Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Connecting the Dots

Morning glory, famrrmers mkt, downtown, city, cj oink 095
Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Dot-to-dot magazines: I was crazy about the cheap newsprint drugstore ones on the children’s rack that cost under a dollar, and successfully lobbied my mother to allow one as a treat. I kept them close at hand longer than one might expect a child-soon to become-a-youth to enjoy them. Whether each page held a fine design of flora and fauna or simple geometric patterns, of easy-to-harder labyrinths or children and grown-ups doing ordinary things–I wanted to have at them.

Pencil sharpened, poised above the page, I studied the few or numerous numbered dots, I predicted the pictorial outcome. Yet felt a thrill, anyway, when bringing it to fruition whether right or wrong. It was like watching a Polaroid snapshot gradually come to life, or colored inkblots on a folded paper develop into  a surprising picture as the paper is opened. All I had to do was follow the numbers, dot-to-dot-to-dot– and lo! a small puzzle solved, a rendering awakened. It was simple, relaxing entertainment. I felt far more stimulated and accomplished when doing “word search” features(often included in the magazines), but that was not the goal. The point was to engage in a task (of questionable long-term value) that gave me happy respite.  Besides, I was a visual child and creating any sort of graphic design, even dot-to-dot ones, was blissful.

I miss those but I know they can be bought at a news stand. One can even purchase nice books filled with such games. I recently looked them up online. To my surprise, there appeared a large variety of intricately created dot-to-dot designs. They seem like works of art when completed–you can color them, too, and proclaim the picture your own. And those adult coloring books are impressive, as well. There is a profitable market out there in response to demand.

How nostalgic, even enchanting, these pastimes. And how bittersweet that we so crave simpler things, sweeter times, our days or nights softened by the soothing neutrality of such engagements. It is easy escape. Some comfort that costs little but gives generously for a half hour, an hour, as long as we desire. We seek it out as we need it, just as we did as children or youths, then extend our search as adults. It is certainly not always found on the internet or other electronic entertainment sources people flock to with a thirst for something more, bigger, better.

Sometimes it all requires pausing to simplify. Or we are perhaps forced to reassess our options. If we pay attention to our life needs, we will reach out to see what is there, who is there. And we may be surprised by the results.

The past several months– defined by family illnesses, life challenges and ultimately, two family deaths– I have been more persistently musing over connection. To human beings. To our places in the world and universe, to the natural world and to one’s creative muse. To divinity. These are what matter to me. And what I have felt more deeply than ever. Yet my thoughts and experiences have been fractured unexpectedly; my quiet, pedestrian life has been interrupted, shaken up, re-ordered. It has been a period spent swaying between deepened solitude, a slide into a well of quietness, and the more active desire for the company of others. Ordinarily, I would write more hours (perhaps even journal), resurrect meditative and freeing  art activities, seek out more music (or create with singing or other instruments, find a computer program for composition), get much more physically active. I have read a lot. These are some of my coping skills, life’s joys. But the changes experienced have required travels and looking outward as much as inward. Being with people, and often witnessing exhaustion etched on faces, eyes revealing shards of anger and waves of anguish. And yet, there have been laughter and tenderness enough to cover us with a softening kindness. Perhaps common human sorrows underlie part of that alchemy.

If you have read my summer posts, you know my older brother died rather suddenly. Then I flew with my spouse, Marc, to North Carolina, traveled through several states to Michigan for an in-law’s memorial and back to N.C., then finally to Oregon again. I flew to Colorado for a week to visit a daughter and her partner, got altitude sickness near the end of all the fun. Then to the Oregon coast for a beach “time out” with and for Marc. The day we got home from that heaven, we attended another memorial at a crowded pub for my jazz musician brother.

Everywhere there have been family members to console and be consoled by, to join hands in what seems an ever-shrinking circle. I have thought of blood ties and of family married into and how they both help hold up the world for me, with me. How they fill my life with colorful moments and surprising reveals. How their lives are so needed in the full constellation of my life, in the balance of what matters most. When one leaves the earth, their unique space is created, not to be filled again. Their lack of physical presence is as a shadow that passes through a doorway from here to there and further than I can quite see, most of the time.

How to maintain the old stable connectivity when people I have known and loved? My parents are gone; one sister; one brother, a sister-in-law. Another sister has mild dementia and sitting across from her recently, she faded before me a moment and I was frightened. Who else? When? How does one prepare one’s self? Of course, we cannot. We only can live daily and when things change, when we lose another someone, we accept that reality slowly, heartbeat by heartbeat.

