I’ve just moved to Portland, Oregon and am starting a whole new life as a full-time writer. I retired from college teaching in December, and so far, everything about the move is good, right, and wonderful. I left Houston Feb. 4, stopped in Arizona to visit my elder son, Chris Virden, and his family, and arrived in Portland Feb. 10. I’m not sure how much I will write in the blog, but I am in motion in a different way than I have been in the past–and a few of my friends have asked me to open the blog again, so I’m doing it today and we’ll see how it goes. Stephen Brody, who came into my life via the blog when he picked up on a tag to Sintra, the town where he lives, was a frequent commenter to the blog. I’ve invited him to write as often as he wants to. He is (I think he will agree) a little more cynical than I am, and (in my opinion) his views–even when, maybe especially when I don’t agree with them–add a little spice to the blog. I am not interested in being one of the world’s most popular bloggers, nor in making multiple entries per day. I am fascinated by Eleanor Roosevelt’s columns. I thought she published them once a week, which seemed reasonable to me; but then I learned she published them SIX days a week, which I think is a bit much. I will begin with a 3-page piece I wrote a few days ago to describe my trip to Portland and my first impressions. Here that is.
Portland (PDX for short) is more than my sweetest dreams of what it would be, based on my first two days here. My first shock is that the drivers are courteous and reasonable. They stop for pedestrians in crosswalks; they yield right of way; and they even allow lost people with Texas license plates to change lanes as often as we need to. the average driver seems to ask herself, “How can I be most generous as I drive today?” Among these people I feel like an aggressor. This is going to take some getting used to. Yesterday I went shopping for food and furniture and got lost, rather wonderfully, among snowy hills. The roads were dry and safe, but the scenery was breath-taking–and I never left the city. I ended up by accident in Gresham, at the extreme northeast; and then in Hillsboro, in the extreme southwest. I crossed five different bridges over one or two rivers. And everywhere I drove, the other drivers were generous and easy, and when I stopped to ask for directions, whoever I asked was affable, pleasant, and good-humored. The salespeople were honest and answered my questions, even when the answers weren’t in their favor. Right now two handsome young guys are assembling my Ikea furniture as we listen to Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This morning two other guys delivered my bed, found it was defective, and took it away. Later they brought me another one, more costly than the one I’d chosen, for the same price, and they threw in a little white teddy bear to apologize for the inconvenience. Hell, I was apologizing to them. I feel like I’ve landed on a different planet. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.
First there was the TRIP. An hour out of Houston I sneezed. By the time I was on the outskirts of San Antonio, my nose was running like a tap, my ears and throat were burning, I couldn’t breathe, and I was sneezing in cycles of five. I had Zicam with me, so I started taking it, and I made it to Ft. Stockton that first night. There I found a Wal-mart and bought a couple of gallons of water, a box of salt (for gargling salt water) and a can of chicken soup, and I continued the Zicam. Next morning I drove to Van Horn for breakfast in a cafe where everyone but me was smoking cigarettes. The scenery between Ft. Stockton and Van Horn was red and orange mesas, tumbleweed, scrub, sand, and wide, wide open spaces broken by great heaps of mountain, wrinkled and creased like so much fabric. I looked for postcards, but apparently they aren’t being made any more–or if they are, they’re not being sold at convenience stores, gas stations, and restaurants on the way from Texas to Oregon.
Tuesday night, after a very long drive, I made it to Tucson. Chris’s life has changed completely since his wife left the picture. He’s forty-one and is a one-woman man who can’t live without a woman, apparently. He fell in love with his wife when they were both fifteen, and he stuck with her till last year, while she became increasingly addicted to methamphetamines and a cocktail of other drugs, spent everything they owned and ran them thousands of dollars into debt, and finally came down with full-blown AIDS. She’s still alive, barely, and still “using.” Still, it was she who left him, not the other way around. Within a week of the wife’s departure he had hooked up fortuitously with the woman he shares his life and home with now: Milla. Milla is a big soft 26-year-old woman with a beautiful face, long golden hair, and a fascination with the macabre. She calls herself a witch, although she isn’t actually a Wiccan; she decorates her house with giant hanging spiders, skulls, gargoyles, candles, bundles of dried roses hung upside down, and a collection of shrunken heads (not real ones). I asked her if it’s her religion or a style-thing, and she said, “It’s a style-thing, mostly. I don’t belong to a coven or anything like that. I just can’t see myself decorating with chintz and porcelain figurines, ya know?” She works full-time as a dispatcher for a moving company that also runs storage facilities in several states, so she works with truck drivers and nervous clients all the time. She has a low, calm voice that probably comforts those clients in the midst of their various life crises; and she has firm boundaries and rock-solid convictions that are no doubt helpful with the truckers. Chris has his own fascination with the dark side and acquired a lifesize green-faced chainsaw massacre manikin complete with “bloody” saw. That stands in the corner of the living room.
