In Portland It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Homeless

Monday came, marking the beginning of our last week in Portland. We were beginning to feel bummed again about not finding any jobs, and even though Brit had a J.Crew interview scheduled for Tuesday morning, we knew it would be part-time and wouldn’t quite support both of us.

We stuck around the house for a while and then Helen invited us to go on a hike with them. Before long Bennett asked if I wanted to go mountain biking, which I most certainly did. Then I followed him around a legitimate mountain, on bike, for about an hour and got really muddy. It was an awesome time. Washington’s forests are absurdly thick and gorgeous, and once we got to the top of a long and treacherous slope, it felt like we were all alone in the forest.

Afterwards, Brit and I took a train to the far west side of Portland, where the city ends and a big park begins. The park was Washington Park, and as it turns out the Oregon Zoo lived just off to the side of Washington Park. When we got off the train at the park, we were way underground and so had to take an elevator back up to the surface. Being below-ground reminded me of all the trains I caught in Japan, though I could actually read all of these signs.

The zoo was too expensive for our tastes on that day, and it was slightly rainy so we didn’t feel like walking the five-mile trail that looped all around Washington Park. I had a brief but dramatic emergency to find a bathroom, we poked our heads in the Forestry Museum (Oregon loves their trees so much that they have a whole museum dedicated to them), then we went back into the depths of the earth to catch another train.

We had not yet visited any of the surrounding cities around Portland, so we felt it was a good time to do so. It just so happened to be the beginning of rush hour at that time, and, as it turns out, nearly everyone lives in one of the surrounding cities and commutes into their Portland jobs. We let one incredibly crowded train pass us by before we realized they’d all be like that.

On-board a train with barely any standing room, we rode to Beaverton without a single real purpose in mind. We wanted to see how the other cities looked, but without any jobs or destinations lined up, it was really just sightseeing from a train. As the stops went by, the people around us lessened, and after picking a turning-back point completely at random, we got off the train to discover that there wasn’t much around.

It sort of looked like Frisco in that there wasn’t a ton of stuff around most of it, just pockets of shopping and houses. We reflected on the oddities of urban sprawl and how even in the nature-loving northwest they were inescapable, then we got a train going the other way and rode it to downtown Portland.

We walked for a bit, narrowly avoided a dead-eyed homeless man with a sleeping bag lazily draped over one arm, and found the NW Film Center. I was excited about finding it, especially since their website painted them as a film school mixed with a theater and job center, though once we found it, it turned out it was really just a film school. We aimlessly mumbled and grumbled for a few minutes and then decided to walk the city.

We found Portlandia at long last. Actually, we walked by her completely before we did another circle and found it. It’s the second-largest statue of its kind in the country, right after the Statue of Liberty. From our vantage point, it was actually kind of scary.

A guy with a dog walked up to a drinking fountain at human height and tried to get his dog to drink from it. Confused, the dog resisted until the man literally put the dog’s front paws on the fountain and showed the dog that sweet glorious water came from it. So then the dog stayed in that position and drank to his heart’s content.

We couldn’t tell if the man was homeless, just like we can’t tell if so many of these people are homeless. It’s just another thing about Portland: the hipsters are sometimes so hip that they like to look dirty and homeless even though they might have jobs and apartments. The homeless people, on the other hand, are all kinds of loony and can sometimes appear to be hip without ever meaning to.

Our goal for the night was to hit up Kell’s Irish Pub again. Every night at 9 PM they have live Irish music, and as we hadn’t yet seen any music in Portland, I was pretty interested in checking it out. After wandering downtown some more (seeing hippies smoking weed in the open and seeing that the art museum is closed Monday (Monday in Portland is some kind of unofficial holiday for a lot of businesses. It’s weird.)), we went to Kell’s and got some beers and food.

On the way, we passed a Fed Ex Kinko’s and I walked by the door just to see if by some miracle they were hiring. A large blue NOW HIRING sign faced me, and it was so amazing that I had to go in. After waiting behind a guy who wanted to exchange some candy for some other candy, the woman told me to (of course) fill out an application online. Our job hopes were rising ever so slightly.

All at Kell’s was excellent. I had bangers and mash and Brit had some kind of pastry-breaded sausage with mashed potatoes. After a second round of beers and some sweet potato fries, the Irish band for the night came on. They were really good, a guitar bass and violin trio that covered a lot of Irish-sounding songs that weren’t quite cheesy enough to make you say come onnnnnnn.

We listened for about thirty minutes and then, glasses drained and fries eaten, we left. On the train that night one of our more memorable conversations took place thanks to a strange man from DC.

Brit and I sat next to one another and were talking about jobs (big surprise). A black man in baggy clothes gets on one of the stops and keeps glancing at us. I can see him over Brit’s shoulder but Brit can’t. His eyes are bloodshot and he looks like he’s about to speak. Part of me is dreading it while another part is really wondering what he’ll say.