I again think of those dot-to-dot books. How one stroke could take me to another dot and then a another and another. How I have the choice to lift my pencil and be done right then or to keep that line going to complete the picture–before turning the page. How like living a life…

Though everything, I have been in touch with friends or they have called me, sent me notes, shared a meal with me. I don’t now have but a few, decades-long close friends, but they have been here for me as I am, for them. But one friend is also ill and every passing year is a gift. The others may or may not stay in Portland as not so far ahead, retirement may dictate designing another life in another place altogether. Anything could change. And does. And there can be loneliness in any circumstance.

Portland is becoming massively populated. Expensive. I had to go downtown on an errand and was on a busy thoroughfare I don’t often traverse. I looked up and around at every stoplight. The stores and houses that had been demolished, the cavernous, even monstrous new buildings being erected…it stunned me. After living here since 1992, I have watched small waves of new residents arrive.  The last 2-3 years people have rushed to the city and looked for housing where all the action is, “close-in”, as we call it. Some suburbs are also expanding and real estate is hot. But Portland has firm boundaries and the only place one can go is up, so the high rises continue to rise at a rate that keeps many of us breathless. It’s only a matter of time–I keep waiting to hear of it–that my small five-plex will also be sold for a gazillion and as many or more fancy, shiny new condos will inhabit this space. We must migrate to a more affordable elsewhere.

Progress. You have to house the people as they keep coming. I was initially housed in one of my family’s rental homes–fortunate even then. And I hang on to our current comfortable spot a little longer. But how to stay connected when landmarks are altered or removed, when neighborhoods take on a whole new flavor, when your neighbors are often nameless when you barely even blink?

The keys to continuity in a fast paced life have to be resilience and adaptability. Going where the new dots go to see where it all ends up. Or creating one’s own new page. It takes curiosity as well as stamina, tolerance as well as brainstorming.

My husband longs to retire in Michigan, preferably in northern MI. on one of the countless alluring lakes, or even one of the Great Lakes (which are nearly like the ocean but, of course, are not). I understand the pull to that enveloping country, a place that lives vividly inside my mind and heart. But I don’t get why some actually return to their old hometowns. I suspect we cannot reasonably return to the past to embrace it as our present–but people do it, and apparently it works out. It has to be the desire for familiarity as our world becomes more unfamiliar in vital  ways. And that hope of connectivity. I  may have to move. I research various cities that might suit us as we age, in case we are priced out completely in Portland in a few short years. I’ve moved many, many times since I was 18. And there has always been several somethings or someones that made each move enriching. But I had to keep my ears and eyes open. Make the effort required. I was seldom alone and not for long–I raised five children. But there were always their own needs and wants. Now they’re adults and the architects of their own dreams, searching for the next ones. Though I am happy when they (and their fast-growing kids) include me/us, they owe us nothing.

So I have started to take stock once more, since these continued losses and attendant changes. What is truly left me now? And how can I keep myself in better touch with people? With meaningful activities? This life in all its generous experiences… I have had plenty of the bad and I don’t ever want to miss out on the good stuff. I have a strong desire to share it with others, though I have a penchant for significant solitariness so suitable to writing/creative work. I need to keep looking for options, despite my many forays and sometimes ending up faltering. I worked for a very long, time as a counselor. But I also have participated in numerous writing and a few vocal groups; tried Meet Up groups; engaged with various churches (will get more involved in the current one); taken dance and Tai Chi classes plus joined gyms; taken college classes; been active for decades in recovery groups; done some volunteer work; attended many writing workshops and conferences…well, there is more but that covers the main actions taken so far.

But there is much more I can do. Discovery happens if I just take action– new or old talents and interests to expose and encourage, knowledge to glean, service work to do, friendships to root out and nurture, places to explore in this and other cities and towns, within bountiful nature here or elsewhere. That is how I will stay connected in a way that continues to fill me and then overflow, hopefully, to others.

Because I was taught well long ago to take what life brings you and make something decent of it. To see possibilities and do something useful with them. Make a slim, winkled dot-to-dot magazine fun, give it some oomph. Plunk a melody on the piano, see what develops. Out of the mess, assemble order. Out of the ruins, create anew.

High aspirations, perhaps. But sensible, as well, to me.

As a child, when my family took trips across country in our crowded car (seven of us in that family, too), my mother would point to the landscapes and towns, observe the streets, shops and people and say, “Look out your windows! What do you see? Isn’t that interesting!” And my father would slow down, park and we’d pile out, run to the historical site, or a riverside park for a picnic or walk about a town green and gawk at stately statues, or even visit a strange church if it was a Sunday and sing old hymns with the rest and later have a chat. Just passing through, have a good afternoon. And then we’d tumble back in the car, play word games or sing our harmonized songs the next hundred miles, or tell stories, or be roustabouts, but finally we’d fall sleep that night in some cheap motel, side by side. Full up. Content enough with that day’s adventure and ready–come what may–for the next.

