Monday, May 20, 2013

Short Stories and Snapshots: The Rise of the Paltry Days

I live and work downtown. It's not San Francisco, it's not Manhattan. But it is downtown, and that's saying something. It comes up in conversation occasionally: “what part of town do you live,” “what neighborhood is yours?” See, here in Portland, Oregon, people are not only very proud of where they live, but their neighborhood gives them a sense of identity. “I live downtown,” I say. In short, I live exactly 13 blocks from where I sleep and I generally do not stray far. “Wow,” is the general response. “How exciting.”

Truth is, I've always lived downtown. Here, Denver, Mexico City, Tucson and my brief tenure in New Orleans. I've always preferred to walk wherever I go. So, downtown is convenient rather than exciting. In the past, it was cheaper to live downtown. This is not the case anymore. In fact, where we live now costs more than any place I've lived before. High rent downtown. But I can walk everywhere.
Portland Building: a great place to camp

Although I live in a new building, the surrounding area is in flux. This part of downtown was great when new and is now becoming slightly fallow. It's not urban decay yet, but it is on the fast track. This along with the massive homeless population really makes it seem like skid row is quickly becoming the standard. It's even worse now that the summer is coming on.

We have a camping ban in Portland. That's right, the city does not allow “camping” within city limits. Yet, there has been an encampment in front of city hall for years. Somehow, being without home in Portland is supposed to be a lofty goal and a reasonable ambition. I digress, but the dichotomy of the place is really interesting. Moreover, my place within all of it is interesting too. I live in an expensive building and I work in a very expensive restaurant. I see wealth on either side of my commute, but the commute itself is paltry, impoverished, bordering on the absurd to say the least.

How do you expect this to treat a writer? I mean, living in the thick of it like this? Peter Benchley's book Jaws had very little to do with the fish. It was all about class and class warfare. John Steinbeck's Cannery Row kind of romanticized homelessness with Mack and the boys. A writer does use their surroundings as setting. It's a case of “write what you know.” And if you don't believe me, I can tell you a great deal about Haruki Murakami's Tokyo neighborhoods because he describes them in great detail in every novel.

What about the shutterbug? After all, this has been a conversation about photography just as much as it has been about writing. What do you think a camera can record? I find a great deal of beauty in urban decay. For some reason, I kind of find beauty in the passed out, or possibly dead, heroin junkies. It's the world that I live in. And oddly enough, when I get to the restaurant, there is a certain level of beauty in it too.
Wine decanter at Portland City Grill

So, I've been snapping photographs. I've been recording, in black and white, images that will remain the same when my memory of the day fades, warps and become nostalgia. Even if I'm not writing about the neighborhood now, some day I might. If a picture is worth a thousand words, is a thousand words with one picture? 

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