Tag Archives: community

Essay: Fifteen Minimum – Reflections on Compassion, Privilege, and War

“Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”
― Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.”

I heard the muffled knock on the passenger window, but I didn’t look up from the chess game on my phone. Memories rushed back of police officers tapping at my car window with metal flashlights as I tried to sleep in a dark parking lot. But this knock was not the knock of a cop, I thought, still avoiding the source. Five seconds passed. I saw checkmate in three moves. Another knock.

Then I saw her: late twenties or early thirties, black, hair pony-tailed, wearing a coat too light for this February cold. I noticed the assumptions surging to the front of my mind: homeless, addict, wants money. My heart sank, and my head shook almost involuntarily.

—I’m sorry, I mouthed through the closed window, not today.

—I’m hungry and I’m cold, she said, her voice muffled as her knock. She was looking directly at me.

I’ve never been able be one of those people who isn’t willing to listen. Whatever created this tendency in me has over the years landed me in dozens of hours-long conversations with people whose presence and storytelling abilities inspired me to become a writer. People whose stories of altered mental states, trauma, addiction, mystical experiences, train-hopping, and in some cases intentionally living outside the bounds of economy and law inspired me to explore many of those paths in my own life. People whom my mother, an ex-cop, would certainly have tried to steer me clear of.

I could feel in my bones that this was one of those moments where waving the person off with a fake apology and a sympathetic look would break my heart for decades.

She was still talking as I tried to put down the window. The car wasn’t on. So many layers between us, I thought, suddenly ashamed of the car, the iPhone, the expensive jacket I was wearing, the years between my own homelessness experience and this moment. I dropped the phone and searched for an ignition key that didn’t exist. Suddenly perplexed as to how to put down the window, I considered leaning over to open the passenger door, but no, I thought, that would be too much, too soon. Too vulnerable.

After I managed to press the brake, hit the ignition button, wait for the car computer to boot, and press the window button, finally, the window went down—and the music started to bump. There she was, still talking, voice now drowned by the music.

—I asked this other man for food, she said, but he said no, and I asked for five dollars for a daylong bus fare, and I need to leave this place…

—I’m sorry, I said. Not today.

After all that, I was still in reaction mode, not seeing her, not listening to her. The words came out like ash. What if she spends it on drugs, I reasoned. What if she’s lying?

I may have been one of “those people” willing to listen, but how often do I act? I have always resonated with the criticism of people with means and awareness who do nothing to help improve the lives of those with less means. Yet here I was, not even pretending to help by trying to profit from trying to help.

That part of me that wanted to be unique, seen, and respected assumed that I was being manipulated. That victim strategy birthed a deep self-centeredness in me when I was younger, and fostered an inability to see my own privilege or truly empathize with others. It’s a gross little demon that rears its head when I’m faced with an uncomfortable situation that I have the ability to avoid.

I let the demon play for a moment and took a deep breath. The woman was still there. She didn’t seem fazed by my rejection. Maybe she hadn’t even heard it. She was saying something about her living situation. My spidey-senses went off when she repeated that she needed to “get out of here.”

We spoke briefly: she, outside, leaning toward the half-open passenger window; me, buckled in the driver seat. I noticed myself looking for signs of intoxication, mental crisis. I am no psychotherapist but I know altered mental states in my own experience, drug-induced and not. I know that hunger causes its own kind of delirium. My body remembers the violent shakes of hypothermia. I have spent many a day wondering where I would sleep that night.

And, none of those experiences taught me how to be with someone else in those states. Certainly not how to help. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to know the right thing to do. I’ve been taught to think so much about everything that I’ve misplaced my ability to listen to my gut.

The caravan of thoughts rolled through my mind: The Dalai Lama says to be kind and compassionate; that is enough. If I were to look to Silicon Valley for answers on how to act, I could probably become a billionaire by developing an app wherein this woman could connect with a million people ready to buy her lunch with a thumbprint. If I were to rely on government and police as role models, I’d probably try to make sure this woman’s toe was wedged under the tire before I drove away.

Sometimes I can feel my friends’ judgment when I give money to people on the street. I’ve learned to not talk about it in social settings: that feeling of my heart falling into the pit of my stomach; the tears that began to well in my delay to open the car window; the fear that, if I opened the door in my rush to hear this woman, she may perceive it as an invitation for something she was not asking for.

Sometimes I do not know how to navigate the space between my privilege and someone else’s lack thereof. But the truth is that I’d rather be lost than avoid the territory.

I offered to help. I said I only had a debit card. The part of me that thought she might use the money for drugs kept me in that moment from remembering that I had a twenty in my wallet. The part of me that wanted to save her got out of the car and awkwardly offered to buy her lunch.

We walked half a block together, toward—where? A deli? A restaurant? I’d taken people who lived on the street out to lunch before, and had found it to be a soul-enriching experience to hear stories from people who were not often heard, to experience them express themselves. Sometimes it was about the food, and other times, the connection.

Which made me wonder, as I asked her name, in what ways was my willingness to help conditional? In what ways did I want to benefit from this? Did I require some kind of personal connection in trade for a few dollars? And what was this need of mine to know and even control what she spent it on?

I remembered Zippy, a woman who approached me one night on the corner of Marcy & Myrtle in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, where I lived some years ago. Zippy asked me to buy her baby formula. She was skinny as a rail, dreaded, bedraggled. She told me a story about Jay-Z, how they grew up together. She talked about her baby. She suggested we go into the deli across the street. How do you say ‘no’ to a baby who needs food? I bought her a can of baby formula. 