All people, I discovered, are complex human beings in need of home, hearth, good work and a modicum of happiness to share. May I never forget that most primary connection.

View a few pictures of downtown neighborhoods of wacky, wonderful Portland as it tears down and rebuilds:

Irv., misc., downtown at night 019Farmer's Market, Tryon hike, neighborhood flowers! 055Saturday Downtown+Tryon Josh & kids 010

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: A City of Roses Kind of Night

Irv., misc., downtown at night 024
All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

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.

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Roses and Gunshots: A Tale of My City

The move to the Pacific Northwest from the Detroit metropolitan area was one I had put off for a good twenty years. Now we were headed to the piney-aired, sweeping embrace of the City of Roses. I felt ready for such a momentous alteration of my life, even days negotiating variable weather and terrain, pulling a cumbersome U-Haul. Give me mountains, give me wilderness, give me the wherewithal to welcome the unknowns ahead!

I wasn’t a complete newbie to the area. I had visited Oregon. I had also lived in a town outside of Seattle, Washington when I was eighteen for a year or so with an older sister. In a log cabin on a beautiful lake. It was paradise to me, but a paradise charged with and marred by an excess of youthful adventures and mishaps. It was then back to Michigan. But the mountain peaks, rain forest all about us, that vibrant pioneering city, the hearty, open-minded people stayed with me. A creeping homesickness for that geography and way of life distracted, even haunted me over the following years. It was a part of the country I had to be again, my Shangri-La. If it wasn’t to be Washington, then neighboring Oregon would do just fine.

Every time I drove anywhere down the flat roads of mid-Michigan, I would look at the clouds on the horizon and imagine they were mountains rising up. When I visited northern Michigan along the vast Great Lakes–the best place in the state–I was taken back to evergreen forests of the Northwest, the lake I knew and the wild Pacific Ocean beyond.

When I was 42, I had a chance at last to leave behind a Midwestern landscape and suburban lifestyle of seven years that had left their marks on me. It was a time of transition for me and two of my children, the other three having left home already. I had undergone a divorce and an impulsive remarriage. The new marriage did not last long after the move. But the relocation to Portland, Oregon was to become the joy I had hoped it would be. “Become” is the operative word. The change was not without several other glitches, lean times and homesickness despite my best hopes and efforts. There were moments I believed I had also fallen for an elusive romantic dream of “place”, but made another poor decision. Was it too late to hope for much better, to redirect my derailed life?

It was not nearly too late. And if it was the wrong choice of a mate–charismatic and capable but devious, controlling–it was the right place to flourish. I kept telling my children that as well as myself as I sought better jobs, attended college again off and on. My eighteen year old son took to Portland as if he’d been born to the Northwest but my twelve year old daughter took time sizing things up. She did love the street fashion and creative mix of people, the energetic urban atmosphere. I liked having two siblings here. Countryside that soothed and inspired me, weather I loved. I felt, too, that houses and buildings reached farther in design, painted brighter colors, and people dressed more casually as well as uniquely. What a far cry from fast paced, homogeneous suburbia, from a culture where people were pressured to conform and not question, not color outside the lines. It was wonderful yet jarring to finally take up a spot in this freer environment amid majestic natural habitats.

We initially lived in a roomy, two-story house that was one of a few belonging to my sister. It was a gift to move from a house to a house, since I had no job awaiting. But the first day I saw it I wondered if she’d lost her mind. Wasn’t it supposed to be in a more orderly, a trimmed-lawn-and-hedges sort of area similar to one we’d left? Wasn’t it a bit…well, bland, a bit ramshackle?

“You’re living in the real city now,” sister Allanya informed me.

“What do you mean, the real city?” I asked. “We just moved from Detroit, Michigan!” Meaning: that madly aggressive and industrious and rather dirty, spread out city of millions; the automotive capitol of the world (still, in 1992)!

“You’ve lived in a fairly tony suburb,” she reminded me, “not inner city Detroit.”

“Well, we lived on a more modest street in a one square mile village. I guess it considered a good suburb–it was certainly picturesque,” I agreed.

Now you live in the city with diversity of many sorts. This is close-in NE, meaning close to city center. Our downtown area is not like Detroit’s, if you recall; it’s generally safe. This neighborhood is variable block by block, perhaps, but this block is great. The area is improving a lot; it’s a great investment. I hope you’ll love it inside.”

