Now that I live in Brooklyn, it’s funny to watch the East Coast fawn enviously over Portland, Oregon, as if it were some kind of far-off utopia for quirky, eyebrow-pierced coffee-and-beer drinkers. The New York Times led the vanguard in this movement almost a decade ago, when it spent its first “36 Hours” in the city, and the paper has been circling and re-circling the same ten blocks in trendy Northwest Portland ever since. The city gained some real momentum this year, when IFC poached big-name, real-deal comedian Fred Armisen to joyfully lampoon the place in the new series Portlandia. Now even Microsoft has jumped on the bandwagon, singling Portland out in ads for its poor man’s Google service. (Fitting, since most of the people I know in Portland are unemployed.) And yes, fine, I’ll cut to the chase: Portland is exactly the kind of paradise everyone says it is. But what they don’t tell you is that it’s also hell.
Let me explain: In July of 2007, my last full year in Portland, I was 23 years old and sleeping alone in someone else’s bed. The bed’s owner was an old college roommate who had gone off to Mexico for the month while I lived in her stead, paying the bills and watering her plants. I had just quit a low-paying job in retail and abandoned the post-college squat I’d shared with five other friends. When our lease came up in June, the first two moved off to other cities and the rest of us crumbled like children. I had no idea where to go or what to do, but I knew I still wasn’t ready to pack up and go back to my mother’s basement, sleeping in each morning as my little sister got dressed for junior high school in the next room over.
So, instead, that summer I sat in College Friend’s window and positioned the fan on my face as the sun went down and a breeze bellowed in. I peered out at the tomatoes ripening in the garden and watched the backyard grass sizzle in a surprise northwest heat wave. Pacing the room aimlessly, I tried on College Friend’s dresses and phoned up my parents, who were curious to know where I would be living and whether or not I liked boys.
In the mornings I rode my bicycle to a cafe where my friend Jonny gave me free iced coffee. I sat on a bench outside with my computer on my lap, sending email cover letters: “Hello Matt” and “Hi Heather” and “Dear HR Specialist.” The Internet was spotty and the glaring sun threw off all contrast. Beads of sweat edged down my forehead. The ice cubes melted in my cup and the plastic went all misty, little droplets dewing up against my fingers.
An hour or so later, I biked across town to the mythically dilapidated flophouse where one of my old housemates was crashing for the summer. The place was a kind of fantastic junk menagerie, filled with the abandoned detritus of generations of young people. On the living room wall a faded cartoon map of “The World According to Ronald Reagan” showed the former president gunslinging his way through “Real America” as he flashed a cagey grin toward Brezhnev and the rest of the world’s “Godless Communists, Liars and Spies.” On Friday nights at 10:00 pm, we’d all gather in front of the TV to watch The McLaughlin Group, and bottles would pile up all around the coffee table. Leaning a cheek into the couch, the stale admixture of dust and tobacco generated a scent that was at once overpowering and dully comforting.
I started spending almost every evening at the flophouse, which everyone called The Fridge, presumably because it had no heat. Old Housemate was living for something like $50 a month in a room off the basement, the rest of which was filled with tools and bicycle frames and smelled strongly of grease and mildew. Bugs crawled in through her windows, and one day she found a slug on her pillow, leading a trail of slime across the room.
As we sat around the basement one balmy evening, one of the upstairs residents came thrashing down in a drunken stupor. He stood on a table waving around a rotted broom (which he broke), and insisted that Old Housemate would never get a man while she lived down there. Then he marched away to pee off the porch, stumbling into a bed he had made from a piece of hard cut foam lain across a slatted frame of two-by-fours. At night the sound of the bus shook the walls of his tiny room and cold seeped in from every corner.
When College Friend came back at the end of that month, I had already found a new room in another friend’s house in Southeast Portland. Southeast Friend was on vacation from her job as a recess aide at a French-American elementary school. She and her roommates had all moved to Portland after graduating from various well-known colleges. One of them had gotten a job chopping down blackberry bushes for $8 an hour, and another worked at a call center and played video games during his off-hours. We watched subtitled movies and made dinner together every night.
In the ten days I stayed in Southeast Friend’s room, I found a dismal office job and a new house to live in with Old Housemate, who had just landed a gig at a parking garage. She had to wear polyester pants and sit in a booth for eight hours a day, but she got to read books and listen to the radio. She quit after five months. The rest of our friends were in pretty much the same boat, miserably adrift but resigned to limbo for just a little bit longer.
The next summer Old Housemate moved to Japan and I moved to New York, where I attended graduate school, which was really just an excuse I invented to get out of Portland. In the nearly three years since I left, most of my other friends got out as well, jumping ship for more expensive, more crowded, and less cheery cities. At a certain point, the comforts of a cheap lifestyle and a beautiful landscape were outweighed by the fear of never bothering to try for anything better. Which is why I moved to New York, a place where people come to do things. From this new vantage point, it can be hard even to understand why my friends and I put up with all that was wrong with Portland—the rain and the unemployment and the constant depression—for so long. There’s only one way I can think to explain it: It’s not that we hadn’t thought ourselves capable of any more; it’s just that for a short while life in Portland made it easy to forget why we should care.