Night, canvass for city’s dashes, strokes;
lights, sharp or soft gestures in dark like
greetings tacked onto daylight farewells
as I explore alleys that curl and strike
through each block traversed.
These were scarred caverns, warehouses
where now entrepreneurs set up shop,
and housing, the sips ‘n eats and chic ice cream
along shiny parkways: like a giant bullhorn
it shouts new new new. I regret and accept this.
Every corner hawks its lore, ferments ideas.
Emptied lots host food cart delights,
a window is a doorway to other doors,
old industry is broken into new lines
that frame present and future,
each a step removed from the past.
Rubble can be made cutting edge,
even if not buried under thirty floors.
This big brightness of prosperity
hums in the night like a forgotten
tune reworked; it catches my ear.
I want to hum, too, though progress
may spurn a romance like mine.
But this is my rose; I’ve come to adore it.
My city has brought me to its embrace
through rains (and pain) that shatter air,
heat (and longing) that leaches greenness,
dirt and smog (and anger) that get into my house
like a pestilence. And then those winds–
they play every chime as if made of silver
and gold, spells of joy by day and an
alarm in odd, fang-studded nights.
Some voices that cry out are human flares.
I need this familiar and strange beauty,
even weeping, snarling. Prayer and love in shadows.
I carry my heart on and off the streets
to find people, a glory of sights,
twisty tales with more to come.
We all have our hands out, minds ajar.
No one gets away without something
to tuck into, to take back somewhere.
We slide by one another, eyes sweet
or lost in the kindness of lamp light.
We are who we wish under veil of night
in the deep wells of our city,
inside this Northwestern flower, its
perfumes that wreathe steel and glass,
wonders which will make way for others
beneath the vast presidio of mountains.
After the shocking snows melt, all
that virtuous stillness weakens.
So much living and dying,
need and want are magnified.
City jumbles of sound interrupt
before I am released of dreams,
and the hint of darkness taints
soft light seen through blinds
as I wake, swim through morning.
I take to the street as if
walking into any January day
and search for the sweep of relief.
The voice of my country clamors
before I can understand all its words.
Where will changes take us
while edging through winter,
pulled by yearning for spring?
Will we get lost in blind spots
that scatter among us or can
we mend our wavering shadows,
unfurl dusty or untested wings?
The watchful ones on the wire
manage as before, wait to burst into heat
of a beautiful day. I nod their way.
I fill with my own waiting and warmer air
when greetings of strangers cluster
about me like bright confetti of hope.
But there is no silence like the earth
faithfully turning within perilous times
and no sound like cries for liberation.
I live around here, too, unknown to you,
beneath my own flag of greens and blues,
amid dirt, broken glass, rock and trees,
watched over by wild animals, madmen
and the odd angel or two.
My world view is from a sidewalk,
behind a fence, through rain or spider’s webs.
The lives of many peoples like me
hide in musty corners, mingle by rivers,
traverse the paths that you avoid,
and our blood has colored much of
what was ruined, traded or stolen.
We may fight but soon give it all up.
We have so little to bargain with.
You don’t see us, don’t hear me.
I am an invisible, a tattered one
most often omitted in roll call,
overlooked in life’s endless lines,
or one who wandered too far from the crowd.
My bed is terra firma or a slice of space
between fifty others. Like a shadow
erased by cover of night,
I come forward with light’s breaking,
am weightless, transient as cottonwood fluff.
You think you know me and I, you.
We cross paths, share time, but fail
to recognize humanity in one another.
I may ask you for a dollar or small mercies;
you mostly turn aside. Fate is cast that easily.
But if you could look, take a chance even once
we might lock hands, see they’re both
etched with hopes, hurts and affections.
We could try to salvage one another
a little before it is too late–
brother and sister, it’s later every day.
We might set free one dazed and dingy dove,
then open the way to life’s simplest gifts
each ordinary person is meant
to embrace, to give and be given.
