Portland Cares

A few days ago, I was saddened to hear about the three stabbing victims on a Portland MAX(train), two of which died. Jeremy Joseph Christian, who is a white supremacist, attacked a woman in a hijab while three stood up to defend her. He told CNN he hoped his victims died and that Portland needs to wake up to free speech. My mind went all over the place, but kept hitting one point. The only time I have seen white supremacy flourish has been in areas where there are only white people. I saw it in Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, and Nebraska where such speech is not met with immediate consequences. Portland seems to be under that sway being 98% white, but there are many people who live there who will resist the hate and defend the victims. That’s a fair sight better than the places where I lived an walked: Indianapolis’ East Side, East St. Louis, and South Side Chicago. If anyone walked into those area shouting racist epitaphs and attacking people of color, those racist would quickly find themselves on the business end of a twelve gauge or a nine.

Warren Central

Two years after I graduated high school my brother was a Junior, and came across a Nazi skinhead–the only Nazi skinhead in Warren Central–who dressed the part with his shin high red doc martens with the white laces, tightly cuffed blue Levi’s, and a white shirt. In between classes this guy would stand in the hallway shouting “sieg heil!” My brother told him to knock it off or he might end up in the hospital. In the early to mid-90s when my brother and I went to Warren, white people were the minority–not by too much, though only 60/40. Racism existed, but racist comments, for the most part, were kept close to the chest. To utter such things would cause the same kind of riot that happened in my Junior year. The guy wouldn’t listen, and kept yelling out his Nazi sentiments.

During that time there was construction taking place on the tunnel connecting the school to Walker Career Center. Walker Career Center is something akin to a trade school where people can learn skills such as printing, typing, welding, electrical work, and mechanical work to prepare them for a job after graduation. Getting to class on time from the Career Center to the school, or vice versa was next to impossible–many people ran. Depending on the weather kids will walk through the tunnel or walk outside. There were many pieces and tools around the jobsite such as two by fours and lead pipes, and one afternoon, in between class, the Nazi was beaten to a pulp with fists, pieces of wood, and pipes. I never advocate violence of any kind, but when things like that happen, the attacking party has a legitimate grievance. Obviously, such a response does not curtail racism, but a racist will think twice before he or she will assert their stance. Three men stood up for the young lady in the hijab, and two gave their life so that a woman could live in safety. Today, people rallied together in downtown Portland to march against hate. This is the better response.

This is the Portland where I lived and loved.

Portland-Oregon

When Ronnie and I lived in Portland we were on the southeast side off Powell & SE Cesar Estrada Chavez. It’s a beautiful side of town a mile north of Reed College, and a ten minute bus ride from downtown. We didn’t have our little van at that point, and Ronnie and I got around Portland using the MAX and buses. Living in Portland, we didn’t need a car anyway—and neither did most of the residents. The people who did drive usually came from Vancouver, WA, fifteen minutes north, or from surrounding suburbs. Everyone else made use of bikes, electric bikes, longboards, or the mass transit system. Almost everyone had a rucksack of different shapes and sizes to store their computers, wallets, phones, food, water, and whatever else would be problematic to carry by hand. I did it when I lived in downtown Indy when I would ride my bike to the Ivy Tech campus or take the bus if the weather turned nasty. Rucksacks are as essential as Ford Prefect’s towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—always have your rucksack. Walking around Portland, I felt like I was living in Kerouac’s “rucksack revolution” as stated in The Dharma Bums. In the morning, Ronnie and I would pack our laptops, folders, books, water, and food, and take the bus to Southeast Grind to drink coffee while looking for jobs and apartments.

Southeast Grind 1

There is a parking lot behind Southeast Grind, but it can only hold a few cars so most people take the bus or ride their bikes. Walking in to the coffee shop there is a waist high barrier on the right, and on the left is a cork message board at eye level—both sides are covered with local music events, art shows, rallies, etc. Walking up to the cash register to place our order there is a bar where people sat hunched over the computers writing and reading while talking to the barista. Behind them there are metal tables and chairs, couches, and cushy chairs, and outlets are numerous for phone chargers and computer plugs. Most of the people there are from the neighborhood, students from University of Portland and Reed, and they are typing away at their computers like a trumpet player clicking his keys while blowing to get the right chord. Many people sit there for hours and well into the night because Southeast Grind is a twenty-four coffee shop. Brilliant!

