A summer in NoPo aka The Commune

When I received the request from PSU this past April to teach in summer school (thereby returning home early and shortening my ELF assignment by a month), I was in a bit of a dither.  So I talked it over with Kurt in our favorite lobby bar over our favorite morning beverage. “You’d be a fool not to take it,” was his sage advice.  In other words 1.)  PSU didn’t consider me a lost cause and would probably keep hiring me; 2.) I’d earn some money between April and October which had not otherwise be assured, and 3.) I’d bust out of Batumi 30 days earlier. So, while there was some mild discombobulation required, I decided this was a good idea and proceeded accordingly.

The biggest challenge was simply finding a place to lay my head.  I had rented my condo through the end of August, and while I offered my tenant the chance to leave early should this be of interest, it was not, and so I was left with the task of finding…a nine-week crib from mid-June to mid-August.  This, if you’ve ever tried it, is no easy assignment.  I had several very kind offers from colleagues and friends, but most of them included multiple children or very long commutes, both of which seemed less than optimal.  The choices available on craigslist were quite spendy and would eat into much of the summer earnings.  And then I heard back from J, a graduate student at PSU in my department who was herself vacating for the summer to work in a national park.  She had a room in a shared house in North Portland with nice people and an easy and direct (if slightly long) commute to PSU. Score!

And so the day I returned from overseas I moved into The Commune.  Now this is not what the inhabitants call their residence, but it is for a me a useful term which sums up all that I like and all that has been a challenge of living here this summer.

First, the neighborhood.  You locals know that Portland is divided into zones by the Willamette River into East and West and by Burnside Street into North and South, hence NE, SE, SW, and NW.  “N” is the leftover slice to the east of the river but to the west of the I-5 freeway, the most adjacent to Washington State to the north.  Wiki describes it thus:

“North Portland is a diverse mixture of residential, commercial, and industrial areas. It includes the Portland International Raceway, the University of Portland and massive cargo facilities of the Port of Portland. Slang-names for it include “NoPo” (shortened from North Portland) and “the Fifth Quadrant” (for being the odd-man out from the four-cornered logic of SE, NE, SW, and NW).”

Yup, diverse is the word.  To my eye, while there are some charming clusters  (the villages of Kenton and St. Johns, the lovely Pier and Columbia Parks, the university (“UP”) and many pleasant neighborhood streets, the rest of the region which stretches roughly twelve square miles in a large rectangle is also characterized by long hard-to-distinguish stretches of semi-commercial arterial streets, most noticeably Lombard (on which I reside), Interstate (where the light rail runs) and Columbia (the industrial corridor). Sprinkled along the routes are….dingy but overprices mini-markets, dive bars of long standing, gas stations, fast food outlets, oversized supermarkets, martial arts studios, cell phone stores, Goodwill, and little houses, of which ours is one.  Since those streets are where I reside and also where I travel to and from school every week day, those thoroughfares have formed much of my impression of the area. Here’s the view out my window for a small sampling of the above:

Work in progress

Work in progress

The house itself is quite sweet…here’s a shot from the front.  My room, greatly warmed by the eastern exposure and the proximity to the roof,  is behind the windows on the second floor, right side of building:


It might not be readily apparent from this picture, but eight people live here, plus the occasional visiting couch surfer, girl/boyfriend, or family group.  Two of us are upstairs, one on the main floor (plus the guest room there), four in the basement, and one who sleeps….well, in the upper left of the following photo:

Cool breezes

Cool breezes

Of the eight, six are regulars and two of us are summer subletees. This is the good part.  Really lovely young people, hearts and politics in the right place from my perspective, and, most importantly, all very accepting and tolerant of me and my re-entry foibles.  We have someone who manages an environmental non-profit, one who works in a tea shop, one who works in a vineyard, two who pack in warehouses, my fellow interloper who is interning for a judge, one who works in health care, and me. It’s a physically active bunch as well – folks are always heading out on hikes or bikes, going for kayaking weekends, heading to the coast, taking a run.  There’s very little emphasis on technology, lots of efforts at music and board games, an interesting variety of shared food, and always someone to chat with either over coffee or dinner or whatever. Here’s a shot of the bicycle stable, and believe it or not, a couple are missing:

No room for a combustion engine

No room for a combustion engine

Today, Sunday, is cleaning day, and we’ve all just put in a couple hours sweeping and scrubbing and putting things to rights….which is a good thing, because most of the time, it’s a little, er, well, casual around here for me.  I’ve always thought of myself as a neat person, not a clean freak by any stretch of the imagination, but I try to make sure I wouldn’t drop dead of a heart attack if, say, my mother walked into the room. Well, that concern just doesn’t seem to register here, and maybe that’s a good thing.  I have to admit, though, I have been a good bit daunted by scenes like this which greet me when I return from the wars:

Where to start?

Everything but the kitchen sink

Ah, so if that’s a little much, let’s just grab something to eat.  Open the fridge and we find…

Kombucha, anyone?

Kombucha, anyone?

Arrrrgggggghhhhh!  Add that to toilets that are flushed irregularly and gnat swarms that greet me when I open the compost tub….and it’s been a bit of an adjustment.  Good thing I lived in a developing country for nine months before I got here…it actually has made it easier for my old-lady schoolteacher self to accept the things I cannot change, which, fortunately, will be changing for good in two weeks when I go to Maine on vacation.

Oh, and of course, no post of any significance can be complete without the animal shots…here’s Tsuga, the resident feline, sending me mind probes to walk to the fridge and get her just a little bit more tuna…

Don't you love me?

Don’t you love me?

So there you have it…the cross-cultural experience AFTER the cross-cultural experience.  Another Portland neighborhood.  Another learning experience.  Another few steps on the journey.  Until next time…

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2 Responses to A summer in NoPo aka The Commune

  1. aj says:

    Oh Carlita!! I am so glad to have you back! Tell it like it is, sister! 🙂 God bless the hippies, but we are a messy bunch! Your own grace shines thru, and your tolerance and genuine engagement make all of us better!… (and have you messed with the tree sleeper? It’d be a temptation that I myself might not be able to resist….a sling shot shooting grapes, perhaps, or how about shimmying up and affixing something stinky, like reeeeally old socks from winter…invite me over before you leave, and we’ll have some fun!) Keep on writing… 🙂

  2. I missed this post. Great to see all that you have described. Loved our weekend together, my dear. Let’s make the next meet up sooner rather than later.

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