, a middle-aged man in a hooded sweatshirt made eye contact with the driver of a black Cadillac Escalade, who looked to be slowing down. Both men saw me approach, and the driver sped up again.
"Did you know this guy?" I asked, brandishing the picture of Zylawy.
"He arrested me two years ago for having a pipe," the man said. "He got me into treatment. I'm going to school now."
"Really?" I asked, admittedly doubtful.
"He tried to help people," the man continued. "It was a messed-up thing, what happened."
And without giving his name, he continued his slow journey up Fremont.
Meanwhile admitted crack user Randy Johnson waited, cross-eyed and looking frazzled, outside the Union Market on the corner of NE Martin Luther King Boulevard and Failing, with a sleeping bag in a garbage sack at his feet.
"I knew you were English... I've been everywhere," he told me, his breath smelling strongly of alcohol. "Germany, France, Vietnam... you name it."
He went on: "Z-Man arrested me a couple of times for possession of crack. But he would give you chance after chance after chance. I was sober for five years, but had a relapse. Z-Man got me into treatment—but it didn't work. You have to really want it.
"It's a sad loss," he said, when asked about Zylawy's death. "I'm here for the memorial march."
The march wasn't due to start for an hour. So Johnson waited. He had the time to spare.