Three years ago, I met Chloe Caldwell for lunch. I was two weeks away from moving out of Oregon for my husband’s job transfer. I was reluctantly going along because that is what spouses do and what marriage is about and all that bullshit.
Caldwell’s essay collection Legs Get Led Astray was a pivot point in my work. A true revelation in that marvelous MFA student tenure crammed with false prophets, when we are young and impressionable and mistake newness for inspiration. Caldwell’s relentless prose reconfigured the way I looked at a blank Word document. She excavated what was possible in essays and memoir. Like many other artists I’d recently fallen in love with, she was also local. This was the beauty of living in Portland. Writers lurked as thick as invasive blackberries. We were an insatiable force.
With only a few weeks until our U-Haul departed, I had nothing to lose. I’d already cried on my therapist’s couch about “losing the community” I’d come to treasure more than anything. I didn’t know when, and if, we would be back (“we might really love Tucson!”). So I emailed Chloe. Want to eat sandwiches with a fan?
I was used to writers taking me up on these random invitations because we were a small world and loved food. We were all loosely connected; friends or representatives of a person or organization that the other knows (or wants to). We met for lunch at Cheryl’s Café, built a few blocks up from Powell’s Books on Burnside Street, at the base of old-city stately apartments. Between a Hotel Cecil-esque hostel and Spartacus Leathers on a street that used to be sketch. Not so long ago, a belligerent drunk guy chased me down the block until I dove into a cab. But the cheery cupcakes and latte art of Cheryl’s was a tentative step toward changing that. A year and a half from this lunch date, when I move back from Arizona, my BoltBus driver will pull into the Portland station, where a mammoth mirrored condo building has risen as the restaurant’s new northern neighbor. The LEED-certified glass is a glimmering Silicon Valley warning, a beacon of transparency churning out the grit that used to quicken my steps in the dark.
That afternoon in early 2013, we talked for over an hour about finicky lit journals, small presses, Portland passive-aggression and our futures. “I’m actually moving away too,” Chloe admitted. Back to New York. Of her own free will.
“Will you come back?”
She shrugged through a bite of veggie and hummus sandwich. “I don’t know. It kind of doesn’t seem like the same city it was, you know? I feel like I may as well be in Brooklyn.”
I periscoped my vision down to my tuna-cado baguette, ignoring the creeping cranes and construction chain link fences that surrounded this corner that used to be known for riding crops and dildos, where the closest thing to brunch was Roxy’s twenty-four-hour hangover diner. The city was my heaven and refuge and muse. Portland was heartbeat. Portland was us. If we loved this place, if we stayed, if we kept making art, how could it change without our permission?
June, 2014. The Doug Fir Lounge, a Don Draper as Lumberjack bar in a converted roadside diner. The entire Jupiter Hotel is a 1960s Travelodge, gutted and lacquer-antlered into a hipster cove slinging Shiner tall boys and hosting bands in the basement.
I had a room on the second floor that looked like an Ikea “look what we did in two hundred fifty square feet” showroom. A futon bed, Austin Powers plastic chairs, free condoms flicked on the bed. I got green and red ones, like Christmas. My carry-on suitcase was propped open on the desk table next to a stack of Portland Monthly magazines. I packed nothing but my toothbrush, my MAC makeup hoard, and an interview outfit I revised a dozen times before tucking it into my cheap, cat-shredded suitcase. My navy belted dress and cardigan said business casual. My houndstooth stockings stamped my passport to Southeast Portland. Perfectly fashionable, edgy and pretentious. My vintage leather saddle purse hinted at the trove of creativity and whimsy Rogue Brewery would reap once they added me to the team.
In the fifteen months I’d lived in Tucson, I’d morphed from wistful adventurer to petulant southwest detractor. I hated the weather. The traffic. The snowbirds. The one not-Barnes & Noble bookstore. The lack of teriyaki shops.
