Postcard from the end of America: Portland, Oregon

Our train was hugging the Columbia River. Sitting in the lounge car, a father looked at that huge, snaking ribbon of silvery water and said to his young son, “I’m just jonesing to go fishing. That’s the first thing we’re going to do when we get home!” Then, “That Colts shirt really looks great on you, Jack!”

Later, he explained to a stranger, “We’re originally from Portland, but it just got too squirrely for me. I’m a traditional guy, I like to keep things simple, so I just had to get out of there.”

Speaking about his wife, the man said, “My wife is a people person, but I’m a bit on the crunchy side.”

About 7 years old, Jack had been silent all this time as his dad chattered, but now he interjected, “You mean crusty! You’re crusty, dad, not crunchy.”

Everyone who was within earshot cracked up, and, of course, the kid was right, for the opposite of being gregarious is being crusty or cranky, and not a Granola Bar-munching, tree-hugging pot smoker who dwells in the Hawthorne District of squirrely Portland. Crunchy, the man certainly wasn’t, and not crusty either, for he’s positively bubbly sitting across from his son as Oregon and Washington sped by outside the windows.

East of Davenport, Iowa, you might be slapped with a fine if you dare to use “squirrely” in any sentence, and “crunchy” is too self-consciously cute and misleading to be of much use to anyone who’s not squirrely. No regional idiom, it’s just a subcultural burp that, hopefully, won’t linger too much longer. In any case, how crunchy is Portland really?

All over this country, there are places of refuge, towns and cities where people go to escape prevailing mores and tastes. Some of these oases are merely regional. If you’re a Montana free jazz musician, poet, vegan activist blogger, transsexual hipster flaneur, nude yogic speller of inappropriate portmanteaus or just a plain, generic weirdo, you might gravitate towards Missoula. If you’re in Eastern North Carolina, Carrboro offers kindred spirits. Nationally, San Francisco and lower Manhattan were for many decades magnets for American misfits of all types, but their exorbitant rents have sealed them off to the vast majority of us, provided we don’t care to sleep on cardboard.

Though hardly cheap, lesser cities like Austin and Portland have, therefore, emerged to welcome artistic, political and, most lucratively, lifestyle refugees from the rest of America. “KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD” is the unofficial civic slogan for one and, what else, “KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD” for the other. Who said that crunchy and squirrely types are more original than middle America? Just because they’re into, say, biodegradable ear plug piercings or butt plugs made from recycled F-16 tires does not mean they’re not, essentially, copycats and clones.

In a consumerist culture, people rebel by buying a different brand, and instead of staging a real rebellion, which requires secret planning and stealthy strikes, American pseudo radicals are constantly fingering themselves as soon as they hit the sidewalk. It’s a fashion thing. In this illusionistic and narcissistic society, it’s imperative that you look a certain way if you want be slotted into one of the socially acceptable subgroups. It’s all cosplay, all the time, for even the nerd look has been commodified and imbued with irony.

Before my recent trip to Portland, I hadn’t been there in over five years. In late 2008, I came up from California, and between Klamath Falls and Eugene, I chatted with an older man, Bob, who had worked for 31 years in a sawmill in Florence, on the Oregon Coast.

“The spotted owl fuss put me out of work,” he lamented. “These environmentalists live on the East Coast, never been out here, so they don’t know how much forest we have. Just look for yourself,” he indicated with a nod. Sitting in the lounge car, we stared at the blonde fields, viridian evergreens and snow-tipped mountains. Canada geese flecked a small patch of sky. The winding lake seemed short of water. Even at four thousand feet in November, there was no snow.

“You can cut them responsibly, and they’ll grow back,” he continued. “Many old growth trees are already rotted in the center, so a storm would knock them all down anyway. Wasted.” To illustrate, Bob drilled his index finger vigorously into his left palm. “Since our logging industry is mostly dead, we have to buy lumber from overseas, from people who really don’t give a hoot about the environment.”

With the sawmill silent by the river, Bob got hired by Safeway, the supermarket, but business was slowing, the town depressed and what’s worse, many people would rather drive 60 miles to shop at Walmart. The fishing industry was also dead. Without logging and fishing, Florence had opened a retirement home, a golf course and a casino in Hail Mary bids to revive its economy.

At 60, Bob had two years of mortgage to deal with. “I just hope Safeway doesn’t go bankrupt. At my age, it will be hard to get hired again. I don’t want to move to the city to find another job. They might just turn me into a wafer, you know, a cracker,” Bob chuckled. “Do you know that Charlton Heston’s film, ‘Soylent Green’?”

“No. What is it about?”

“It’s a sci-fi where old people are turned into a cracker. They become food.”

“That’s pretty funny!”

