Wordstock – Portland, Oregon

We went to Wordstock today walking the mile and a half there in a steady drizzle. One umbrella between us, which I used because Duane has a hat. Just the one umbrella. I’ve lost too many of them to be trusted with one of my own. It really didn’t seem like that much of a rain, but we were damp by the time we got to the Convention Center. There were not many attending Wordstock. Not like in years past. Something a little depressing about it this year. I don’t know when they started charging for the event, but I think that has something to do with the lower turnout.

We cruised the booths. I had a nice chat with a couple of vendors. Duane and I went to our friend’s reading and there really wasn’t anyone else we were interested in hearing until much later in the afternoon and even though we paid $7 to get in, we left to find something to eat and go home. We talked about why Wordstock seemed so unsatisfying this year. We figured that most of the attendees were writers or people involved in the publishing industry in some way. The exhibitors were much the same–writers and publishers. Nothing wrong with that. Except that something is missing. It isn’t creative or exciting. It’s restrictive, traditional, stodgy.

Portland has a tendency to be stodgy in spite of all the young creatives everyone claims have moved here in droves, in spite all the tattoo parlors and micro-brew pubs, at heart Portland has always been the sort of city a little afraid to color outside the lines. At least on the surface and it is on the surface where Wordstock takes place. What Portland needs is an underground literary festival for all the fringe dwellers and marginalised folk, the ones who can’t afford the Writer’s Dojo or writing jaunts to Prague with their favorite author. It should take place on the streets and in the coffee houses and small bookstores. It should take place in the tattoo parlors and brew-pubs.

A proper literary festival would be a celebration. It would be a recognition of language as the primary medium of culture. It would explore the history of story, the politics and economics of literature, the state of the publishing industry, how literature has been shaped by invention–the printing press, the internet. There would be discussions on the impact of film on literature, the search for authentic voice, and translation. It would involve theater and meaningful workshops.

People would read their work, sell it, trade it, give it away. We might come to understand that the tradition of word is an endlessly evolving creative stream and we could walk away dazzled by our own dreams, which is how it should be.

even the dandelions are beautiful

The cherry tree across the street is thickly blooming. Heavy pink clusters wave in the slight breeze and contrast against the lush green lawn dotted with dandelions. Grape hyacinths edge along the base of the house. Trees all around are pushing out new leaves. Tulips of red, yellow, pink, pumpkin, purple, black, white, striped and spotted, abundant–Spring in Portland.

In Powell’s the thin white girl, in a thin white dress, with thin brown hair sits bent over her work. Her right arm forms a triangle, bent at the elbow back toward her body and her back bent the way it is forms another triangle with her legs. In her pale skin the blue veins glow. On her shoulder blade a tattoo is visible through the gauzy material of her white cotton dress. She is all angles and transparency.

You can’t sleep here

The old woman is sleeping. Her eyes are closed and her chin sits on the top of her bundle of possessions. Her hands dangle in her lap, arms rest on her thighs. She sits heavily on the blue metal bench. Her gray hair is neatly fashioned in a tight bun on the top of her head. The woman wears no makeup on her pale, slightly ruddy face. Her clothes have that washed-out no particular color look and fit loosely over her large body.

The green plastic chair is the first thing I see as I approach the transit station. It is overturned and tied to the top of her cart. Everything and nothing gives her away as someone who has nowhere to go. But mostly it is the cart or rather the possessions in the cart, which I can’t actually see. I can see several full plastic bags and something large and dark blue. It could be a blanket or a sleeping bag folded up. Everything in the cart is as tidy as her hair. The cart is not a grocery store cart. It is the kind of two-wheeled cart one can buy to tote groceries from the store.

This is what I see as I pass. I think how hard it is to just get enough sleep when you are homeless. You sleep in small frames of time never having enough to really recharge, to really give your body and your mind, particularly your mind, what it so needs to survive. Thriving is a wistful dream. Sleep deprivation kills. Even this kind of sleep deprivation shortens your life even if you have a place to live and plenty of nutritional food and exercise and love. If you don’t have these things, there is no reserve and sleep deprivation is more lethal.

