There’s a long yarn unspooling from his jaws, and there’s still a whole lot to untangle. A giant box of cds leaves him doing double duty as DJ, laser-spinning Marianne Faithful and the Cocteau Twins and a whole lot of troubled women that might find me fair company. This CD of Ms. Faithful was recorded when she entered her silver-haired years, and she sounds like a chain-smoking blue collar coaxed toward the microphone by her drunken karaoke counterparts. It’s not nearly as sad as younger Marianne trapped in a black and white time-machine, prisoner of evening variety shows and hair spray, posed for a portrait by stony hands. This isn’t loneliness; this is nostalgia. As her throat reports fire I’m thinking that there’s also something within me burning to the surface, a remake. Something that cannot be sorted clean. It’s then that I think he needs to play “Horses” in honor of Patti Smith’s prophecies, but that yarn has filled his cheeks and tied me and needs a pull to unwind.
Human contents of air-conditioned pod of refuge: man with a tribal wreath tattooed all around his leg, reaching up towards his knee. Despite sitting his bag remains draped over his shoulder, his eyes on his phone, his hands pulling at the pubic remains of a soul patch. “Nothingman” by Pearl Jam launches in the background, which inspires him to get up and take his shoulder bag and cell phone with him.
Six feet away, a man who has been stared down by grim shades: black hair, black shirt, grey pocket, grey pants, black shoes. He’s folded into a question mark to accommodate the chair and table, his shoulders sink low, and stickers cover his laptop and scream LA DISPUTE. I google it and discover a band from Michigan and suspect that we should hate each other and blame it on sports teams.
Three seniors crowd around the comfortable easy chairs, and when they ask to borrow the extra chair across from me I hope one of them uses it for feet, or as a makeshift card table. Instead the older man sits himself between the two women, as they remove lids and fuss with sugar packets and plastic cream cups and don’t say anything. A table opens up, and they take all their cups and containers and bagels and the chair that once held a ghost across from me with them.
Directly across from me: an older Asian women with threads of silver dancing down her scalp. The only skin I see is a patch escaping her sleeves, red roads traveling two inches down into elbow. There is book opened flat in front of her, and she tracks words with a highlighter between long looks out the window at the man with the leg tattoo and too many 90s adornments, avoiding Pearl Jam and pacing.
I like bars that look like hollowed-out bowling alleys, right down to the lingering smoke smell and people arguing over phantom scores. The booths all plastic and faded into beige, strange folds chased around metal until they anchor. The lights are overhead and on until someone who refuses to remove sunglasses complains, and with a flick of a switch the sad remains of a brown carpet better suited for a 70s-era airport, or a hotel room in Idaho, are suddenly disguised. Replacing the overheads is a slow moving globe of holiday colors, orbiting every face: the world is red, the world is green, the world is blue. These places don’t have jukeboxes, they have a DJ who hasn’t left the booth since 1986, a prisoner of records with Jehri curls on the cover and shoulder pads and shirts buttoned right up to the top and pencil mustaches. The Electric Slide is going to be played; it’s only a matter of time. The waitress has also never not been there, and she doesn’t come to take an order, she arrives with a great big bucket of ice, bottles of cheap beer jutting out from the frozen slab like they grew that way. Choose, and choose often. The chalkboard behind the bartender announces Tuesday as 10 cent wing night, and mozzarella sticks as a thing every day, all the time, along with a couple of things that come with a side of ranch dressing. There’s a bottle of Jack and another of Absolute and the Maker’s Mark occupies the high shelf, and the bartender is kind and twice the size of an average man, and the glasses he pours heavy into are dirty and no one is going to say shit. Then the DJ is moving his hands and talking fast to wild-drive us into George Clinton. Without a word every citizen of the middle-aged crowd herds onto the tiny dance floor for obligatory booty shaking. I am Pavlov’s Atomic Dog.
The world is red, the world is green, the world is blue.
I don’t think I truly love where I live until another describes it as a den of horrors.