The cashier gave his co-worker a look, held up the can for a moment. The next day at work I learned that baby formula served as a kind of black market currency for heroin.

Zippy got me. That’s the story my co-workers told me. They laughed at my ‘rookie’ move. The money was for drugs, they said, therefore I got scammed, manipulated, sold.

True as it may have been, that story has never sat well with me. What was the difference, really, between giving money to a drug addict on the street and giving it to a corporation? Their respective sales tactics could be eerily similar. The rewards for my action are not. In this culture, if I give money to a drug addict under the auspices that I’m helping to feed a baby and I feel good about that act, I am considered foolish because the “truth” is that the money will go straight to heroin, which is “bad.”

On the other hand, if I buy a tank of Shell gasoline, my car will get me 350 miles down the road, which is “good” because I can go to work, etc. I can accept that I’m contributing to greenhouse gases and mass extinction because, well, I need to go to work.

In the context of material goods, my attachment to how my money might be used after it leaves my hands vanishes. Of course, if I thought every time I bought gas that I was consciously exacerbating a global addiction to a substance that is in every possible way worse than heroin, I might still buy it, and feel bad about it, so often I just don’t think about it.

We reached a crosswalk and stopped. Food and bus fare would be fifteen minimum, especially in this neighborhood.

—What’s your name? I asked, pulling out my wallet.
—Shriana.
—I’m sorry that you’re in this situation, I said.

We went into a deli and I asked the cashier for change. Shriana stood a few feet away, looking around. I sensed that she’d done this before. I watched the cashier count bills, and remembered the cashier that night in Brooklyn all those years ago, giving his co-worker a look as he cashed me out for the baby formula.

What did it matter anyway, if Zippy or Shriana or the hundred or more folks I’d given money to since I was a teenager, had all bought drugs with it? I buy drugs. I’ve bought pot, alcohol, psychedelics, cigarettes. My employers have neither known nor cared what I’ve done with my wages. Nor, I assume, are my loved ones particularly attached to what I do with their birthday cards or small gifts.

When I see suffering, I cannot ignore it. Which is partly why paying attention to the news makes me sick. It is also why, 99% of the day, I hide under the cloak of my privilege: the car, the clothes, apologetic looks, the silent mouthing of ‘not today’, which implies that I think that I have other days available to me to worry about how generous I wish to perceive myself.

I believe that Shriana was in a state where tomorrow didn’t yet exist. She knew what she needed and overcame all the shame involved in knocking on the window of a new-looking car in a hip Portland neighborhood, asking this reasonably well-dressed white man for help. I believe that such a brave act requires a presence, vulnerability, strength, and, frankly, vigilance, that overrides fear and self-doubt. One on hand, it resembles the kind of presence that I seek to develop and embody in my own life. Conversely, vigilance is often a fear response, a survival-level alertness that produces high levels of stress. That can’t be good for humans, long-term.

I write this knowing that I myself will never be able to count or understand the myriad layers between Shriana and I: the passenger window wasn’t just a car window, it was a transparent, impregnable force field, like that of a spaceship in science fiction stories. A force field that makes those inside it by definition invulnerable. It becomes the choice of those within to open the window, to breathe unfiltered air, to feel, to listen, and to act.

It hurts to think that there is no easy solution to the growing disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ The conditions which created this singular situation are deeply systemic, fundamental to the culture of our society. Sure, one often-repeated solution could be to re-allocate one percent of the USA military budget to end homelessness and hunger in this country. Another solution would be to tax a handful of the wealthiest American individuals and corporations in service to the people who helped make them so wealthy. Top-down solutions are easy to think about, especially from a power-under point of view: they can afford it, we might think, and it wouldn’t matter much because they would still be super rich.

Bottom-up solutions are more cumbersome. They require multitudes of people to change their behaviors, and, ultimately, their beliefs. They require dozens of millions of have-nots to reconcile their differences with each other, many of which were created by the powerful in order to retain power.

The theory goes that when enough people make a conscious change in their own lives, it changes the whole system. Back in the 90’s, it was recycling.

Now, according to Greta Thunburg, it’s more radical: stop using fossil fuels immediately. Those are easy ideas to agree with because we all want a healthy planet, but to actually change and sustain those changes seem even more difficult to accomplish, because those whose voices matter most have to pay rent. Most people on the planet live their day to day lives at a level much closer to survival than charitable philanthropy.

In an individualist society like the United States, where ego and money are valued above community and connection, it makes sense that conservative values would take power—they value abundance, and being so entrenched in that value creates an inability and unwillingness to see, for example, that their wealth was built on the premise of keeping a whole lot of other people poor. And it also makes sense that liberal values would appear shiny on the surface and from the podium, because they’re all about inspiring hope in the people—rather than actually serving the people.

What doesn’t make sense to me is how such a fiercely individualist society as ours has devolved into a simple dichotomy: right and left, conservative and liberal, red and blue. It doesn’t make sense to me that, given the American penchant for innovation, we can’t seem to navigate complex political terrain without reverting to childhood playground dynamics. We elected a playground bully to lead our nation. We armed him with nuclear weapons. In turn, he armed white supremacists with permission to terrorize the streets of this country all but protected by a racist, corrupt, and militarized police state. Known rapists have been appointed to our highest courts.

It makes perfect sense to me that the wealthiest, most power-drunk nation on the planet has lost its way. For the past hundred years, the United States has reinforced corrosive attitudes about its own leadership based on scarcity, fear, and comparison to others (“richest,” “most _____,” “freest”), rather than using its resources and influence to lead its people—and thus, inevitably, others—toward a more sustainably whole society.