Sure, it bothered him but he wasn’t sure what to do. Pops Haverson could repaint it, of course, but how long would it stay fresh and clean? It wasn’t like it had dirty words or racist drivel or threats, was it? That’s what his wife reminded him as he left their house and also: “It’s not the Ritz, not the best we own, you know.” No, but the painted words spoiled the half-wall, behind which were stairs to a locksmith. The small business owner on the west end of the building hadn’t said a thing. Pops decided to find out who’d made the art work. It’d probably take him weeks or he could call the police–fat chance of anything coming of that–but he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want retaliation. He had fair relationships overall. And Pops wasn’t a fighting man. For the most part his tenants were decent, hard-working folks; they reminded Pops of himself before he invested in real estate. That is, they were a bit worn thin but full of grit.
His twelve tenants liked him enough. No one went out of their way to be real friendly and he didn’t encourage it. Pops believed that you get chummy and before you know it, trouble rolls in. They might want an extra week to pay rent or skip out of their lease, try to get more for their money and then take it personally when you deny them.
No, vandalism wasn’t a problem for him before. But inoffensive or not, why that? Why paint “No standing, only dancing”? A weird thing to say. What did they mean by that? He’d rarely seen anyone dance in front of his apartments. There were a dozen kids around there (four teens in the building) but they liked to smoke, gossip, watch other kids go by. They sat on that wall a lot. He found busted beer bottles sometimes, end bits of joints, and sometimes a dirty sock or a tennis shoe, a trashed motorcycle magazine. Someone had a thing for Harleys, as the magazines got left behind every few months. So he repeated, Keep the doorway clear, stay off the wall, move on down the street. He even put a hefty trash receptacle by the entrance.
He came by once a month to collect rents. Sometimes he’d yell at the group to stop hanging around the door. They’d refused to quit congregating and he’d had enough, so posted a No Loitering sign. That lasted a week. When he came by last week-end the graffiti was there. Some nerve these kids had, he thought as he mounted each step slowly.
The tenents had the option of putting their rent check in the mail or waiting until he came first of the month. Usually they didn’t answer their door bells, just slid their envelopes under the door or handed it through a half-inch crack. A few chatted, at times complained more than he wanted.
He rapped hard when nobody answered the doorbell of apartment one, floor one.
“Della. Come on, I don’t have all day. Here for the rent in case you don’t have your calendar open.”
He could hear shuffling, then silence as Della peered out the peephole, as usual. He could almost feel her significant body weight from the other side as she leaned in. It finally opened three inches and one rheumy eye stared at him. Her hand clutched the envelope and he grabbed hold. She held fast. It was her way of resisting, of telling him she was boss. She used to be a high school principal. At eighty-four, she still could have been.
“Della, please. And I have a question, so could you open up a little more?”
She put her white cap of curls against the opening and her raspy voice asked, “What is it now?”
“The writing on the outside wall. Who did that, you know?”
Della pulled back, raised her eyebrows and smiled a tight little smile at him, then let go of the rent. He tried to wedge his foot in but she was too fast and slammed it shut.
“Sorry, Pops, you’re on your own,” she called through the door. “And my bathroom faucet still drips, keeps me up at night. Fix that and we might talk.”
Pops took out his notebook and made a note of it, then rapidly walked to number two. He saw the rent envelope from Jarrod Tuttle held fast in a clothes pin he’d affixed to the door. This was usual. Pops saw all sorts of things dangling from that clothes pin–poetry (if that was what Jarrod wrote), ribbons glued to prayers for ailing strangers he’d read of, seasonal decorations, notes to others in the building. Pops had met with Jarrod twice, when he applied for the place and then paid and moved in. He was up front about having a severe anxiety disorder, couldn’t leave his place much at all. He was on disability. The man was in his forties and hadn’t worked for over ten years. But he kept his place up from what he heard from Della and repair people, and paid on time.
Pops took the envelope down, unsealed it, pocketed the check and then wrote in his notebook: Jarrod, if you know who vandalized the building, please get in touch. Much appreciated, Pops. He tore the page out, put it in the envelope and clipped it with the clothes pin.