Blame my Cleveland childhood. Going to school meant boarding a bus with the windows stuck open in winter and stuck shut in summer at 5:30AM. The bus took a snake’s path through the industrial parkway, before crossing the Harvard Avenue Bridge, which felt like crossing Mordor. Steels mills spouted fire all around us, dragons singing their death song. Between swallowing fat mouthfuls of this air and swimming in the grim green of Lake Erie, to the instant mashed potatoes and cardboard and ketchup pizza of school lunches, my body programmed to thrive on poison; too much organic material leads to rashes.
I’ve often wondered if the Cleveland Browns call a segment of the stadium “the dawg pound” because of the perpetual underdog status of the team, and the city itself, with hard to swallow nicknames like “the mistake on the Lake” and “city of the burning river.” Media (and movies) focus on the ongoing failure of sports teams, the staggering poverty, the government corruption. It’s also one of the only major metropolitan areas with a totally free art museum thanks to unusual commitment to the arts. It’s a city where I was able to get a scholarship to college, a city that supported the earliest days of my writing career, and provided opportunities that I happily took. It was where I got to be in a crowd shot of the movie “Major League” courtesy of free tickets distributed to Cleveland Public School students, where I stuffed tacos and burritos for $4.35 an hour, where you can still get a donut for under a dollar. It’s also where my great uncles were Saloon owners until prohibition (where they ran “soda shops” instead), where my great aunt worked as a secretary for Elliot Ness, and where my great great grandfather was the first councilman of the Warzawa neighborhood. It’s a city thick with history from 1796, and long before, where walking in older places means Rockefellers or fossils or rust, where the portions in restaurants are ridiculous and shopping malls don’t have to make fake snow. I love it. I hate it. You think it’s terrible; I like it more.
Then there’s Portland, the cuddly darling of the New York Times, the top place to move for San Francisco’s rent-suffering residents and small town sorts strangely dazzled by the douchery of D-grade TV shows. It’s described in squeals and exclamation marks, with the O replaced with a heart shape by thousands of starry-eyed people desperately seeking exodus. None of these adoring articles championing bicycle culture, liberal politics, and excellent public transportation mention the massive homeless camps that recall the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, the rapid rent increases that sharply contrast with salaries that have been stuck since 2000, the high unemployment and heavy reliance on food stamps, the lack of support for the arts and the ridiculously low corporate contributions to struggling nonprofits. They don’t mention how sickly so many become in a climate where mold and fungus thrive, how agonizingly long and grey the winters can be, how difficult it is to form community when so many are transplants in transition, and unlikely to stay. These affectionate declarations rarely note that the street fairs that once celebrated regional culture are constantly under threat, that New Seasons and Little Big Burger have kinda become our Walmart and Applebee’s (they’re everywhere), and the artists and strange sorts that once kept Portland “weird” are now being exiled to neighboring suburbs. I have loved and hated everywhere I’ve lived, but this is the first time I felt that the city hated me. After 12 long years I’ve been feeling ready to leave, my eye on just about anywhere else.
Then the New Yorker article happened, the great panic button reminding all the excited new citizens that they’ve moved into the Ring of Fire. In Cleveland, you know that the Cuyahoga River is the one that famously burned; in Portland, most of the new citizens and many of the old don’t understand that those mountains are also volcanoes, and there’s a little thing called the Cascadia subduction zone. When Hurricane Katrina happened, internet know-it-alls liked to scoff about how the whole city was built below sea level, so what did they expect? In the case of Portland, the whole city is doomed…and yet people keep moving here like the streets are lined with gold.
And yet this coming-doom thing isn’t new to me; I’ve been dreaming about Portland’s forthcoming boom for years. In the dream the ugliest part is that the skies darken in warning of a coming storm, which inspires many to hunker down in their houses and seek shelter in basements, when they really need to be running for the highest point they can find. This is what I do in this dream, and when I reach that high point I look over at what used to be my city and all I see is water. I’m an unexpected island dweller, clinging to an old cedar, flanked by a few friends who also remembered to run high. I’ve been writing about it for years, and wrote a young adult book around it that perhaps now is ready to be read.