Allanya bought houses and often renovated them; they were kept a few short years as rentals, then sold. I was getting a discount on rent and was deeply grateful for a readied house. I was only feeling the newcomer, unaccustomed to the ways and means of our new hometown.

The house itself was nondescript outside but, as promised, indoors it was spacious, light-flooded, attractive. It had a living room fireplace, a feature not in our last home. It had an enclosed porch/ sunroom I could use to write. Also a partially-finished basement with one bedroom and bathroom; huge kitchen with french doors and three bedrooms upstairs with bathroom. There was a vase full of cheery, fresh cut flowers on the table. We felt so welcomed. What more could we possibly want? So we lugged our suitcases up the stairs and unloaded the U Haul.

The back yard was good-sized with a garage. It had a weathered picnic table. Was that an alley back there? I peered over a fence, wondering how busy that got. My daughter and I took a walk the next day, down the block and to a busy intersection. We located the stop where she’d get the bus to school if she couldn’t be driven (she’d always been driven to school by me). Not a school bus. A regular city bus, unheard of in MI. as school transport and thus strange to us. I had been told by my sister that most kids took city buses by middle school; public transportation was so ubiquitous that youth and a great many adults went everywhere via bus system. I vowed to get a job that allowed me to drive her. I half promised to learn the bus system.

On the way back we noticed a small box of a nondescript store simply named “J’s Market.” It was a quick-stop sort of place; we were thirsty so went in search of sodas. It seemed a good sign that there was a place so close in case we needed a can of soup or a gallon of milk. We entered  and found the usual fare though it seemed dingier than expected. We browsed and were immediately watched by a hawkeyed older Asian store clerk, who simply nodded at me when I smiled and greeted him. As we checked out, I tried to be friendly.

“We’re new in the neighborhood. Nice to find a store so close.”

“Okay, good,” he said, taking my money.

“We’re from Michigan.”

“People coming all over.” He hadn’t looked up yet.

“I imagine so, it is a beautiful city.”

“Okay, have good day, thank you.”

We gave a little wave as we exited and he finally smiled ever so slightly, nodded again.

“What do you think so far?” I asked Alexandra.

That felt sort of weird. It sure is different here. But I think I like it.”

“Well, new places and people are good. We’re not in the ‘burbs, anymore.”

“That’s for sure!”

“You have a great view from your room onto the front yard. Big trees, too, like home.”

“Yeah,” she said and looked around at the street, stores, other houses, as if looking for something that could become her new inner magnetic North.

The truth was, it felt far more like a city than our sheltered suburb despite living within reach of a major megapolis for years. But day by day we began to adapt. Alexandra felt alright taking the bus soon and met a couple of nice girls. Josh made instant friends within the skateboarding world and got work right away as a commercial painter. I found a first job, then a better job, then was laid off, then found a position at a youth residential alcohol and drug treatment center that would be a springboard for a whole new career as a counselor. But there were things that worried me, too. It wasn’t the alienated, wounded, angry kids with whom I intensely interacted during long hours at work. It wasn’t the brief marriage ending. It was what happened on the streets about us.

We had made our lives comfortable after about a year. Everyone had their routine;  life was navigable again. We were decidedly happy with Portland’s variety of offerings and each of us made some connection to the community and developed promising friendships.

One early morning I was awakened by loud noises, one and then two sudden bangs close together that sliced through the silence. Maybe fireworks? I lifted my head from bed, heard nothing more, got up and ready for work. Odd that someone would be setting those off then. I forgot about it for an hour.

Josh came into the kitchen. “You hear those, Mom?”

“Yes, why?”

“I think they were gunshots.”

Alexandra looked up, eyes wide, then resumed eating.

“I seriously doubt it, we’ve felt safe enough here, haven’t we?”

“Yeah, but keep an eye out. Things can be sketchy at times, that’s what I’ve noticed.”

“Sure, I will.”

“I’ll see what I can find out. Be careful out there.”

I called in late to work and took her to school that day and a few after, eyeing houses and streets, driving with hands clutching the wheel. It wasn’t quite the first time I had heard alarming shots in my life, but it was so incongruous to hear in the morning that it hadn’t occurred to me it was a gun. Where were we, back in Detroit where you couldn’t venture safely past Eight Mile even in your car because scary things can happen in just a split second? I refused to believe it. We loved the house. My daughter’s school was very good, my son had good work and I was back on my feet.

Josh and I talked more than night.

“There’s lately been more gang activity around here, ” he said. “Better stay alert.”

“What? More activity lately? I haven’t seen anything, not really.”