Nevertheless, the culture is changing: The Women’s March, #MeToo, and #TimesUp have ousted thousands of men from positions of power in the most influential industries. The uprising of the feminine in the last few years is unprecedented in history. Nearly matched in its ferocity by a triggered, antagonistic masculine—the wounded boy turned insecure bully—her time has come. It is also time for the masculine not to bow out—as he may fear she insists—but to call on a stronger inner force than violence. He must learn to stand within himself as himself, without pretense or expectation. He must learn to become aware of the ways his culture manipulates him into doing its bidding, into fighting its wars.

In men’s work, we sometimes talk about the archetype of the “warrior,” a term that can be both triggering and misleading. That terminology is used, I believe, to find an audience of those who may not otherwise listen, and also because war offers an accurate metaphor for the path toward greater consciousness. But the so-called battles we must fight require weapons far more effective than bombs and guns.

Teacher and author Joanna Macy once relayed a story about the Shambala warriors. She told how their only two weapons are compassion and insight into the interconnectedness of all beings. The wounded, unintegrated warriors within us—and I’m not just talking about men—have been fighting for so long that we’ve forgotten why, and against whom. We fight ourselves, and in our wounding, project the parts of ourselves that we despise onto others. The more we feed that system, the bigger and more destructive it gets. Thus, war.

This is why I could not rely on any other information but the present moment for guidance on how to show up in that moment with Shriana. I saw only what was in front of me, struggled to fight back the tides of status quo trying to assert itself through my actions, and did what felt most right. In doing so, I may have failed both of us. I cannot know, but I can try to be okay with that not knowing.

James Baldwin said that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s a perspective that makes me grateful for the election of Trump. I say that as someone who has not been terribly and personally affected by that election. The shadow that Trump represents, which would have lurked on even if Bernie Sanders had been elected, is now out in the open. We can see its ugliness, hear its rhetoric, feel its poison. And some of us can choose compassion for it. Not to excuse its behavior, but to understand more about where all that hurt may have come from, and what we can do for our children that may cause less harm for them.

To be sure, things are changing. It may also be true that our species has simply caused too much damage to the earth and each other to survive much longer. Which makes it all the more important for me to show up in small moments, to acknowledge the shadows and demons as they flow through me, and to continue to breathe.

I want to remember what I experienced with Shriana as connection— an empathy, a knowing, deep in my body of what suffering looks like in another human, and make a commitment to refuse the temptation to repress it in the future. But that commitment is optimistic, frail: to feel all of the suffering all of the time debilitates, paralyzes.

Where is the balance?

There’s a lot of talk in activist circles—and, increasingly, outside of them—about self-care and how holding firm personal boundaries can help reduce, or at least slow down—burn-out and compassion fatigue. There is an unprecedented amount of negative stimuli barraging many of us from every direction in our hyper-connected lives that the line, for me, between remaining engaged and becoming a recluse becomes thinner daily. Humans simply have not evolved to take in as much trauma as we do in 2019, and one doesn’t need to be an activist or work in the helping professions to be overwhelmed even by the number of people on the street asking for help.

When I was living in my car all those years ago, sleeping in parking lots and working for pennies, I remember most clearly the generosity of people I didn’t know. To be acknowledged by another human is life-affirming. Those are the things many of us think about as we go to sleep. How connected did we feel that day? To wish them a warm night or a great day may not seem like much to someone who lives in a heated home or sleeps in a warm bed, but it really can mean everything to one person in a moment of hopelessness.

I know too well what it is to numb, look elsewhere, ignore the man on the subway car with the outstretched cup; I know many times over what it is to drive by the bearded man on the Ross Island Bridge eastbound whose laminated military photo hangs below his cardboard sign. I know what it feels like to buy nice warm clothes and delicious food that insulates me from my past experiences of hunger and homelessness. It’s tempting to think of my ability to postpone worry until tomorrow as compensation for my own suffering, to pretend that my experience of warmth and fullness today fills the void I felt years ago.

But I cannot. I want to remember that hunger. I want to remember the cold. I still struggle with the desire to use drugs to tune out of my current reality. I want to remember these feelings because I want to feel connected, even when it hurts—especially when it hurts—because in this age of hyper-connection and information overload, it’s so easy to ignore and dismiss the brave, muffled knocks on the window.

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chased from the garden of home

Corey and Cherie Nelson’s backyard slid down the bank into the Washougal river on a Sunday. The couple was watching TV when they heard a strange rumbling. Cherie jumped and went to the deck.

The door opened to a sweeping view of a pristine river canyon. Surrounded by large firs in the Cascade foothills, the braided Washougal river rushed along the far bank to sip on creeks and waterfalls. A smaller, slower channel meandered along the edge of the ravine just sixty feet below, right under the Nelsons’ deck. For two and a half years, they had spent countless hours taking in their personal theatre of classic Pacific Northwest scenery.

The pungent scent of fresh dirt filled Cherie’s nostrils. Steam rose like woodsmoke from where the yard used to be. The landslide had exposed the tangled roots of the massive Douglas fir next to their house.

Cherie knew in that instant that her life had changed, but she did not want to admit it. Corey joined her on the deck. It took half a second for him to realize the same. He wrapped his arms around her.

“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said.

Corey says he’s always trying to make Cherie feel better, trying to fix things, but that he knew deep down, they just lost their dream home.

