When I was growing up I knew Portland as the city that swallowed runaway teens up whole and spat them out on the streets as heroin addicts.
I also knew it as a city of lights and snaking twisting raised freeways that was gorgeous as you drove up to it from the south at night.
I knew it as a place of brick and mortar and the place my mother took us for a book signing for her cookbook that my dad and she printed themselves. She dressed beautifully and I have a very small photo of her from that trip that I cherish.
I looked out over roof-tops and thought it a place of vast possibility and vast decay.
When you’re an adult you don’t hear about the runaway teens so much. They don’t tell you things. They don’t reach into your sleep. There’s still heroin and runaways but it’s less personal now. It isn’t myth and mist.
Now I see signs like this and I live in a different world where parents are trying to make a living to support children and the economy is smashed to bits in every personal kitchen except Donald Trump’s and who cares about men so clueless they insist on the ridiculous comb-over twenty years past its prime?
I almost cried when I saw this sign because it doesn’t matter if it’s a gimmick, it doesn’t matter if the dry cleaning company has a line to throw, I’ve been there. I’ve been the person with the ratty clothes and no proper laundry soap but a harsh bar in the bathroom sink and that is so much more than many had or have now. I didn’t have the polish needed to convince anyone but Wendy’s to hire me.
There are moments in a person’s life when an offer for free dry cleaning for your best outfit for job interviews is like winning the lottery. I will never be so jaded that I don’t applaud a business for an act of kindness so simple and so important.
I took Friday off from all work and personal responsibility. I took the whole day off to see friends, to walk the city streets, to get out of bible town, to remember I belong to a larger community, to meet new friends and visit with old friends. I centered my entire afternoon around Powell’s Books, my Mecca, my place of prayer, my imperfect yet magical place of peace.
Portland is San Francisco twenty years ago; rough, refurbishing, developing strong identity and conscience, rising, shouting out loud!
Except that Portland is full of lush trees and a lot less trash.
There is no perfect city. There is no perfect place. There’s only the place that calls to you the most loudly. You listen if you’re smart. Portland is my place right now.
I visited the public library in the Pearl for the first time. It reminded me of a smaller gentler San Francisco library. The old one, not the new one. It was filled with marble stairs and columns, rose covered short pile carpets, and beautiful multi-light windows with rounded tops that let in the bright afternoon sun, muted like it should always be.
The best thing about it was a life-sized cast of a tree in the children’s section. The metal tree trunk hides all kinds of things like birds and spiggots and everything at childrens’ level is shiny from the polishing of little touching hands.
There is a part of me that knows if I lived there I would cease to be lost, fat, and lonely.
Part of me knows that’s just its siren song.
I spent many hours touching books, inhaling them, coveting, perusing, filing them away for future dreams and in the end, after an entire day in Portland revolving around Powell’s I sat down in the cafe there with my flimsy two purchases and watched the sun sink slowly outside the window with my book propped against my bags, my feet tired, and my brain drifting from the pages I tried to read. A young red headed girl sat two chairs down from me. She was everything sweet, young, pretty, and stylish. I enjoyed her beauty with detachment.
Except that I couldn’t not notice that she seemed really forlorn. She reminded me of someone. She stared out the same window I stared out of except that I felt a sharp contrast between us because while I stared out the window distractedly wondering what the passersby thought of the fat woman in the window who isn’t ugly but who is not an ideal person this young girl was staring out the same window with a dreadful weight, not of body but of spirit. I realized that while I imagined passersby criticizing my fat distorted body I really am happy with most of my life. Sure, there’s a lot of stress and a lot up in the air but I sat there anticipating the meet up between me and the two loves of my life who might wish me to be a healthier weight but who love me love me love me.
This young girl was looking out the same window like a person heartbroken and alone. She was truly lovely. The kind of girl I must think it impossible isn’t coveted and loved sincerely by at least five men (or maybe women- who cares?). Loved she must be!
She turned her blue eyes to me and asked me if I liked boys or girls.
I asked her if she meant as friends or romantically. She said “to go out with”.
I told her I preferred boys in that way.
She asked me if we should depend on anyone for our happiness? Should we expect someone to make us happy and be dependable. She was very grave and very calm the way heartbroken beautiful young women can be and the smallest tears escaped her careful watch though there wasn’t the least quiver in her voice to betray her agony.
She asked if I thought it important for everyone to have someone, to be paired up, or is it possible to be happy alone.
She wanted to know if I thought it was normal, or possible, to live a good life alone?
I told her that if she was really unhappy being alone then it’s okay if she doesn’t want to be but that if she feels better being alone that’s okay too.
She looked at me doubtfully, not quite the answer she was looking for.
My heart went out to her. I saw myself in her though I doubt I ever had her delicate beauty to begin with. How is not half of Portland in love with this lovely girl already? I answered her. I didn’t hesitate. I told her that when I was a lot younger, around her age most likely, I dated a number of men who forced me to ask why I bothered pairing up with anyone at all. I told her how I scoured myself for answers to my loneliness and I found it.
I decided that the thing to do was to not go out with anyone at all. My plan was to be single for the rest of my life. I told her how I realized that I could have plenty of fun by myself and that I set about learning to enjoy my own company more than anyone else’s and that it was really fantastic and for a few years it was great and then I got knocked in the heart by someone who broke through.
That’s how it goes.
I told her that if she’s hurt and sad right now she should spend time taking care of herself. I told her that it’s natural to want to be paired up but that each of us has to be responsible for our own happiness.
She smiled weakly and looked out the window for a minute before thanking me gravely.
Like a reflection of myself. She was even writing in a journal.
I wouldn’t give anything for such youth.
I would have hugged her if I didn’t have a lot of natural reticence about hugging complete strangers.
These are dark times.
It’s important to be good to ourselves.
It’s important to be good to those around us.
I felt momentarily guilty when a few minutes after this conversation with the lonely girl my son jumped out of our car exactly in front of me in the street and I was filled with complete joy at seeing his bright face. Me, the fat middle aged lady, has so much happiness and so much love in her life that I feel flooded with it and I can choose to seek solitude all day but at the end of it is the very best company I could ask for in my husband, son, and at home my own mother. I felt guilty to be filled with such happiness and to feel so loved when such a gorgeous young creature was obviously grappling with terribly heartbreak next to me.
It’s an unfair world.
So take your blessings with your salt and never count anything.