Stumptown Lives started with a BANG!
Yet another helpless debate about rising housing costs in Portland set me off on a mission: to write about the city from other people’s perspectives, especially from those who had lived here before Portland became Portlandia.
By the end of the weekend, I’d interviewed Greg McKelvey, whose impassioned speech at a Bernie Sanders rally shook me to the core, and spent the better part of that weekend holed up on coffeeshops and bars refining the piece. The piece received more than 500 views on the first day.
Like many, I was sad to see things that I loved about Portland being demolished, swept away, and built over. Angry that my wife and I would not qualify to buy a house within city limits for the next thousand years, Stumptown Lives was meant to express my frustration and malcontent with the changes around me.
For two years, I’ve worked occasional gigs for a quality, small-time general contractor, and endlessly compared the residences we’ve worked in to our tiny Southeast basement. I’ve swung hammers at the tiled walls of perfectly good bathrooms in the fancy Dunthorpe neighborhood; begrudgingly dismantled condo kitchens (at least they have a kitchen!), worked in houses whose doorways I didn’t have to duck under to walk through.
Before long, I was a living contradiction. Angered and stressed by Portland’s growing pains, I unequivocally contributed to them. Indeed, Portland’s rampant growth was contributing to my bills. Nevertheless, my savings was running low; rent was due. Something had to give.
A late night motorcycle ride through Northwest revealed to me a massive New Seasons and condominium complex on land that last time I’d checked was a wasteland parking lot. I tried to conjure the resentment behind graffiti tags now commonplace around town: Stop Moving to PDX.
But I had no more energy for contempt. Have no more energy for contempt.
If the Portland natives from my Stumptown Lives stories could adapt to the mad changes happening to their birthplace, I wondered, could I, too, just change with it?
Moreover, were the benefits of living in Portland—its conscious communities; delicious food; proximity to mountains, desert, sea, etc.—worth the trouble of changing of my lifestyle, even a bit?
I embarked on an experiment to answer whether could I support myself in Portland at the economic level that the city is rising to.
Just as the cherry and pear trees exploded, remodeling work with the contractor picked up. A second job was easy to come by: valeting at a swank hotel downtown.
Neglecting my creative pursuits, and shortsightedly attempting to achieve the bozo American dream that was bashed into my head since day one—if you work harder, you’ll be more successful—I swung hammers, parked BMWs, barely slept. Weeks passed.
I worked 12-, 15-, 17-hour days. Finished one job to drive across town for the other. I managed one truncated conversation with my wife per day, in the two or three blurry hours of off-the-clock awake time in which I also had to to eat, shit, brush my teeth, and commute in my clunky old van.
A week in to the second job, the van broke down, so I started riding my motorcycle. One fine day, leaving a job site in Dunthorpe, the motorcycle died—half an hour before I was due at the hotel. My wife began chauffeuring me to and from work in her car. It quickly became the only time we saw each other; I savored it.
Somewhere in the haze of spring, she was accepted to grad school in Seattle, a debt-laden event I celebrated in my stressed state with dread: would we ever do better than ‘just getting by’?
I grew up poor, and learned early that the proverbial “blue collar” comes attached to leashes, and that slack (money, time off) was awarded only in trade for a man’s primary stores of energy—energy which my best friend, an 88-year-old
ex-superworkaholic, wishes he would have spent more with his wife,
who passed a few years ago.
My frustration and malcontent left me drained as I got home. I would snap at my wife, and complain about aches, pains, quibbles at work: the quintessential makings of an absent father, a workaholic, a muggle in search of the Great White Picket Fence.
When social media pages reminded me that no one had heard from Stumptown Lives in a while, I realized that I’d been caught up in my own Stanford Prison Experiment, in which student subjects adopted the very real roles of violent guards and subservient prisoners within mere days of converting the Psychology department basement into a quasi-prison.
Within two weeks, I was no longer the experimenting writer on a mission;
I was a glob of stress, with arms and legs.
The numbers on the checks were pathetic recompense for the only thing of value that I have: time. For a few hard days, the money represented my choice to not do what fulfills me.
My trusty ol’ flight reaction kicked in: Why not just escape society, move to the woods, where I could build a cabin, write, chop wood and carry water? Wouldn’t life be easier?
My inner critic went wild. A few weeks of work, it yelled, and you’re complaining about not being able to do what fulfills you? Are you aware of the epic amount of privilege it takes to be able to say that?
As far as I can tell, I operate in a narcissistic culture that simultaneously demands one assert his or her individuality to overcome all obstacles including but not limited to sexism, racism, and expectation of physical perfection, and (barring politically-correct disabilities) shames or punishes (often quietly and slowly) those unwilling or unable to climb the pyramidal socio-economic ladder, at least to the rung of unambiguous self-reliance.
I hang by that ladder rung by my fingertips. Thank God I climb rocks to condition my tired tendons. My feet dangle above the heads of billions across the world.
I fight to not fall into the stories of a poor childhood with the same shame that keeps me from pulling myself up to the next rung, of achieving the state of wealth for which I’ve developed so much envy and contempt: the state of being without worry where next month’s rent will come from.
The pursuit of money in America is a thinly-veiled analogy for gambling: I start with what I start at birth, my odds of “winning” determined by a roll of genetic and economic dice. My investments of time and money itself contributes not so much to a promised return as to my psychological attachment to More (which often takes the form of entitlement:
“I’ve worked hard, so I deserve…”)
I have a choice: what am I willing and able to do, given the oppression and privilege provided by my birth-dice, to get More?
In the end, money is simply a tool that facilitates our needs and desires: yes, it’s required to live in the system in which I live; no, I don’t need as much as they say I do to be happy, healthy, accepted by peers, etc.
Part of my privilege is that I have a choice as to what role in the game I want to play. I want to live in Portland, to eat good food, and to do my work—the right work.
I quit the valet job, which allowed me to breathe in the evenings, write more, and connect with my loved ones. The day schedule of the remodeling work lets me pay my bills and appreciate the time I have to write, to balance my investments with my desired return, and to finally look up, enjoy the spring weather, and have dinner with a friend for the first time in months.
Most people in the world don’t have these options. Most stories do not end with neat bows. Portland is changing; that is the nature of cities, of humans. We ask questions, we learn, we advance.
This onward march causes much harm, which gives us the opportunity to refine our gait, swagger, and route.
This experiment taught me that my energy goes where I put it, that I become adept at activities I do often. If I live in a state of stress and anxiety, I will emanate stress and anxiety. I choose otherwise. If that means I’ll never qualify to buy a house in Portland, I won’t take it personally. As least I’ll have the tools and skills to build one.
My name is Sean Talbot (pronounced Tal-bow), and mine is the voice and work behind Stumptown Lives.
Thanks for reading.