<<>>

After their daughters moved out, Corey and Cherie wanted to move into a smaller home. Not just a smaller home, but the home in which they could happily spend the rest of their days. For years they searched for the perfect spot. They put in offers on places that they’re glad now didn’t pan out, because a little house on a high bank of the Washougal River, just downstream from Naked Falls – where they fell in love more than forty years ago – whispered, welcome

Buying the place was complicated. The property belonged to the bank, and the process of purchasing took months of negotiations and back and forth about how the old septic tanks needed to be replaced before they could move in, then a whole summer of actual work. They sold the farmhouse in which they raised three daughters, and Corey cashed in on his thirty-five years of setting tile in million-dollar houses to make the sale happen.

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Nevertheless, the couple was essentially homeless for four months, luckily supported by aunts and daughters with spare couches, while the old septic system was dug up and new “biogreen”  tanks put in the ground. But their waiting to land full circle back at their teenage stomping grounds was not always patient. Cherie says she was “done” being strung all over the place.

“I wanted the comfort of a home home.”

Before they moved in, Cherie would lie down in the grass of her would-be home, and imagined her roots going deep into the ground. She prayed to the spirit of the Native American people for a blessing to steward the land, to protect and enhance it.

“I just wanted to be worthy of this place,” Cherie says.

<<>>

Corey and I work together, remodeling houses in Lake Oswego. When he’s not around, general contractors talk about the mastery and humility with which he works. They vie for his schedule, say that he doesn’t charge enough. He’s quiet, unassuming, kind. Wears a tawny pony tail, gray at the roots. When he lets his beard grow scruffy, it betrays the youth in his face.

A few weeks ago, on a quiet afternoon in someone else’s big empty house, he told me the story of how he was losing his dream home, the place into which he’d invested everything, because a landslide dropped half his yard into the river rapids below.

I balked, and as he spoke, I nearly teared up. Naïvely, I didn’t want to believe that could happen because I didn’t want to believe that I could work my entire life to finally feel like I belonged somewhere—my struggle since toddlerhood—only to watch the place I’d worked to find myself collapse like Jenga blocks into a ravine.

“Are you saying the foundation is slipping out from under your dreams,” I asked. I tried to skirt around how deeply I resonated with his story by saying that I thought that a lot of people in this country could relate to what he and his wife were going through right now. Metaphorically, of course.

I asked if I could come out and see it for myself. I wanted to see what home looked like for them, and how they dealt with losing it.

<<>>

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The weather was supposed to be partly sunny. I rode my motorcycle from inner SE Portland and headed for Washougal. The sun didn’t last long. On the I-205 bridge, high winds from the Gorge threatened to push my bike sideways into the box truck in the next lane. I tightened my grip and loosened my shoulders because that’s what you do when the winds of change become gales.

Becoming homeless is no fable to me. It is not something that just happens to bad people or addicts. It has happened to me, over and over again, in different forms, making my sense of home an ambivalent quest for an unknown grail. Maybe I’ve had many homes, more than all my fingers and toes; maybe I’ve had none, and simply floated between places to lay my sleeping bag, occasionally landing for a few months, maybe a couple of years. Times when I’ve really had it good, really felt like I was home, I’ve tightened my grip, wanting to not lose it. But a place has its way of shrugging us off when the time comes.

Now, I’m tentative to love a place too much. At 30, I’ve lived in Portland for four years, twice longer than anywhere else in my life. I’m trying to loosen my death grip on a good thing, to be open to other options. Maybe soon I’ll take a reprieve from the city and do the Thoreau thing for a while. But what place would I be worthy of?

From town, Washougal River Road follows the idyllic river upstream through the foothills of the Cascades north of the Columbia River. The farther out I ride, the more familiar the landscape becomes. Dilapidated houses sink into the earth farther and farther apart from each other on scraggly forested land. Shoddy fences surround dead playground equipment and doghouses whose shingles have been torn off. Washing machines sit in driveways; some operable, others bound for the trip to the dump that will never happen. Antique, tireless tractors decorate the field edges of thumbprint-sized farms.

I was raised in rural communities so much like the outskirts of Washougal that on my ride out River Road, I silently name the year, make and model of most broken down trucks I see that littered the Trump/Pence-postered yards as they pass through my periphery. On many levels, I feel like I know this place intimately, which is one reason I live in the city.

<<>>

When I park in the Nelsons’ driveway, I notice the driveway is flanked by a half dozen brown and silver tarps covering what is left of a small yard. Anchored by tent stakes and sandbags, the tarps should delay the erosion of the driveway long enough for the couple to move out, walk away, hand back the house to the other bank.

From their deck, which is barely large enough for five or six chairs, I take in the gorgeous panorama. The land across from us gushes water from three creeks within a hundred yards upstream from a waterfall tall and wide as the Nelsons’ house. Chimney smoke billows from a neighbor’s blue house, near the waterfall. The trees sway. An eagle glides by.

This place, to me, is fantastically beautiful. I feel like I’m in a postcard slice of the PNW relegated to Instagram and the dreams of Bay Area refugees, the wilder tracts of our bioregion cityfolks feel they must prepare to visit with expensive trips to REI.

Corey welcomes me in. I take off my wet gear and realize that after two years, I’ve never seen the man outside work. We hug each other for the first time. Cherie offers me hot tea. They describe how they stand out on the deck together and watch eagles soar beneath wildly morphing clouds; how the full moon rises every month over the hill on the far side of the river;  how the trees in autumn change color and drop leaves into a river effusive with winter’s first rains.

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They tell me about the landslide, how they went from ‘set for life’ to homeless and soon-to-be bankrupt in three seconds. For days after the slide, Cherie says she could hardly breathe. She didn’t sleep for two weeks.

Don’t you have any recourse, or any way to repair the bank, I ask.

