(I wrote this essay in the fall of 2006 and never sent it out to be published)
When Coming Home Takes 23 Years
Laying in my bed at 1:30 a.m., I hear the sound of home. From my apartment on Hawthorne Boulevard the train whistle is more distant than when I was a child in Aloha, but the feeling is the same.
Like most boys, I was fascinated by trains, particularly their mass and myriad of moving parts. The sight of one no longer impresses me but the idea of trains — running on America’s arteries feeding the capillaries of roads and the red blood cells of semis — still fascinates me. The tracks were not far from my home on Southwest 175th Avenue in Aloha 23 years ago and I can recall the typical Portland sight of a train snaking along with steady deliberation for what seemed like a hundred miles and, of course, waiting at the flashing gates for what seemed like an eternity.
The train whistle is part of what tells me I am home.
My wife and I moved to Portland four months ago, and since coming to the Rose City isn’t exactly an unusual move for people of my generation to make, I am often asked, “So, where do you come from?” I respond that I’m from Aloha via Florida, North Carolina, Japan, California, and Japan (again). Most people seem amused and a little confused by the answer. You see, my family left Portland in 1983 for the sunnier economic shores of Florida and it took me 23 years to move back “home.”
My first trip back to P-town was seven years after we left: a summer break enforced by my mother when I was 15 years old. I was not with the right kind of crowd at the time — I was sneaking out, smoking, getting stoned, drinking, breaking into cars — and my mom rightly sought to get me away from that scene. I spent two weeks with my grandmother doing very little except reading and slinking into the backyard to smoke three or four cigarettes during her nap. Unfortunately, the self-absorption of teenage angst prevented me from appreciating time with my grandmother or my time in Portland.
The second visit was for Thanksgiving, 10 years later in 2000, during my “America Reorientation Tour,” a cross-country trip after three years of living in Japan. I traveled from Key West to Cape Cod to Los Angeles to Seattle. My time in Portland was brief but the few days with my grandmother were the kind of fully-formed times that I relish and appreciate as I get older. My brief stop in Portland was fortuitous because my grandmother’s breast cancer soon made a ferocious comeback — after eight years of remission — and she was dead within three months.
My third time back to Portland was in February of 2001 to bury her. Hers was one of the hardest deaths to take, in many ways harder than my father’s death a year and a half later. My grandmother was the most beautiful, pure person I’ve ever met and that makes the cruel indifference of cancer much harder to bear. Most of my visits to Portland were to visit her; to me, the city and my grandmother are forever enmeshed. She should be here now to welcome me home.
The trip to tend to my father’s burial, in 2004, was my fourth. It was almost a full two years after he died — don’t worry, he was cremated — so I finally had a chance to take in my surroundings free of the preoccupations that overwhelmed my previous visits. My family came to Portland to inter my father’s ashes at Willamette National Cemetery where he joined my grandmother, great-grandfather and grandmother, and two great-uncles. As we traveled Highway 217 from our friend’s house in Beaverton, en route to performing the various required rituals, I tried to summarize to my wife what being in Portland felt like for me. There is a certain familiarity to the landscape and smell of the air here that is both comforting and intangible at the same time, I told her. It is a feeling more personal than déjà vu, but far from conscious. She smiled and said, “That’s what it feels like to come home.”
Take a boy from the Portland suburbs in 1983, don’t give him any substantial time back for over 20 years, and you get someone who feels right at home in a place they don’t recognize.
My childhood Portland was a world of you-can-cross-this-street-by-yourself and you-can-cross-that-street-with-mom-or-dad; digging holes in my friend’s yard; trips to Clackamas Town Center where my grandmother worked behind the Mervyn’s cosmetics counter or to the Organ Grinder (pizza under the overwhelming pipe work of a Wurlitzer Organ — sadly, it’s gone now) for special occasions; Mt. St. Helens covering our lives in ash. My childhood Oregon was a place of youthful imagination. Classmates swapped foursquare stories of killers lurking in the woods next to our Aloha Park Elementary school playground; our neighborhood gang constructed forts and played war over our interconnected backyards; we knew all about the scary old man who lived at the corner.
When my brother and I walked around the neighborhood a few years ago, we continually second-guessed ourselves. Surely our house was bigger than that. Didn’t it take longer to walk to school than that? The playground, the line of frightening trees, the covered asphalt wall ball courts and the schoolhouse all seemed to be miniaturized versions of my childhood memories.
Portland was a comfortable place to form my first memories. To this day, a mild, sunny day anywhere in the world reminds me of those respites the Pacific Northwest gets from the dour, gray days of winter. Those were the days when we could leave the asphalt playground and head for the perpetually soggy fields of grass. The sun peaking out from behind a cloud still makes me smile like a little boy. Everyone here knows the weight of the clouds and the exhilaration of that weight being lifted.
My childhood Portland was without Max lines or a reputation of grungy, hip weirdness. We rolled in a wood-panel grocery-getter and weirdness existed in small enclaves. Downtown was a place to see bums and boarded up windows — visit at night and you saw a ghost town. A good playground crack was to tell a kid his mother lived on Burnside. My adult Portland is full of visible tattoos, interpretive hairdos and people trying hard to look hip. My adult Portland is bike-friendly roads, tasty microbrews, two Flex-cars within five blocks of my apartment and gentrifying former ghettos. The familiarity of home comes out in familiar names, disassociated from place and in the daily experience of saying, “Wait. I remember this place” — Hippo Hardware, South Tualatin Valley Highway, Clackamas Town Center, my great-aunt and uncle’s expansive yard in Gresham.
Portland has always been a city of extremes. As a child, the extremes ranged from the tight-knit family that supported my young parents to the blatant poverty I observed from a car window as we sped through downtown. We were rich in friends and family, but even we were struggling financially in a town that only had dark, gray clouds on its economic horizon — or so my father thought. Now, I can appreciate that Portland is home to the best Japanese garden located outside of Japan and home of the Rose City Rollers Women’s Roller Derby club. The gardens manage to encapsulate a surprisingly large amount of the Japanese aesthetic that I miss: simplicity, rustic beauty, the blending of the natural and the man-made, tranquility and even a well-sculpted viewing point for Mt. Hood (Fuji-like enough to pass for THE Majestic Backdrop Mountain of all backdrop mountains). The RCR derby is a lesson in American raucousness in a sold-out, cavernous exposition hall complete with a booming sound system, an all-ages crowd, an event staff with names like Hugh Refner and Bitching Camero, a sign language interpreter who signs with easily understood gestures for hip-checks, elbowing, and tripping during the introduction of rules, cheering sections, mascots, a chance to buy your favorite team’s merchandise, and, of course, the wonderfully eclectic derby girls themselves.
As I child, I absorbed the economic and social extremes of this city; as an adult, I now appreciate her cultural extremes as well.
Portlanders — from suburbanites to Pearl District hipsters, from Friends of the Gardens to Derby Girl groupies — are all connected by the train whistles leading to and from the port industry that has kept this city afloat for decades. We are connected by the oppressive clouds of winter and we are connected by our extremes. I’ve come back after 23 years to the sound of the whistle, the heaviness of the clouds and the amazing oddities of the cultural spectrum. It’s nice to be home.