“Maybe because we don’t know what to look for. Someone said there’s a house down at the next corner…” He pointed north. “Stay on our block or just south.”

I thought about it overnight and decided to take a casual drive around the area. I was not going to live on high alert all the time or be scared or teach my daughter to live afraid. But I wanted to know what was going on. The house my son had mentioned could pass as any house yet all  windows were curtained. On the porch were a couple of men with red bandanas around their heads, bare arms densely tattooed, with what I couldn’t make out in a fast glance. But since many youth I worked with were gang-members or peripherally associated, I knew what Crips and Bloods were; the lounging men were likely Bloods.

My heart rate rose. Sunglasses on, I kept my head forward and moved on. When I got a few houses down, I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the men go inside. I turned the corner and went around another block and then back home. Sitting in the driveway, I wondered if the shots had come from there or if I was making something of what might be very little. I knew that it was not a good sign to see young men–and women–wearing bandanas of red or blue or yellow or a few other colors with other signifying clothing, depending on the part of the city you were in. Wearing of colors: a bold and direct statement, a warning, a clear sign of inclusion in a way of life, for life.

A neighbor lady with whom I’d  become friendly knew of it all already. “Ignore them or whatever goes on, that’s the best thing, just go about your business,” she advised–or cautioned.

Over the next few weeks there was no unusual activity, though occasionally a random gunshot might be heard ringing out in farther distance. Then one evening on a week-end when I was alone: the unmatchable roar of a muscle car was heard as it streaked past the house and neared the next corner. Shots punctuated the air multiple times; return fire occurred. It was loud enough that my ears recoiled. I moved into the back of our home, adrenalin surging, disoriented. Wasn’t the gang house at the northern corner? What did they have to do with our quiet, family-friendly block? Would the police be called? Shortly I heard sirens and tires screeching and more shots and more sirens. And then that silence which falls all around when something bad has happened. No one came out, nothing was said loud enough for others to hear. I crept up to a living room window, saw the blue and white flashing lights of police vehicles.

It was a long night. I did not tell Alexandra the next day. I did tell Josh and we determined that we should start looking for another place to live even though it might be hard financially. I then found out day from neighbors that every single day my children and I–and so many more—had been walking right by another gang house on our own corner. A dispute had turned virulent. I scoured the rental ads and looked at places but had less luck that anticipated. I took more shifts at work to save more money.

A couple of weeks later my daughter and I were sleeping soundly after a game of Scrabble. Josh was gone as he more often was, nineteen and having fallen in love. It was the voices at first that I heard, muted shouts outside my bedroom window which faced the back yard and alley. Initially I thought little of it though annoyed, turned over and tried to sleep. But the voices got louder and then came thundering feet on the dirt and gravel alleyway, and then came gunshots, two, three four. Then from the front of the house, gunshots, poppoppoppop! Then another back and front.

“Alexandra!” I called out her name through thick, alive darkness.

“Mom!” she shouted back, so frightened I could even feel her heart beating a million beats a minute. Like mine.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Nothing. I lay paralyzed a second as I heard more scurrying and voices giving directions of some sort outside. I began to slip off the bed, inch my way toward her room  when suddenly I realized Alexandra was rapidly crawling along the hallway and then across my floor. Was reaching for me.

“Mom, the gunshots! They went by my window!” She was yelling in a hoarse whisper.”Are they out back now?”

I pulled her down. We lay on the floor, my arm clamping her to the rug.

“Shhh…be still,” I said, lying close.”Don’t talk now.”

I could hear her trying not to cry, trying to not hyperventilate. I felt my own throat constrict, my chest thud as we waited for a long while, what seemed like hours. There was a rumble of sounds and then silence and then more silence, and then babble of hushed voices but it was people out in the street talking, I imagined. I told her to lay still and I’d be right back. I crawled into her room. The front windows overlooked the street, so I peeked around the edge of a curtain. There was a handful of neighbors in a yard across from us and then sirens wailed and police cars. I was tempted to go into the street to find out more but my daughter was shivering on the floor in my room so back I went.

“It’s all over,” I said, praying it was true.

She slept restlessly in my bed that night, a first in many years. We talked about it, how one stray bullet could have hit her from the front street or me from the alley gunfire. We were horrified by the possibility. We remained shaken by our new reality for weeks: we now lived in a place where guns were readily used in the city’s warfare and criminal activity, where what was a beautiful place could be changed to one of fear and trembling. We had left Detroit but had come to this. I felt depressed that I had made this decision. I had brought my children there with promises of good things, happier times.

