Making a mad dash from the station, the area just outside the grand Portland Union Station is an unfortunate collection of buildings for what passes as the city’s China Town, considering how many China Towns I have been to, and that I was in China World, that is The People’s Republic of China, these scattered and closed shops allowed for all manner of drifters to gather and as far as eateries go, there seems to be two, the third is either a closed down strip club or just closed down. Where are the black bean buns? It also did not help that the bus station was nearby. I am not sure if it Raceclassgender inappropriate but I avoid the bus in this country the same way I avoid methadone clinics and people with the clap. India, Africa, Russian Federation, Peru, I have traveled thousands of miles on coaches of all manner of disrepair, and sitting cheek to cheek (both those of the butt and face) with The People, that is, whatever local population there is, but in Amerka, the bus is… unpleasant at best and not the sort of travel that I feel I learn anything from other than my legs are far too long for those seats.
Going on to the hostel, I took the main road, and on the sidewalk were a number of blankets and some were occupied others were just sitting there. It had been a stretch of nice weather, and apparently the homeless, the crazy, the Crust Punks, the Traveler’s and sundry other sidewalk sleepers were returning to the sidewalks.
“You know you can just get off the train and sign up for food-stamps at the mission,” the man on the train had told me. “You just go in and there’s signs telling you what to do, what to claim, how long you have to wait. If you don’t have an address they have a sign saying to claim you live ‘Under the Western Overpass Bridge.’ You know how many people officially live Under the Western Overpass Bridge? I think there’s more people at that address than the Hotel Commodore, or the Plaza.” He was a friendly guy who we all had been joking with since he joined the train in Sacramento. For some reason that group of seats where there was collected a man who welded underwater pipes for the oil rigs in the Deep South (and hated the Deep South), a sleeping college student, a women from upper Washington, and another woman from Portland, was the place to hang out and share food and drinks. Mark, a man who lived in Seattle but was just returning from a long stay in LA. “If you don’t want to live under the bridge, you can just describe as best as you can where you are staying, and that is your address. I mean, all the best people live under the bridge, so that’s the best address.” Everyone laughed, and harder still than I since I was not from the area and was just imaging this to be a bit of traveler’s hyperbole.
But… it wasn’t… that far… off.
The hostel in the city of Portland is one of the best I have ever stayed at. It is in an area bordering the historical district as well as a street with quite a few bars and such. The hostel is in an ultra-restored Victorian house that shares a courtyard with a guesthouse, an even more charming but slightly more private and pricy affair. In the morning there was really good coffee, fresh bread, and jam that looked home made. In the courtyard a young woman clipped and snipped the plantings meticulously. She may have been cute, but wore really ugly glasses, as did the majority of the female population of the city that I had seen to-date.
Unfortunately, the weekend was coming and I was only able to get a single night at the place, and according to the internet booking, the sister location all the way out in Hawthorne was booked too. Not knowing the area, I had found a place online, close the city downtown and just off of the Broadway Bridge. This place was called the Portland Pension. The first Pension I stayed at was in Italy. A rather dull affair, it offered antiquate lodging and breakfast and lunch if needed. The place was run by an elderly woman and her son, a man who was very fat, balding, and seemed to be older than most of the men I had seen still living at home, with mom, but that was Italian culture then, and when visiting a foreign country a little eccentric setting can make the experience come alive. Also, it was Cinque Terra, a part of Italy known for the wine, grappa, and the view of the Mediterranean Sea. Pensions outside of Italy often were just hostels that had to differentiate themselves from Youth Hostels since in those days there was an age limit of 25 or 26 on most of those establishments and older travelers or those who didn’t want to be in with the college-age crowd could gather in a similar inexpensive dormitory-style lodging and perhaps dine in on a home cooked meal.
So, I packed my bags and trudged my way down the road first to the bike shop in order to rent some means of transportation in order to put to the test the “most bikeble city in the US” claim, and in order to get out to my next residence, which I expected would be an older crowd since it was a little more expensive than where I was staying, yet got an 85% approval rating on hostels.com.
I found the area quickly, indeed the bike lanes allowed for this although the weather had turned hot and being on a train for so many days did not have me quite ready for any physical activity, especially using a rented single-gear bike and carrying a backpack loaded with more than I started with, since inevitably I had collected some souvenirs such as books and rocks and these made less sense now than they did when I just tossed my bag onto a train.