“Hey,” he says, unprompted. “You guys lead an alternative lifestyle?”

To you, dear readers, it may seem obvious what he meant. To us it did not, and so we both interpreted the situation as him asking us if we were hippies – something that he probably hated more than papercuts between fingers.

“No,” we said definitively.

“My niece is one of those,” he said, “but you know, people are people. Got to live life, you know?”

“Yeah,” we both say. “Definitely.”

“No, really,” he said every time we looked away with the hopes that he’d shut up.

Our stop seemed a million years away though really the conversation had started only one stop before ours. We agreed with everything he said, but still he would occasionally, and very emphatically, say, “No, REALLY,” as if we weren’t listening or disagreeing.

The stop for Park Rose finally came and he just so happened to get off as well. He walked with us, telling us that he’s from DC and that he can’t stand it when people are like that, and really just speaking in all kinds of vagueness until finally, on the bridge over the highway, he said, “And, man, my niece is a lesbian.”

He said it. It was a breakthrough.

He continued walking with us, thinking we were gay though we didn’t say even a full sentence the whole time, and just when I was wondering if I would have to act like we parked somewhere else to make him go away, he veered away. “You guys do what you do, man,” he said as he walked away.

We got back to Helen’s and slept, marveling at how even the homeless people (was he homeless? We’re not sure. Was he on drugs? Almost definitely) around Portland have morals. They’re all humanists and just want to share their philosophies. If only philosophers made money.

Tuesday morning was an early morning for us since Brit had to get to his 9 AM interview. We took the train downtown, he waited with a few girls for the doors of J.Crew to open, and I walked a few blocks west to fill out an application to be an unarmed security officer. I know, I know. It probably won’t happen, but I was curious. The application was long and I aced it – I think – but we’ll see if they ever call me.

I went back to J.Crew and waited for a bit for Brit. I read about how some guy threw a pie at Rupert Murdoch and how the world is always weirder than you think it is.

Brit came out, said the interview was pretty good but who knows. We walked to Kettleman’s and had bagels while we saw yet another homeless man mail something in a plastic bag (his own feces? A body part? Do we want to know?). Afterwards, he stuck around to have a lengthy conversation with the mailbox. He seemed a little angry.

We walked to the same FedEx Kinko’s we’d seen the day before and I requested a manager. It took a few minutes, but then this guy came over and talked to me. I told him how I’d filled out their stupid lengthy online application and how I’d be in Texas in two days and how he should give me a job. He said that FedEx has frozen their hiring until August 15 and thus couldn’t give me a job. YAY.

Took a bus to the eastside, where we went inside Artichoke Music, which is by far Portland’s coolest music store. They had all kinds of weird instruments and a super friendly store owner, and after a visit to Powell’s Home and Garden, we were wondering what to do with ourselves. What we decided was to go see a movie.

A few buses later and we were further east than we had ever been in Portland. It was raining for real at that point, and after a short walk we got to the Flying Pie Pizzeria. We ordered calzones and the guy said it would take thirty minutes. Surely not, thought I, though surely enough thirty minutes later our food was ready.

We scarfed down our food just barely in time to even see the movie, and actually got in about ten minutes late. The movie theater was just next door and it just so happened to be two-for-one night. We saw Meek’s Cutoff which I absolutely wouldn’t recommend. It was boring and flat, even if 86% of critics disagree with me. Don’t fall for a modern-made PG-rated western is the lesson I learned from that experience.

Halfway through the movie, Brit got a call from Rick telling us that his friend (the CEO!) of a creative writing marketing firm (think Mad Men) based in Vancouver, WA, was indeed hiring. After the movie, we got really excited about making our last big longshot of the trip. Back at Helen’s, Brit crafted a super-detailed and perfectly-worded email that precisely explained our situations and our writing experiences.

We shipped the email off at 7 PM and then played games the rest of the night. The next morning, on Wednesday, we awoke to a response from the creative director of the firm in Vancouver. She said she would agree to meet us and we should schedule an appointment for 1 PM. She said we could set up “that old info interview” and that we “already got high marks for perseverance.”

Needless to say, we got psyched very quickly. It was a real job with a real company that actually pertained to our skills and interests. Our only flaw was our lack of experience, but in the email we linked to stories and non-fiction we’d written (including this very blog!), and felt that we represented ourselves as accurately as we possibly could. The fact that they still wanted an interview could only mean good things for us.

We arrived in Vancouver thirty minutes too early, and so we walked around the central park for a while in our nice clothes. There was a concert going on, people were everywhere, and the weather was perfect. The firm’s building was awesome looking and we started, foolishly, to get really excited. Washington doesn’t have an income tax but does have a sales tax, whereas Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax but has a 9% income tax. Living in Washington and shopping in Oregon was the best bet, and we started to believe it could actually be a reality on our very last full day in the northwest.