The roots of my misery were slightly less superficial: I was doing tedious, unfulfilling work. The commute was a nightmare. I didn’t know how to make friends as a grown-up in a new place. We didn’t have kids or religion, the easy access points into young adult belonging. The manuscript I’d written wasn’t selling, and it was easy to blame that on being away from my Portland writing community. If only I were hanging out at Wordstock, I thought, Harper-Collins would HAVE to jump at this.
I can’t remember what the catalyst was. What passing comment or dark-hearted afternoon drove me out into the office parking lot where I hid behind a cluster of cholla and tapped out an email to an old friend. Nick, my boss from a few years back, a guy who’d always been in my corner. How are things at Rogue? Any way you’d want to work with the best copywriter on this side of the Mississippi again?
I hit Send, not expecting to hear anything back. Sometimes the smallest effort, a bit of betrayal against your current situation, is enough to ferry you through another day.
As I started-and-stopped through the thirty-three stoplights that stood between me and our rented house on the opposite side of the city, a response pinged in on my phone. Let me talk to HR!
Before I pulled into the driveway I was on the phone with the brewery’s corporate recruiter. A week after that I was on a plane bound for the Rose City, a claim of “family emergency” on my supervisor’s voicemail. My ticket home was one nailed interview away.
The night I flew in, Aaron Burch was touching down in the city on book tour. He had published a series of my essays on Hobart, one of those far-off people who’d changed my writing life. The reading was held at Ristretto Roasters, a sleek coffee shop owned by Nancy Rommelmann, who’d shared a coffee and one of those unexpected, random, beautiful AWP conversations with me in Seattle. The glass-and-hardwood space was Twitter come to life, crammed with people I’d yet to meet or hadn’t seen since grad school. I got my Aaron bear-hug. Nancy cupped my chin in her cool, soft hand and kissed my cheek. “Welcome home!” she said.
The after-party migrated over to the Doug Fir, where we took over the fire pit. Whichever cluster of people you leaned into, you heard the frenetic conversation of word nerds cut loose from their desks. McSweeney’s and submission fees and Ta-Nehisi Coates drifted into the smoke and cool, cloudless sky. One of my best writer friends Susan appeared beneath a garland of patio lights, and we didn’t stop talking until a guy in a plaid-and-Warby-Parker-glasses uniform broke in. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but I just wanted to tell you—I loved your Hobart essays.”
I drifted back upstairs to my room high on midnight espresso, Mason jar cocktails and the warm elixir of belonging. The kind of night that makes you think that every other can be just like it.
The next day I kicked the shit out of the interview. Because my life depended on it.
While I was living in Tucson, I made promises. Portland resolutions. When I get back to Portland, I will:
Go to every event Powell’s has.
Attend each reading series like an auditory stalker.
Eat at all of the new restaurants instead of reading about them.
Never take this city for granted.
Here’s the secret, though. I didn’t live in Portland. Never did; at least not since my college dorm days in the early aughts, living off an Alberta Street with no artisan ice creamery, no Bikram yoga or collage supply shop. My husband and I worked in the suburbs south of the Multnomah County line. We bought a house on the cusp of Portlandian civilization, a rural town that grew the hops fueling the craft beer revolution and the free range chicken eggs shuttled in for brunch.
Three or four years ago, when I was still in grad school and uncovering the riches of the city’s lit scene, my masquerade as urban-dweller felt seamless. I could layer sweaters and book bags as well as anyone. I’d leave my office at five in the afternoon and in thirty minutes I’d pull into my favorite parking garage, the one between Anthropologie and Whole Foods, kitty-corner to Powell’s. I’d meet Susan at Fish Grotto for cocktails shaken by fellow MFA grad Drew. As a technical outsider I could still participate. I had everything—a burgeoning life in the city, a quiet home in the country.
While I was away, Fish Grotto was gutted and sold, part of an entire block parcel a few blocks from Cheryl’s Café. They turned it into a shopping boutique where people Instagram designer backpacks on pedestals. Drew stuffed his Subaru from floor to ceiling and made a hell run to Louisiana.
After majoring in literature and devoting my life to stories, I missed the most obvious inevitability on the page. You can never go back to the shire.