Number three. He rapped on the door hard four times because Thomas Johns never answered door bells. He’d told Pops that he didn’t need to feel like a trained dog. Besides, he knew who was at the door by the knock, usually, and that was interesting to him. That is, if he wasn’t working on web design with his headphones on. Thomas loved classical music, primarily Bach but sometimes Dvorak. Pops liked classic country but why would he care? He never had complaints about Thomas.
The door opened. Thomas still had ear phones on and held a bowl of salad in one hand. The other held out the rent check. He was very tall, pale-faced, long-haired. Pops was a rotund five foot six. It sometimes felt as if Pops was reaching up to the lowest branch of a birch tree to snag the check. Thomas laughed, lowered the check, then slid the headphones to his neck.
“How are things? Collecting all that is your due and then some?”
Thomas could be sarcastic but Pops didn’t always know when. He was in his late twenties, he guessed, and was trying to make headway in his field. Self-employed. Della had mentioned that Thomas was about to launch himself “into the stratosphere” as he was getting good offers from companies now.
Pops looked behind Thomas. “I see Anton hasn’t moved.” The tabby cat sat on the window ledge in front of Thomas’ desk.
“Right, Anton likes me and sunshine. Plus he catches the mice twice a day.”
Pops laughed. “I need to get a few more cats in here.” But there weren’t mice in this building as far as he knew; he saw to all that.
“Say, Thomas, could you tell me who painted the graffiti on the front?”
Thomas looked amused, then shrugged. “Not a clue. I’m too busy to pay attention to people here, really. Pretty soon I’ll be moving on. But you might try the second floor. Wally and Darcy always seem to know things no one else does, even if you aren’t interested. Or get Della some brandy.”
He put his headphones back on and turned away. Pops stepped out and closed the door.
“Hey, you’re looking fine today!”
That voice zinged him like a shreik. He stumbled up the steps. He was hoping he’d miss Darcy. She was happily tripping down the stairs, a dark red lacy shawl lifting from her shoulders, a rather too-short blue skirt impeding her progress, coppery red hair flying out of a loose bun. She had bright earrings that swung back and forth. Pops instantly thought of the chandelier in his office building downtown.
She stopped him with her hand, rings winking in the stairwell light.
“I finally got a call from my agent. I may have a decent part, Pops! Of course, it’s not the lead but it is a widow who is accused of murdering her husband, very black comedy. I have to go, dearest, but the check is stuck in the door jamb. If it rips, call me and I’ll mail one.”
With a flourish of her shawl– she looked a little like a toreador, he thought–she waved and ran off. He watched her high-heeled boots as they clicked on the tile. Saved, he thought, by an audition. He wondered how much longer she was going to pursue this dream when he knew for a fact that her father gave her the money for rent half the time. Darcy was forty-five if she was a day, funny at times, and excelled at talking his ears off when she wasn’t auditioning or rehearsing.
When he reached number five, he saw the door open very slowly, the hinges squeaking and making his neck shiver. He had some WD40 in his car so would get it later. Pops hesitated, then looked in. Mrs. Lansing worked and her door was always locked; she mailed her rent.
“Mrs. Lansing?” He called out in a loud voice, alerting whoever it might be.
“No, she’s gone but just a minute.”
The voice was not known to him. A cleaning person? It was light and soft. He tried to think if Mrs. Lansing had anyone who she was close to but couldn’t recall; it was likely she never said anything about her life beyond her job. She was an RN, and she was often working extra shifts at the hospital so she could buy a condo, she informed him, before she hit retirement age. Ten more years to go before the deadline was up.
Pops waited a minute and when there was nothing more forthcoming, he put his head into the living room. A woman had her back turned. She looked like she was getting ready to go somewhere. She had a dark skirt on with a white blouse and somehow Pops thought she looked professional. But different. He cleared his throat.
When she turned round, he caught his breath. He recovered as she nodded at him, a warm smile wreathing her face.
