We arrived in Portland in record time. It was fairly early in the evening, probably around six or seven. Of course, in 1978, Portland was a very different place but to all of us it was a magical place, a place for new beginnings, a place for reassessment. Small towns like Deer Lodge, have a way of holding you down and keeping you confined within the small minds of the people around you. One’s exposure to new ideas is immensely limited and what is acceptable, cool and innovative is dictated and controlled by those who wouldn’t recognize a new idea if it bit them in the ass.
We were still amped up and the excitement of this new beginning just added to it. I couldn’t believe how big this place was and Jerry marveled at to how high the street numbers went. Coming across the Burnside Bridge was like a homecoming, the large neon sign welcomed us, “Portland Oregon Old Town.” I pointed out the men sleeping on the streets and the strong waft of urine that floated in through the window. Homelessness was not unfamiliar to me but the quantity of the homeless certainly was. I had never seen anything like this and my eleven-year-old brain kept thinking, why don’t they just get an apartment?
I always find it humorous when I hear people talk about the hot new spot in town and with a hint of trendy “know” they add, “It’s in the Pearl.” It always brings me back to the day of our arrival in the magical new place. There’s a good reason why the Pearl District is the trendy new place in town; it’s called gentrification. Bob had found a weekly rental close to the waterfront in the Pearl District. I remember industrial buildings throughout the entire neighborhood. It reminded me of the opening of Laverne and Shirley, but instead of the spunky duo dancing and being playful, the homeless are laying at the sides of the buildings. The place was pretty sad, again, the strong odor of urine and the bleakness of filthy concrete and gray metal in every direction. Mom pulled into a small parking lot and we diligently followed and rolled up along side of the truck. Through open window mom proudly proclaimed, “we’re here!”
Upon our arrival we learn that Bob had rented a one-room place furnished with a small kitchenette, an old dirty queen size mattress on the floor, and a small couch and table. The bathroom was a shared bathroom down the hall. Welcome to our new home, I think. Mom explains that Jason can sleep on the couch and we can lay blankets on the floor for Jerry and I. Looking around I recognize that I will probably get attacked by rats during the night. I catch Jerry’s eye and realize he’s thinking the same and quickly adds, “Kelli and I can sleep in the car.” Mom, of course, being of sound mind and always capable of making wonderful decisions, agrees. I mean, it seems like a safe, quaint little neighborhood, right?
After setting up our sleeping situation in the car, Jerry decides he wants to explore this new home of ours, to wander around the neighborhood. Of course I should be very nervous but trust that all will be okay as long as Jerry is there. Besides, I’m not at all interested in him leaving me alone. I remember walking long blocks away from the river. Slowly, as we walk, the concrete gave way to small patches of grass and the palate slowly changed from gray to less gray. Fenced yards around crumbling Victorian houses began to appear and the people walking around appear to be less homeless than those behind us. As we approach the corner, a man calls out something that I don’t quite understand. Jerry, it appears, speaks his language and approaches this sly looking guy. I stand back and watch their exchange from a distance. I look behind me and recall the path taken from the river and plan my escape route. I feel a slight sense of security knowing that no one will be able to catch me if I need to run away. Minutes later, it appears as if Jerry has escaped the calamity I’ve created in my imagination and he returns to where I am standing a half a block away. I am relieved and feel much better that he is once again standing at my side. He announces that it is time to return to the “safety” of our car and that he has scored some pot for us.
The surroundings get drabber as we return to the river and veer toward the car. I’m sensing a zombie apocalypse as the seemingly dead homeless begin to stir. The setting of the sun and the cooling of the concrete have revived a number of slumbering dirty men. It is approaching dusk and entire day is catching up with me. It is funny to think that we started the morning in Deer Lodge MT, a distant memory a lifetime ago. The sense of adventure is dulling and I begin to welcome rest. We climb inside the car, I take the front seat, impeded by the steering wheel and my larger brother takes the uninterrupted back seat. Jerry quickly fires up the joint, negotiated from the smooth talker, and we sit in silence as we get high and come down.
I am amazed at the sound the rat makes as it walks across the gravel in the parking lot. With each step, this tiny creature creates an avalanche, the rocks careening down the mountainside. I look up at the window of Bob and mom’s tiny room, thinking certainly she will peer out soon to try and identify the source of such ruckus. She does not. I can’t figure out how this small rodent can make such a loud noise. He scurries past and the crunching of the boulders stop but the echoing of my breath and tunnel vision begins. The car narrows into a long hallway and each breath echoes off of the pinging metal walls. My breath becomes rapid to the point of panting as the walls of the car close in. My breath is so loud, it is echoing as if I am standing too close to a speaker on high reverb. I have forgotten that I am in the car and feel like I’ve been wandering in the loud metal tube for days when Jerry calls my name. Immediately, I return to the front seat of the car and Jerry is in the back seat, asking if I am ok. I explain that I cannot breath and feel like I am stuck in a metal tube. He reassures me that I am ok and that I need to calm down. He mentions that we just smoked a sherm, but I don’t know what this means (look it up). He reassures me that I will be okay and that we just need to ride it out. After about an hour or two of insanely heightened senses, my body begins to win and I drift off to sleep in the front seat of the car.