“That first day, I called a builder I’ve known for twenty years,” Corey says. He gave them options. They called an excavator, who said he couldn’t get the proper machinery where he needed it, and didn’t want to put his employees at risk trying. A geotech engineer came up with a hundred-thousand-dollar solution that, if that kind of money was just lying around, they would do. Besides, Cherie says, fixing the bank isn’t even important at this point.

“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” she says.

<<>>

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What is home, if you don’t feel safe there? My own answer is that it is no longer home, a truth I’ve come to more than once about a particular house, town, and recently, a nation post-election. In the latter case, however, I’m not tempted to leave this time so much as I am to dig in and create a home for myself. But the thought of doing so after being here gives me pause.

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The house is impressively compact and spacious at the same time. Inside and out, it screams Tiny House, built 50 years before Tiny Houses became cool. Their loft bedroom sets above the bathroom and kitchen. Crystal-studded altars, Buddha statues, and small goddesses live throughout the space. The couches are super comfortable. It’s as large a house as I could ever want. During our conversation, I find myself distracted by the natural beauty outside the huge square windows. On the sill, I notice an ancient stone tool or three of them.

“We found that thing when we started digging in the garden,” Corey says. “I know it’s not natural.”

I pick up a rough stone pestle about 8” long, and turn it this way and that. At first glance, I think it could have come right out of a riverbed, but the phallic tool is too refined for that. Three potato chip-shaped indents serve as comfortable grips for a thumb and two fingers. I’ve seen things like it only in museums.

I’m reminded of Cherie’s comment about stewarding the land. It impresses me how we humans play games of ownership and development with different intentions: to one person, a tract of land represents only money; to someone else, a hillside is the history and spirit of generations of people, just one in a community of subjects: plants, animals, microbes, stones, all in relation to one another.

Before I leave, I help Corey load a futon into the back of his truck. I sense the peace around leaving is not yet pervasive. For saying that they’re leaving this week, I see little evidence of packing.

They’re debating whether they need to bury the stone tools back in the garden.

“I think we should leave them here,” Corey says.

For two and a half years, Cherie and Corey stewarded this piece of land, called it home, enjoyed every mile of the long commute to and from the Portland area. Home meant, for them, a permanent vacation, a source of constant gratitude.

That’s part of her confusion.

“I wonder, did I do something wrong?” Cherie says, tears welling in her eyes. “Was I taking it for granted? I don’t think I was. I was very present, all the time. Always thinking of ways to beautify it and make it better. Did I not show enough gratitude?”

Corey reaches over to comfort her. He takes her into his arms.

“I think I did,” she says.

<<>>

Planning Portland’s Puberty

Portland’s housing crisis is now making bigger national headlines than our food carts, craft breweries, and water combined (well, maybe not water).  Apartment costs have become astronomical. House prices have increased %^&#ing exponentially (if that’s not an accurate figure, ask local would-be homebuyers). For too many, it’s very difficult to live in Portland right now. The reasons are vast, and would boil down, unsurprisingly, to more than just a TV show. The question is, what to do about it?

To answer the question, we’ll talk about the housing crisis, the plans the city is implementing to fix it, and what you and I can do to contribute to Portland’s continued transformation. 

Last Wednesday evening, multiple speakers offered opinions and action plans at an event called Let’s Do More Than Talk: Housing, Land Use, and Affordability in Portland, including Portland Tenants United’s Margot Black, Anita Yap, historian Nick Sauvie, urban designer Nolan Lienhart, and Jes Larson, director of the Welcome Home coalition, which is comprised of more than 130 organizations working toward “housing justice,” an umbrella term for the idea that every person has a right to four walls and a roof of their own. Among their goals was to rectify Portland’s housing predicament with ideas for the Comprehensive Plan, a 20-year plan that “sets the framework for the physical development of the city.”

The “Comp Plan,” addresses, amongst many other things, the glaring issue that residential development is limited by strict zoning laws, which limit the types of structures one can build on a lot. The overwhelming majority of the city is zoned for single-family houses, which means that if someone buys a patch of dirt, there’s really only one choice as to what to build.

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Density and infill are incredibly important to Portland.

Given the current zoning laws, Portland is designed for anything but infill. In a way, the city design keeps as many people out as possible, which drives up housing costs, plummets vacancy rates, and forces those who can’t keep up with rising rents, essentially, to fuck off. This doesn’t bode well for a city famous for its kindness.

In February 2016, Oregon passed its first inclusionary zoning laws, versions of which have been enacted in hundreds of communities across the country for years. Before that, not only did the state not require developers to allocate a certain percentage of new developments to affordable housing, but they were banned from doing so. 

How does this apply to you and I? 

If one hundred eighty condos are built on a block, and they’re all priced at inflated market value, people who inhabit those condos must earn 60-70% more than the rent. Do this over and over and over, and suddenly Portland becomes San Francisco, where it’s not uncommon to pay more than $4000 a month for a one bedroom apartment.

What about those who can’t afford that–where do we go? Gresham? The streets?

A woman in my breakout group, which discussed the future of Portland’s Mixed Use zones, warned against placing “too many regulations” on developers, lest the developer, given the choice to develop a condo building in Portland or Dallas, choose Dallas because they might make an extra few dozen grand.

On the other hand, development should be held to some standard of beauty, or at least an aesthetic complementary to life in the area. Simply put, people take better care of their neighborhoods when they are built with people in mind.

A man demanded that developers  just build housing fast and cheap. He was quick to say that it doesn’t matter what else inhabits the neighborhood, as long as people get indoors.

“We don’t need more organic grocers,” he said. “We need affordable housing.”