Southeast Grind 2

A coffee shop opened all day and all night, and filled with artists and students does cultivate a warm energy, but that is not why we liked going there. Portland is extremely affluent, and the economic disparity is blatant. Portland has one of the highest homeless rates in the country with something close to 2,000 people sleeping on the streets. When Ronnie and I would go downtown to the farmer’s market we saw people sleeping on the benches in dirty clothes as people walked by. We saw the same thing at a Buddhist festival in a park near the Willamette River. Driving around downtown at four in the morning, we also two homeless guys beating each other for a corner. Because of gentrification rent is extremely high—over $1,000 for a studio apartment no bigger than a bedroom, and employment opportunities are slim to none. It’s not fun to be poor and struggling in Portland, but what I noticed is no one struggles alone.

As Ronnie and I sat on our computers in Southeast Grind, I noticed a homeless guy walk in with a guy in a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. They sat at the bar, and the guy in sandals ordered them both a coffee drink and the homeless guy a sandwich. I caught the conversation, and was surprised to learn that Sandalman didn’t know the homeless guy. Sandalman saw the homeless guy on the street and offered to buy him some coffee and a sandwich because the homeless guy was a fellow human being. Sandalman’s attitude is a common thing in Portland. That is one of many acts of kindness I have seen throughout Portland, and when Ronnie and went to regular services at Shambhala Center the people there were fully accepting of us—I even met some guys who were friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There is genuine compassion and a genuine desire to help others because what I saw from Portland is we are all in this together. Portland is called the “Rose City” because of its environmental beauty, but the beauty of the people are what constantly blooms regardless of the season and weather.

Plot Twist

smith-coat-of-arms-family-crest

This morning the alarm went off at 4:45. I slept out in the living room on the hide-a-bed Ronnie’s mom found for us at a Goodwill in the Castleton area. Because Ronnie’s back was hurting last night, and I wanted to be out of bed before the devil to get in some walking, I opted for the living room. The mattress is firm, and with the added comforter for padding, the sleep was quite comfortable, and I did not wake up stiff and groggy as I normally do. The reason, I got up so early to walk had to do with meeting a friend at a coffee shop this morning, but with the weather change added another reason. It’s hot. Yesterday was eighty-three, and today will be eighty-seven. It’s also spring and that means there is pollen and freshly cut grass to make breathing difficult. When heat is added, I feel like there is a weight compressing my chest and shoulders—the movement is sluggish. Mornings are terrible, but in the afternoon there is quite a bit of humidity in the air that feels like a towel soaked with hot water breaking your neck with its sopping weight. This morning was a little humid, but I didn’t think it would would be too bad so I put on my jogging pants, wore socks and shoes, and wore my Dharma Punx hat. I was feeling sluggish and overheated, but I was able to watch the transition from night, to twilight, and the beginning of the sun rise. A new day.

I’ve been going through another reading and listening of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road because I miss the West, and the burden of my longing only increases as I read about Indiana’s General Assembly green lighting a religious freedoms law for students. The language implies that any student can carry religious items or conduct religious practices on campus. So ideally, a Muslim kid could bring his prayer rug or a Wiccan could perform a sacred rite during lunch, but that won’t happen. There will be a fuss from Evangelical Christians who behave like former Prom Queens who wants her popularity recognized outside of high school. In the world outside of high school she is a dime a dozen. Rather than accept this fact as an adult, she will live in denial and keep her high school mentality well into mid-life making her an unbearable presence at work. I am not implying The West is Utopia, but I never experienced an imposition from an unread religious group. Christians are active out in the West, but what I saw in Portland they were all about taking care of the poor, the homeless, people of color, immigrants, and so on without raising any attention to themselves. The West has its own issues, but Conservative Christianity isn’t one of them.