“Yes, it is, and that’ll be me in a few years.”

“Jonathan Swift suggested that Irish babies at the age of one should be eaten,” I countered. “Beyond one-year-old and it’s not cost efficient to raise them. Also, that’s the best age for the most tender meat, according to Swift.”

“What’s his name?”

“Jonathan Swift, Irish guy.”

“And he was joking?”

“I think so.”

Not to be outdone, Bob related, “During the siege of Leningrad, some people ate their children.”

“After they’re dead?”

“No, they killed them and ate them. Some also sliced chunks from their own buttocks.”

“But,” I protested, “the lost blood! There’s no net gain!”

“Maybe not, but when you’re desperate, you’ll eat your own ass!”

Rolling into Union Station this time, I was wondering if the donut hole I was munching on was actually Bob, or maybe he had lucked into a winning Classic Gold scratch ticket, and was just kicking it back in his paid-off home.

With numerous small parks, several with man-made waterfalls, Portland has a greener and more attractive downtown than most other American cities, and with its many upscale shops and eateries, it also looks pretty affluent. It has extensive bike lanes, walking paths removed from motorized traffic and an excellent light rail system, so it’s easy to get around. Moreover, the streets aren’t overly wide, so they aren’t stressful to cross and car noises don’t aggravate.

From 1990 to 2010, Portland’s population grew by 33%, and it’s still spiking up, so clearly this city’s allures are recognized by plenty of people, including an army of homeless. Ubiquitous downtown, they lie in a row on Burnside Street in Chinatown, sprawl under the Steel Bridge, sleep in and around Chapman Square. On many blocks, they sit and beg, and in every park, they hang out. Each dawn, mountain bike riding cops rouse the homeless from hundreds of commercial doorways, so the day’s commerce can commence. By the airport, a tent city called Dignity Village has existed since late 2000.

Many of the homeless here are younger than 35, and whether they’re gutter punks, deadheads, juggalos, Rainbow Family members or nothing specific, many have come to view being homeless as a lifestyle in itself, and not a temporary predicament. Though they welcome a couch or hotel room every now and then, their long term aim is not to gain employment and permanent shelter, but to keep from doing so for as long as possible. Many of them were in the Occupy camps and this is hardly a surprise since their non-goals, if you will, echo the non-demands of that failed movement. Instead of fighting back, American rebels not only embrace their disenfranchisement, but consider this defeat a victory. Now as then, many of them occupy city parks, while their overlords sneer down at them from surrounding bank towers.

On the edge of Chapman Square, I saw a young man writing with yellow chalk on the paved walkway:

Environmental / geopolitical / spiritual trends are increasing the importance of the task of restructuring / replacing / recycling our political / economic institutions. ‘Occupations’ or ‘humanity hubs’ can help us with this task by peacefully creating spaces for political / economic experimentation”

Above the northeast corner of this statement, he had written in turquoise chalk:

“LOOK DOWN
I LOVE YOU.”

No older than 25, he had been homeless for a couple of years, he said, “I get by on food stamps, and I couch surf. I don’t really use money anymore.”

“How long will you go on like this?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re young, so it’s easy to tough it like this, but what if you get older? What if you get sick?”

“I don’t know. I’ll deal with it when I get there.”

“You know, the Occupy movement made homelessness a model. That’s what they were doing. They became symbolically and publically homeless, but why should we occupy a park when they get to occupy everything else?! If all we’re after are these parks, if we just want to become bums, then they’re perfectly happy with that. We’re not threatening them at all! We should threaten them, man! We shouldn’t retreat into these parks. We should threaten them where they are!”

He smiled, didn’t say anything and seemed anxious to get back to his chalk manifesto, so I shut down my rant and moved on. Let’s not forget that Time Magazine had “The Protester” as its 2011 Person of the Year, so if the mainstream media can chuckle and affectionately muss up your dread locks like that, it means you’re no threat to the status quo. I know a middle-aged Wall Street denizen who used to drop by Zuccotti Park on his lunch breaks to hang out with the many cute protesters. It was almost as exciting as going to a go-go bar. Still gorging on Wall Street, he’s fond of calling himself an “Occupy Wall Street veteran.”

Walking South from Chapman Square, I stopped at Keller Fountain Park and sat next to a homeless man about my age, that is, 50. Though he wore glasses, one lens was missing while the other was entirely wrapped, several times, with black electrical tape so that it bulged out like a vinyl tumor. He had a large plastic container of what looked like cooked macaroni, but its skimpy coat of tomato sauce had turned gray. With a plastic spoon he ate the sour smelling dish. Though the high that day was 85°F, he had on several layers of grimy clothes, for it was just more convenient to wear everything he owned. What skin he showed on his arms and legs was splotched with reddened lesions in various degrees of freshness, crimson scabs, tiny eruptions of pus, now hardened, and bloody scratch marks. Even when he’s caught in the rain, I doubt that much water can reach his skin beneath its permanent layer of greasy dirt.

