I was quick to pack up my belongings and sleeping bag and vacate the apartment before anyone would come by to check. Because I valued the space, I was certain to maintain the illusion of a vacant apartment and I would ditch my belongings in a bush or at a friend’s house during the day. On occasion I would spend a night on a friend’s couch, mostly to have access to the contents of their refrigerator but always returned to the safety of my empty apartment. It was during these days that I was taken into juvenile custody following an incident that involved a guy with a gun and I ended up at Waverly Children’s Home. Soon after my arrival, I decided that the group home no longer had anything to offer me so I released myself on my own recognizance. When the night person was putting the younger kids to bed I scaled a 6-foot chain link fence that separated me from my bus line back to Rockwood. Cops would shine their lights into the vacant apartment that evening as I sat motionless underneath the window. It was of course, my last known address, and even they could figure out where I would most likely return. The next day I decided I needed to find new accommodations and set out to find out what had happened to my mother.
I got ahold of Jerry and we decided to meet downtown. Some TriMet bus ran a convenient route from 188th and Glisan to downtown so it was easy to get into the city. At this time Jerry was 17 years old and had been on his own for over 2 years. Because he too was homeless and bouncing from couch to couch, I couldn’t really turn to him for a place to stay but he was always quick to meet up and hang out. We’d meet downtown and he’d let me tag along as he made his rounds. Jerry knew where mom was as he had seen her downtown. He described how he and a group of friends had happened by one day and saw Mom fighting with cluster of drunken natives in a doorway. Jerry called to her, “Mom?” and immediately his status amongst his peers rose as they recognized this was the real thing. This wasn’t the normal dysfunction that most were escaping; this was the fucking bottom- immediate street cred. We headed in the direction where he had last seen her.
We walked a few blocks to O’Bryant Square or what is more affectionately known as Needle Park. I’m not sure if the park had acquired the nickname by 1980 but it was clear that it well on its way. Drunks were passed out on every bench and the others who were coherent enough to stand looked to me like they were up to no good. It was an unusually warm October day and gentle breeze carried the familiar city scent of urine. It smelled like Portland. The scene was surreal as it was just days after Mt. St. Helens had dumped another plume of ash on the city and gray mud was everywhere. We found mom sitting amongst her newfound family of Native Americans speaking with a slurred native accent. Now let’s be clear, Mom is a small white gal, completely Euro-white. Clayton was sitting nearby and I tried my hardest to avoid his drunken gaze. Jerry got her attention but the word “Mom” didn’t immediately register. It was obvious that Mom was completely incapacitated and unavailable for any help. I’m not sure what I imagined but seeing it with my own eyes put my situation in complete perspective. My mom was utterly lost and in her place was some drunken Indian woman whom I despised. Years later I would feel sadness and loss for my mother but at this time there was only anger and resentment. I was so angry that she didn’t see me standing here, needing her.
After a short-lived reunion, I tried to get some information from Mom, to try and fit some of the pieces together. Asking her why she had stopped coming home was useless as the only part of her answer I could understand was, “Kelli, you just wouldn’t understand.” I inquired about Jason and found out that she had left him in the care of her AA sponsor. At this point it was the minor successes that I had to focus on. No mind that Jason was dumped off on a family that he didn’t know, he had a bed, he had food and I assumed he was safe; this was a good thing. The more we talked Mom began to come around, to recognize us and recall the life from which she was running. The accent waned and sadness began to replace the drunkenness. Mom explained that she had “fallen asleep” in the park a few days earlier and woken up coughing, covered in volcanic ash. It took her a few minutes to understand that Mt. St. Helens had again presented the city with the gift of its belly and in those moments before clarity ensued, she thought she had died and gone to hell; a certain byproduct of her Catholic upbringing. “Like a sinful city summoned from its sleep to hear its doom. Little flakes of fire fell and powdery ashes fell softly, alighting on the houses of men.” The evidence of the story was still present in the gray clay in her ears and around her cuticles. I asked if she had a place to stay or if she was sleeping in the park. She assured me that she and Clayton had a nice room about a block away and offered to walk us over to show me her new digs.
Jerry and I walked with Mom to her new place, a block or so to the Cornelius Hotel. The Cornelius, or the “House of Welcome,” located on the corner of SW Park and Alder was built around the turn of the century and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the late eighties. In its heyday it accommodated the court of the Rose Festival, served as low income housing in the 50’s and housed the Continental Baths, a popular gay bathhouse, in its basement in the 70’s and 80’s. On this day it served as a weekly hotel for the underbelly of society, drunks, addicts and prostitutes. A number of drunks gathered around the entrance of the hotel, all male I noticed. Current Portland demographics show that only 25% of the unsheltered homeless are female and 44% of the emergency sheltered homeless are female, which was significantly lower in the early 80’s. Mom’s situation would put her somewhere in between these two categories as she was in an out of this weekly hotel and soon to be permanently out. In terms of safety, Clayton was of no help as he was one of the people inflicting violence upon her. In these days Mom faced countless acts of violence living on the streets, including rape. The pain I feel for my mother tempers the turmoil in my heart for my own hardships I was enduring at the time.
Mom led Jerry and I through the small, musty lobby up the stairs to the second floor. Thick layers of paint and peeling, rotting wallpaper covered what appeared to be beautiful woodwork throughout the hotel. The warmth of the day brought out the dank bouquet of alcohol, dirt and urine that immediately saturated the olfactory receptors in my nose. The stairwell and hallways were narrow and creaky and as we made our way down the worn carpet we could see that a number of the guests had left their doors open. We passed old guys laying on their beds and old guys staring out their open windows. We followed Mom to a door at the end of the hall, she opened it and welcomed Jerry and I in. The room was small with a dingy queen mattress covered in a pile of blankets along one wall and I remember a small cupboard that hosted a crockpot along the other wall. A chair and a dinky table were positioned under the window and I imagined Mom sitting by the open window staring out like the old man a few doors down. Mom explained that the shared bathroom was at the end of the hall. What was most confusing was that I sensed a hint of pride or accomplishment from Mom, not, “I’m embarrassed to live in such a shithole,” but rather, “look at my place, it’s not a bush.” I suppose when one gets this low, comparative self-reflection can be helpful. I surveyed Mom’s situation and couldn’t decide who was better off, she or I. Again, I was so filled with anger I didn’t have any room for the empathy that began to creep in so I settled on an ambivalence that lasted well into my adult years.
After a short visit, Jerry and I had seen enough. In her oblivion, Mom didn’t ask about either of us. She had seen Jerry leave home at fifteen and I suppose she expected I could easily do the same at thirteen. Although I assumed that Mom would be of no help the little trip downtown allowed me to completely cross her off my list and to move on. No more daydreaming that Mom would return and we would pick up our fucked up life where we had left it. This realization brought on a bizarre mix of emotions. Alone in my vacant apartment I was finally able to sleep comfortably knowing that no one could get in and cause me harm. I could lock the door, hide away and breathe. It was the first time in my life that the adults in my life were absent and the first time I experienced peace. But I was so young; I still depended on them for so much. I recognized my options were limited and if I ended up on the streets even more so. I wanted a life very different than this and I could see that this lead nowhere. I knew that if I was to depend on my family I’d have to get a thick skin to endure the abuse and neglect until I was old enough to get a job or go to college. Fucking adults. I gave myself a familiar pep talk, “Buck up Kelli, you can do this.” Within the next week, I reluctantly contacted my paternal grandmother, whose phone number remained the same her entire life, and asked if she could connect me with my Dad. I heard he was living in Texas with Vicki. Perhaps he would give me a few months before he would decide to schlep me off again.