The narrator, Will Patton, captures the voices of Kerouac and the characters in On the Road making you feel as if you’re in the muggy Bayou with Bull Lee (William Burroughs), in the car holding on to your seat with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) at the wheel, or in Carlo Marx’s (Allen Ginsberg) living room rummaging through books and cigarettes. As I make the laps around my apartment complex, I can hear the roar and hum of the morning traffic on I-65, and I feel the itching increase. I also smile. Driving across the country, I can now reminisce with the feelings of trepidation over the unknown as Kerouac did with his trips—but my trip was relatively safer. I had interstates with rest stops and wi-fi. Kerouac buzzed around the United States before the advent of the interstate and the country wild with highways with slight dabs of urbanity west of the Mississippi. I finish my walk. I go inside to peel off my clothes so I can shower and shave, and start the day.

When I finish the time is 6:25. I opened the door, “Hey, honey. It’s 6:25. Time to get up.” As she moves about beginning her morning routine, I ask her, “What would you like for breakfast this morning?”
“Oh, I’ll have some toast.”
“With butter?”
“How many pieces?”
“I’ll have two.”
I go into the kitchen to turn on the stove. Our toaster died a couple months ago so I use the skillets to make the toast. Even if we had a working toaster, I still would have used the skillets. Ronnie’s mom stayed with us all last week, and she brought her bread maker. Mom makes the best bread, and she cuts them thick—too thick for toaster. I’ve no complaints. She makes her bread so thick and hearty it can feed a body with one slice. I made myself three slices cut in half for peanut butter and jelly to eat at the coffee shop, and I started the electric kettle to make coffee for Ronnie.

The mornings are rushed. Ronnie usually leaves for work at 7:00 so she can be home by 5:00 and have a few hours to relax with crafts and YouTube. Mornings like this one where I drive her to work, she can go a little slower and eat her breakfast in the car. This morning, I took my time, because I didn’t want to forget about today. What is so significant about today? Two years ago today, Ronnie and I were married at The Federated Church in Carlinville, IL. That was a stressful time. Any wedding planning is stressful, but we made it worse by doing it during our last semester at Blackburn. We both had our Senior Seminars to do, and that required a lot of research and self-loathing in addition to the regular amount of work we had with our classes. She was a Psychology major doing her seminar on eating disorders and I was a Literature major doing his seminar on the Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and the book’s relevance to 21st century spiritual seekers in America. I spent hours researching, printing articles, writing, meeting with my adviser, revising, and keeping up with my normal work load. The time spent was worth the effort because I learned I am no literary critic or public speaker. With all the packing for our move across the country, the reading and writing, and planning a wedding, I am surprised I graduated with a 3.415 GPA—.85 away from being on the Dean’s List for the third time at Blackburn.

A week after our wedding, Ronnie and I were on the road to Portland, OR. The trip had a couple set-backs involving us getting lost in the middle of Wyoming at 2:00 in the morning facing down a mountain lion, and almost flipping the rental SUV over lava rock in southern Idaho because a deer threw her body in front of us. We made it to Portland two days behind schedule, and things were not working out as we hoped as were promised. We stayed with a friend of Ronnie’s who told us jobs would be easy to get, and we would find a place of our own in no time. When we arrived, her roommates were slightly hostile towards us. We asked one roommate, whom we got on with, if we did something, and she told us Ronnie’s friend did not tell her we were coming. We were also told Ronnie’s friend has a bad habit of not communicating to her roommates about anything. Finally, the friend lied about her landlord coming in to do an inspection. We had to leave, and stayed in a Motel 6 across the river in Vancouver, WA. We didn’t care about the lie, Ronnie and I were just glad to be out of that situation. We still had to find jobs and a place to live, and we were having no luck in Portland or Vancouver. I wanted to make this work. I wanted all the pain we accumulated on the road to be worth something. So I kept forcing Oregon on us.

Ronnie and I decided to visit Eugene, OR to see if finding work and an apartment would be easier. We spent the first night at a motel that had bugs crawling everywhere. Originally, we had the room for two nights, but we got our money back for one night, and found a nicer hotel for a cheap price across the street from a mall. I was still stressed because our money was slowly depleting, and Ronnie finally told me, “You know, we don’t have to stay in Oregon. We can go anywhere we want.” All the stress went away. Yes, our van was packed, we were homeless, and we could go anywhere. I was so weighed down on making Oregon happen that I didn’t realize we had the road before us. We could go anywhere we wanted. We still can. Her statement summarizes our relationship. We have complete freedom, and we do not bind ourselves to the arbitrary notions of what we “should” do.  We also complement each other in our journey. Her usual default mode is worry and stress when circumstances look bleak and out of control, but I am the gypsy telling her everything will be fine. How do I know? I don’t. Opposite to her, I had a life full of instability since I was born. There was always the threat of going without food, of being homeless, of my family completely disintegrating, and I had nowhere safe in home, school, work, or church. I learned quickly a stable life is an illusion, and even the most established are a paycheck, a phone call, or an email away from losing everything. Regardless of the circumstances, no one is truly bound to anything, there is always freedom.

