(An excerpt from my manuscript: “Behind the Douglas Fir Curtain”)
Not So Long Ago In Portland, Oregon
By Stephen Jay Morris
Once upon a time, I thought I would be happy living in an isolated part of the world. I wanted to live in a forest populated with creatures and plants of beauty. That was my idea of paradise. Well, I was wrong. Boy was I wrong! For one thing, the weather in northwest Oregon sucks! Rain! And more rain, along with snowstorms and humidity. And, on those humid days, all sorts of bugs regarded you like a McDonald’s meal.
We lived adjacent to the Nehalem River where, on a summer’s night, thousands of frogs would croak. Oh, I loved the sounds of nature; but humans make sounds, also. During hunting season, we could hear loud cracks in the distance; hunters shooting at elk. Gunshots are so fucking annoying! Our dogs would cower in fear. In San Pedro, there were Chicano gangs shooting at each other. But here, we had white guys shooting at harmless animals!
You’d think people who live in isolated places are amiable and serene. Not anymore. They looked liked hippies, but they had the mentality of Klansmen. Xenophobia? Fuck yeah! Oregonians, particularly white ones, hate Californians! Why? Nobody I asked could provide a logical reason. “White people are mind readers. They can transmit secrets to one another’s brains.” That’s not true, but it is a funny myth. Since I was not well versed in the laconic arts, I never found out what their bitch with Californians was.
A neighbor invited Pamela and I to join the local church, however, we declined. After that, it seemed we were shunned. I couldn’t even get a dishwashing job at the local café. The nearest location where we might hope to get work was 27 miles away; a coastal town called Seaside. We were on some shit list of undesirables. I didn’t care.
Our closest neighbor was approximately 60 feet away. Others’ houses were located somewhat farther from ours. That was one positive aspect of the area. The biggest problem for us was finding work.
The highway closest to us was Highway 26, also known as “Sunset Highway.” It was the main route that ran west to Seaside and east to Portland. On summer weekends, many from Portland would commute over that highway to get to the beach. The long, two-lane highway, which was sometimes just one lane, meandered through mountains and forests. The road we lived on, Elderberry Road, was a small, one lane, dirt road that ran in front of our house. There was no city-run sewer system, so we and our neighbors had individual septic systems. A small company that served a large region in the forest delivered our electricity. It was common to have outages during the frigid winters, so we’d have to use a gas-powered generator to get what little electricity we could. Let me tell you, it was noisy! Our water, which originated from a nearby mountain, was provided by a small, neighborhood, co-op. Sometimes, a leak would be reported or a pipe would burst. They’d shut off our water for hours while looking for the source of, and then repairing the problem. We’d use bottles of water we’d reserved just to flush our toilets. Living in the forest was not accommodating.
Our property was situated on a large lot about 25 feet above a road called “Gronnel Road.” This road ran adjacent to the beautiful and sinuous Nehalem River, which we could look out on from our house. Elderberry Road connected to Gronnel, which turned onto Highway 26, about a mile from our house. There was a sign at the intersection of Gronnel and Highway 26 with an arrow pointing east that read, “Portland 51.” I wanted to visit Portland every time I saw that sign. About 3/4 of a mile east on Highway 26 was the local General Store. They had almost everything one might need, except Portland’s daily newspaper; they only carried the Sunday edition. We were not that isolated in that we got a few radio stations out of Portland. We paid for satellite television from Dish Network, and also got some local stations from Portland. The only value for us from local news was the weather report. Otherwise, it was your typical news about crime and fires. For some reason, Portland always seemed to have fires in homes and warehouses. We did get MSNBC via satellite. That was the nearest thing we got to progressive news.
Then it happened. About October of 2011, the workers in Wisconsin were rebelling against the state. They protested in the rain and the cold. In American terms, that was rugged. The working class rebelling is the basic formula of revolution. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears! I saw video clips of labor unions taking over the Wisconsin capitol building. Did the revolution I envisioned in 1970 finally arrive?! Here I was in the middle of nowhere! I wanted to join them so bad!
Then, on Wall Street New York City, some anarchists occupied a public park. Other groups joined in on the occupation. Feminists, Environmentalists, Gay groups, and unions joined in. The occupation became a movement and spread to other cities. One major city it hit was Portland.
Oh, you should have seen the corporate news media! Reporters on the scene looked like Barbie or Ken dolls, hoping that some talent agent would discover them. They weren’t exactly war correspondents. They would interview members of the City Council, asking softball questions. Council members were tickled pink that the news media would interview them at all! The public wasn’t interested in the City Council, however. Reporters would stand in front of a tent while some one smoked a joint in the background. They sensationalized the whole episode. They posed questions to the camera, i.e.: “If the City Council decides to shut down the encampment, will there be violence?” You see…the Mayor and the City Council were liberal Democrats who tried to put on a tolerant face about the whole thing, but they wanted the occupiers to leave. They would whine about how the occupiers were ruining the newly planted grass and the trash that had been left by protesters. The media were cheerleaders for corporate America and found ways to discredit them. I was compelled to witness the encampment personally.
