For almost a year in the mid-90s, my partner Drea and I lived in Portland, Oregon. It’s an amazing city. We arrived there after a month long cross country odyssey in a VW camper with our pet rat, Felix. We immediately fell in love with Portland and decided to stay. We quickly found the perfect apartment. It was huge, with beautiful wood floors, lots of windows, a great kitchen and even a porch. And it was so cheap! What luck! Perhaps you sense where this is headed?
We had managed, with no effort, to move into one of the very few “bad” neighborhoods in Portland. Seriously, there were probably a total of 16 dangerous blocks in the whole metropolis, and we picked one. We were surrounded, our new Portland-wise friends soon told us, by crack houses. The police raided the house across the street. A friend on his way to visit us witnessed an armed robbery on our bus line. Unrestrained, vicious Rottweillers roamed the neighborhood. Our VW camper was broken into so often that we took to just leaving it unlocked – why put the thieves through all that trouble, when all they’d get for their work was a Altoids tin of change?
Our building was an old house divided into four apartments, and oh, what colorful neighbors dwelt there. Directly upstairs was a humongous, extended… family? It was unclear who was related to who and how. There had to have been ten or fifteen (they had a two bedrooms, like us) of them coming and going at all hours. They ranged in age from late teens to forties. And they were always yelling. Or playing very loud, festive music and laughing their heads off. Visitors came to pound on their door in the middle of the night. One time, someone pounded on our door. It was a man with a gun, I realized when I peeked through the window. He looked a little confused, not particularly angry, just wondering what was taking so long as I stood hand poised over the door knob, frozen – not so much afraid as baffled. Should I open the door and direct him upstairs cheerfully? Or call the police? He realized his mistake when one of the upstairs neighbors came down to greet him – they argued on the porch for a moment and then left together, laughing.
Next door to us lived a gay couple, let’s call them “Marty” and “Steve” — our lesbian landlady had mentioned them repeatedly when first showing us the apartment. They were sweet and quiet by day, going out of their way to help make us feel welcome. At night, all hell broke loose. They had god-awful screaming, crying, fist-through-the-wall fights that lasted until just before dawn. The fights always ended with make-up-sex, which, as their bedroom was right next to ours, was just as loud and terrifying. Above Marty and Steve lived “Shawn.” The first time he ever set foot in our apartment, he assessed the scarred hardwood floors and informed us, “As a gay man, I have a real problem with these floors.” He’d drop by several times a week to gossip, complain about the noise the “family” made, wonder if Marty and Steve needed some sort of intervention, humiliate us about our lack of furniture (“Are you planning on furniture?”) our choice in pets (“A… did you say rat? You didn’t say rat. Did you?”), and ask for pot (“Don’t hold out on me, girls. I’ve seen your vehicle. I know where you went to college.”).
Eventually, our apartment was robbed. We came home from a movie, and the front door was ajar. Just like in the movies, we waltzed right in, confused – “Did you lock the door? I thought I locked it? Maybe I didn’t close it all the way?” – looking around, oblivious to danger. Luckily they were long gone. We were young and poor. We barely had furniture. Just a cheap futon, some sleeping bags, and a large potted cactus I’d found on sale. All the thieves got was my laptop and a leather jacket and a mason jar full of change – perhaps nine dollars worth. They had left Felix the rat alone. Our neighbors had heard nothing, though of course we suspected the upstairs “family.”
It soured Portland for us, I’m afraid. Not much later, we sold the VW, said goodbye to the neighbors, and came back to Vermont – where we have since had some very colorful neighbors, but none that hold a candle to our Portland buddies.