“Mother just left for work. You must be Pops? I have it if you want it now.” She held a check in her left hand and a leather satchel in her right. “Oh, excuse me, I’m Francine Nording.” She dropped the satchel and shook his hand. “I decided to visit mother for a week after my tour in Europe.”
“Yes? That right?” he asked stupidly. “Uh, hello, Francine. I didn’t know she had children. Not that I should. But nice, thank you for the check. She’s always good about getting it in the mail.”
The truth was, Francine Nording was breathtaking. Not Hollywood pretty, not beautiful like his wife admitted she’d wanted to be as a kid. This woman deeply glowed. Her skin was ivory, her hair a white-gold and she was tallish and slender and held herself as if she was royalty. Maybe she was, he thought with a stab of panic and then felt foolish for everything he felt. Get a grip, he told himself. She held out the rent.
“Mother is so organized. Not like me. I get by well enough, though. As a member of a company that travels all the time I just follow someone else’s directives!” She laughed lightly and picked up keys from the entrance table. “Was that all you needed? Good. I have plans.”
They stepped into the hallway and she locked the door. He had the urge to take her elbow, guide her gently.
“No, just the rent. Good to meet you. Tell your mother hello.” He flushed. He barely knew Mrs. Lansing after three years.
He stifled the urge to watch her go down the stairs, then moved to the next door.
He rang the bell but it didn’t make a sound. He knocked four times and it swung open.
“Pops, my man, good to see you and here’s your cash.”
Waldo Zuma handed him a wad of bills which Pops shoved into his pocket.
“Thanks, Wally. Electrical in kitchen working now, right?”
“Fine, man, no problem. Now the bell doesn’t work but I don’t mind.” He looked past Pop’s head. “You talk to that gal, daughter of Mrs. Lansing? A beauty! She’s a professional dancer, travels the world, amazing stories. Very classy, like her mom. Out of my reach, but she’s moving on soon, anyway. To Sweden, she said.” He rubbed his bald head, mouth agape. “Scandanavia, man!”
Pops frowned. “Yeah, I just met her but I didn’t get she was a dancer. Like ballet stuff or…?”
“I don’t know, she said something about it but I didn’t really understand, didn’t ask. It was just a hallway conversation with her mother there. Early this week. Haven’t seen her since.”
“You didn’t talk to her or see her again? How about the others? You know if they met her? Really, now.”
Wally shook his head, mouth a tight line.
“Come on, Wally, what’s she up to here?”
Wally held up his hands. “What you worrying over? Nothing. She’s visiting her mama, then travelling more. Ask Mrs. Lansing. Now I gotta go.” He started to shut the door, then added, “Pops, nice to have a door bell that works, right?”
Pops ran down the stairs, passed Thomas in the front hall, then was out the entrance. He looked up and down the street. He studied the words painted on the cement half-wall. In the distance he could hear music and people calling out. He felt pulled to the park, wanted to see what the commotion was about. All the while he scanned passersby to see if she was among them. Yes, that Francine.
When he got there, he was winded, sweaty, so he sat on a bench and mopped his face. The music was something spacey-jazzy, maybe it was all the rage, and a radio was turned up loud as could be. There was a circle of people near the fountain.
Pops made his way to the edge of the crowd, then wormed his way through.
It was Francine Nording. And she was dancing in that slim skirt and white shirt, her arms and legs moving in ways he had never seen before. She was lithe and elegant, lively and joyful and sparks were coming off her. She was like liquid energy as people watched and clapped. A clot of teenagers were dancing near her, free-form he guessed, whatever that fancy stuff was but even though they did amazing contortions they didn’t hold a candle to Francine. Not one bit. Everyone was mesmerized. It was one of the most moving things he had ever seen. Like seeing someone share being in love. A woman in street clothes, moving to sweetly crazy music, her body a ribbon of light, hands speaking, feet mixing up patterns in soft shadows on the sidewalk, the fountain rising into sunshine that was cheering her on.
Did Francine paint those words on his property? Did the kids tell her what he said and then ask to meet them because she was a conduit of the dance, all wonderful with lively ways and an exotic existence? Pops didn’t care how it all came to be. He just let himself surrender to her wiles, felt himself lift off to another world, another way of being and called it all very, very good.