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Part of what makes Portland cool is that people do things here that they couldn’t or wouldn’t do elsewhere. You can’t open up a mediocre restaurant on the East Side inside Tabor, and expect it to succeed. Portland endeavors require intention, quality, perhaps even, if quirk still exists, quirk.

To be clear, inclusivity of the poor in gentrified areas and the preservation of culture are not mutually exclusive: indeed, they are the same. It was low-income-earning people and artists that created cultural conditions conducive to Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and countless other places becoming gentrified.

I believe that it is incumbent upon the developers, as with urban planners, to focus above and beyond the paycheck to the greater contribution they could make toward what Portland is becoming.

Organizations like Portland Forward and Portland For Everyone, which co-sponsored the Let’s Do More Than Talk mini-conference, are working to craft an inclusive urban design that achieves this.

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Notably, many speakers agreed on one thing: the voices of the people matter to the people making decisions about Portland’s future: the City Council

The Council may hold terribly inconvenient meetings, but word has it that they actually listen to those who show up and testify.

I’m going to attend their next meeting on 9 June, when the Council will review the reasons they’re going to accept and approve the new Comp Plan.

City Council to Accept Findings and Revised Ordinances

Council Chambers 1221 SW 4th Ave

Thursday, June 9 2016, 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM

I’d like to understand the reasons behind many of the changes that Portland will undergo in the next two decades, especially with regards to housing. If you find yourself in the midst of complaining or even conversing about the plight of Portland’s rapidly shifting landscape and housing situation, please come with me. Maybe there we can figure out a way to stay here through the madness. 

Pulse of Old Portland: Kevin Ketchum

“Four years ago,” he says, cupping a soft, meaty hand near his sternum, “I had a beard down to here.”

With a more-pepper-than-salt ponytail, Kevin Ketchum is clean-shaven, wearing a blue and green plaid button-up over a blue t-shirt. I tell myself he has dressed up for our interview.

Immediately I want to ask about those razorless years, during which he must have watched Portland change immensely from the outside in, as the buildings rose around his slapdash sidewalk nest. Did he stand on street corners with a cardboard sign, training for the vaguely elevated caste he’s attained of Street Roots Vendor? And if so, what did the cardboard read? Who stopped for him? What kept him from taking advantage of Portland’s inexhaustible resources for the homeless and depraved? What finally inspired him to shave?

Ketchum’s chaliced hand, held under his heart, slowly drops. His uncertain smile twists, and falls. Perspiration forms across his kind, round face.

I do not know if the sensitivity I feel right now is his, or mine. It may be both.

I am not a veteran interviewer, nor a seasoned, scales-for-skin journalist. In fact, since we met here for coffee in the Westmoreland neighborhood, I have mostly projected my stories upon him, as passerby are wont to do, when I asked him specifically to share his:

Ketchum was born and raised in Portland, and never really left. In the early Eighties, just out of high school, he worked at the Hilton downtown, paid $155—half a paycheck—for a studio on SE 12th and Belmont. The building is still there. Rent has risen since then, just slightly.

Back then, Huey Lewis and the News rattled the radio, and Ronald Reagan occupied the oval office.

“That was when you first started seeing people sleeping in their cars,” he says, looking out the window. Eye contact between us is rare.

Were there no homeless people?

Ketchum remembers “bums, winos and transients” living under the Burnside bridge, but seeing families sleep in cars in the Reagan years was his first evidence that the economics had changed.

“When families are sleeping in cars,” he says, “you have a more serious condition. People aren’t choosing that.”

Rents were not skyrocketing then; jobs just seemed to vanish. Evictions arrived, people moved outside.

When did you lose your job?

“I did alright in the Eighties. I did restaurant work, and when I lost a job, I was always able to get back in.”

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Eventually, Ketchum found himself working in a plastic molding plant, Molded Container, in Southeast Portland, where now lives an Orwellian cluster of mysteriously quiet townhomes.

Ketchum had one week off a year until the plastic factory shut.

“I worked mindlessly, he says. “It was nothing spiritually fulfilling.”

He shifts his focus from the window to me, finally, and beams at me like a grown boy elated that someone is still listening.

He says the corporation moved to a more “business-friendly community” somewhere in the Midwest. (Online records show the corporation—founded here in 1957—is still located in Sellwood.)

“I think the problem is that Portland discourages business from coming in,” Ketchum says. “There’s a lot of environmental concern, you might say.”

Or, he suggests, it’s got to be the “right kind” of business.

“It puts people out of work,” he says, “but on the other side, whatever they put in, puts other people to work.”

Though he identifies as a “deeply-rooted Christian,” I wonder if Ketchum’s quasi-Buddhist perspective has kept him afloat all these years, still able to smile despite living in only a ‘sleeping room’—a situation he resists describing in detail but I sense is not particularly safe or comfortable for him.

In ages-old tradition, the young man Ketchum ventured north to work on a pollock processor vessel out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, called the Ocean Rover.

I tell him that every summer, I commercial fish in Bristol Bay, northeast of Dutch.

Kevin’s face brightens. We reach out for a high-five, and instead our hands clasp. For a long, quiet moment, we exchange waves of empathy, even brotherhood.

I’m don’t think I’m projecting this time: we’ve both been soaked by the mad ocean, pushed to our physiological and mental edges by interminable days and nights of grueling work through high seas and big storms.

Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to that edge. Some never leave; others never escape.

I feel oddly connected to this man, to his story. Suddenly, it is our story.

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I tell him how, at the beginning of the recession, I lived in my car, near penniless, with my girlfriend and dog, for months on end; that the sunroof broke and the rain poured in while we slept; that the police tapped too often on our windows as we reclined in sleeping bags, reading ourselves to sleep by headlamp.