They have three dogs: an aging half-dachsund half-pit-bull mix; an impossibly stupid but loving young hound; and a mean-spirited, yappy, horny, vicious one-eyed chihuahua. They also have three cats–a head-butting black (named Salem), a lithe and affectionate gray, and a very shy white who spends most of her time on top of the shelves. They have an aquarium and three terraria, each with an enormous tarantula in it.
Best of all, they have Crystal: nine and a half years old, very dramatic (where did she come by that?), eager to please, verbally expressive, and impossibly dear. I fell in love with her. I’d met her before, but two things were different in the past: she didn’t read yet, and her mom was still there, making her (and everybody else) crazy. In the past the house was filthy and in total chaos, meals never got cooked, shopping never got done, dirty and clean laundry piled up on the floor, and a succession of pet snakes (and their prey) got loose and could be found under the beds or piles of laundry. In that mess, Crystal distinguished herself only by screaming and making demands she had every right to make, but which got her nowhere. Now it’s a whole different scene. She’s taking cello lessons, she does her homework, and she loves to read. For a treat the second day I was there, she asked if I’d take her to Barnes & Noble. We spent a couple of deliriously happy hours there, and she showed me how she loves the touch of book covers and the smell of the pages (“See, Grandma, the colored pages smell different from the black and white pages, and the glossy books have a different smell from the soft paper ones”). She chose animal stories, fairy stories, and tales of princesses, and she even asked me to read one aloud to her. I was in heaven. She is having a completely different life than Casey had. More on him in a moment. The house where she lives is clean (if a little bizarre), there’s a regular routine, everybody has a job and knows what their job is, and there are no drugs of any kind allowed. Well–other than Chris’s prescription drugs. He has high blood pressure and a tendency to allergies. He and Milla both smoke, and he brews his own beer.
I didn’t see or talk to Chris’s first-born, Casey, who spent a few months living with me in Texas in 2007. He’s now living with his girlfriend’s grandfather, who is a junkie and lets the kids do all the drugs they want. I called Casey’s mom, the ex-wife, had a cordial conversation with her and asked her to tell Casey I love him and tried to find him when I was in town. There’s no phone where he lives.
Tucson was bright and cold, shiny and crisp. It felt less depressing than it has on all my other visits–is that Tucson, or the family I was staying with? Hard to say. But Friday morning I was on the road again, through the Mojave desert with its black rocks and red hills, to the desolate little town of Mojave, California. If it’s possible for a town to be uglier than Amarillo, Texas, it could only be Mojave, California. Against a backdrop of magnificent hills and wide forever sky, the town is a testament to human impermanence and the disgusting spectacle created by the one mammal that fouls its own nest: a flap of plastic bags and garbage, trailers and cheap bars, trucks, foul smells, and desolation excelling in sheer ugliness anything else I’ve ever seen. But the next morning before breakfast in Bakersfield, California, I changed planets. I drove through the last of the high desert and crossed over winding, foggy hills into a fertile valley full of orchards, fruit stands, green fields, and prosperity. That day, still coughing and loggy with a cold, I drove all the way through California, past Mt. Shasta, into Oregon. I made it to Medford, and then I collapsed in complete exhaustion at a Motel 6. The next day was Sunday, and I got to Portland around 1:30 p.m. after stopping for gas in Roseburg, where I learned that there are no self-service gas stations in Oregon (more jobs–very cool). The people look different. More hiking boots, fleece, and down jackets. Fewer women with makeup. Hardly any cigarettes burning anywhere. The building maintenance man had been expecting me and gave me the key to my new apartment–with new beige carpeting, freshly painted cream-colored walls, and a wall of windows with a fifth-story view of treetops, rooftops, one of the great bridges, a silver slice of river, some wooded hills, and a rolling sky full of a thousand hues of gray shot through with occasional patches of blue. The trolley runs on the street right below my window, and I can see dog-walkers, bikers, a modicum of traffic, and city pedestrians doing what they do.
