Thursday, September 29, 2011


I'm sitting in the cab of the truck getting paid for sitting in the cab of the truck.

Not precisely. The part I get paid for happens every ten minutes for three hours, when I get out and read the water level in the plastic pipe stuck into the hole my drillers ground into the cobbly soil of Southeast Portland last night. The water is leaking sullenly into the ground, apparently no happier than anyone else in the neighborhood that it is slowly sinking into the outer southeast.

So I have a lot of time to get paid for sitting, or reading, or just watching the passing show as the warm late September afternoon fades into a chill early autumn night.

Southeast 122nd Avenue east of the Interstate is a glum assortment of run-down houses, shabby apartments, sagging shops and, increasingly the past several years, vacant storefronts. Many of the signs - almost all of the newer signs - are in a Babel of non-English languages; Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish. None of them look very excited about being here.

This is no boulevard of broken dreams. This is where you live if your dream never was, or will never be.

The lot I'm parked in was a filling station once upon a time. The pumps are long gone, the tanks yanked, only the old service island canopy remains a tattered and peeling reminder of the time when the southeast was the newest part of Portland, our eastern frontier, creeping out into the woodlots and farm fields of eastern Multnomah County.

But it's also a reminder that Portland has always shoved its unloved and unwanted out east in front of it, the dirty foam edge of a slow-moving wave. The Russian kids working the tire store that occupies the old filling station are just the latest detritus. I saw them in the classroom at the community college where I taught bewildered by their incomprehension and sinking in debt, in the down-at-the-heels East Portland parks playing soccer in their tight shirts and leather, smoking in the drizzling rain.

I wonder if they think they're in the Land of Opportunity?

I wonder if they care?

A highballing Portland police car speeds down 122nd to the bar on the second corner down with a fire truck close behind. The casual anger in the cop's body as he goes inside says a lot about what he expects to meet down here, as do the bored looks on the fire crew as they follow him; another barstool crash down at the Peanut Farm.

Another night of hard drinking amid hard lives.

They barely give the pregnant girl in the parka jacket and miniskirt a look, even though the wheeled suitcase she's tugging along, the tiny dolly wheels skittering and hopping over the rough pavement, is almost as heavy as she is.

Three kids, out way too late on a Thursday night, dodge past all of them in a little flock as noisy and heedless as starlings.

I sit in the truck cab with my reading glasses perched idly on my nose and look out on this part of my country, my home city, like a lost tourist in a land as alien as an Asian desert and as bleak.

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