I took this photo from my former office window on the other side of the building. That’s a homeless person’s bedroom. Right there on the sidewalk. Nice view, right? That’s an everyday vista around here.
When I moved to Portland over thirty years ago, it didn’t take me long to pinpoint Northwest Portland as the place for me. I lived and worked there for the first years of my time here, and returned to work in the neighborhood fifteen years ago. So over half my time in Portland has been spent in the Northwest neighborhood.
There have always been homeless people in this quadrant of the city. But the problem, the population, the misery and the mess have spread to many areas in Portland. It’s grown from terrible to unthinkable, resulting in ugly clashes. Homeless camps in residential areas are a new thing for the city in general, but they are nothing new in Old Town.
Old Town starts on the Northwest side of the Willamette River in Waterfront Park, at the end of the park that is more-or-less unofficially surrendered to overnight camping–especially the area in and around the memorial to those Japanese-American citizens who suffered through internment in WWII. It’s all cherry blossoms and bedrolls.
From there, you walk up through our gay bar district (still home to Darcelle’s), our shrinking original Chinatown (with its beautiful walled garden), and the majority of Portland’s missions and soup kitchens. There is also a huge weekend bar scene, so streets are barricaded against traffic, allowing the bar-goers to party hard and take Ubers home to the suburbs. This is where I work.
There are other businesses in my little patch of Old Town; offices and galleries and pubs and restaurants, and a skateboard shop and a comic book store and a high-end sneaker store. They struggle along in an area rife with drug dealers and users, mentally ill wanderers, homeless camps, streetwalkers, pimps and all the problems they bring with them. Business endures despite the guns, knives and drugs on every corner.
Old Town ends at Portland’s Park Blocks. This swath of wooded beauty stretches through the inner Westside, hosting a mix of homeless people and office workers seeking a sunny place to eat a bag lunch. The South Park Blocks terminate in a University, and are full of sculptures. In the North Park Blocks, there are fewer sculptures (though the elephant in the photo above caused a stir when it was installed), and there are basketball courts, bocce courts and a playground used several times per weekday by a neighborhood charter school.
The playground is right next to an area where homeless people have been camping. And they really make themselves at home, fighting, playing music, drinking and having sex with each other in broad daylight. Right by the playground, actually. And no one does anything.
I wish these blocks were calmer. I worry about the kids and the campers, and I also worry about the future of our urban canopy. No one ever thought about what would happen when these trees neared the end of their life cycles.
The Park Blocks end, and the Pearl begins. It’s a nearly magical line of demarcation. This urban enclave of prosperity has all the boutiques, galleries, yoga studios, lofts and upscale restaurants you’d ever want to visit. Entitled people walk blindly into the streets, Anthropologie bags dangling from their wrists, on their way to Andina for cocktails, oblivious to the squealing of brakes.
Powell’s City of Books is here, and a fantastic old-school diner called Fuller’s. These are beacons of the old days in a neighborhood given over to tiny boutiques. I love the Gerding Theater, which houses Portland Center Stage in a reclaimed structure that used to be the old Armory, where way back when, Portland’s professional wrestlers did their thing. This area used to house warehouses, a train yard, and several breweries. It was rough, and I remember walking to work through here early one weekday morning and feeling distinctly unsafe. So I should like that it’s clean and safe now, yes? But I sort of hate the Pearl District. I take this transformation of our seedy old Brewery Blocks personally. It makes me feel old, poor and grumpy.
Above the Pearl is the old Northwest District. Listen, old Northwest is just the best. It’s a gorgeous neighborhood of shops and restaurants, there to serve the residents of the beautiful, massive old homes and apartment buildings that fill this area.
I worked and lived here in the early eighties, and was upset by the first wave of gentrification that hit the neighborhood, depriving it of a pharmacy, laundromats, all the normal trappings of a functional neighborhood. Some stalwarts remain, like the Nob Hill Tavern and Cinema 21. But I remember the music store! The bookstore! The wonderful thrift store! And of course, the vintage shop where I worked on and off for a decade–The Shady Lady on NW 23rd. It was such a great, crazy neighborhood in the 70s and 80s. But the charm here is so strong, the personal nostalgia so overwhelming, that I can forgive what’s happened.