The apartment is larger than the floorplan I’d been dreaming over, and six of the seven boxes of books I mailed from Houston have arrived. It’s a large, wide-open room of generous proportions, well-insulated (double windows, thick walls), and warm. I blew up my inflatable bed, unpacked my car and all the odd bits of my old life I had squeezed into it (including the lint-roller, my little Sony boombox, all my CDs, a squashed roll of toilet paper, one set of towels, the boxed set of the complete Proust which I’ve been reading–I’m on volume 2–and enough basic kitchen stuff to get started). Monday I hit the stores and bought bookshelves, an office chair, and a table (at Ikea), basic groceries (way cheaper than in Houston), a couch and an easy chair, and a bed. Last night I hooked up my modem and got connected to the web and email. Today the bed (but not yet a mattress) arrived, as did the shelves, table, and the director’s chairs I’d ordered from Houston. Now the two young men (graduates, they told me, of the University of Oregon–one in chemistry and the other in economics, “but we love assembling furniture and being our own boss”) have finished assembling all the Ikea furniture, raving about my view, and asking questions about Africa. After they left, I unpacked the six boxes of books. Shakti, the Buddhist priest I met last August (who is moving to Montana at the end of this month), joined me for tea in the late afternoon at the pub table by the window, sitting in my new director’s chairs, and I am still wondering if I will wake up and find the whole thing is a dream. It looks and feels like home, but it’s more than that. It’s possibility. It’s the place where I’m going to write and walk and meditate, write and meet new people, write and read and listen to music and watch movies and write. My work space (writing space) is all set up and feels perfect. Tomorrow I get the rugs and (I hope) a mattress; Friday the seven UPS boxes of household goods and clothes should arrive; and next week the couch and easy chair will be delivered. But tonight I already feel At Home.
Here’s the bottom line: for $288 a month I get this all-utilities-paid apartment and a numbered off-street parking place in the swingingest neighborhood in Portland. Sunday night I strolled around the corner and found a little place called The Laughing Planet that serves Slow Food. I got a bowl of vegetarian chili for $4.50 with a couple of fat slices of foccacia bread. I watched the people coming in the door: runners, bikers, young mothers, twenty-somethings in love, forty-somethings talking politics; and I eavesdropped on this snatch of conversation: “So how are the jobs in the animal rescue field here?” “Booming. This is a dog’s town.”
A can of Progresso chicken soup that was $1.50 in Houston is $.90 here. A Kraft macaroni dinner, $1.13 in Houston, is $.68 here. There’s no sales tax. None. I can afford to live here on social security without having to work for a living. I’m still dazed, still spinning at too many rpms to be quiet yet, still tired and achy from the road, still coughing a little. Manko has not called since Sunday, when I said no to her request that I call Pizza Hut in Houston and order a pizza delivered to her house charged to my credit card. My cell phone is a local call for her, so she can call if she wants to. I worry about her, but I’m hoping her survival mode will kick in and she will start to take care of herself. By getting a job, first.
Seth and Chris are both happy men–34 and 41, both have found lives they can love, women they adore, work they enjoy and care about. Katt Lissard, who just returned from Lesotho, mailed me the pictures of Palesa and her baby boy that M’e Mpho’s relatives got last November when they ran into Palesa at a funeral in Johannesburg. Palesa’s eyes look troubled, but she’s wearing hair extensions and seems well-fed. Her baby does not have the physical signs of fetal alcohol damage, so maybe she was able to quit drinking while she was pregnant. It seems I really am free now to live my own life…if Manko can just pull herself together. I’m so happy I can’t quit grinning. It’s really happening. It’s my turn. Here it is. Hallelujah. I’ve made it to the promised land. Never, never have I been so happy. I’m sure this too will change, but in this moment I am deeply, profoundly pleased.
Tags: Blogs and Blogging, Chris Virden, Oregon, Portland, Travel