I was having an off morning. I was a little hormonal and my enthusiasm was low. Not having a bad day, really -- just kind of meh. As soon as I got to work, we suffered an epic two-hour rush at Fnorders; there'd been a big coupon sent out the night before, and now everyone in downtown was trying to cash in over their lunch hour. They were all crabby and high-maintenance. And no matter how much backup we called for or how fast we rang people up, the line never seemed to get any shorter -- they just. kept. coming.
(Incidentally, just so you know: yes, we offer free gift-wrapping. Yes, if you ask, we'll actually do it. Yes, I'll try to do a nice job of it, time permitting. But yes, if you actually ask us to do it, we will curse you under our breath and think evil thoughts about you for the rest of the day. FYI.)
Once the rush was over, I was left feeling weary and discontented. I still had four hours on my shift, but I was tired of dealing with people. I found myself wondering whether everything I was doing was ever going to pay off, wishing I could have some little sign to encourage me on a moody, gloomy day.
Anyway, to make a long story short:
He just sort of showed up and started signing books. The only people who knew he was in the store were employees (and a couple of hipster patrons the employees clued in), so he signed some specially for us. He was incredibly friendly and chatty and seemed happy to be making everyone else happy -- he asked why I'd chosen Fugitives and Refugees to have signed, and when I explained my choice, he welcomed me to Portland and said he was glad that his book had helped draw me here. He hung around for about 45 minutes signing every single one of his books we had in stock, and then went on his way. I chose this one because it has some sentimental value to me by now -- it's sort of the hoary old Portland standby, but it was one of the things that convinced me that Portland was a good place for me to be, and today was a good day to be reminded.
Thanks, Chuck. And thanks, Portland -- I love you, too.
PS: Continuing with the birthday-addendum theme, happy birthday to Diana! She moved to the northwest from Memphis a couple of years before I did, and now that we're practically neighbors (ignoring that we have the whole of Washington between us), I'm hopeful that we'll be able to make good on our abstract plans to meet up sooner or later. It's been much too long since I last saw her, and we have a huge amount of catching up to do. Everybody say happy birthday to Diana!
Two assholes down, and one evil fucking douchenozzle to go.
(Sorry, hon, I'll try to last longer next time.)
PS: for my fellow Americans, in Australian, "Liberal" = right-wing fuckhead. Don't try to make it make sense.
PPS: And as long as I'm here, happy birthday to Smithers as well! He's like 39 years old today, so I'm going to be gentle and lay off the teasing this year. Because next year, by god, is going to be epic.
Seriously, though, my love for Smithers abides no matter how old and musty he becomes. In honor of this important day, I've decided to break with my longstanding edict against video posts, and slap up my first ever embedded YouTube video! Yay Smithers! Because after this many years, I know how to speak his language...
Happy birthday, Shug!
PS: Probably safe for work, but you might want to, y'know, turn your speakers down some.
The bad thing about working in retail as a cashier is that I have to talk to everyone who comes in. Everyone. The best thing about working in retail is a cashier is that, hey, I get to talk to everyone! And I do get to meet some interesting people while I'm standing behind the counter. In no particular order:
Yesterday, the first person I encountered after clocking in was a small woman, who clearly lived in a somewhat different reality than most of the rest of us, pleading with me to help her find a copy of that day's Oregonian. She needed to read the comics. She was getting very anxious about it, almost teary-eyed. She said something about someone's baby being born the day after her birthday. I helped her look for the newspaper, but it was already 3PM and we'd long since sold out. Later that day she returned to buy some children's books (is it just me, or are kids' books outrageously over-priced?), except this time she was wearing a strawberry-blonde wig and a pink hat.
The day before that, a man came to the counter with a couple of bargain-priced books of fairy tales and travel guides to the Philippines. The fairy tales, he said, were for his grandchildren. The travel guides, it turned out during the course of conversation, were for his upcoming trip to meet what I can only fairly call his mail-order bride. He lived in the Alaskan interior, had been single for 25 years, and was now so hungry for companionship that he was importing a twenty-ish Filipina. In spite of all that, he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I kind of hoped it would turn out okay for him. But these things seem to generally go badly.