If the promotional tide has finally turned and the golden city is one waiting to rot, I can’t help but love it just a little bit more. There are no heroes and no villains, and as soon as the hero shows his weakness or the villain outs himself as soft, they suddenly become so much more relatable to me. If these great trees and glorious hills are not the promised land, but soon to sink into murky waters, with internet blow-hards lying in wait to tell us all the reasons we should heed the warnings and run, isn’t that a very good reason to cling to those cedars a little bit tighter so that they’re loved all the way down? This is not the sort of thing someone seeking out an easy life will develop any affection for, but someone who was born and raised an underdog biting for every scrap might thrive in such a climate. If there’s any climate left to thrive in at all.
It started with trail mix. Since I’m allergic to nuts this is something that I shouldn’t eat, but laziness convinced me that once almonds and cashews are weeded out, the chocolate chips and sulfur-infused cherries that remain qualify as dinner. The nutritional takeaway is somewhere between Snickers’ bar and frozen pizza, and my stomach is still appalled.
The pile of pieces and parts was impressive, and grew as I pressed my own dumb again and again. I couldn’t toss them into the compost bin without feeling more California than Oregon, and since my bank account says I don’t live anywhere at all, they needed to be used. As an experiment I left a handful of nuts in a wooden bowl in my yard, assuming they’d make gourmet fare for foraging squirrels or nutria (Portland’s ROUS, for Princess Bride fans). Between compost and the sloppiness of humans, such creatures have grown accustomed to feasting on our food anyway. Ever see a bird flying with half a sandwich? It happens.
The bowl attracted the attention of one crow, who watched me very carefully from her perch on a nearby satellite dish. She watched as I watered outdoor plants, fussed with cats. She watched me right through my kitchen window, and while she monitored my activity, let the neighborhood jays feast on the contents of the wooden bowl. Crows are smart; I don’t doubt that they regularly use jays as their personal tasters. This crow also had an eye on my cats, who took turns arranging themselves in the window to try out their best bird calls on the jays. They’d have to toss aside several IQ points to try that on crows. Portland crows are big beautiful birds, and they gather in great noisy roosts all over the city. The average crow is basically larger than a cat, so the only cat this crow was interested in getting a read on was the Maine coon, Scooter, who lazily occupied an entire Adirondack chair. It doesn’t take extensive inspection to surmise that this largest cat is also the gentlest: a great big Buddha who once got an abscess because of his habit of capturing a bee in his jaws, holding it until it tickles, and then letting it go with a squeak. Really. He sulks when I kill house centipedes, and fully supports my capture-and-release spider program. Not a threat. The crow flew away.
The next day I rose to find three crows waiting for me, each arranged around the nearby satellite dish, looking into the kitchen window. I took a handful of nuts from the stockpile, and placed them in the bowl. They cawed, then took the cashews, leaving the almonds for the jays.
Now every morning starts more or less the same. The youngest crow, an adolescent who seems committed to the family unit (or maybe the crow equivalent of an adult reading comic books in his mom’s basement) starts squawking. Her squawk is different from the full throated “caw” of her parents, and she won’t quit under I wander outside dazed and toss a handful of nuts into the bowl. Note: they have to land in the bowl. For a few days awhile back I just tossed them into the yard, and the crows looked at me like I could no longer be trusted with nut distribution, and left them all to the jays. Logically one could deduce that the nuts are easier to see in the bowl from the air, but I think that’s how they know for sure they are for them and from me or my partner, and therefore safe. Or maybe they like the ritual. Within three minutes of proper bowl placement, all the nuts will be gathered, while at least one maintains watch on a wire. The adolescent will up her squawking game, furiously flapping at the crow with the most nuts stored away in her jaws. This crow will then mash up some of the nuts on the ground, gargle them, and regurgitate them into the mouth of the adolescent. This usually quiets her down. I keep an eye on the cats the whole time, as I don’t have the budget for the emergency room visit that would likely be required if one felt ambitious, and put a large bowl of water out on especially hot days for impromptu baths. We are friends.
