Has ‘the Whistler’ blown his last note in Portland?

A recent post on the social networking and content sharing website Reddit has stirred renewed conversation about Portland’s notorious “Whistler,” a man well-known in the city for, well, loudly whistling as he walks the streets.

However, local Reddit user BucketOfToenails wrote, in part, that “this year, The Whistler has fallen silent.”

Bucket’s post on the topic is celebratory in nature, lauding what he believes is the Whistler’s retirement from whistling and describing him as a “vagrant who walked, robot-like, through the streets, wearing a pair of headphones that were turned up to a level that was so loud, you could hear them from a block away. As he walked about the city, he would constantly ‘whistle’ atonality, and at a volume that could be heard a half-mile away.”

If you want an audio/visual aid, here’s a video of the Whistler posted a few years back by Mike Fleming:

Anyway, the Reddit post spawned a bit of an office conversation about what became of the Whistler, who at one point became the focus of a Facebook page and whose real name is Robert Smith.

For those who are new to his story, Smith became national news in early 2013, after Portland police, responding to mounting complaints that his whistling annoyed downtown shoppers, charged him on multiple occasions with disorderly conduct.

Smith later reached a high-profile agreement in court with the city of Portland — first reported by Randy Billings of the Portland Press Herald — in which police agreed not to keep hitting him with disorderly conduct charges as long as he kept walking while he whistled. The idea was to prevent him from stopping outside any one particular business and bothering customers there.

The idea that somebody could be brought up on charges for whistling — an otherwise innocent activity — and that a court would bother ordering a whistler to walk while he did it struck up debates about first amendment rights to free speech (free whistle?), among other things.

The New York Daily News at the time called Smith a “cult figure.”

So the idea that the Whistler might hang up his headphones caught a little bit of attention.

The only thing is: I can’t pin down with any certainty that he did.

I’ll admit it’s been a while since I recall hearing him in the downtown, and I walk into the downtown most days of the week. But others I’ve talked to in the past few days say they’ve seen and heard him in recent weeks, and that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated.

And, perhaps most perplexing of all, how does one determine that a guy has stopped whistling for good? It’s not a position someone can officially retire from — even if he’s been quiet for a full month (which I’ve been told he hasn’t), he can still wake up tomorrow and start whistling loudly again.

It would be like me declaring my retirement from making grilled cheese sandwiches or something. It was a voluntary act to begin with, and I can go weeks without making grilled cheese sandwiches without that hiatus meaning I’ll never make one again.

If I do pass the Whistler in the coming days — and see him walking silently — I’ll ask about it. The whistling, that is, not the grilled cheese sandwiches.

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Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.