There's a small, round man who comes in sometimes and immediately launches into a rather autistic account of every bookstore he's ever been to, including dates and what he bought. He particularly loves to recount his trip to London where he went to the Fnorders there, even though he was from Salem, born there in 1941, and had never been to Fnorders in Portland. And he also went to Blackwells Books three blocks away, but at the Fnorders he had orange juice. At least, I think that's what he said. I'll probably get to hear it again before I'm done. The cool thing is, every time he comes in is the first time he's ever been to the Portland Fnorders.
And a few days ago I was checking out a very pleasant man when he asked to see a DVD boxed set of I Love Lucy that was on a shelf behind me. It's an enormous set, something like 34 discs, containing the entire series. He looked it over, and told me that he was one of the twins who'd played Little Ricky as an infant, 1953-54. He showed me his driver's license with his name, and I looked it up online later, and yep, that was him.
Then there are the terse ones, but they don't bother me much. I haven't had a really rude or obnoxious customer yet, though I'm sure my time is coming. As long as they don't get in my face and scream at me that I'm a stupid cunt (which happened while I was working at Taco Bell years and years ago), I know I'll be able to cope with it. Mostly, though, I kind of like that part of the job -- it's exhausting to have to be so outgoing all day long when it's not my natural state, but I think it's good for me, too. If nothing else, I'm getting lots and lots of practice engaging strangers, which I've never been so good at. And yes, the people I talk to the most are the ones who, for whatever reason, aren't very socially skilled. For them, making conversation with a stranger is a big reach, much more so than for me, and I find that I have a lot of respect for them just for making the attempt. I certainly prefer them to the urbane types who do little more than grunt in my general direction -- it sort of makes me wonder how accurate our definitions of social ineptitude truly are.
So here's an issue I've been mulling over for a while -- basically since I started frequenting downtown, but I've been aware of it since before I arrived in Portland. This city is an interesting one in that there are a lot of different kinds of people here. It isn't diversity in the way I'm most immediately accustomed to -- in Memphis, "diversity" meant a black majority, a white minority, and a growing population of Latinos who mostly just kept their heads down. Portland, on the other hand, is solidly white, so diversity means something a bit different. Here, it's mostly about class, economic status, and cultural identification. Since Portland is such a hipster fairyland and still reasonably cheap for the west coast (the two points are not unrelated), it draws a lot of lost souls -- vagrants, train hoppers, street kids, and so on. There are more homeless people of widely varying kinds here than I've seen anywhere since London.
The problem, then, as with any city with a significant homeless and itinerant population, is the tension between the weirdos encamped in the city center and the people who want the city to be "nice." To that end, a bunch of businesses downtown (Fnorders included) have banded together and installed a street-level patrol of glorified security guards, called "Clean and Safe" officers, who serve a number of purposes -- the primary one of which is to manage the street folks who congregate downtown.
I don't want to de-emphasize how prevalent the homeless population is here. There's a lot of begging going on, and I'm sure a bit of other, less innocuous activity, though I've yet to see any of that. I'm aware that where you have homeless teens, you also have hard drugs, theft, prostitution, and any number of other petty crimes. But having lived in London, where the street kids would sleep in business doorways inches from the endless crowds of passing pedestrians, and junkies would hike up a trouser leg and shoot up into a vein behind their knee right there in front of you without even pausing to look around at who might see, the groups of kids hanging out and asking passerby for cigarettes and spare change just don't bother me. The very few I've talked to since arriving have actually been very sweet and polite -- I don't doubt that they can be ugly when they need to be (you'd have to have a capacity for ugliness to survive on the street for long), but many of them are clearly smart kids who've made some questionable choices, though far be it for me to judge them. In any case, so far I've never felt remotely threatened, and I don't have a problem with sharing the street with them. And the same, of course, goes for the grizzled old guys with their pocket flasks of hooch and their cardboard signs. As long as they don't do anything weird directed at me personally, then we're all just neighbors as far as I'm concerned.
Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way, including my new employers. They've already called the Clean and Safe officers twice since I've been there to clear off groups of street kids who weren't doing much more than hanging around acting like teenagers. And I just feel really conflicted about the whole thing. I am, of course, not the only person who feels that way.
