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Portraits of Portland in the 90’s

It’s called The Moda Center at the time of this writing (2020) but in 1993 it was still The Rose Quarter, because that’s where we quartered our roses. For $300/month (or so) we had a roach-infested studio apartment in one of the hotel buildings originally built for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. From our place we had a quality view of I-5 traffic. Parking was free when I found it and we had a great claw-foot bathtub, a mattress, and a mushroom shaped stool to sit on. Everything else was a cardboard box. I’d sit on that stool and bang out job applications on an aging word processing machine propped up on a box. A friendly guy named Ray ran the place. I believe he was pushing 70 at the time. He liked to spend his time at Denny’s. I’d like to believe he’s buried there today. Ray did a good job of tolerating all his low-income tenants, always in good cheer and doing little favors for us. Ray had a big soul. We all worked at gas stations and fast food joints within walking distance. It’s hard to forget the distinctive smell of someone cooking frozen peas and cheap hamburger in a frying pan, and the sound of domestic disputes echoing down the hallways. Then there were the friendly teens taking their first steps into the world, and the gang of Rose Quarter security guards who’d sometime hang out in front of the building.

Northeast Portland. Hey guess what? Black people are scary, aaiieeee!!! We’ll talk about this more as you turn these pages, but short story long North and Northeast Portland were the only places in the area where non-whites were allowed to settle from the 40’s through the 70’s. Then there were us kids just trying to find a place we could cover on minimum wage. You wouldn’t believe it looking at these neighborhoods today, but in 1994 they were pretty scruffy. Were we even going to be safe there? We didn’t know.

The day came when we decided we could move up to a one-bedroom apartment. $425/month, just a few blocks north in a house that had been fixed up just enough to be legally rentable. One day I was putting that plastic winter insulation over the windows and discovered that they were only connected to the window frame on two sides. Slight pressure from a single finger nearly dropped the window pane out onto the street. The bathroom sink faced a window. At a garage sale I bought the passenger side rear view mirror taken off an old pickup and screwed that sucker into the window frame so I could shave. Affordable Housing!

Our place was on the second floor. It had an outside space just big enough for a chair and the hibatchi we’d picked up for $5. I had to climb out the window to use it. I still carry a sense of hatred for the gas “heater” that attempted to keep the place warm and dry. It didn’t happen, but we vowed to someday have a wood-burning stove for winter comfort.

Then our big break came. The lady across the street told me she was looking for someone to rent their two-bedroom place for $650. At this point, anyone living in 2020 Portland is gasping for breath – walking distance to downtown, two bedrooms AND $650/month? Yep, that’s the fun you missed out on kids.

Other things you missed out on: syringes outside the San Rafael motel down the street. The time a friendly prostitute opened my passenger door and jumped in looking for business. The people across the way we called “The Loud Family” because their kids would be playing in the street after midnight when we were trying to sleep. The old pickup truck parked nearby with the mysterious door graphics: “Friends’ Ethical Plumbing”. I never found out what that was about, but it sounds like a novel all to itself.

Our neighbors one house to the North of us weren’t terribly happy when we took over Marsha’s place. She and her partner let them use the laundry machines… and well, they never bothered to make friends with us. Not even a hello. I guess they were under a good deal of stress. I was there when the ambulance took one of the guys away to the hospital on a stretcher for HIV/AIDS related health problems. > Insert frowny face here < Some time later with new tenants that house next store was the scene for a whole new set of unexpected drama in my personal life.

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