They return the favor in unexpected ways. We used to have a neighbor who would amuse himself by rising early to stand on the sidewalk and play the same six bars on his trumpet, over and over again. Consider for a moment the tidal wave of curse words that would trail from my partner’s mouth in response to this unwanted wake-up call. The crows were equally unamused, and decided to demonstrate their feelings by dive bombing him one day, right in front of us, as we stood outside. The trumpet player screamed. Can you high five a crow? There are ways.
This is not my first friendship with crows. Awhile back I decided that I needed to get okay with handling dead things, and so I started lifting crows that had been hit by cars off of the roadway before they were pancaked flat. Crows mate for life, and form elaborate communities; when a crow is struck by a car, the full family sometimes assembles nearby to honor the fallen friend and support the widow. The ruckus is amazing. It is hard for me to imagine witnessing a friend’s death, and then watching him get brutalized again and again. The first time I lifted a crow from the concrete, the noise of outrage was deafening; when I placed the body on the green, they fell silent. I can’t say whether they understood what I was doing, but the next time they were silent the whole time, from when I lifted the dead remains to when the body touched green. I did this maybe a dozen times before I relocated to a neighborhood with fewer crows, but while I lived there I felt close to the crows, and that they remembered. It felt special, but I know that they don’t just remember me.
There have been many experiments to test the intelligence and memory of crows, the most famous of which involved men in masks who captured and tagged a small number of crows. The masks were then passed on to different people, over and over again, to see if the crows remembered the faces of the men that captured them. The crows not only remembered, but word of the offense spread, and crows dive-bombed the wearer of the mask in larger and larger numbers. It’s good to be in with the crows, and is quite bad for your health to not be.
These crow friends of mine provide a sense of security. They alert me when one of the neighbors’ crosses the street, when the mailman approaches, when the morning is getting too warm and I need to wake up before I miss it. They gobble up the bits of loneliness that inevitably afflict anyone with the occupation (or preoccupation) of writer. And they provide their own answer to Alan Moore’s query of “who watches the watchmen?” The crows, of course. The crows are always watching, observing, recording.
My friendship with this tree is an old one. Our introduction was not a meeting so much as being summoned to a waiting cradle of branches. My wow has the force of a hundred surprised children without the tongues to speak; the tongues of a thousand agog aliens synthesizer- circling electronic eyes; the eyes, ocelli, of a million metamorphosed insects testing the beat of their wings, antennae tasting air of moss and mushroom, ocean and leaf. Octopus tree responded to this wow by warming me: Your light is so very blue. This is something you don’t forget. Now all of me autopilots down the trail, wondering if in the evening hours this Octopus dances to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Pacific and considers returning to watery home. Branch over root Octopus Tree would fall, until broken bark revealed the tentacle truth. When we are face to face this is something I show her, while she pulls at my nearest memory, crows on a wire, and pushes moss and mushroom into my skin. Octopus Tree and I tangle, light dancing around every limb, reading her, reading me. Colors swarm us, mold and mushroom, moss and sap, wildflowers yellow. All the while, blue ocean beckons from below: to me, to us, to me.
Here’s how to get from point A to point B: stick one ice pack under your hat, stick another icepack in the laptop compartment of your backpack. Shut all the windows of your house, because you don’t know what you’re doing anymore. Does this keep the cool air from the night before in, or just create an oven of stale air? Don’t bother with google; that will just make your computer hot. Congratulate the cat for peeing on the only fan. Grumble to self that fans don’t do anything anyway, except blow down the aforementioned stale hot air. Put the pee-fan outside, to aggravate the neighbor’s cat, aka your cat’s arch nemesis. Remember to not get mad at any of the cats, because mostly you’re worried about whether they’re drinking enough, and you really wish they would cooperate like other cats that accept icepacks. This is a good reminder: check the cat water. Overdo it. Feel bad about the neighbor’s cat who is outside, and leave a bowl of water out there, too.