Portland’s weather is taking a good break from its long rainy season (we really have two seasons: cold and rainy, warming to hot and dry) and that means I am experiencing even more fulfilling days outdoors. Since I get cranky and restless when I am inside very long, this is good news for me and those who know me. I have been feeling even more gratitude for living in a place for which I have, perhaps, an inordinate fondness.
There is some danger in writing this post. Naming even a few of the wonders of my home town might inadvertently motivate large numbers of people to pack up and migrate this direction. As did I once.
We already have more traffic jams than I imagined when settling in Portland during 1993. New housing has been going up like mad, even in the particular quadrant I live within. It is part of a larger area labelled “close in” due to close proximity to city center. Old buildings are being torn down right and left–is the recession over?–and new 3000 sq.ft. houses take their places. Small parcels of land are snatched up by developers, then commandeered by towering apartment buildings, multi-purpose buildings and townhouses. Restaurants seem particularly loved in this city; new ones sprout up often, as do unique coffee shops. Architects and builders must be well-challenged by rain and the undulating landscape’s proclivity for mudslides, as well as the likelihood of eventual, significant earthquakes. We even have an active volcano across our state line that wreaks havoc from time to time as ash disperses freely.
But still they come. I know why. Let me name the ways I love Portland.
1. Parks. Today I was duly bedazzled during my daily walk, sometimes undertaken in Laurelhurst Park. Deciduous trees are newly adorned with bright green leaves, showing off their beauty among the cedars and pines. Cherry blossoms, azaleas, rhododendrons put on their own colorful display. Dog owners were playing with their pets as they ran free in a dog run area; families and couples strolled along; runners were working up a sweat. I mused over the fact that I can get to easily a dozen city parks in under fifteen minutes by car, and about five of those within a fifteen minute walk. I am aware of at least one state park within the city; my family spends many days there each year. There are about 279 parks and natural areas in Portland. When I count Forest Park as one of my destinations I am talking about 5100 wooded acres that are inhabited by 112 bird and 62 mammal species. Forest Park is the largest forested natural area within a city limits of the U.S. We also enjoy Washington Park (which includes many attractions such as the authentic Japanese Garden) within the area and have hiked many of the 40 miles of trails over the years. And we even have a lovely, trail-strewn park that is situated on top of an extinct volcanic butte named Mt. Tabor Park. The views there of city and foothills are enchanting, especially at sunset and twilight. What’s not to enthuse about?
2. Water. Not far from my home I can see the Willamette and the Columbia Rivers converge. These are mighty and well-utilized rivers. The Columbia originates in British Columbia, Canada and is over 12,000 miles long. It empties into the Pacific Ocean and harbors many kinds of anadromous fish that migrate between saline water and freshwater. A short drive from our place, the 80 mile long river makes its powerful way through the Columbia River Gorge, which is awe-inspiring and at times treacherous due to fickle weather with strong winds. We can experience the tail end of those winds even in my neighborhood, 20 minutes from their source. My family and I have hiked miles of lush, sometimes taxing trails in the Gorge where bears and cougars reign.
In drier months I enjoy walking and relaxing by the Willamette River where there are colorful dragon boat races and food and music festivals in summer. I hang out by the marina because I love boats (the yachts are pretty, too), an iced coffee and cookie in hand, then head to the Saturday Market for arts and crafts from March through Christmas. There are several other waterways nearby, the Sandy River being a favorite just outside the city for tubing, swimming and picnicing. And then there is the Pacific Ocean. We can get there in under an hour and a half; we take off for the coast a few times a year. Even wintry beaches are magnetic and atmospheric, soothing to my mind and body. And there is nothing like building a fire on the beach in dry weather, quietly conversing with nature or my spouse.