There are times, though, when Ronnie and I switch roles. I, too, am prone to worry and stress, and more so after I we were married. It is one thing to live that five by five life when you’re single, but takes on another dimension when you’re in a relationship. I get caught up in what I think I should be doing, and those things dissipate. I become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety because the instability caused my previous relationships to dissipate. Before Ronnie and I were married, I told her, “I can’t promise you a comfortable life, but I can promise it will be interesting.” I did not say this to her to give myself an out, but looking back upon my life, I thought it would be foolish to promise something I never had. She wanted to marry me anyway. She told me she didn’t care if we had the biggest mansion or a cardboard box on the street just so long as she is with me. That does sound cliché, but a week after our wedding, she got in a car with me to drive across the country to Portland, OR. She followed me even though I had no idea what would happen, but she wouldn’t go back and change anything.

Ronnie has made my life considerably better. She understands human nature and is compassionate, and earned her degree in psychology to give her insight academic weight. She understands how much I have to work to unlearn the teachings of my family, the trauma I experienced from them, and to learn the things they did not taught. That statement does not imply my family is responsible for who I am, but it does mean I need to surround myself with better examples so I know how to apply new teachings and new ways of thinking. Somewhere along the way, I adopted their violent, arrogant, and condescending attitudes as a hiding place when my soft underbelly was kicked. Unfortunately, my choice has made my life more difficult than it already had been. I would have eventually overcome those easy choices, but being with Ronnie increased my rate of evolution. I’m not her project, I’m her life partner. We’re a team, and we both work to help the other grow. This is one of her parts in my life. This is how she changed my story, and this is how she is helping me break the Smith/Culbertson cycle. Who Ronnie is, transforms me into a better human being.

American Jesus

broad ripple

I’ve been going to the Broadripple Village since 1989 before MTV told all the jocks that Doc Martens and flannel shirts were “cool.” I also lived in the village in the late 90s. In those days the village was truly alternative and punk rock, and catered to many artists. Since then there has been an influx of the bourgeois from the North Side and the northern suburbs. Despite this current trend there are still pockets of artists and musicians, and people with good vibes. There is no direct route to Broadripple from an interstate or intrastate, and involves a lot of in town driving on the narrow road of College Ave. When I live on the East Side the quickest route was a brief stint on I-465 to East 56th St., to Kessler Blvd., to Keystone, and finally East 62nd St. Now that I live on the South Side–at least for the next six weeks, my direct route is I-65 North to Washington St., turn right on College, turn right on Kessler, and turn right on Guilford. That’s the route I took today to meet Eric at Monon Coffee Company in the heart of Broadripple Village.

Today is a chilly sixty-five degrees with damp air and looming, overcast skies. The weather forecast calls for on again off again showers with temperatures ranging from the sixties to lower seventies, but a high of eighty-two on Sunday. That’s Central Indiana for you. During the spring season you have the chance of experiencing all four seasons in the span of a few days. There is a scientific explanation for this, but I do not know at present, and my suspicion is this wide of range on the weather spectrum is normal for the Ohio Valley region in the United States. The present weather is to my liking, though–it’s neither too hot or too cold, and perfect for chinos, sandals, and cardigans. It’s also ideal weather for opening the patio door to listen to the birds singing their greeting to you, me, and the sky, and my cats to engage with the sparrows who taunt them from the fence. I also have to monitor my cats who are of a mind to tear through the screen door to teach the sparrows some manners. They’re barn cats from outside of Omaha, NE, and they’ve seen a thing or twenty living through summer tornadoes and harsh winters.