While housed people are thinking about how to have healthier longer lives, the old woman just wants to sleep. And Christ, is that too much to ask? Apparantly so. As I board the train, I see two police, one on each side of her. I see her outstretched hand holds something. An identification? The train begins to move slowly out of the station and the woman stands up, begins pushing her cart, moves away from the bench, from sleep. Weariness in her every lumbering step.

Monday morning on the MAX

CheThere is a beeping as the ramp slides out, then the doors open. He rolls himself in. His legs are covered with a blanket. His dull blondish hair is in a ponytail and he’s got layers of clothing. Behind him is a younger man, no more than five feet six, no hair visible under his billed cap, with red marks on his face shaped like tiny cigars. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and pants torn at the knee.

CheThere is a beeping as the ramp slides out, then the doors open. He rolls himself in. His legs are covered with a blanket. His dull blondish hair is in a ponytail and he’s got layers of clothing. Behind him is a younger man, no more than five feet six, no hair visible under his billed cap, with red marks on his face shaped like tiny cigars. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and pants torn at the knee.

I don’t know how to measure how old these two in the train with me are because life on the streets batters the skin. They are younger than me, I am sure of that, probably 20 years younger. Less than forty would be my guess. Somewhere between thirty and forty-five, no more. And the younger one could be in his twenties.

“It’s not working right. I can’t afford a new one. Something’s wrong with the wheel.” He’s backed himself into the wheelchair space and leans back so that the front wheels come off the floor and balances himself by holding the rail with one hand and putting one foot up on the rail in front of him. “Is it wobbling?”

His friend checks it out. “It’s just the bolt needs tightening.”

The ponytail man says, “I can take care of that. Just tighten the bolt, huh?”

“Yeah, the bolt on the top. How much does a wheelchair like that cost?”

“This chair cost $1800.” The way he says it you know that is an amount of money out of his grasp. However he came by this chair, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to get another if something goes wrong with this one. It isn’t one of those fancy motorized ones. He has to maneuver it himself. I’ve seen this man on the train before with a companion, not this young one. Someone older. Often, he is sitting on a max seat and the chair is in the space in front of him. Whatever makes it difficult for him to get around is not obvious, but something limits him, makes the chair necessary. Most likely it is diabetes.

“You live with that big guy, right? Where you live?” Younger man asks.

“At a motel out on 82nd.”

“How much does that cost?”

“We pay $400 a week.”

“$400. That’s a lot, man. You should move to my motel. It’s a lot less, man.”

“No, wait. Not a week. That’s every two weeks. Costs us about $200 a week. My friend, I live with, he gets $700 every two weeks. He was a logger and got injured. Now he gets $1400 a month. We been together for 7 years. He’s in pain all the time.” If he has any income himself, from Social Security or anything else, he doesn’t say.

I grew up in a mill town. I remember loggers with fingers and arms missing and deaf sawmill workers. I remember the fatherless children of timber fallers who were felled themselves, and never got up from the forest floor, and were laid to final rest in Juniper Cemetery, which was named after a tree no one logged.

The talk turns to heroin and methadone, to nodding off, and cruelty. “I never nodded off,” the young one claims.

The one in the chair says he sometimes still uses, but he gets the methadone. They talk about the clinic where they both get their doses. “That lady who runs the clinic. I knew her when she was using. How did she end up running a clinic?” Wheelchair man wants to know.

“She used to use? Oh, man. You know that bitch cuts people’s doses. Bitch. She’s a user. Bitch.” The younger man’s anger is strong.

I wonder if he will kill her some day. Or if someone else will.