3. Mountains and rainforests. These are what initially drove me to the Northwest. Both trigger in me feelings of familiarity, awe, a sense of constancy and ancient protection. I had dreamed about mountainous territory ever since growing up in the flat, charmless (to me) open spaces of mid-Michigan. I had been excited as a younger adult to live in a northern Detroit suburb because there were at least a few rolling, verdant hills–but I secretly yearned for the valleys and heights of this country.
To our west there are the Tualatin Mountains and beyond those, the Coast Range; to the east, the Cascade Range that, with Mt. Hood, creates a distinctive horizon. On a clear day one can see four mountain peaks: Mt. Hood and the Washington peaks of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. So far this has been all about the emerald beauty of outdoors yet I have barely scratched the topic. We are inveterate walkers and the city accommodates that easily; we love to hike and that has led to many good adventures. But there are many more exciting activities than those. Just talk to the skiers and snow boarders, skateboarders and roller bladers, cyclists, kayakers, campers, rock climbers and backpackers, windsurfers and so on. No one who has a love affair with the outdoors feels unrequited.
4. City center, i.e., downtown. Such offerings! Marc and I can walk a few blocks to hop on a train (“the Max”) and are downtown in a few minutes. Or we can take a streetcar or bus. City center is compact and picturesque with a mix of nineteenth century architecture and soaring contemporary skyscrapers. There are plenty of coffee shops, galleries, indoor/outdoor cafes and food carts; corner-sized parks with fountains and play areas for kids; the waterfront’s lively scene; Portland Art Museum. And there lies Pioneer Square, dubbed Portland’s living room. Last week-end we attended an Oregon Symphony concert, then walked to the Square to hear Pink Martini play with the crowd singing along. There are often musical and other events going on that are either free or cheaper than expected. And how many cities are there in which can you enjoy a leisurely walkabout after a good meal without constantly looking over your shoulder? I have never felt unsafe downtown. Since we are not drinkers we don’t hang out after eleven P.M. but even then I hear there are relatively few incidents.
We often head to the famous Powell’s City of Books. And emerge hours later laden with more delicious tomes. Portland is a city bursting with published and aspiring writers so appreciation of the written word is high. Literary groups and events abound. And further enlivening the city are world-class and innovative musicians, artists, dancers, filmakers…you get the point. We could not live happily without an active arts community and fortunately, Portlanders support them. We even have a City of Portland Arts Tax to insure they thrive in our public schools…gads, I better get that paid!
5. People. We are the third largest city in the Northwest area after Vancouver, BC and Seattle. But we feel smallish, still. Some of that has to do with the friendliness of the overall population. And basic politeness. When I first moved here I was astounded when waiting to cross the street and a driver just stopped–no stop sign– so I could amble across. I first waited to see what they wanted–in Detroit you had to run for your life to get to the other side. But the guy smiled and waved me across. Here, people do that–smile, even greet one another instead of automatically avoiding eye contact walking. It is a slower pace, but not lazy–this city is full of industrious multi-taskers–just somehow more restful despite the onward march of innovative city planning to accommodate continued growth. I appreciate that we have diverse neighborhoods, each an interesting district of its own. If I say I am going to Hollywood (a well-heeled area but a bit vintage and homey), Hawthorne (hippie tendencies, lots of neat businesses), Alberta Arts (gentrified with newish galleries, eateries, shops and a monthly summer fair) or the Pearl (a showy phoenix of a district having risen from old warehouse blocks) or Nob Hill (upscale but mellower area abutting Forest Park)–well, everyone here knows where I am talking about. Residents and business owners could be from California, Ohio or Vermont; Viet Nam, India or Ukraine. But everyone is drawn here for something hopefully better, something that stirs or supports their ideas and hopes. It is a city that cares about helping others and accepts a diversity of lifestyles better than most cities in which I have lived. Our unofficial motto is, afterall, “Keep Portland Weird.”
I have barely begun to identify Portland’s wiles, oddities and surprises. It’s been fun sharing this very abbreviated tour with you, but I will be back with vignettes about life in “Stumptown” (due to the history of logging). I hope you can begin to see why I was glad, even relieved, to finally arrive. It’s where I belong. Maybe one day you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing Portland for yourself.