The exterior of the place was brick, the sort of place that once had been a motel back in the day, cars pull in to be met at the office and then park in front of whatever room is assigned. Not the end of the world, I would not expect everyplace to be a restored Victorian in a party district of the city. I was in for something new. I was also exhausted from my short ride and wondering how I would ever acclimatize myself to moving around the city, so other things were on my mind than checking in, but I approached the office where I was met by a man and let in. There was a clutter of things in the office and a small boy with a sore on his lip was doing something on a phone with the man, a younger person that I first had assumed, but certainly neither were guests since they were very familiar with the office. The old lady came out from the back and we proceeded to formalize the check-in process. She asked me if I supplied my own sheets. I had not done so, so these would be an additional $5 which I thought considering I was paying more than the other hostels I had been to, seemed a little of a ripoff, but this is where it is, and I do what I need to do so I acquiesced and bought some betting for the next two nights without a fuss. I was run up, but not handed a key. “Wait outside and I’ll let you in,” the old woman said. OK, strange, I wonder where the key is for this place, but still I waited outside. The proprietor emerged in an electric wheelchair and then showed me in. The first room took my breath away. I expected out-of-date fixtures from the 1960s, perhaps even a time capsule from another era as were the Khrushchev-era hotels I stayed at when in Russia, the colonial hotels of South America, the guesthouses in the mountains of India reflecting the formalities of the British Rag, or even the whorehouse posing as a hotel in Madrid had remnants of the age before Franco and a setting that still welcomed in the tired traveler. This room had none of that. The place was dank and smelled of stale smoke, mold, and failure. The hallway was sticky and I was shown into a dorm room where old dirty bedding still was scrunched up on one of the bunks, the others had bare mattresses covered in stains and showing their age. Also, the floor was as sticky as the hallway. The bathroom did have those old fixtures, chipped and marred, and while there was little trace of anyone else who had arrived, there were old towels and soap and someone’s toothbrush. The patroness wheeled about and told me I could use the TV if I wanted to. She parked her electric chair at a door and unloaded herself, opening the door which strangely had a step down, and beyond her I could catch sight of many personal effects and that this was not just her office, not just dormitory-style beds, this was her part of the motel, the place the manager would live, still lived, did live. She wattled herself down the step and left me to ponder my new setting. I tried to tell myself I had to make the best of it. I paid a lot of money, relatively, to stay here, that was more than I had budgeted for. I had paid for bedding, it had not arrived, the toothless junkie-looking man the manager ordered to fetch bedding had not arrived, perhaps that festering pile of laundry on the lower bunk was my bedding…
I set my bags on a bunk to claim it, and wondered who else may be checking in, since I was promised other guests to arrive at any time in the day, as if this would make me feel better. I looked about the “common room.” This old lady lives here. That bathroom is her bathroom. This is strange. I took off on my bike to see some of the city and situate myself, sad that I would miss out on all the energy of a functioning hostel, all the connections, and the insight that comes with being able to have short conversations with fellow-travelers as to where the best [whatever] may be or a fun thing to do on [day]. I wheeled my way back to the bridge, took a number of turns and found a brewery. It seemed like a good enough time to have a beer. I ordered some Portland Special of some sort, a beer the server assured me was Portland’s blah blah blah and then blah blah blah, and yes it was good and the place was nice, like one of those large open brew-pubs that everyone says looks like Portland. Except, I was in Portland.
I took to my iThingy to look up the Portland Pension. Oh, great… anything outside of hostels.com says it is a “one star” with stories like “never stay here” or “this place has bed bugs” and “crackheads stay there.” I read more and more, all the same, and realized that I had to find another location to park myself, even if for the night. I called around and located a hostel in the Hawthorne district, a place that had previously been full must have had a few cancellations. I decided either I change my address to Under the Western Bridge Overpass, or I eat the costs associated and stay in a place free of bedbugs, crackheads, and comes with bedding that is actually laundered.
At the door of the “Pension” I rang the bell as told. There was no key, but I was assured that no matter what time day or night I needed entry, I would be let in. I rang again. Then waited. Then rang again. Then waited. I could see my day slipping by. A few very tattered cars were parked in the yard that hadn’t been there when I had first left, and I wondered if my new bunk-mate would have come already, perhaps even had a look at my things since I had nothing secure nor was offered a locker and while I knew most people were not that sort, and fear of robbery and mold were often exaggerated, but I couldn’t help feel a little tinge of fear at the safety of my belongings, my possessions being a little harder to replace with a limited income. Finally the landlady came up the drive.
As she drove her chair, in a holder was an enormous soda, the sort of size certain American mayors want to ban. She apologized for being out for a moment, asked if I waited long (one of the online complaints is that she never is around to let you in), and allowed me passage after opening the door, and then slowly going down the hallway to the bathroom, which now smelled of bleach rather than dank as it had when I left. My bedding had still not arrived, but all else was in place. I waited for the hostess to once again descend her mobility scooter and set into her quarters so I could make my escape. I am not sure why I felt the need to escape undetected, but I did, and so it was with some sense of accomplishment when I had lighted away knowing that I had been cheated and that the confrontation would not be even worth it, since the desperate fight hard and dirty.
In a way I am glad I saw this dire flophouse. Like the many tramps living in all corners of the city, there is some sense that many very ugly quarters exist in this picture perfect city, and that some of these are the same things that plague the rest of the country, although stand more stark in places like New Orleans or Los Angeles, Elizabeth, NJ, or whatever I saw whenever I looked out the window at just about any part of the ride on the Amtrak Crescent service. There are always poor people, bad areas, and horrible people. But, it is how society handles these elements that speaks to the wealth or sickness of any city, region, or people. The city of Portland seems to stay the homeless, the vagrants, even on weekend feeds them via churches or aid societies. The Crust Punks seem harmless, even have caused their own community to form since city city is small and they need to look out for each other – many of these youth seem as those who did not fit in wherever they are originally from, so this set bonds perhaps even greater than those who find it easy to move throughout the world in typical society. Traveler’s play music, they are all over, but in Portland seemed as welcome to the Saturday Market as any street musician in New Orleans or subway performer in New York City, one elderly woman behind me in the market exclaimed to her friends “oh, now outside the market the punks change, they’re a different sort than those you find inside the market” to which her friend readied her camera, rather than holding on to her purse.
I arrived at the hostel, hot, tired from the long uphill ride, and frustrated at having lost money to a rotten old woman running a house of sticky misery and her bedbug bunks. In a moment of frustration I mentioned that the place should be closed down by the city or at least firebombed, which I realized was the wrong thing to say to a Portlandian who seem to have a more live-and-let-live attitude than a hard hearted Northeasterner. I settled in to my bunk, greeted my bunkmates, folks mostly from Canada, and got ready to finally see the city; the good, the bad, and the ugly.