It so happened that my wife, Pamela, was to be commuting to Northwest Portland for a job interview. So, I accompanied her, along with our two dogs. After having been held up in rural Elsie for nine months, going to the city would be a nice change of scenery for me. It was October 26, 2011, cloudy and a cool 59 degrees. In Northwest Oregon, this is called a “Sun Break day.” I’d never heard this term until we moved there. Traveling east on Highway 26 took forever. After about 30 or 40 minutes, it passed through a tunnel and then, after another 15 minutes, it hit the flatlands. Here, you’d drive by small towns where their only motorcycle cop is parked just off the side of the highway to catch speeders. As a motorist, you have to be well aware of the speed limit signs; they change frequently. One zone would be posted at 45, another 50, and still another 65. The first time I drove this highway, I got a speeding ticket, so I hated it every time!
I waited in the car with our dogs while Pamela attended her interview. I think it was for a job with the State. I sat in our 94 Honda Civic and marveled at the simple things in life: they had sidewalks here! (In the forest, there are no sidewalks.) There were also streetlights and lawns.
One positive thing about living in Northwest Oregon was that you didn’t need a sprinkler system; it rains constantly. Lawns there are greener than Ireland. On the downside, this constant rain makes grass grow rapidly. About three inches every four days! Whenever there’s a sun break, Oregonians can be seen mowing their lawns in shorts. That’s right! Shorts! It could be snowing and they’d wear shorts!
Across the street from where I was parked was Oregon’s version of a convenience store: “The Plaid Pantry” or “Plaids” as I affectionately dubbed it. It was like our Seven-Eleven stores. There were Plaids everywhere you looked! They sold cheap cigarettes, which I bought. I waited in the car for about half an hour when, at last, Pamela returned. She told me all that had transpired and, then, off we went.
If you’re a stranger to Portland, it’s easy to get lost. You could easily end up in the state of Washington if you’re uncertain about which direction is west or north. Portland is a massive city situated beneath the great Columbia River. The long and sinuous Willamette River divides the city into east and west. The local news frequently reports on a misfortunate soul having drowned in the Willamette or on some dog the fire department rescued from it. Portland is made up of many neighborhoods identified as districts. There is even a Hollywood district, in which we almost rented an apartment.
It was a nice autumn day. Pamela was driving and I was observing the city. When we got off the freeway, we ended up on South West 3rd Street. There aren’t very many tall buildings in Portland; most of them are old, four-story storefronts. However, much like many big cities, there was a high density of tall buildings standing at attention like a military lineup. These were old buildings, ones on which trails of rust stains ran downward on them from the constant rainfall. There were plenty of trees planted along the streets and, on cobblestone sidewalks, there were fallen leaves of yellow and bright red. I saw all types of pedestrians walking hurriedly to their destinations, office workers on a coffee break, and homeless people sauntering along behind their overfilled shopping carts. Despite being a typical urban setting, Portland was a pretty clean city. I remember thinking to myself: if Seattle married San Francisco and they had a child, it would look like Portland.
We drove along South West 3rd Street and saw Lownsdale Square Park. Across the street was Chapman Park, the occupation site. At the entrance, there was a big statue of President Theodore Roosevelt sitting on a horse, wielding a sword. It was situated on a pedestal with a plaque that read, “Rough Rider.” Someone had draped a banner around the statue, emblazoned with a single word, “Occupied.”
Like in any urban downtown area, parking was a bitch. Pamela drove around the block. I saw a space and she pulled into it. Just as we exited the car, out of nowhere some cop said in a loud voice, “Sir? You can’t park here; it’s reserved for Police Officers. Sorry, you’ll have to move your vehicle.” I got the feeling the public was hostile toward cars. Most people rode bikes or took the electric train. We circled the block again and saw an empty space on Madison Avenue, in front of the bank. In this part of Portland, instead of individual parking meters, there were ticket vending machines located in the middle of each block. You’d deposit your money or swipe your credit card and a ticket indicating when your time was up would be dispensed. You’d place the ticket on the dash, just beneath the windshield and you’d be good to go. I had 85 cents in my pocket. That gave us just 36 minutes. We parked and then took our two dogs with us for a nice walk to the park. One positive thing to note about Oregon is that they are dog friendly. Many businesses let you bring your dog inside and the clerk will offer your dog a treat.
