Prairie wind is rushing through the window, bringing both green smells from the young wheat that comes up to the edge of town and the taint of herbicide from the chemically fallowed fields sprayed with poisons that are illegal in some countries. They're said to allow no-till farming which increases profit slightly. Not that anyone gets ahead since groceries and gas relentlessly increase their prices.
Tuxedo, the black patent leather cat with a soul patch, comes to use her cold nose to rouse me. There are four cats and the two big ones want the front door propped open so they can search the front yard. No sign of the Mooch, a gray feral tomcat who normally slides through the cat flap to snitch catfood. I heard someone shoot at him in the night but they seem to have missed. It appears that my littlest cat might not make it through the day. He has the local cat respiratory infection and I had thought he might survive, but today he's curled up tight. These cats are weedy, long and narrow, unchosen and vulgar. They throat-talk to each other all day.
The news yesterday was about riots in Portland between the extremes of political left and political right. It's my hometown (b. 1939) and people have all sort of fantasies about what it's like. When I was first aware, it was wartime and at night the noise was from building and testing war planes, railroads, tanks and ships -- mostly at Swan Island on the Willamette. Portland is at the confluence of the Willamette and the Columbia, the latter of which starts not far from me where I am now in northern Montana -- well, at least that's one beginning through the Snake. Everyone heated with coal, which meant my parents started the day with a furnace wood fire to get it hot enough to burn the coal after a vigorous shaking with a big lever to knock the clinkers out of the grate. Portland was always sooty.
Our house was the same age as this one, but this one was built by a barber, small and cheap, while our Portland house was small but very nicely built with a good plan, two stories, excellent woodwork and small built-in cupboards and closets. My parents paid $35 a month on the mortgage which took them maybe fifteen years. Now I see that Zillow claims the house is worth a half-million dollars. They also say it has three bedrooms and two baths, so the addition my mother always wanted may finally been built.
At the crossing of NE Alberta and 15th we saw the world come and go. It was war and it had been Depression before that and another European "World War" before that. Ethnic origin meant a lot, since most of the nabe had come not-so-long before. Kaiser, the shipbuilder with the German name, had brought in a labor force from the Deep South who brought their culture with them, but we rarely saw them. There was still an old man with a horse-drawn wagon who brought produce up to the streets from the ships moored on the Willamette. The river was deep enough for ocean vessels to come into the heart of Portland.
Women with single babies who had gotten pregnant with soldiers and sailors on leave in a time when abortion was illegal were living in the apartment buildings on the street. They would divorce later. In the post-war years full of debris, barely suppressed emotion, maimed bodies and dislocated ideas led to Portland being a Sin Center run by Teamsters and Mafia, movie-types with big stomachs and cigars, until in 1948 the lady lawyer Dorothy McCullouch Lee was elected and cleaned up the town while wearing a nice hat. It was claimed that bribes and sex-shows were stopped, but the bus always crossed to downtown through a dubious few blocks with provocative names.
Then came the Vanport flood that washed all those black Kaiser people south into North and Northeast housing, aged but intricately built old wooden houses along the river. They expanded until the second and third generations had overwhelmed my old nabe and the proud young men being interviewed now claim that where I grew up was their heritage. They lived along Sumner and Emerson and became the body of students at my Alma Mater, Jefferson High School. In my time it and its next door rival Grant were among the best in the USA. Now it is a specialty school to attract white kids, but still mostly black.
In 1957 I went off to college and in 1973 I returned after teaching and marriage on the Blackfeet Reservation. The cops were cool and wrote poetry. The chief was black, Charles Moose; the best cop on my street was Chinese. But there was rising minor disorder. That's when I became an animal control officer, a kind of petite sheriff with no weapon but a badge. My assigned beat was SE Portland which mixed hippies with Reed College faculty. I was fine with both. The black part of town was where Sherry, very blonde and very country music, was always effective. Deep SE, along a stream larger than the one that had cut the gorge where the Banning freeway ran, was the area where people built their own possibly substandard houses. It was said that the largest population of post-prison felons was in NE but the largest population of never-convicted felons was in the SE.
Another gap began in 1978 while I went to seminary in Chicago and served congregations in Montana. When I came back in 1988, Portland was in trouble. Hispanic gangs were running in the streets and shooting randomly even downtown in broad daylight. A man was killed by a bullet badly aimed from blocks away, meant for someone else. A woman was sitting in a glass bus shelter when suddenly it shattered all around her. No one had thought about bullet-proof glass. A rogue county sheriff pushed a TV program about how bad it was.
Most "nice" (affluent) people at this time knew only NW 23rd, which had always been a little arty, or SE Hawthorne which was like a little San Francisco. The nice way to describe Portland was that it was "yeasty." Rising, expanding. Eventually all the people who were going to make it big as Montana writers had given up and migrated to Portland where they aged out. At the time they were young and pretentious. Sin and sex were amusements, good writing material for gritty stories. Galleries opened in the old warehouse district of NW. In time they found low rent for the old stores along Alberta and captured the street.
I was working for the City of Portland in that cake-and-frosting building where a marine goddess with a frog-gigging spear knelt on the front. It was across a block-sized park across from the Justice Center and we heard the cries of basketball players from the very "high court" outdoor gymnasium at the tenth floor where men waited for sentencing. On the way home on the bus, it was held up while the police arrested suspects by pushing them up against the side of the vehicle. A flood nearly wiped out downtown, but relented after every contractor in town had rushed down to build a temporary floodwall of plywood and plastic sheeting. The original flood wall had been removed because it spoiled the scenery, a bit of gentrification.
I was a clerk handling complaint and violation data and it was not good stats. But Earl Blumenauer and Ron Wyden were on the job. Things were improving. In 1999 my mother died. At that point her house was worth $100,000 and considered a starter house. The gang chief who had shot up his father's house across the street was gone. I took my inheritance and returned to Montana where I've been able to write daily for the last twenty years. At first I was pursuing local history and geology (which is almost the same thing) but now I, too, have gone global. Something like the same thing has happened to Portland. It is no protected Eden.