Portland's a little funny this way. Not that the city is without its supply of the usual urban problems, but compared to most cities they're so laughably mild that it's hard to take the complainers seriously. A certain type of Portlander tries to scare us newcomers about the "bad" parts of the city, trying to come across all ghetto, but you learn pretty quickly that the typical Portlander sees three black people together and assumes they've arrived in Compton. For my part, I've stood on a street corner mere feet away from a screaming, mad wino, his scabby, flaccid penis hanging out of his trousers, who spontaneously erupted a torrent of smelly, fluorescent green liquid from his mouth onto his shoes. I've been accosted by a seven-year-old street urchin, literally dressed in rags, asking me in some Slavic language for my french fries. I've stepped over addicts passed out on the sidewalk with needles still hanging out of their veins. I've been grasped at by toothless old Gypsy women, for crying out loud. If some old dude with a shopping cart napping under a tree scares you so much that you need to organize a private militia, you really need to get out and see some more of the world. Because it gets so, so much worse than that.
I don't want to live in a sanitized city. I don't need everything around me to be perfectly Clean and Safe. There are risks involved, but there are risks involved in everything, and while nobody wants bad things to happen to them, you can't let that small possibility stop you from living among other people. I really like that I come into contact with so many people here -- and no, I don't always come into contact with only the people I might choose, but that's part of the experience. Day before yesterday I rode the bus sitting next to a very round woman with a goatee who kept her head tucked behind a large purse, having a very animated conversation with an invisible friend. She smelled kind of funny, in a stale-lotion kind of way. But I don't have a problem with sitting next to her -- it's sort of like a mental vaccine, inoculating me against fear of the other. Being too clean and safe can make you even sicker in the long run.
... not that I've made much progress since the last one. I've been at the Fnorders job for almost a week now -- strange to think that a week ago I was getting ready to go in for an interview, and now I'm all trained up and verging on getting bored with it. But whatever, it's a job, and it's a pretty easy job, so that's all fine. I just stand behind a register with my little walkie-talkie and earpiece, scanning the stuff and pitching the Fnorders Reward program (the worst part of the job), and occasionally I get to go tidy up a section and make the spines of all the books flush with the front of the shelves. And that's about it, really. The customers are mostly fine, the other employees are pretty nice, and it kills the time.
The only irony is that now I have a job with a good discount on something I'd actually buy, and I'm too broke to afford anything. Even at 33-40% off.
But whatevs -- it'll do for now, and now that I don't have to spend every day looking for a job, I'm starting to relax into my life here. And when I say, "starting to relax into my life here," I really mean, "starting to think about what more I can be doing." I know that what I should really be doing is hunting down every reputable video post-production house in the city and goading/pleading/begging/cajoling them until they give me some kind of work to do -- but I don't even know how to begin doing that. I have a couple of potential sources of help around, but I don't want to be reliant upon them to help me get started; this is something I should be able to do on my own. But what do I say to the people I approach? How do I get their attention long enough to make my case? I'm convinced that the "proper channels" have been specifically designed to block my access to any and all of the work I want to do -- the cover letter and resume combo, however artfully constructed, has never gotten me anywhere close to where I want to be. I can make a good case for myself in person, and the people I've worked for in the past have almost always come away wanting me to work for them again. But how do I get to a place where I can prove myself? That's the puzzle I'm trying to work out now.
I try to think about what I'd be looking for if I were the one being approached, what has gotten my interest on the occasions when I've been approached by others in the past. And I can say that I have this much going for me: I'm not trying to get into this industry for the sake of glamor or ego or to get chicks; I'm doing it because I love the medium, want to know how it works in intimate detail, want to spend my life trying to further the art form and make a contribution to it. I've done my time in the trenches of indie ignominy, and if I'm still hacking doggedly through this jungle after all these years, anyone who takes me in can feel confident that I'm not going to jump ship when the work gets too hard or the rewards too meager. My skills are less than they might be, but it's not for lack of ability -- I have the capacity to do excellent work, and need only time to practice and learn to get there. Sooner or later I'm going to claw my way in, and whoever it is that gives me my chance will earn my loyalty and dedication as well as the produce of my labor, so someone might as well go ahead and claim me and start making use of what I have to offer. And I'm not too proud to fetch coffee if I have to.