These are the strange strata of Portland’s Northwest, spanning a mere 30 blocks from river to the beginning of the heights, where the neighborhood ends. It’s always been a dense and diverse quarter of the city, and it suffers from strange compressions and interminglings. People who think they’re still in the Pearl District find themselves too close to the river, and start consulting their phones to get back to a safe place. Young people headed to the Barrel Room are harassed on their way back to their cars by crack dealers who resent the intrusion into their territory. Cheerful tourists roll their suitcases off the train and wade into the Old Town war zone on their way to the Lan Su Chinese Gardens, baffled by the human misery heaped on every sidewalk of “America’s Cleanest City.”
After fifteen years, I am still taken aback by my homeless neighbors in Old Town. I am appalled, repelled and moved by their misery every single day, every single person. And the whole point of my lengthy neighborhood portrait is to point you to a poem I wrote about coming to work each morning.
So, here you go: Working in Old Town
Note: Summer is drawing to a close, so please take a chance on something from the trunk: a piece about Lilith Fair from 1999. I’ll be finding and sharing old writing on here from time to time. Let me know what you think about that…
I took the girls to Lilith Fair this weekend. Lilith was the first wife of Adam. She was composed of filth, and she refused to take the submissive position in sex, so God gave Adam a different wife. Lilith went to live by the Lake of Fire, where she copulated with demons and gave birth to monsters. I think Lilith is the first wife archetype, and Eve is the trophy wife archetype, and you can see that Eve brought Adam nothing but grief, and Lilith had all the fun, just like in real life.
Anyway, I had envisioned attending the fair with my girls as sort of a female bonding, Goddess affirming, Earth motherly archetype sort of experience. Me, my three daughters, the strains of folkie girl music, natural fiber clothing, minimal eye makeup, bare feet … you get the idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to grow out my body hair before we went. I was a little concerned. What if Paula Cole were there, with her underarm pelt, and all I could muster was a bit of stubble? But I went anyway, because I was having my period and I thought that menstruation would demonstrate my personal oneness with the feminine vibe.
Because I am a first wife of the traded-in variety, like Lilith, I am chronically short of money. My dear older brother, Steve, bought our tickets. When his girlfriend decided she didn’t want to go, he had a spare one. He said that my fifteen year-old could invite a friend. So, we left Portland, five females ready to Lilith. I like to think my girls were feeling pretty smug about their cool mom, the one who knew all the words to the Lilith performer songs that flooded the radio waves as we drove from Portland to Bainbridge Island on Friday evening in my magical minivan.
We had to drive 200 miles north to Bainbridge Island on Friday night, and we got there late. I needed sleep for the driving on Saturday, so I embarrassed my daughters by being firm and motherly in front of the guest and putting every one to bed by midnight. I was supposed to be a cool mom, but I was just a tired mom. We slept.
On Saturday morning, we loaded up Brother Steve, our token male, and boarded the ferry to Seattle. It was a beautiful day, and the ferry ride into Seattle is always breathtaking, as are all the tourists who exclaim over the view, the gulls, the icy breeze, and the high cost of french fries in the ferry galley. After disembarkation, we crossed Lake Washington on the floating bridge, hit 1-90 East, and began one of the prettier drives a person can make in our part of the country. We climbed through the mountains along the Snoqualmie river.
Brother Steve and I embarrassed the kids in several ways. One was to remark repeatedly upon the gorgeous views. This is apparently not a cool topic of conversation. Another source of embarrassment was my insistence on frequent potty stops. “Now, EVERYONE go, please.” Much eye rolling, at that. I even made Brother Steve go, to be fair. Then, I mentioned to Brother Steve that I had not washed my hair that morning. He said that he hadn’t either. I said, “Yeah, I knew it would get all sweaty when I started to dance at the concert.” He said, “Oh yeah, I always get sweaty when I rock out.” The looks of horror I saw in my rear view mirror were indescribable. “Mom? You’re going to DANCE?”
We made it to the Gorge amphitheater. This is an outdoor venue, a series of grassy steppes that cover a hillside overlooking the Columbia River. The river has cut cliffs into high desert country, and this vista makes a backdrop for the performers. It’s like having a concert overlooking the Grand Canyon, for visual impact. I stood there for a moment and let awe wash over me, and then I got busy figuring out where to sit. The teenagers announced that they would not be sitting with us under any circumstances (the threat of parental dancing, you see),so I handed them some money and told us where to meet us to catch the shuttle back to the car. That was the last I saw of them for the day.