“Yeah,” he says, “you have to find three or four places to alternate, so you don’t raise any eyebrows.”

For me, I wondered, where was this kind of support back then?

The community of people who just get it, whatever it is—whether commercial fishing, homelessness, or drug addiction—supports the survival of the individual. I never had that—in fact, out of judgment, I had refused even to communicate with other homeless people.

For me, the vast hopelessness set in quick—the kind that, fermented and concrete, leads to chronic homelessness. Young and arrogant, I refused to apply for social assistance and unemployment, figuring I had to pull myself—and girlfriend and dog—up by my bootstraps. That’s what the free market said I was supposed to do, right?

What’s your relationship to drugs?

Ketchum’s reply rolls off his tongue, an unpoetic recitation: “I haven’t smoked marijuana in twenty years. Alcohol in twenty-five. Wish I could say that about tobacco.”

This time, I choose compassion and understanding over judgment and criticism.

<<>>

Where do you see yourself, and Portland, five years from now?

I’m really discouraged about all this housing they’re building. A lot of people need housing. But that’s not happening. People are moving here, and people on the streets are going to keep living on the streets.”

This paradoxical reply seems to me to make perfect sense: developers will continue building housing, but those who really need it aren’t going to get in, except perhaps in the future affordable condos of what was once St. Francis Park.

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As much as I now operate in a world of “paradigm shifts,” “elevated consciousness,” and hopes of Bernie Sanders taking office, it’s humbling to note that there are still millions whose base needs are not being met.

As for Ketchum, he says, he’ll be glad to be “puttin’ around,” doing what he’s doing.

“I discovered that I enjoy sales,” he says. “So maybe if the right sales position comes along…right now, the newspaper works for me. I get to meet people, and maybe something will come from that.”

“I keep saying that I want to leave Portland,” he says, “but I grew up here. I’ve had my good times here and my bad times here. I just know where everything’s at.”

The Streets: A Sellwood Walkabout

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This is my street.

Children and elders stroll past with alarming frequency. Visiting parked vehicles over-occupy the local dearth of curbs. Test-riding bicyclists from the local shop take this street invariably; the chck-chcks of derailleurs changing gears ubiquitous as a cuckoo clock.

Time passes slowly here. I haven’t seen anyone enter the convenience store in months, yet they seem to pay the rent.

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When we landed here, we were told Sellwood was one of the safest neighborhoods in Portland. In a span of five months last year, I had a truck stolen and the window of the vehicle I bought to replace it shattered—during the peak of the rain! Auto theft and burglary are relatively common: our neighbors moved into a house, and that night, the daughter woke up to someone climbing through her bedroom window.

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Socks, board games, toys,, tea, coffee, spices, shoes, antiques—for which Sellwood/Moreland has long been known—all get their own stores. On wheels, Sellwood would be a quaint caravansary. The local bank is a five-minute walk from my house; for the first time in my life, the keepers of my money know my name. I hail from the out-of-town, from the commuter clan, the familiar but foreign zip code.

Living in the center of things offers me unlimited access to distraction.

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This building is a mystery. No advertisements, no signs, no clues to its business but a handful of old microphones sitting in a glass case inside the door. The owner of Jade Bistro, across the street, said that the actor Sam Elliot lunched there one day, and when he left, he walked into the mysterious orange building.

At least five Southeast Asian cuisine spots live within three blocks of one another. Another could have emerged in the last hour. Coffee shops and roasters, art supplies, a poorly-designed food cart pod, and one of Portland’s famous rubberstamp libraries occupy space within pajama distance of my bedroom. An apothecary peddles tinctures and crystals; the mortuary is the largest single building for what seems like miles; in fact, its west-facing wall, formerly a concrete pad facing Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, was muraled to mirror the birds and mammals once hoped to occupy the man-made wetland.

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The Refuge, which lays low between a high bluff of neighborhood and railroad tracks, plays a significant factor in my wanting to live in this area. Apparently, the view is important to others who also live here, and possess chainsaws.

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At night, despite the static din of the almost-visible interstate across the Willamette, I walk the trails through the trees ’til I can almost pretend I’m not in the city anymore; threats of cars speeding down 17th abate, the operating room glare of the new LED street lights fades into the traditional spectrum of urban light pollution; frogs croak at such a volume that I can’t hear my voice, and all goes relatively silent in my city brain.

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Oaks Bottom Refuge lends its name to a small amusement park across the railroad tracks. Bright white, the mathematically designed, cage-like beams of a roller coaster face eastward, toward the wild zone. In effect, the creatures that live in and visit the refuge operate in a hall of mirrors, an unfenced zoo, observed by humans in the wild.

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Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is an experiment growing from the dumping grounds of the displaced dirt when the interstate was built, a noble attempt to re-invent a wilderness where one had been destroyed. As Oaks succeeds or fails-however that line is drawn-humans learn that it’s okay to destroy wilderness, because we can just build it back.

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Today I found at least three things that were new to me along corridors I’ve walked, ridden, and driven hundreds of times. Not to mention, the cherry trees are popping!

What’s under your nose, in your backyard, down your street?

filter culture: reasons to love Portland

Last week, Willamette Week front-paged Martin Cizmar’s 28 Reasons to Love Portland Right Now, a contradictive list of privilege and pride for the quirky logic young people use to flock here from geographic armpits nationwide. Included in the list is a catalog of Portland’s pole positions in a slew of publications:

NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE

NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA

NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY

NO. 1 MOST RACIST

Just as a newly-wedded couple bears the Sisyphean weight of hope and expectation from families and friends, Portland’s bicoastal skyline is already playing the all-important role of projection screen for the newest wave of believers in the undead American Dream. The economy thrives. Jobs seem aplenty. PDX and our neighbor, Vancouver, WA, have the lowest residential vacancy rates in the nation.