Since the dude didn’t feel like chatting, I moseyed on and ran into a shirtless young man with a 750 ml bottle of Aristocratic Gin. As he marched down the street, he raved and glared at passersby then, still agitated, sat down on the curb for a few seconds, only to get up to splash on the sidewalk all of his remaining liquor, a good half bottle. That’s roughly four bucks, I quickly calculated with genuine regret. Needless to say, he wasn’t in a conversational mood.

Ah, and now, finally, we come to Bonnie, a sweet and most candid woman of 61 years old. Though women on the streets tend to have more stuff than men, Bonnie had absolutely nothing beyond her orange sneakers, blue and white strap dress, necklace, ring and dirty pink jacket. As I walked by, she yelled, “Mister, can I please use your phone for a moment?”

“Sure.”

She asked me to dial her boyfriend and mother several times, but no one answered. Bonnie left a message for her man, “Where are you? Are you mad at me?”

“Let’s call him back later,” I suggested. In the meantime, Bonnie told me her life story: She was born in Washougal, WA, which is just northeast of Portland, “We’re famous for our toilet paper. There’s a paper mill in Camas. I worked there.”

“What else have you done?”

“I was a makeup artist for Revlon. I modeled for this girl. She’s an artist. I used to be so beautiful! You should have seen me! I was a cook. I’ve done just about everything.”

“Were you a good cook?”

“Yeah. When I felt like it!” We both laughed. “For a year, I did that. I went from one job to the next. I was working 16 hours a day, with an hour break in the middle. Then I went to college, for a while. I studied secretarial science. I worked four jobs while I was in college.”

“You had no time to study.”

“Yeah, I did. I got every single question on all my final tests perfect, because I had a baby and I wanted to take good care of her. My second husband hit her, and I didn’t want to have a husband no more. He might hit me. I wanted to have a good job so I could take care of her.”

“How many kids do you have?”

“Just two, but I also had three miscarriages and seven abortions.”

“Seven abortions?! Some people die just after three or four.”

“I know. My first one was the worst. My fever was up to 104 something. They hadn’t gotten all the contents out of me, so I had to go into the hospital again.”

“How old were you?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“And when was your last abortion?”

“I’m not sure, but I was in my 30’s. You know what it is, I get pregnant real easy. I just kept getting pregnant. Once a woman gets pregnant, then her body is more prone to get pregnant again and again.” Bonnie giggled.

“And three miscarriages?”

“Those came after the abortions.”

“And your two kids, where are they now?”

“My son is in the Army, in Texas, and my daughter’s in Seattle. She orders parts for Boeing. She’s doing really well. My daughter just went to Italy with her husband.”

“She can’t help you out?”

“No, I’m too proud to go up there and beg.”

“And your parents?”

“My mom is in Vancouver. My dad killed himself. My younger brother, too. He died just a year ago. The anniversary is coming up. I feel awful about it. If I had reached out to him more, maybe he wouldn’t have died. My brother was just 51 when he hanged himself. He was a mechanic for the railroad, but he had a drinking problem, so they fired him, then his wife left. My father also worked for the railroad, but he was an engineer. My father was 70 when he shot himself.”

“Why don’t you go stay with your mom if she’s in Vancouver? You know, just walk across that river?”

“She’s loaded, too, but I can’t rest if I go there. She’s a go-getter. She always wants to do stuff, so she won’t leave me alone to just rest, and I can’t detox if I’m around her. I have a drinking problem, you know.”

“How often do you drink?”

“Every eleven or twelve days.”

“Oh, that’s not bad at all. You don’t have a drinking problem!”

“Yes, I do, because every time I drink, I get sick, and I need medication to come out of it. I’ve been to detox a bunch of times. I’ve been stripped naked and thrown onto the concrete floor.”

“So you do have a drinking problem!”

“Yes, I do!” We both laughed. “But I have more problems than that. I’m also bipolar, and I have post traumatic stress. Noises bother me. That’s why I have to put these into my ears.” As Bonnie showed me two skin-colored, molar-sized pieces of foam, I was surprised that she had had them on all this time. To stand life, Bonnie needs to have it muffled. “I was beat up a lot. My dad used to beat me real hard when I was a little girl. He beat me all the time. Messed me up.”

“How many siblings do you have, Bonnie?”

“I have three brothers and two sisters. I’m the oldest. I took care of them.”

“So you’re like their mom?”

“Yes.”