We laid out our jackets and took off our shoes and began the application of sunscreen, water, snacks. This is the motherly mantra for all outdoor activities… Sunscreen, Water, Snacks. We had dressed appropriately, I was relieved to see, and not just for the weather. Wardrobing issues are crucial at anything where there will be a lot of other women. I’d worn overalls and a white tank top and big brown sandals. So had the two children who elected to remain with me. We were the matching outfit/Joan Crawford/ mother/daughter Lilith Fair attendees, I decided.
Brother Steve was also acceptably attired. He had on Mariners regalia. Being a guy, he had on a baseball cap, and he decided that I needed one, so he bought me a Lilith baseball cap made of unbleached, brushed cotton. My cap bore the official Lilith logo. This is a naked lady with a plant growing out of her head. I wore it proudly, deciding it was nearly as much a statement of womanly unity as armpit hair! My Lilith cap announced my oneness with the goddess AND saved my eyes from the glare of the sun, so there you go.
There were two hours to wait until show time, so I began to people watch. There were not that many men there. This cut drastically into my people viewing pleasure, in all honesty. The average fair goer seemed to be a teenaged girl with long hair. She wore light khaki shorts, a tiny tank top, and big brown sandals. She traveled with friends. My daughter and her friend certainly matched the description. I decided that if I lost my daughter and her friend somehow, I could easily recruit replacements from the crowd to take home, and I wondered if our guest’s parent would notice.
There were many lesbian couples. Most were of the short haircut/Birkenstock variety, but my favorite pair were a couple of tall, skinny, overly tanned babes who roared in on a Harley. The woman who rode in the back strode around wearing black leather chaps and tousling her blonde, permed, long hair after she took off her helmet. The woman who rode in front was a ropey stud in black leather pants and vest and a big swinging wallet chain. Her waist length dark hair was braided, her face lined with muscle cuts from lifting, and her defined biceps were ringed with barbed wire tattoos. They were wonderful.
My girls were anxious for the show to start, and I could only buy them off with roasted corn and caramel apples for so long before the sun and the waiting caused a massive whine attack that made me wonder why I thought this would be a good idea. They were not charmed by the view or the people watching, they were hot and bored and the only thing that would placate them was to spend money, and I refused to buy them 30 dollar t-shirts, because I was not THAT cool of a mom. “You won’t wear anything that has a naked lady on it, I KNOW you.” “But Moooooooom, the halters are sooooo cute, and they just have a floooooooower on them.”
Suddenly, the entire success of the journey could only be measured by the ownership of a tshirt. I stood firm. No way. They eyed my hat with jealous contempt. The sun moved, and the heat and glare were merciless. The eight year-old wrote furiously in her diary. I peeked over her shoulder as “my mom won’t buy me an official Lilith fair halter top” anger grew. “I hate my mom. I hate my mom and my life and my sisters and my dogs and my car.” Wow. But then, just as all appeared to be lost, the sun went behind a cloud, and a breeze kicked up off the river, and we all perked right up, and the music began.
First, Michelle-someone-that-sounded-like-“My got a cello” came on and funked the place up. None of us had ever heard of her, but we liked her. There was a little confusion on the part of my kids as to whether she was male or female but I assured the girls she was female, because this was Lilith Fair, and all the performers were women, dang it. Eventually, Michelle MyGotaCello took her black leather vest off, and they could see that I had been telling the truth.
Then Erakah Badu came on, with her towering headwrap and African clothing and her neat little arm motions and her dead-on sense of humor. She held up her cypher, an African symbol for reproduction. She explained all the parts of the symbol, telling how they fit in with the female elements of anatomy. She asked us all to put our hands on our wombs. My girls solemnly did it. Then Erakah showed us the part of the cypher-symbol that corresponded with “the male principle.” She asked all the men in the audience to put their hands on their male principles, and there was a collective roar of laughter. My kids were bewitched. I liked her jazzy, unhurried musicianship and her explanation of Badu-ism. This seems to involve incense, candles, jazz, and a high self esteem. Hey, I am a convert, now.
The Indigo girls were next. They looked like a couple of soccer moms, actually. The Indigo girls are a favorite with my 12 year-old, who sang along with all the songs. She noticed when the row of women in front of us began to exchange emotional couple kisses during “Cross Over,” an anthem to finding true love. I felt proud that her response was ‘aw’ and not ‘ew.’ The Indigo Girls were incredible. Their musicianship was impeccable, their harmonies true, and though I could see that one is a rocker and one is a banjo plucker, somehow, it all works.
