From Stumbling to Stepping: Making Our Way in Portland

Before we knew our way around Portland, before the rain stuttered and summer passed and the rain returned in tsunamic downpours; before we had jobs and a mattress and a toilet of our own, Taylor and I sat on a bench in the Vancouver, Washington public library, a phone pressed to my ear as a reluctant voice told me we didn’t get the jobs we’d driven across the country for.

Three thousand miles from home in the middle of January, neither of us knew what to do. We didn’t want to drive back and we didn’t know where to go. We’d been living in a car. I was tired of driving and tired of fighting my tiredness. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to forget the whole trip happened, curl up in my warm, childhood bed and abandon adulthood.

Quite frankly, our situation wouldn’t allow much wallowing time. We had to do something, so through a decision reached by a mutual shrug, we agreed to try life in Portland. We’d heard it was a fun city, although that was hard for me to see at the time with all the rain and traffic. We needed to create time to look for jobs and an apartment, find a place to stay that wouldn’t cost much. WWOOF USA was an option, a website that connects travelers with farmers in need of help. The deal is you work twenty hours a week in exchange for food and housing. We found a homestead in Banks, Oregon, an hour from Portland, run by a skinny man named Jesse and his brother, whose name I forget.

When Taylor and I arrived on the property, it was clear they had a lot of work to do. Calling it a homestead was a huge stretch. There was nothing but a ramshackle pottery studio and a tool shed. The land was not beautiful. Overrun by raspberry bushes, littered with trash and scraps of old car parts, everything wet and mossy. Jesse, baby-faced and baggy eyed, showed us to a broken down trailer where we’d stay. It was a hundred feet from the main farm-house where he and his brother lived. There had been an attempt to make the trailer homey with red paint and Tibetan flags, but it was for the most part, dreadful. No electricity or plumbing, mice infested, with the clashing odors of musty attic and organic decay.

It was the longest week of my life, shoveling gravel and hacking raspberry bushes with a dull machete. Not to mention Jesse’s annoying little dog that resembled a rat and cried like an infant, that wouldn’t leave me alone. I could rant about how Jesse misunderstood what WWOOF USA was supposed to be about, but it didn’t matter enough to me at the time and still doesn’t. Every free moment of the day I was emailing people on Craigslist looking for a temporary sublet. Most of them refused couples. When the moment came that we were accepted by two women in need of a temporary third roommate, we were overjoyed. We told Jesse goodbye and hauled our stuff back to the city. Valerie and Julie lived in Northeast Portland, were around forty years old, worked from home and kept to themselves. They gave us a month to find jobs and an apartment.

The apartment we found was a shitty little place – part of an old yellow duplex split into ten tiny studios with a shared bathroom – but all we could afford. It was pure luck that the apartment was close to where I’d eventually get a job, and even luckier that it was in a neighborhood we’d grow to love.

Through the summer we’d spend glorious days hiking in National Forests and depressed hours sweating in our apartment, unable to move from the meager relief of the fan. I’d kill what felt like a thousand house flies with the spine of a book (sorry, Erik Larson), crushing their guts on the walls and windows. I’d read at the park, until it was so overrun with homeless people, that it belonged to them and them alone. We’d cook dinner and wash dishes and drink beer and watch Netflix and do it all in our underwear. We’d feel friendless and sick of each other in a way that made us laugh a crazy, howling laugh. Jenna and Taylor, Taylor and Jenna, that was all, there was nothing else.

A voice in the back of my head would question it all. There were times I missed my friends back east so much I thought I couldn’t bear another second. We discussed moving back home multiple times, never reaching a decision. Our flip-flopping drove me mad, until finally I decided we had to move. Not out of Portland, just out of our apartment. I needed a space with windows that had screens to keep out the flies. I needed my own bathroom. I wanted a real fridge, not a mini fridge, that didn’t shed so much water it drowned all the vegetables. I wanted a bed frame that didn’t sag in the middle, causing us to roll into each other at night and our backs to ache in the morning. Towards the end of our tenancy we gained an upstairs neighbor who startled us awake every night with incessant banging, from doing God knows what. I was sick of being able to hear conversations happening on the street. I was sick of the constant state of our apartment that no matter how much I cleaned was always filthy. There we were, financially stable in Portland, living like we were barely surviving. If we could afford a better place, I wanted to be there.

The next three weeks would behold overwhelming stress and a mistake I’ll never make again. Assuming we’d get the first apartment we applied for, I told our landlord we were leaving in thirty days. Then our applications were denied. Again and again, we were denied. Apartment searching in Portland is like throwing yourself to the wolves, especially when you mistakenly give up the home you have with no guarantee of finding another. Here I thought we were making good money, and yet we were losing to applicants who made more than us. There was a string of days where I was convinced we wouldn’t find an apartment in time and end up right where we started – living in a car. I sat on the creaky floor of our cruddy apartment and cried, watching the colors of the room unravel, feeling the world I’d built around me crumble and fall like a pile of bricks, burying me irretrievably.

Like I said, I’m not one to wallow or stick with a situation I don’t like that I can change. In reality, I was maybe a little dramatic as I tend to get when I’m alone with my emotions. By the time Taylor returned home that night, I’d picked myself off the floor and continued searching. Two days later I got a call from a landlord, Ann, approving us for an apartment.

The first few nights in our new apartment felt like a luxury hotel experience in comparison. It’s on the top floor of a medium-sized brick building with windows glancing over the quiet streets. It’s in the same neighborhood we love – residential, next to bars and food carts and the library and grocery stores. Our bed is no longer in our kitchen, we have our own bathroom and more cabinet space than we know what to do with.

We’ve gone from tent to car to trailer to a room in a house to an actual apartment. We survived living in close, filthy quarters with each other. We laughed through the pain, and laughed and laughed and never stopped laughing. We’ve gone from having no friends to at least a few. In other words, we’re not as lame as we used to be. We’ve gone from being neighborhood newbies to coffee shop regulars. From hating the rain to finding comfort in it. From not knowing what our near future entailed, to being happy that it remains in Portland.

The decision was easy. Looking back at how far we’ve come since that day sitting in the Vancouver library with nothing, no job, no direction, I needed to remind myself to be proud. I have to give thanks to all the people – strangers – who inexplicably entered our life and helped us along the way. I was reminded how important it is to persevere, and that just because something might not fall into place as easily as you’d like, doesn’t mean it’s not meant to be. I also learned that you don’t need a reason to live somewhere, like a job, school or family; you can be somewhere for the simple reason that you’re a human being with a short life in this crazy world, and you want to see it.

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