We moved her bed far away from the windows. But it hadn’t been gang-related. J’s Market had been robbed, and people in the store ran after the guys. It was not the first time and some said would likely not be the last. But the owner would not give up.

We loved that high-ceilinged, spacious house; it was close to my job and most neighbors were kindly. But I started seriously looking for an accommodating apartment in a safer part of the city still close to her school. Josh found his own way after I located a good place roughly twenty blocks away but a whole new world and before long, we were gone. My sister had decided to sell her house, anyway.

That was twenty-five years ago. The old neighborhood is so different from what we knew that as I drove past the old place it seemed I’d made a wrong turn. There are pricey big stores where small crusty shops stood. The streets look sharper, brighter, repaired in all the most right ways. Gentrification is happening all over the city as more people move here and greater services are in demand. I can’t say I like it much; somehow it seems unreal to me, almost like the suburban life seems to me now. I know it has pushed plenty of people far out of their comfort zones, and also their very homes.

But J’s Market is still there, a little freshened but still and worn, busy as ever. I’ve stopped there a couple times and recognize no one, of course.  The Asian owner had ended up being more chatty with us, as we stopped there frequently, and had wished us well when we moved. I wonder who owns it now. I wonder over the fortitude or stubbornness of business owners who have refused to let gang wars or robbers shut them down. Who now won’t be bought easily and thus lose their toehold I on their neighborhood. And it is not lost on me that many who might want to leave a certain place cannot and there are those who would not ever consider it if they could only find a way ro stay. This is only my story; I did what worked for me, and it was not easy financially those years.

I have to be honest, though. We yet do occasionally hear fainter and even closer gunshots from this vantage point, within boundaries of one of several gracious historical neighborhoods. It’s still a densely packed area, “close-in”, and there will always be sirens and lots of traffic nearby and random disputes on the streets even while one admires Portland’s quirky attractions, surprising wonders and the beauties of the Northwest. It’s the actual city, as my sister once emphasized, even if it is smaller than some others I’ve admired. Lots of entrepreneurial energy is apparent, a trademark of our town. The arts and sciences flourish in fascinating forms and nature goes wild even within city limits.

But then I am yanked from deep of night and dreamy slumber: there is a familiar bambambambam, the echoing retort of a gun or two and I wonder what’s happening, what’s next, what should I do. Slowly I release taut breath, wait for emptied silence, turn over. Go to sleep once more. I wouldn’t want to live any place else, at least for the time being. Which is what I say every year.

Hope’s Last Stand

Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths
Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths

“Isn’t that what they called it, Pruett? Last Hope Street?”

He was reading the weekly activist paper sold by the homeless and didn’t want to be bothered by another conversation with Zelda. Even if she was his second cousin and his quasi-rescuer. She always had such an arch in her voice, as if she was studying something from her privledged distance, nose pinched between thumb and index finger. She had to comment on everything. Even the picture on the back page as he read. The photo op page. It was aggravating enough that she always inquired why he bothered to read the paper, put out by people who could barely spell and a staff who was just a bunch of do-gooders.

Well, so what?

“They’re playing at being journalists, Pruett. They might seek education, get jobs for which they’re suited not just emotionally inclined. People should act less from selfish wants. More from practicality.”

“Could be,” he mumbled and read the last paragraph of the article.

“Could be that it was called ‘Last Hope Street’?”

He nodded, turned the page. Zelda sat up in the rocking chair and fiddled with the wisps of hair unravelling from her bun. (“Chignon, a far cry from a bun!” she’d corrected him once.)

“It was such a different place, then, wasn’t it? Nothing green growing, children playing half-dressed on the sidewalks with their grubby hands grasping at you as you walked  by.” She yawned tidily. “It was a place you tried to avoid. Now, well, who could imagine? What strange ways time has with real estate.”

He didn’t want to acknowledge her thoughts. He wanted to be left alone with his own. But this was the way of things now. The house she owned, the room he rented, the other two boarders were here long before he had had to “downsize”, as they said. Whoever “they” were. Whatever that even meant. As if he chose to lock the door of his rapidly sold two story Tudor and drive off without a backward glance. As if he willingly shared a structure with someone who served chilled prunes in a cut glass bowl with a sprig of mint atop, presenting them as if they were delicacies. And shared an opinion on everything.

He turned to the back page. “I suspect the picture is to remind us of a perfectly ordinary street where people once raised families and had fun. That’s what I see.” He held the page with the photograph closer. “Copyright 1958, it says. Well, I somewhat recall it was a decent street if a bit scrubby. Now it’s about to become cleaner and chic. Money gallops right along, setting people to the curb. You do understand the poor and homeless don’t want us to forget what happens to such neighborhoods, Zelda?”

