Saturday, February 28, 2009

Unrandom Encounter

I've got a job offer in Portland, and have been looking for an apartment. So, I found this place in Southeast, this place that seemed nicely located and cheap and such, and met the landlord, a guy who looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, in the empty apartment. I told him my situation, and asked him if I could rent month to month. He said no.

He also told me not to sign a lease. Anyone's lease. I'd already been thinking about that, really, that I don't want to be tied to anything, and he confirmed it out of nowhere. The landlord, it turned out, was an ex military guy who'd been stationed abroad for years, and told me all about how he'd lived in Jerusalem and Syria and gotten moved around the Mediterranean and Middle East. He was obviously nostalgic about it all, obviously wistful and such, but that didn't make hearing about it any less interesting.

"This is the saddest place you can come back to," he said, meaning Portland, "there's nothing here." I don't know about that, it seems like there are probably a lot of sadder places, a lot of places with not much going on, and I think I can definitely have fun in Portland. But, I see his point. Maybe he thought of Portland the way I think of Eugene.

So this guy said, "Keep moving!" and I said "Okay," mostly because he, like a good comedian, just said what I was already thinking. I'm not going to join the army, like this guy did, but I'm most of the way through a Peace Corps application and am definitely not going to sign any leases.

I don't believe in god, spirituality, or anything like that. But, it is nice when chance encounters seem otherwise, when the course of events seems to tell you something. Paying attention to your environment, talking to people, that, it seems, offers its own kind of divination.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hey, Eugene

Boo was still alive. I hadn't thought at all about Boo until I saw her, there on her seat cushion, over twenty five pounds of feline immensity. She was old and huge when I left Eugene, and when I came back, she was very much the same, sprawled out on the same seat in the lobby of the Bijou Art Cinema. The Bijou is perfect- it's a converted funeral home with old timbers and a hokey fountain the the courtyard. It's locally run, serves its popcorn with brewer's yeast, and has a cat in the lobby. Boo is really the final flourish of hip, college town perfection. She's a symbol of how laid back Eugene is, and was still sprawled, hugely, on her cushion in the local cinema. The old, theater cat hadn't changed, the old theater, nor had much else of Eugene.

I lived in Eugene for seven years, and still have several friends there. It's idyllic, but not dynamic, comfortable, but not challenging. It is the kind of place wher you can find as much organic food, cats with theaters, and college town artsiness as you could want in your twenties, but it didn't offer me much else. Sure, I had a great time, but I had to get the hell out to get on with my life.

While I was there, I worked in a bookstore, a charming and dysfunctional little place that mostly sold used books and old textbooks. I went back there, met up with a few old coworkers, and chatted a bit. There were a few new people, whom I also said hello to. The bookstore, like the Bijou and Boo, hadn't changed at all. The same books were in the same sections, and I could have easily started giving customers directions. I almost did, at one point, just out of old habit.

I loved and hated working there. I loved it because I was surrounded by books, because it was easy, and because working in a bookstore is a Cool Job. It's a certain kind of job like being a barrista, or working in a record store, or being a bartender. There's not too much skill involved, but for some reason it retains a certain amount of hipster cache. When I told people in Eugene where I worked they would often say, "Wow, that sounds like a Cool Job!" And they were right. It was.

But, it was a job that offered not much in the way of money or advancement, and the petty politics of the place drove me nuts. As much as I enjoyed reveling in having a coveted position surrounded by used books, I had to get out. Coming back, seeing it all, made me realize how glad I was that I got out, how glad I am that I'm staying out.

I don't want to sound too negative. Eugene is a lovely place, and the friends I saw there seemed to be doing quite well. I'll doubtlessly go down again, to see people, but Eugene made me aware of two very important things:

1- In Portland, Oregon, a fairly large city with all manner of intersting stuff tucked away inside it. A friend of mine pointed out to me that I've never actually lived in Portland as an adult. It's been ten years since I've had an address here, and apparently the city offers a fair amount in the way of fun times. And

2- In a sort of opposite-of-Eugene state. I think of Eugene as static. It's a comfortable, green valley which will always be what it is, like a kind of Oregon hippy fairy glen. At present, I'm planning a career that's pretty far removed from the static life I used to live, and after seeing a little sample of that static life, I couldn't be happier about it.

I've got a lot to thank Eugene, for, definitely. It was good to me, and I appreciate all that it did for me. But, that relationship is over. Goodbye, Eugene. I love you, and I never want to live in you again.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Culture Shock, U.S.A.

"This," I said, "tastes like America."

"Have a few of those every week," says my sister's boyfriend, "and you'll look like America." He's right. On my first night back in the States, I'm out with my family, and we're eating all together for the first time in well over a year. The sandwich, a New Orleans style po' boy, is gigantic. It's a hulking log of meat and sauce, dripping untold calories onto my hand, plate, and table. It's gigantic. Everything is gigantic. The chairs we're sitting in, the heavy table before us. I get up from the table to use the restroom, and am surprised by the cavernous hallway and the restroom that's almost as big as my Japanese apartment. America is immense.

I'd grown accustomed to Japanese things for the past two and a half years. I'd grown accustomed single servings of chicken on sticks, and bowls of miso soup that you can hold easily with two fingers. I'd grown accustomed to theater and bus chairs that forced me to draw my Western shoulders inward, and my single room apartment. I'd grow accustomed to sleeping in a cozy, coffin-like loft where my head brushed the ceiling when I sat up on my futon, and comic books that fit nicely in the back pockets of my jeans.

All of this compactness was enough for me, and I was happy with it. Of course Tokyo itself was a sprawling mass of land and light, a technological megalopolis unlike anything else. But the soup and futons and comic books... I'd readjusted and recalibrated my perception. These foreign things became normal for me.

Now, though, I held a sandwich that was a veritable culinary barbell, dripping lakes of sauce that I wiped up with the immese acres of a white napkin. Outside, cars like tanks rolled by on wide, wide streets, and people walked with an enormity that surprised me. Of course there are obese people in Japan, but they are not the norm. Back here, even in a healthy, liberal city like Portland, Oregon, I was taken aback by the sheer size of some citizens, their presence broadcasting to me visible reminders of America's bounty, greed, pathologies, and wealth.

I felt like an outsider, seeing these things the way I did. I'd imagined my return, oftentimes during bouts of Japanese homesickness. I'd imagined striding through the airport gate, hugging people who'd come to greet me, sipping down Oregon beer and basking in the warm, familiar glow of the American Northwest. I did not anticipate the disorientation.

That familiar glow, though, came soon enough. My brothers invited me to go biking with them to downtown Portland, and at first I thought that it would be a huge undertaking. They assured me, though, that getting there would take maybe twenty minutes. I didn't believe them, but hopped on my bike anyway. They were right. We zoomed, mostly downhill, through bike lanes and wide side streets, crossing one of Portland's several bridges and soon enough found ourselves sharing the road with chic pedestrians and electric streetcars. Here, my surprise was reversed. I was impressed by how compact Portland is, by how bike friendly and pleasant it is. I once tried to bike through downtown Tokyo, through Shinjuku. Terrible idea. Downtown Portland, though, is a biker's urban paradise. There is no need for a car here.

We rode about, reaping the benefits of the progessive urban planning. Later, I walked across a different bridge in midday sunlight with a friend of mine, and was thrilled by the riverside's greenery. I began to feel it a little, a little of that thrill that I thought about, knowing that this place, this green city with it's bike trails and light rails, is my home, if only for a short time.