At one point, some longhaired girl came on stage and did a whirling dance with her back to the audience out of shyness, and her moves had the crowd cheering in delight. I realized, as she left the stage, that she was Natalie Merchant. There was a rowdy rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and the Girls were joined by an indie band called “Kay’s Choice'” for that. All the performers came out and sang together for their last song, “Closer to Find.” That was shivery.
Then, it was time for Natalie Merchant’s performance. Now, I have a sort of love/hate thing with Natalie Merchant. I love her songs, at least the ones I hear on the radio. But I just know too many short, dark, curvy, Grateful Dead loving, patchouli-smelling, eccentricity-layering, pierced-nose-having, hair-tossing young women, and she is their patron saint or goddess or whatever. But she won me over, partly with her odd voice that misses more than it hits, but hits so hard when it does land, and partly with her extraordinarily high level of self-consciousness. She charmed me with her utter lack of stage confidence. She tried different stage businesses, and none of them worked just right, and she laughed at herself, and she made herself cry with her own songs.
The girls loved her. My little Liliths sang their hearts out. They sat on each side of me and we did Four Tops type line moves. That was the extent of my parental dancing. During Natalie’s song, “Thank You,” I was overcome with sisterly emotion and gave my brother a big hug and a few sobs of gratitude that he had given us the tickets. He is a true angel.
Somewhere in here, I smelled pot smoke. I thought about the concerts I have gone to over the years and realized that this was the most tranquil audience I had ever been a part of. We were appreciative, but we were mellow. Young women danced quietly, some wearing their free Biore pore-cleaning strip samples on their noses. There was no alcohol whatsoever outside the beer gardens, which seemed to be mostly empty. So when the sweetish smell of cannabis tickled my nose, I thought, “What the heck. It’s just a little pot. I can’t complain. It IS a concert.”
Then came the act that I was waiting for. I love Sarah McLachlan. I own every note she has ever recorded.
Either you get the Sarah thing or you do not. To explain is fruitless, because if you are not a devotee, then you could never understand my excitement and delight when she took the stage and began her set with “Adia.” She hopped around barefoot in a fetching, winsome way, and played almost all my favorites. She invited us to sing along, and I did, of course. My kids knew how important that part of the show was to me. They watched me as much as they watched her.
I didn’t cry, but I was transported. Her haunting voice makes me ache. In this day of studio engineering, there is no wonder equal to seeing a singer who carries the beauty of a perfect voice into a live performance. Brother Steve, unfamiliar with Sarah, was blown away. I was so proud to have him see her, as if somehow I were making a personal introduction. And then, we joined the orderly movement of exit, and found the shuttle station, where my happy teenagers waited. They were jubilant, and they were in great shape, loaded down as they were with free samples and good feelings.
We laughed and sang on the way home, and then the kids pooped out, and I drove along and thought about the last number of the night. It was a group effort. All the performers came onstage and sang “What’s Goin’ On.” I thought about something that Natalie Merchant announced, the fact that $19,000 dollars from the gate for the night was going to a battered woman’s shelter.
I had a small moment of epiphany, remembering the words of the Marvin Gaye song, looking at my little incipient women where they slept sprawled on each other in happy exhaustion. I hoped that they never need to understand why we have to do that for each other, raise money to help the battered.
I sent up a prayer to the little naked lady on my cap with the plant growing out of her head that they never will.
Here is one cup of silty coffee
reflecting a clouded sky.
Here is one handmade ceramic vessel
holding a precious succulent.
Here is one pale, unsexed arm
covered in doodles. Sorry, no. Tattoos.
At least they are artistic on Tumblr.
An open tent flap, foot-clad socks, a cotton rug.
In the distance, a mountain. A lake. A cliff.
Railroad tracks, canoes, and is that a Bible?
At least they travel on Tumblr.
So many roads with no one to walk them.
So many beds with twisted, greying sheets.
So many windows looking out
on sooty rooftops, trees, lakes.
So much time alone on Tumblr.
So many boys with beards and axes
and bespoke leather boots.
So many girls wearing hats wrapped in blankets,
by glaciers, by rivers, by mountains.
They must be so cold on Tumblr.
Tarts, plums, oatmeal, granola,
whiskey and bourbon and pour-over coffee,
cheese boards overrun with triple creams,
waffles topped with sprigs of rosemary.
At least, I tell myself, at least
they are eating well