This summer, I went to a reading in southeast Portland. My office was fourteen miles away. It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to arrive. There was no accident or construction project. The bridges were not lifted. No brush fires or spewing volcanoes. Just a chokehold of cars serpentining around the city center, red brake lights chaining a scorpion tail tracing the river. My gateway from the suburbs to culture had become a wall.
I arrived late. The first writer was already on stage. Everyone was already two drinks in, unwound.
“You made it!” A friend from grad school caught me in a hug. “It’s been so long! I never see you at stuff anymore!”
That was the last time I went to a reading after work. It’s now February. I’ve planned on going to half a dozen in the time since. I wore my favorite sweater dress and boots to work. I brought my copy of the book for signing. I instructed my husband to eat the leftover casserole in the fridge.
Then I clock out of my office and I walk to my car, contemplating the left turn that every other car is making. I open Twitter and see a line so deeply red driving through the city, they had to invent a new, more severe shade for the mess we’re in. I think, there will be another time. I’ll catch that author later. No one’s going to miss me. I can get tons of writing done if I go home, eat dinner, stop fighting.
I tell myself, community is overrated.
It is difficult for me to parcel the fault of this disillusionment. It lies in the gray area between an adolescent city’s shrewd, lumbering awkwardness and my own slip into something inevitable: a woman who is no longer as young as she was in her twenties.
You’ve read it before. Portland is dead. Seattle is dead. San Francisco is a zombie eating our west coast brains. Blame the tech money, the foreign money; the newly rich, the ever-powerful. It’s not that the story isn’t true, because gentrification and housing instability and displacement are real, tangled, terrible problems.
But this isn’t a story about an eviction or homelessness, just like most of the stories you hear about livability’s decay aren’t; stories written by those like me with the luxury of time to write and the privilege of a platform to share. We are the ones who lament the closure of our favorite bar that we can’t, through the Vaseline-smeared lens of nostalgia, admit was kind of disgusting.
The changing, sometimes exploitation of a region hands us with an easy narrative—a boogeyman. No one is keeping me out of Portland, but it feels good to say they are. If I really wanted to participate in the scene, it’s there. Better than ever. Growing more diverse with writers from all over the country moving in and out and through, and incorporating new art forms and ideas. It might not be as easy or fast to get into the city from the outside, but it’s not impossible. The bar has only been raised a few inches.
A twenty-five-year-old writer is inevitably different from a thirty-one-year-old one. The glitter on my mind’s marquee has flaked as the novelty of being a “writer in a literary city” wears. I’ve done the things—the readings, the signings, the festivals, the workshops. They were marvelous in those halcyon days of discovering this world. They still are, on the occasions when I’ve got the energy and desire to draw back in. But unlike that girl at the start, who felt like she was contributing by witnessing, I’m no longer satisfied by simply being present at a place. I’m in the thick of the work; working on two manuscripts, keeping up with columns, squeezing in reviews and whatever hand I can lend my enduring and scattered tribe. Keeping pace with this load doesn’t grow easier with time and a full-time job to support a homeowning, Whole Foods shopping, new model Prius-driving suburban lifestyle I committed to years ago, and am too plump and coddled to part with. No one forced these obligations on me, and the universe will not mourn if I say “fuck it” to the writing part. The realities are the parameters I’ve drawn and the space I must now work within. Pretending otherwise is as fruitful as shaking my fist at every California-plated car that zips into the stopping distance I try to maintain on the freeway. They’re not going back to Los Angeles, and I’m not getting any younger.
Portland illuminated what I could do with a talent I spent much of my life not valuing. Leaving it for another city taught me to fight for my focus; moving back is the disquieting realization that success or failure is not geographical. It doesn’t matter how many cranes surround the café. Lunch is still served when you’re hungry.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program currently living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her essays have been featured in a number of journals including The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Hobart, and Brevity. She reviews books for Bustle and Tweets excessively @tabithablanken. Her debut essay collection, Eats of Eden: A Year of Food and Fiction, is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in fall 2017.
Photo credit: travelportland.com