All I want is somewhere to sit and learn. And maybe someone who knows what they're doing to critique my work. I know there's someone in this city who would give me a chance to do that, but how the fuck do I find them, and how do I convince them to give me fifteen minutes to explain why they really want me around? I have absolutely no idea where to start.
PS: I realized today that in the last week I've only used a quarter of a tank of gas -- a damn good thing, too, since we're up to about $3.20/gal. here. (And before you start, yes, I know very well that that's still cheap by world standards. But seriously, $3.20 in November? I shudder to think what it'll be come June. It's my intention not to be buying any gas at all by then.)
I know I've said this before, but walking around Portland, I keep feeling the way I felt in London. A lot of it, I know, is just the act of walking to get places again, of riding on the bus standing up, leaning against the luggage bin the way I used to, gazing across a landscape of bridges crossing the river. A lot of it is just a semiconscious association, maybe some kind of physical memory unlocked by walking with a purpose again. Portland doesn't look like London except in the most superficial ways -- there's a similar attention to detail, and its pedestrianized scale is the same, though that's common to every city of walkers. But there are as many differences as similarities.
But I just can't get over the feeling of being back in London. Crossing the bridge (especially at night, when downtown and the hills beyond create a deep field of lights that can be heartbreakingly lovely), I get the same aching affection for Portland that I did for London. Except this time, it's better -- this time, that ache comes without the sharp edge of knowing that sooner or later it will all be over, that eventually I'll have to leave. I used to stand on Waterloo Bridge on my walk to the tube station, trying to soak in the way St. Peters looks at night, trying to commit it to memory so I could still call it up even when I couldn't go look at it anymore.
I don't have to do that here. I still do it, but I don't have to. Nobody's going to make me go, I can stay for as long as I want. I can make this home, if I can learn how to live in just one place. This can be my own city.
Incidentally, I've decided that Portland is pretty much what you'd get if London and Anchorage had a bastard love child with a lot of talent and some self-esteem problems.
I walked up to Stumptown this evening to get a coffee and sit and make notes for another project. On the way home, I found a small black cat wrapped in a jacket under a tree with a little bouquet of maple and ginkgo leaves. It didn't move when I approached, and next to it someone had laid its collar and a paper coffee cup with a note inside. The note read:
"I found this sweet kitty in the road about 6:30 this morning. She was still a bit warm, but there was no breathing and no heartbeat and nothing to be done. The injuries must have been internal. I've given her my jacket and left her here, hoping you will find her. I'm so sorry."
And about a foot away, written into the concrete of the sidewalk whenever it was poured, was the single word: "WEEN".
As of today, I finally have a paying job -- I've gotten a suitably slackerish, hipsterish job at a book store. Sadly, it's the big corporate chain store -- I know better than to name one's corporate employer on a blog, so let's just cunningly refer to it as "Fnorders." I'm torn about that, because one of the things I love best about Portland is the presence of Powell's, and let's face it, Fnorders is basically the anti-Powell's. Given my preference, I would much rather work at the independent book mecca than the corporate chain store. But Powell's basically never hires -- people want to work there too badly, so positions rarely open up; and even when they do, they go to dedicated career booksellers and not casually-employed noobs like me. So the real difference is that Fnorders is offering a paycheck (plus free coffee and a useful discount), and Powell's isn't. It's not that I'm disloyal, it's just that I'm desperate.
Still, there it is -- it's money coming in, which I need. And it'll be enough to cover my bills, albeit barely. And yes, it's just a seasonal job for now, although I've been told that the next round of permanent hires will come from this batch, and that already they like the cut of my jib. If it keeps me afloat for a few more months and leaves me flexible enough to take other opportunities that arise, then that's good enough for me. Plus, it's dead easy to get there and back on the bus, which saves me considerable money every week. Plus, it's only a few blocks from the central downtown library -- did you know that all you need to get a library card in Portland is a photo ID? I can even be an out-of-state ID. No proof of residency, no fee to pay, just drop your ID, fill out a little form, and BOOM, library card. Awesome. Next up: registering to vote.