The time came and we found ourselves waiting in a really cool office on the 6th floor of a building that gave us nice views of Washington to the north and of the Willamette River and Portland to the south. Art decorated the whole office, everyone was dressed casually, and they had a giant kitchen area with an enormous fridge.

While we waited the receptionist told us we were lucky to get an interview since they were so busy. She said we’d be interviewed by four or five people and that we must have really made an impression with our email. We were getting super nervous.

We sat in the conference room and only one other girl was in there. She had been at the firm for a year and a half, same as the second girl who came in, and both of them were hired straight out of college. There was hope for us yet! Then the creative lead came in, the one who had emailed us, and the interview got underway.

We talked about ourselves and our situations, they talked about how they liked our stories (they read them!) and that we had real talent for putting words together. Then they talked about their business for a long time and made it sound awesome (yearly writing retreats to the Oregon coast with visiting writers! Holiday cards that are really just literary magazines full of stories written by the firm’s writers!). When they started talking about how Brit and I could get more experience, red flags went up. What was going on?

“Do you have any more questions for us?” they asked us, without talking about job openings or our qualifications or what we’d be doing.

“No,” we said, dumbfounded.

“Great. Thanks for coming in. Let us know where you land,” they said, standing up to walk out.

“Thanks,” we said, walking out of the awesome office in a daze.

Back in the elevator, we wondered aloud about what had just happened. It was clearly not a job interview, and they seemed to just be giving us advice. But in that case, why do it when – as the receptionist told us – they were so busy? And hadn’t our superbly-crafted email made it crystal clear that we wanted jobs and not advice?

We got back and told Helen, and she shared our confusion until she googled “info interview” only to find that an informational interview is a very common thing in the business world – or at least was at one point. None of us knew the term and thus went into the meeting needlessly nervous and expectant when really all we got was advice. Advice that we were too nervous to even hear.

The rest of the day was spent complaining about the business world and grumbling and being bummed. We went with Caroline to the Camas Farmer’s Market and got some food for dinner, which we ate outside with Helen and Caroline and Bennett. It was wonderful weather as we ate ribs, bread, squash and onions, asparagus, and tamales. It was our last night with them and we were going to enjoy it, lacking job prospects or not!

We talked with Helen and got some ice cream and drank some wine and generally had a nice time. Then we ended up in bed pretty early, where Brit and I entertained all kinds of lofty business ideas (let’s become day traders! Let’s start a donut shop in Arizona!), all of which were fun and maybe even doable if we get frustrated enough in the months to come.

Thursday rolled around for us to find that the creative lead at the firm in Vancouver had emailed us explaining that she didn’t realize we didn’t know what an info interview was, but then going on to explain to us what we should have done. We appreciated the advice but were still peeved that things didn’t work out. She invited us back for another info interview whenever we’re in the area again (which, without jobs, might be quite some time).

We ate lunch and helped Helen get stuff put away, then she took Caroline and Wiley to a friend’s house. We loaded all of our stuff in the car and took off, bidding the house and our trusty van goodbye. Helen drove Bennett to a friend’s house in Happy Valley (nice neighborhoods in a far-away land from Camas), then talked with Brit and I as she took us to the airport. She dropped us off and sounded confident that we’d find something and be back in the area, and I marveled at how the entire time she’d been a wonderful host with a very pleasant outlook on life.

We told her goodbye and off she drove, to the small adjoining airport where she would get on a friend’s jet and fly to Las Vegas for the weekend. Brit and I checked our bags and waited for a few minutes before boarding our flight back to Dallas.

“It’s currently 100 degrees in Dallas Fort Worth,” the pilot said, eliciting all kinds of groans from those of us that had become pretty content with the 70s and 80s of the northwest.

And the plane took off, and away we flew from Portland Oregon.

With no concrete job offers in place, we’re not quite sure what comes next. Regardless, the trip was a blast and we for sure do love the area as much as we’d always expected we would. Armed with the fresh knowledge of what an info interview is, we can only do better in the future.

I feel confident that we’ll land something before too long, and I hope it brings us back to Portland. Sure, we’ll be yet more white college grads from somewhere other than Oregon, but somehow a city full of transplants felt right to me. It’s a strange and beautiful place that apparently gets outrageously gloomy in the winter, but living and working there for a while would be awfully nice.

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~ by Jon C. Forisha on July 22, 2011.

One Response to “In Portland It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Homeless”

  1. Awesome post, man. My dad lived in Portland for 6 years for work and just moved back a few months ago. Definitely a great city in a even greater region.

    Matt Mariaux

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