who the heck knows anything, anyway

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

You can go back, but you can't go back

We're moving back to the US of A. It's been a long time brewing (I'd say three years, really), and as of today (fingers crossed), we have an apartment locked down. We'll load ourselves and our cats onto a total of three planes and travel for a disgusting 25-or-so hours and when we lay us down to sleep, it will be in Portland.

It's difficult for me to describe the emotions that come with this move. There's the people I'm excited to see and the people I'm sad to leave.  I can't wait to get out of a prestigious town I don't fit into, but nervous about returning to a homeland that has changed so much since I was a baby, a kid, a teenager, a college student. Five years is a long time to be away from a place. I've visited, of course, but that's not the same. Visits are spurts of excitement full of action and activity. Living? Living a place is different. I'm not going back to my Portland (forever 2003 in my heart), or even the Portland I felt somewhat estranged from in 2010. I'm going back to my neighborhood, but I don't know how much it will be mine anymore.

Postcard of St Johns from 1930, from here
I'm returning to St Johns. It's mythic in my mind the way that Ireland is to my relatives: barely real, a place that's seen hard times but that persists regardless, beautiful beyond reason. It haunts me so deeply that I've barely ventured out there since moving to the UK. I spent my week-long visits in Kenton--the neighborhood where my parents live, which used to be nothing but a bank, a meat market, and a liquor store but now has a public library, amazing pet store, and a row of restaurants that cater to lovers of southern comfort and strict paleos, alike--and Downtown. Kenton's transformation has been positive in my mind: where there was once nothing, there is now an active, lively community. Houses have gotten more expensive, but you can still buy a 1940's craftsman for under $250k. And Kenton is still small, quiet, family-friendly. It was changed, but in a way that felt natural to the neighborhood. Areas like Mississippi and the Vancouver/Williams corridor are terrifyingly different; I get lost on streets I've been able to navigate since I was a tiny kid. But that's a different story.

I avoid St Johns because it is changing, too. Cathedral Park used to be a scary place. My family lived in a house directly under the bridge supports when I was small, and the neighbor kids behind us lit our yard on fire once. An old man who leased the basement apartment (we leased the top floor) died down there, and his relatives didn't look for him for a while. There were needles in the park, on the sidewalks. By the time I was a teenager, however, you could safely hang out in the park. You could covertly smoke cigarettes or make out in your boyfriend's car behind the pollution research center and by chain link fences with giant boat parts stacked up behind them. We were probably hoodrats, to some extent. I wore heavy eyeliner and black hoodies and my friends smoked weed and we snuck into abandoned buildings below the bluff and hid when the cops came to tell us to go home. The cops were nicer back then, it feels like, but that's probably wrong.

I miss that life. I was constantly afraid of getting in trouble, because I had an unchecked anxiety disorder, but that didn't stop me from climbing on cranes and train cars. We were stupid teenagers and we lived in a beautiful place: people native to every other quadrant of the city steered clear of our difficult-to-navigate peninsula, and the couple who ran the local coffee shop happily let us hang out for hours over a $1 cup of tea, and we had a view of Forest Park, and we had abandoned buildings, and we had a dirty river, and we had the St Johns Bridge. I've spent these last three UK-based years missing my park and my bridge and my friends.

Slim's is a hip bar, now. The Incinerator was torn down a few years back. Xeno's closed in 2005 or 2006. People from all over the US (probably a few other countries, too) sport tattoos of my bridge on their bodies. The building I'll be living in is big and new and exactly the kind of building I would have complained about as a teenager. Oh, look: another rich, white 20-something moving into the neighborhood. I can claim I'm not rich, that I'm still Jenny from the block, that we're solidly middle class, but while I'm a starving artist on my own, my husband's got a good job and we don't have/want kids. Plenty of my friends do have/are having kids, which is amazing and exciting and yet another reminder that life is different. Things change, we get older, etc. And I'm not nostalgic for our misfit days or the trouble we could have gotten into--I like being a boring adult who occasionally goes out for a drink and likes to be in pjs by 10pm--but I am nostalgic for that feeling of ownership and belonging; for that feeling you get when Cathedral Park is empty and the weather is nice and you're kissing someone in a gully under the trees; for the teen-outlaw feeling of smoking a cigarette in the middle of the bridge while the moon hangs heavy over downtown; for the ghost stories and the late night heart-to-hearts and the perfect backdrop of dilapidation and debris and natural beauty. It used to be a fairy tale and a crime scene of a place. Now I'm moving back, and it's a different place, a discovered place, a place with less grit and more gilt, and I'm so desperate to live there that I will sacrifice this careful image I have of myself to live in a shining new building that used to be Our Daily Bread.

**all photos--unless otherwise specified--were taken by my friends Danielle and Mary Jane, or myself, between 2003 and 2006