With her disabilities, Bonnie was receiving $1,500 a month in benefits, so that should have been enough had she been frugal, but she ended up homeless anyway. As someone with an alcohol problem and seven abortions, careful planning is not her forte, obviously, and she is bipolar, after all. Also, this is a culture where the advertisements, songs, movies and TV shows are constantly glamorizing and sexualizing all sorts of impulsive behaviors, so though Bonnie may appear much different than the younger homeless of Portland, they’re basically the same. Stumbling from dead end jobs or no jobs at all, they’re alienated, often addicted and can’t see beyond their next feel good moment. Last winter, Bonnie slept outside, “Oh, it’d get so cold, so it doesn’t matter how good your sleeping bag is, and then it’d start to rain, and all these men would try to rape you.”

If you had seen Bonnie inside, say, a bingo hall or a Denny’s, you might mistake her for a Norman Rockwell grandma, but if you talked to her at length, you’d hear her laughingly ejaculate, “I’m fooooucked!” Of course, Norman Rockwell types all over the country are also fooooucked. Bob, too, might be fooooucked, and he’s as wholesome looking as can be. At this very moment, he just might be eating his own ass, seasoned with a bit of ketchup stolen from the local McDonald’s. Moreover, should he need to wipe his buttocks as he’s feasting on it, he can get free toilet paper from Bonnie’s hometown, for it’s a tradition to toss free rolls to cheering onlookers during its annual parade.

In Portland, I also met Sam, a 35-year-old unemployed metal fabricator, welder and boat painter. Born in Laos, Sam came to the US at 2 years old, has lived all over this country and is now homeless. When moving around, Sam pushes an old man’s walker with all of his belongings strapped to it.

With Sam, I entered Ming Lounge, a grubby bar in Chinatown, and there I talked to Laquita, an unemployed woman in her late 30s who’s planning on starting a business recycling tires. She’d done her homework and was convinced she would succeed. After losing her electrician job in Texas, Laquita moved to Oregon to take advantage of its more generous welfare provisions, and with the state’s help, she had moved into a new apartment. Half Belizian, half American black, she spoke of retiring in Belize someday.

Ming Lounge’s bartender, Britney, was born in Morgantown, West Virginia. After getting her bachelor’s degree in agribusiness, she moved to Philadelphia, then Portland. She loves Portland, she said. Her boyfriend is raking in the bucks selling rubber fetish wear and rubber and titanium jewelry. Ah, so there is still manufacturing left in America! On second thought, though, I’m sure these tongue rings, skin eyelets, hider plugs, collars, cuffs, open grid double strap halter bras and penetrable thongs are all made in China. It really is over.

Along with the visible decay that can be seen in cities and small towns alike, there is a widespread malaise afflicting the American spirit, and this is most acutely felt among the younger set. If they have gone to college, then they are most likely crippled with insane debts while stuck in a job that doesn’t require their overpriced yet diluted education, acquired with bankster loans. To make ends meet, they’re living in a crowded, shared apartment or at home with mom and dad, again. As for the professions, many are rotten with fraud, corruption or other immoralities, what a quaint word, so that to hold even the lowliest job in the military, police, government, banking, accounting, insurance, health care, media, advertising or the academy, etc., is to swim among crooks and liars, and it’s all too easy to become a cynical and sinister asshole yourself. In an image-dominated society, public relations is everything, so the most crucial task, always, is to maintain a sexy or dignified appearance, and to hell with what happens behind the scene. In a Camden tent city, I met a young man who had wanted to be a policeman, but after a few months on job, he just had to quit, “You don’t even know how corrupt it is.”

Living in such a sick climate, it’s no wonder there is pervasive disaffection. The Occupy Movement started by focusing on Wall Street, and that’s where Herman Melville placed Bartleby. For reasons never explained, Bartleby, the Scrivener became increasingly non-cooperative at his job, so that “I would prefer not to” became his stock answer to each command from his mild-mannered and tolerant boss. Bartleby became so good at saying no, he finally said no to life itself. Even in beautiful Portland, many people have become Bartlebys.

It’s not all roses here. Per capita, Portlanders ingest more anti-depressants than residents of any other American city. They also commit suicides at a much brisker rate than the national average. Last year, five people jumped off Vista Bridge alone, and, in 1998, a homeless, heroin-addicted young couple hanged themselves from the Steel Bridge. For almost an hour, they dangled in full view of thousands of downtown office workers, motorists and train passengers. From the man’s 13-page suicide note, “I think I’ve decided on an old-fashioned public hanging [ . . . ] The Steel Bridge shall be my gallows.” Ah, squirrely Portland! Sexy and hip, you’re not shy about showing the world what you have, whether in your many strip joints or even in death.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

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