Zelda sniffed, a habit due to a chronically drippy nose that was straight as an arrow and as sharp. She usually had a tissue hidden in a pocket, at the ready. “My point, Pruett. How can some of us forget? It was part of our old territory. And why shouldn’t change be encouraged?”

Tiresome. That’s what he thought of her. It was like entering a maze and struggling to get out again some days. But once started, he couldn’t help himself. Maybe it was part competitive, part entertainment. But this was a topic that mattered.

“If you haven’t been homeless or poor, how could you know what it is to lose your block to bulldozers and condominiums? People all need a place to lay their heads and nurture their babies. Surely you see that.”

Sniff, sniff. “Well, of course. I’m not an idiot, dear.” She dabbed her nose with a folded tissue. “But you are an authority? You taught at university for forty years. Even if it was anthropology. Hardly living on the dole…”

Pruett felt his stomach tighten and rumble. He reached into the fruit bowl on the coffee table and chose a lovely orb of apple. Polished it on his sweater and took a maximum bite. Eating was a good way to render one’s self speechless. Let her think about what she just said.

She resumed. “Running out of money is one thing. Having none to start with seems another. How can one miss what one never had…? Yet it happens. Both ways.”

He stopped chewing and swallowed hard. Was it possible this woman was an absolute boor? No, just so narrow in viewpoint her mind became myopic. She was unschooled. Unable to imagine lack of good fortune since her inheritance was substantial. Zelda had lived frugally, had boarders for years to augment what?–a few million?–and wanted for nothing. Likely never would know destitution, not even close to it.

Nor would he, though sometimes it felt like it as he made his way to the corner room where he had a desk, a single bed, a nightstand and lamp. The taupe brocade wingback chair. A trunk, once belonging to his grandfather, now at the foot of his bed, keeping safe his paper memories. A bookshelf that held less than one tenth of what used to keep him company late at night. It was only a rented room, not a nursing home–good Lord, please, not that for at least another twenty years. If ever. He hadn’t wanted his Marie to live and die there, either, so she had stayed home, battling until the end, ten years of dismantling a vibrant, then weakened, then an unspooled and ashen life. Letting go of their safety nets precipitated a steep descent. Spiritually, emotionally. Financially. Well, she had gone on to a good place if Pruett really saw that soft smile she left him. And he did.

And he remained. With time on his hands and Zelda.  The other two, young boarders, came and went. Their feet clomped up the stairs when he was dozing in his room, then shuffled to their own refuges. As if they were older than the hills when they had years yet to work and save and complain and get old. They shared pleasantries, a dinner here and there, waved in the hallways. They’d move on, be replaced by others. But he was stuck here.

“What do you do there each Monday?”

Pruett startled, saw Zelda’s face in high relief as late afternoon shadows draped her features. Those cheek bones looked faintly dangerous. She was still a beauty but a sadly neglected one.

“At This Planet, Our Home offices? Answer questions that come via phone about the homeless. Edit articles. Work with an aspiring street poet or two. Listen a lot.”

“Educate me, then.”

The apple was crisp, sweet on his tongue. He took another bite and studied the street through the bay window. The rain was splashing everything, cooling things down enough that he wondered where his slippers were. He thought of the historical novel begun earlier, and the wingback with its neatly folded, worn and wooley blanket.

“Well, the numbers. Last year there were over six hundred thousand homeless in the United States. Most were sheltered but about thirty-five percent were not. Unsheltered means they stayed under bridges, in cars, in parks, in abandoned buildings. Even to sleep. In winter. People twenty-five and older were the majority of homeless folks, but one quarter are children under eighteen. New York and California had the highest increase in homeless persons.”

He noted she was listening, though her hands were restless, picking at a stray thread on her nubby skirt.

“In Portland it’s estimated four thousand sleep in shelters or on the streets. Fastest growing subgroup everywhere? Women with children.”

Zelda yanked the thread, frowned as it held fast. He wondered if she intended on yanking until it unravelled, pulling until it required emergency repair. She needed to exercise authority, he thought, in all things. She looked up, eyebrows raised.

“That many? Miserable. Why do you suppose so many end up that way? Do you give them money? One expects they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol, isn’t that right?”

“Of course some are addicts. Too many. Some have just lost jobs and couldn’t make ends meet after a couple months. Families are homeless at an alarmingly increased rate. And mental illness fells large numbers, or physical disability. Veterans can be prone to homelessness.”