When we arrived at Chapman Park, I saw multi-colored pup tents and banners. There were black flags and red flags planted on poles in the lawns. The last time I’d observed a scene like this was in 1965, at my Boy Scout Jubilee held in a vacant lot o Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. But this was no Boy Scout Jubilee. It sort of reminded me of the Hoovervills during the depression of the 1930’s, in that a lot of homeless people had joined the Occupiers. Portland is a progressive “blue” city; the rest of the state is reactionary red.
As I walked into the park with my dog’s leash in my hand, I felt like I was transported back in time. I smelled the familiar aroma of Marijuana and some campers were burning incense. Ahh…the smell of revolution. We passed a tent with hand written sign that read, “Young Democrats. My Golden Retriever, Benny, lifted his hind leg and pissed on the side of the tent. I praised him but Pamela scolded him, “Bad Boy!” Luckily, no one saw him do it.
I also smelled the aroma of hay. There were bales of hay everywhere. For landscaping protection, the city had made the campers spread hay on the ground beneath their tents. Looking around the encampment, I saw reminders of the 60’s. There was a tent with a sign that read, “Tarot Card Reading.” I saw another tent displaying the Red Cross symbol and a sign that read “Medical Tent.” The only thing missing was a topless, hippie girl running around. Ah…mammaries…I mean, memories of the past. Realistically, it was too politically incorrect, or too cold for that type of activity. At one point, Pamela returned our dogs to the car, leaving me to explore the scene alone. Like the anti-war protests of days past, I got hit up by socialists passing out their fliers, or by some panhandler asking for spare change.
I also saw the quintessential troubadour carrying a guitar case, like some folk singer in the East Village in 1962. Some things never change. There was a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln standing among the grungy masses of the Left. Somehow, it seemed appropriate. Local news reporters were looking for the most militant subject to interview. This was intended to scare the viewing audience into thinking that the Anarchist revolution was here. They always asked the same dumb questions: “Do you expect violence with the police?” “How long do you plan to stay here?” Yep! Some things never change!
There were banners everywhere touting every type of cause. They had this makeshift stand with a sign that read, “Information Counter.” I stopped and talked to a hippie-attired girl who could have been a member of the Millennial generation. She was nice and helpful. She told me that this was the counter of the Occupation coalition and invited me to their nightly meeting at Lownsdale Park. I gave her a copy of my former band’s C.D., “Star Spangled Bummer,” and told her I couldn’t make it. She looked at it and said, “Far out! I heard of you guys…Benedict Arnold & the Traitors! You were in that band?” I lied, “No.” She said, “Cool. I’ll listen to it tonight.”
As I started to walk back to my car, I saw volunteers picking up trash. They were the “trash patrol,” however, the news media never reported about them. Next, I came across the food tent, where they served free vegetarian meals to the Occupiers. On the sidewalks there were nervous looking cops, acting like they were patrolling a space alien’s camp. I met Pamela and we made the long drive home.
So, the Portland occupation ended when Liberal Mayor Charlie Hayes sicked the cops on the occupiers. He gave the protestors until midnight to vacate the area and when the hour arrived, the local media pre-empted all programming to show the cops clearing out the two occupied parks. Token resistance to the cops was noted and the City of Portland was saved from the evil occupiers. If my memory serves me well, I think at one point, the occupiers actually re-took both parks.
So what happened to the occupation movement? It seemed like the movement came and went in less than a year. On the Right was the Tea Party movement, which was a sham. The media wanted everyone to perceive it as a populist movement; however, it was nothing more than a puppet movement for the 1%. The oil tycoons financed the Tea Party. You still hear the name, Tea Party, in connection with state elections. They run candidates against the so-called establishment Republicans for Congressional, Senatorial or Gubernatorial seats. All of these Tea Party candidates are, really…are corporate flunkies for the 1%.
So, again, I beg the question: “So what happened to the occupation movement?” Did the Millennial kids give up? I’ve discerned from different web sites that various occupation groups occupied foreclosed homes. I also heard that some became activists for the Democratic Party. Funny…you don’t hear anything about Occupiers running for political office. In my opinion, the Democratic Party co-opted the movement. It was like history repeating itself. In 1972, Democratic activists told the anti-war movement that George McGovern was our generation’s only hope. You’d think that, after Nixon bitch slapped McGovern in a landslide, activists would rejoin the new Left. But they didn’t, they just joined New Age cults and wrote sad songs.
The occupation movement was started by Anarchists and was terminated by liberal Democrats. Isn’t that the way American politics has always been? I was proud of those kids! I think the Millennials will make comeback, but this time, they won’t get fooled again! I really believe that.