Now, sunscreen: how do you feel about it? One website will say that you will absolutely die if you don’t slather yourself in a tennis ball sized goo cannon twice a day, even indoors, even if there are no windows and no doors and it’s raining and winter. Another website will swear that sunscreen doesn’t actually work anyway, and that scalding beet-red burn you’re experiencing is actually the conspiracy, rubbing your nose in your own titanium dioxide. Now comes the means of answering this question: what would Australians do? You slather on mineral sunscreen (aka Zinc) and adjust your complaint filter so that the long stream of whining remains an internal lubricant, and not a strategy for getting out of a meeting sooner.
Clothing. This is not about fashion, or function, but what the skin is willing to tolerate. Shoes are the only essential article of clothing for admittance into most convenience stores, as well as something to cover the genital region enough to avoid arrest. Of note: a bikini is a totally acceptable outfit, especially if you intend to ride a bike. This wisdom applies to all genders. You settle on something that straddles the line of conventional decency, and is least likely to inspire heat rash. Science.
Putting things in a bag: this is hard. It’s important to give the icepack premium placement over your kidneys.
Time to go. One step outside, and you’re overwhelmed by the strength of your own genius. Icepack under the hat? There should be an award for that. At the ceremony you would thank your cats, your Polish genes that leave you armored against cold and defenseless against heat, your partner who somehow left the house in Carhartt’s that day, and the heat stroke you didn’t have. Icepack in the laptop compartment? You need to secure a patent for that one. With every step, you consider yourself more of a fashion pioneer. Everyone looks miserable, and you gobble it up like the vampire you are, swallowing their salty sweat and turning it into personal glee. No one knows of the genius happening all over your body. This is amazing. You are a terrible person, and an excellent imp.
You will hide in an air conditioned hovel as long as imps are permitted. Then you will enter the oven all over again, the fist of the drought more brutal when it delivers its second blow.
Waiting for the sun to set so Portland’s heat can lessen by a few degrees, and my mind can lock onto activities beyond sleeping and complaining again. Me and a watering can go for a romantic stroll around the drought-dead yard, moving from bonsai to birch tree to hedge to six-week tomatoes to Evening Primrose. While citizens are discouraged from indulging in bombs bursting in air, with the Oaks Bottom Wetlands bone dry and Mt. Hood seeing only a single snowflake in June, that doesn’t mean that many folks won’t commit to setting their lawns ablaze anyway.
The slow roll of drums in the distance = fireworks being lit off the Ross Island Bridge by the pros, gun powder trailing into the waiting river below. There’s nothing glowing or sparkling in the sky, just a few stray bottle rockets. That’s when the first craft came up over a neighbor’s roof, four green eyes winking at me, two red lights at the tips creating an orb illusion. My alien abduction dreams often start this way, but as it goes over head wings are easier to identify as drones. Four of them, doing laps and maybe helping the officials monitor for fire. They do laps around the distant dots of Venus and Jupiter. They do laps around the Evening Primrose, which has finally decided to awaken and announce its independence. This is the night’s show stopper moment, far away from the flashing lights.
The challenge: one observation for every day of July. 31 days, 31 observations. Day 1 took me to Cape Meares and the Three Capes Scenic Route along the Oregon Coast. It’s one of my favorite spots in Oregon, thanks in no small part to the Octopus Tree and Big Spruce. Observation after the photo!
Cape Meares boasts woods that whisper, and the only path in has found our feet. A fallen Sitka spruce leaves a dry canyon to our right, its spider roots reaching skyward. Life is already hatching from its corpse; moss and ferns find the vein. It’s less a walk than a stop and whoa, as we move around marvels that have crafted themselves into scare-trees to banish some and call others in. News of our arrival is traded from branch to leaf, through circle roots and stacked limbs. The tallest spruce in Oregon winks through the cover of neighboring trees, offering a peak at dinosaur skin. She knows we’re coming. One final turn and there: what 800 years of living can do. Reverence. I wonder if I should have brought such an elder a gift. Her knuckled base moans: bring only yourself, and leave with exactly this. She is thunder dug deep, and with a touch to root she relieves me.