It’s as if gas prices have dropped significantly — people start to buy gas-guzzling trucks again, because who cares how much [insert resource here] one uses, long as it’s cheap.

Oh, right. They have.

While I appreciate wholeheartedly Willamette Week’s optimistic gush of “enjoy this place now” attitude, there’s a chosen ignorance in Martin Cizmar’s offering that I can get pissed off about a developer “cutting down some pine trees,” or I could just forget about that, and check out all the pine trees around Mount Hood.

Hey, you can get pissed off about the displacement of black people, but you can go see them in Gresham, don’t worry about it!

I choose the role of devil’s advocate because the cost of Loving Portland is akin to the cost of Loving the New World. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying that love takes many, many forms.

Imagine the weekly colonial newspaper in Plymouth, Massachusetts, circa 1640: Six Reasones to Love Plymouthe Dearlye:

NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE

No. 1 RICHEST IMMIGRANTS

NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA

No. 1 MOST WHITE PEOPLE

NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY

No. 1 LEAST DARK PEOPLE

 

Portland, Oregon circa 2016 is a gleaming beacon of hope for the modern world, so much of which is suffering right now. Let us not become so entranced by our own image on the convex surface of our urban bubble that we forget Portland’s uniqueness and depth for its sheer popularity.

For what reasons do YOU love Portland?

 

 

choosing to belong

Choosing to belong is a prerequisite for an engaged democracy.
-Eden Trenor

As hordes of suburbanites flock back into cities; as migrant youth from the reddish Midwest find that the path to enlightenment (or at least social progress) leads toward the blue spots on the map; as the millennials who spent the entire Bush administration learning to hack continue to amass their fortunes, Portland now finds itself a playground for a generation of adults whose relationship to money and responsibility was largely formed to the tune of hip hop culture and trillion-dollar wars.

Portland is experiencing rapid and vulnerable change. No one knows what the external landscape will look like in five or eight years. We have occasion, however, to mold our internal landscapes – which will, in turn, influence how we see what happens in our streets.

Wait.

Before we go there, let’s back up a minute.

Hi. My name is Sean. I’m a tall, kind of awkward, white sis male. I’ve lived in Portland three years. Although I’m not particularly sorry for moving here, I’m learning that, like many places, Portland has a social history that began long before I arrived. Though I feel respectful of those who came before me, I have no idea if they would have, or do, welcome my presence.

This relatively new idea of honoring those who came before is a burden the colonists didn’t warn us about because they probably didn’t care. It’s heavy, too: as the great-great-etc. grandchildren of Euro-American “pioneers” who showed up in Native territory as cavalry or caravans looking to fill orders or find a safe plot of land, we intrinsically empathize with our ancestors (and often romanticize their quests with video games and school curriculums), but the memory comes with a dichotomous guilt, because we’re also, ideally, able to see the humanity of the colonized (read: expelled, murdered) people.

Let’s consider the name of the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing. After requesting the public to submit name ideas, the City refused the overwhelming consensus to name the bridge after Kirk Reeves, a famous, recently deceased Portland street performer, and instead settled on ‘Tilikum’ – a Chinook Wawa word for ‘people.’ So it was: Bridge of the People. Yes. To honor the people who lived in the region since before the last Ice Age, and who stewarded one of the most abundant salmon runs in the world until the early 1800s, when Industry arrived from the East.

It seems that everyone was happy with the name. Two installations of art donated by the The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sits ceremonially inaccessible at either end of the crossing, flanked by subtle No Trespassing signs. Lest a curious pedestrian meander over to gander at one of the pieces (each a part of a three-piece project called ‘We Have Always Lived Here,’ by Chinook artist Greg A. Robinson), a TriMet rent-a-cop will roll up to warn you that it’s both unsafe and illegal to sit in the grass (my wife and I had a picnic next to one on Christmas day, before we were shooed away).

Regardless of name, the ceaseless machine of progress dictates that the new bridge would have gone up and been named Abigail Scott Duniway, or Kirk Reeves, or Wy’east, and would have been everything that it is now: a pretty coat of arms for Portland’s ironic commitment to sustainability. That the former curators of the lower Willamette Valley (so named for former locals also) were given an honorable mention by the great, etc. grandchildren of their murderers and captors must be a step in the right direction. As would be, for example, a better understood history of the black community’s history in Northeast by the new residents and officers gentrifying and patrolling Killingsworth St., a history all but blotted out as social decline by the city of Portland.

Frankly, I don’t know what the ‘right direction’ is. Capitalism’s penchant for growth is chasing the tail of the American Dream, a fantastical, dragon-like character I’ve read about in Hunter S. Thompson books. I only know that if I focus on the landscape that I don’t like, on the external events I do not want to happen, I will only see that which I do not like, and do not want to happen. It’s an easy downward spiral we’re wired to follow down, down, down.

The predominant culture in the United States (media, government) did not offer an effective model to teach me to take responsibility for my actions, my feelings, or my community. I doubt I’m the only one.

Through this project, Stumptown Lives, I’m trying to make up for lost lessons. I love this town, and am choosing to belong here because I haven’t another place to go. I want to be a part of the change. It’ll be a journey – one for which I hope you’ll join me, or at least hold me accountable for my mistakes along the way.