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🎺 Remembering “Workin’” Kirk Reeves

It’s Wednesday.

So we’re getting weird with you.

Each week, we celebrate elements of Portland’s wonderful weirdness in collaboration with Weird Portland United. We’ve featured a veritable truck-load of quirky, local characters, art, and so much more.

Did you miss a story from this series? Don’t worry, you can find our archive of Weird Wednesdays right here.

For today’s Weird Wednesday, we’re remembering a truly beautiful person in the long line of Portland weirdos we’ve covered. I’m going to need you to snag your best jazz club outfit, snap your fingers in tune to the beat, bring along your biggest grin, and come meet me at the eastbound on-ramp to the Hawthorne Bridge.

We’re covering the absolute legend of Workin’ Kirk Reeves today.

So dwop da da do-wop wop wah — let’s get groovin’.

If you lived in the Portland area any time before the twenty-teens and found yourself stuck in traffic headed eastbound over the Hawthorne Bridge, you may remember a very particular white-suited gentleman with a trumpet and a Mickey Mouse hat, an extendable rainbow ball, and a shopping cart filled with stuffed animals (for the kids, you know). And in all likelihood, he made you smile.

If so, you had the honor of seeing Portland musician and legend “Workin’” Kirk Reeves, who made it his mission to brighten the days of Stumptown commuters.

Kirk moved from Boston to Portland in 1991 after growing up in a rough neighborhood and bearing a scar on his throat from a knife fight he experienced when he was 16. He shared the story with Street Roots in 2010:

“Basically, they were saying, ‘You think you’re smart? You think you’re going to get out of here?’ And I pushed back and then they pulled a knife. What saved me is they did not know how to use a knife…They tried to cut me and it hit my jawbone, so it was a very shallow cut. It was bloody, and so on. So, I’m fighting for my life, I knock the guy down. Walk to the hospital. Took off my shirt and wrapped it around my throat to stop the bleeding. I fainted in the emergency room, I woke up with a tube in my throat, I had to relearn how to speak. After that, I made sure I knew how to use a knife, a gun, any weapon you can name. Next time, it’s not going to be me going to the hospital. That’s what I made the panhandlers know.”

Later in life, Kirk got involved in the tech industry before making his way west and serenading commuters. And that’s not all he accomplished on that eastbound ramp — he would play “Taps” for memorials, do a four-second puppet show for children in the cars, and he said that some Portlanders came up to him, saying they’d thought about taking their lives but stopped because they noticed his joy.

His white suit was a tribute to Cab Calloway — an inspiration to Reeves after a chance encounter with Wynton Marsalis, who told him that if he wanted to meet the ladies, he had to be a better dresser. One day before his usual rampway performance he decided to wear a pair of Mickey Mouse ears and the crowd loved it. He said that folks would get very upset with him if he didn’t wear the Mickey Mouse hat.

“Hello! Hellooo!” Kirk would often call out to commuters, thanking them if they tipped before heading over the bridge, shaking hands with folks, and waving at TriMet bus drivers who would salute him with a tap of their horn.

They were all, in a sense, his regulars as he performed — sometimes upwards of 14 hours a day.

Unfortunately, Kirk struggled with health issues during his life, primarily diabetes, which once put him in a coma for 10 days in 1999 — although it didn’t stop him from trying to play the trumpet while he was in it.

“I was trying to pick up the nurses,” he told Street Roots. “If that ain’t a trumpet player, I don’t know what is!”

In November of 2012, Kirk took his life. It didn’t take long for a Facebook page and a growing movement to name what we now know as the Tilikum Bridge after the musician. (Editor’s note: A huge thank you to Corbin who flagged this for me in our past feature on the bridge. 💖)

Portlanders honored Kirk with a candlelit vigil and a march across the Hawthorne Bridge, which had been witness to so much of his music and joyfulness. At the time, Portland was experiencing one of the highest rates of suicide cases in the nation — and this wasn’t lost on those in attendance, especially then-mayor Sam Adams.

“He would want us to talk about the fact that he died of suicide,” said Adams to Willamette Week at the vigil. He declared November 18 “Kirk Reeves Day” to a crowd adorned with Mickey Mouse ears as a group of trumpet players and one bagpiper performed “Amazing Grace” and “Taps.”

Kirk’s sisters also spoke at the vigil, Willamette Week reported:

“There’s always going to be unanswered questions,” said his sister Daisy Reeves of Boston. “We’re always going to wish we loved him a little bit better. It’s OK. Because we’ll always have the best part of him right here.”

Do you have any memories of Kirk Reeves or stories to share? We’d love for you to share them with us by responding to this email. 💖

If you or someone you love is struggling with their mental health, please remember that help is available, and consider reaching out to the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 either through call or text. You can also reach out to the Multnomah County Mental Health Crisis Intervention 24/7 line at 503-988-4888 and learn more about their services here.

Thank you to our Bridgeliner Unabridged members. Stories like these are made possible with your membership and support.