“There.” She said this with satisfaction as she captured and broke the offending thread, shook it off. “Certainly, it is clear they need much more than housing. It seems an untenable situation, Pruett, but nothing is impossible to alter. What lasting good can you accomplish by just listening and editing? Maybe it would be better for you to invest time in something more…” She scanned the dusky room for inspiration. “…I can’t know for certain, but perhaps real estate that pays off in a big way. That’s what I’m doing.”

He sat forward, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. “Zelda, you have callouses lining your heart. You’ve been good to me, but really.”

She flashed her eyes at him, as if to say he was being absurd.

“I”m talking about my investment in Hope Street.”

“So that’s why it got your attention.” Pruett ran his hand over his forehead. He felt defeated by her dearth of social empathy. “Zelda, I would love you to come down to the paper’s office with me next week. Will you do that or are you fearful of catching a few bugs?”

He presed a finger to his lips. That could have been left unsaid. Zelda wasn’t that sort of woman, not really. Not fearful, at least! He was impatient when he might be more charitable. His own blood.

“You are self-righteous at times, Pruett. I realize we haven’t been close for some time. I suggest you open your mind a little. As I am trying to do. We are here for the duration in all likelihood, in this house, life closing in on the last years. We should be quite kinder allies, is that not wise? Much more effective.”

Such an emotional appeal seemed extravangant as well as a small embarrassment to Pruett. Quite kinder allies. Where did she get that? Her father no doubt, old military establishment, then esteemed judge, whose fortune she had at her disposal. Yet, she was right. They were here together because of his fate, her good graces, a shared history. He ought to be more friendly, not rubbed raw by petty fractiousness. His, mostly, he admitted.

“Yes, you’re right. I do apologize. Would you like to come with me next week?”

“Well, yes, if is there is some way I might be helpful.”

“I’d think you’d proofread after teaching English for so long. Or just observe the newspaper process. Yes, please join me.”

“Ah, good then.”

They listened to the rain. It had started in the morning, a slow release, a descent of moisture from grey skies after so long a summer. They both liked rain, that was one thing. They tended to read more in rainy season, even paragraphs aloud to each other. Other things that worked: she cooked, he cleaned up often. He went shopping for her as he didn’t mind crowds, even rather liked them. He paid her little but enough that he didn’t have to feel like he was taking advantage. There was no need of that; he could carry his weight even if it was a little. She accepted this with quiet, due appreciation. Every communal group has its hierarchy, its common needs and shared labors. The house ran well because this was understood.

Zelda had a talent for running things but the respect she afforded her boarders was a bonus, despite her patrician bent. She had a moral compass and it worked well even when he failed to see it. The chignon and a few jewels worn daily and the way she spoke blinded him at times.

He turned to her and appraised her straight back, her silvery hair, the creases around still-full lips. She had been a single person most of her life. He was just learning how to do it, a man fumbling in a darkened room for another hand.

“I’m thinking there is another reason you want to come with me to This Planet, Our Home.”

“That’s so.”

“Real estate involved?”

“Yes, Pruett. How quick today!” One eyebrow raised this time.

“Hope Street?”

She then smiled at him and he glimpsed his mother’s smile, or was it his great-aunt’s, but it was familiar in a way he had forgotten.

“Yes, I’m taking one big last stand, Pruett. Against this hellbent world. How much longer can I be of good use? I thought I’d buy the building on Hope and Fifty-third. That red brick, ratty hotel, remember? Terrible inside. I got it for a song and it will cost to renovate but it has good bones. I thought it would make lovely transitional housing.”

“Housing? For homeless people, you mean?”

“Don’t look so  surprised. I do a few things. Not all of us are called to climb into the trenches but we can still use our talents.”

“Well, I’m the fool here.” Pruett pounded the arm of the chair three times with his opened palm. “Excellent idea! The hotel on Hope Street!”

Zelda laughed and rose to get their tea. He watched the rain slap the bushes, slip down the window glass. His brain percolated. A hotel of hope. Maybe thirty studios or twenty one bedrooms. Maybe a community club space on the first floor? He’d love to start something up.

Zelda handed him a Royal Dover fine bone china teacup on its tiny saucer. “Here, Paulie. Time to really talk.”

Hearing his childhood name spoken ignited warmth in his cranky bones. He set the teacup on a side table and leaned closer.

“Maybe call it Hope at Riverside, as that is where it sits. Wait-how about Hope Street Lofts? And we could utilize some of the first floor for a common gathering place. I see ping pong tables, a coffee bar. Let’s make it a place everyone can enjoy.”

Zelda nodded. “Now you’re thinking, cousin. Let’s.”

 

***********

Note: Please see The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress for more information.