And already, mild frustration sets in. I keep telling myself that it takes longer than a month for a new life in a new city to start taking shape, and that everything will work out if I keep making a daily effort, if I stay patient and open to whatever opportunities arise. But there's so much I want to be doing right now, and for the last couple of weeks I've felt like I've mostly been waiting for other things to happen. Waiting for people to get back to me, waiting for one of my numerous prospective employers to call, that sort of thing. I'm trying to keep myself busy during the down time, but it's tricky. I get a little bored. I try to do at least one (and often more, but at least one) productive thing every day, but it takes time for these things to start bearing fruit.
I just want to get down to work, you know?
Anyway, today I tested for another temp agency, signed up for a few hours of volunteer time at the Hollywood, and filled out an application to work at Borders for the holiday season. It's not much, but it would be fine for a couple of months. I'm trying to take a longer view of things as well, trying to formulate what life it is I came here to try to create so I can start making baby steps in that general direction. And one of the things I thought I could possibly do in Portland is to pursue a Masters degree.
(That plaintive wail you just heard was my mother screaming.)
It's actually funny, because in everything but name I've already completed an MA. My film school in London was absorbed into the University of London during my last year there, and the program was transformed from a simple diploma program into an accredited MA degree -- exactly the same program, which I was just on the cusp of completing. But in order to qualify for the degree under the new partnership, I'd have had to have begun a year later than I did. I guess those are the breaks. But now that I'm in a city with a decent public university or two, going for a Masters -- for real this time -- is a feasible prospect. I could take a casual approach, chipping away at it over three or four years while I lived and worked according to the original plan. It would cost a fraction of what I've spent on education so far, and even most of that expense could probably be allayed if I played it right. So I think it's something I could consider.
The next question, then, is "what should I study?" If I had to do college all over again, I admit that I'd be very tempted to go into science instead of the humanities -- biology, probably. I dig biology. But that doesn't work for a Masters -- I don't have the background, and anyway, as much as I like biology, I'm not really interested in doing research and have no plans to use science in my working life. So that's out. I could probably get into most humanities programs -- sociology or anthropology, that sort of thing -- but I don't really want to. Portland State University does an MA in writing, which might be cool -- I could finally get some real criticism. But then again, writing isn't really something you qualify to do by getting a degree. You can either do it, or you can't. Which isn't to say that education in the subject isn't worthwhile -- I'd love nothing more than to do some writing in a context where I have an actual editor to tell me what I'm doing wrong and help me make my writing what I suspect it could be. But it doesn't have to take place in a formal educational environment.
So I was still looking around, and thinking that what would really serve my interests most at this point, given my long-term objectives and my education background -- would be something in the realm of film and technology and new media and stuff like that. A few years ago I had a friend who went to a private special effects program in LA, and that looked challenging and fun and generally awesome. But that shit was expensive, and cost is unfortunately a very real issue for me. I could theoretically do some of that on a self-teaching basis, but I know that I respond well to a more structured program, and could probably also save myself some time and effort -- this digital stuff is a complicated business, and I welcome any shortcut in learning new skillz.
So I've been looking around but not finding much. Tonight, though, I had a look through the University or Oregon's site, and discovered that in the near future they're going to begin an MA program in digital arts, which will be based here in Portland. There isn't much information available yet -- I think this is a program that's supposed to start at the beginning of the next academic year, so just under a year from now -- but if it is what I think it is, it might be just the thing I'm looking for. Cheap, accredited, applicable, genuinely useful, and something that I think I could do while I live my normal life.
But I don't know -- is this a good idea? It's not like I don't have enough to deal with already, between trying to break into my chosen field in a new city and just getting by this first year. I assume that I could work at the same time, and continue to work towards bigger goals, but I might be fooling myself. I can't take on any more student debt; I can't even really put off repaying the debt I've got. I absolutely can't afford to take any more time away from grown-up life to go back to school. But if I can manage it all at the same time, this might be a helpful thing to do.