Driving north on College Ave from Washington St is smooth until East 16th St due to gentrification, and a car rattling, tire damaging mess from East 16th St. to East 42nd St., and the roads are narrow. God help you if you get stuck behind a car waiting to turn left. You have to merge quickly and carefully because the average speed is 45 mph (the posted speed limit is 35 mph), and there is street parking. The only time College is a traffic nightmare is  during morning rush hour, from 7-9ish, and the evening rush hour, from 4-6ish; but the evening traffic can be extended if it’s Friday, and an all day event on Saturday. I drove to Broadripple after the morning rush hour and had little difficulty.

In the last ten years, parking has become an issue. If you park in the strip mall across from the McDonalds, or the Kroger on Guilford, you can get fined by the traffic monitors, or they will tow your car. In the 90s, nobody really cared, but now the rich dollar was coming in and businesses don’t need people like me parking where ever, and walking around with no money. From a business standpoint, I understand the complaint, but from a social point of view, I think they’re being assholes placating rich assholes who are in the village because they were told by their companies and social media that Broadripple is trendy. Pause for a moment to feel the dull throb of my eyes rolling on the computer screen. To avoid any hassle, and paying to park, I park on one of the side streets. Walking or riding a bike is preferable in Broadripple because the strip is a narrow clusterfuck, and a pain in the ass to drive through any time of day. Today, I went over the bridge and parked on the same street as Good Earth, and walked the two blocks to meet Eric.

Eric is the associate pastor at Lynhurst Baptist Church, and is one of very few people I can engage with on matters of philosophy and religion–that’s his academic background. He comes from the same rough area of the East Side as I do, and he went to the same high school graduating two years before me. He also ministers to a similar rough area on the West Side. He speaks my language in both hood and academic. Our friendship is not based on religion, nor is he threatened by my bare knuckled questions on matterss of faith and Christian behavior. In fact, Eric is just as hard hitting in his answers and is a good sparring partner. Eric’s degree is in philosophy with an emphasis on the classics whereas my degree is in literature and religion covering some of the classics, but focusing on the historically recent existential philosophers–my favorite being Jean Paul Sartre. Like me he moves in and out of the street and ivory tower, adapting to the company he keeps, but does not stay isolated in one area. He enjoys philosophy, but he also is around people broken by poverty, despair, and drug addiction who care more about when they’re going to eat next and very little of Aristotle’s different approaches to argument; however, Eric will put on his academic brass knuckles when engaging with the local government who want to displace those in his church. I do not share in his religious tradition, but I respect his expression of faith. He makes it real, and, by default makes Jesus real instead of the blankey many Christians have created. Eric’s practice reminds me of the statement made by the author of James’ epistle in the New Testament, “You say you have faith, but I will show you my faith by what I do.” Respect.

Eric had just returned from a week long trip to Seattle. His wife had to go for work, and he went with her to take in the people and some of the sites. I joked with him, “Motherfucker, better hook me up with some coffee from Pike Market.” Mostly, I suggested he get out to see the ocean and mountains when he got the chance. Seeing the Pacific was easy. Where they stayed downtown, Eric and his wife were in walking distance to the ocean, but could only see the mountains in the distance. I was a bit homesick. I lived three hours south in Portland, and I hated moving, but I had to because of money. I miss the ocean, I miss Mt. Hood, I miss the creativity, and I miss the coffee. So when Eric returned, I listened  to his stories, living vicariously through his impressions.  Later, I tasted his experience. He brought me back coffee from Pike Market. I did not expect this, but overjoyed just the same. Before I went home, I went over to Good Earth to pick up some coconut water, and they were cool with me grinding my beans in their store. When I returned home, I brewed the coffee to drink while I did some writing. The taste brought me back to the northwest as the Pacific tide rock back and forth on my tongue. I was in Seattle. I was on Cannon Beach in Northwestern Oregon soaking my feet in the ocean while burying my hand in the oncoming tide. I felt the comfort of home. I felt the divine connection reminding me of a quiet stability  at the core of constant change. Outside, gentrification emerges, infects, and decays, but inside I am content. Always at peace. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said that if “anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward.” True, Eric gave me the coffee because he is my friend, but I can’t help but think, according to his faith, that his friendship is fueled by his desire to be a disciple of Jesus. As I have written before, I had to disassociate from Christianity and church because of consistent poor examples; but I know Jesus when I see him.