The rain starts coming down in buckets and it’s 122nd Avenue and the man in the wheelchair gets off the train. He doesn’t have an umbrella or a raincoat, “Shit,” he says as he wheels himself away and reaches back to pull the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head.

sack

There is a paper sack on the bench outside of Peet’s Coffee on 15th & Broadway. Should I call the police, a fireman, someone in the store? Report packages left unattended. There are terrorists hiding underground who come to the surface just long enough to leave packages on benches and train station platforms. Should I call someone? What should I say? There is a suspicious package on the bench. I should have to describe it. Yes, officer it is a brown paper sack. It’s an in-between size brown sack and the top is rolled down. It looks like there is something soft in there, like bread rolls, or socks, or underwear, or shit. It doesn’t smell so it probably isn’t shit. It could be a bomb, but wouldn’t a bomb be hard? Is it soft just because it looks soft? There could be something hidden down in it, something hard, plastique or plastic. What is plastique, anyway? And what is the difference between plastique and plastic. Plastique blows up. But plastic can blow up, too. Isn’t a balloon made from some kind of flexible, elastic plastic? And what about those dolls you can buy in a box and take home and blow up and make love to or put in your car so you can drive in the carpool lane until you get caught. And that can blow up in your face, let me tell you. Though I’ve never done it and never will. Someone could be trying to blow us up. To blow up the people on the sidewalk, to blow up the people in the coffee shop and the restaurant across 15th and the two across Broadway and the beauty salon and the wine shop and the Starbucks over there under McMenamin’s. Someone may be trying to blow up the kind citizens of this city, the neighbors in this neighborhood, the people playing pool and smoking cigarettes in the poolroom upstairs. Someone might have forgotten their lunch, or some kid left it there on purpose, or there is a change of clothing that a lover was bringing back to the person he doesn’t want to see anymore and she didn’t ever want to touch those clothes again. Whatever it is, it is very small. But small things can be devastating. Small bombs can blow up big things and I don’t know if we should take the chance. But it is very cold out tonight and dark and it is probably just a sack with nothing in it that anyone wants that isn’t likely to hurt anyone and I am not going to call anyone’s attention to it.

The Red Book — Mass Transit Journal

Entry 2

My friend Fred says that a world with fewer men would be more peaceful and he tells me that Harper’s has an article about baboons and what happens when the aggressive baboons are suddenly gone. He says that the aggressive males had all gotten poisoned eating at a human dump. The females in the group began to groom and care for the surviving non-aggressive males who had not been eating at the dump. These became the fathers of a new generation of baboons and each succeeding generation was passive and as the passive males split off and formed new family groups in these the new generations of males were also passive so that a large area of Kenya is now populated with non-aggressive baboons.

Nature or Nurture? The question is not entirely answered. Baboons do pass on culture. But what happens to the aggressive ones if any are born? Do they conform to the group culture? If aggression is genetically encoded then is it the dominant gene and so is eliminated by the deaths of the aggressors before they can pass on their genes? Do none of the females have that aggressive gene? Or are we talking culture and baboons doing what appears expedient for not just survival of self, but survival of species and the attention of the female. Sex. In the natural world it is all about sex.

My friend Anais tells me about the damselfish changing sexes when the need arises. Anais speculates about the Y chromosome, as have many of us. Y is unlike any other chromosome. It is missing something, a leg. It is aberrant among chromosomes. Is it necessarily defective? No, it is mutant, necessarily mutant. If we, if all beings, if all plant, animal, virus, whatever needed only itself to reproduce then we would be a world of clones with no motivation to move. Stationary, planted, still. All movement within. Sexual reproduction creates variation and necessitates movement. Even plants, even asexual plants, must find some method of obtaining fertilization for seed. Usually this is accomplished through the movement of birds or bees, or other insects, sometimes it is just the wind.

Imagine being dependent on the wind for your children.

But I have to come back to the argument posited by Fred. Maybe it would be a more peaceful world with fewer men. It would depend upon the nature of the remaining men and the response of the women to them. If all the men left were peaceful and the women were favored toward them then the result might be a culture which preferred pacific men and thereby a more peaceful world comes into existence.

Anyway, it is not a world in which I will take part–it is a future world.

(What about a world without children altogether? Read P.D. James novel The Children of Men. See review.)

The Red Book — Mass Transit Journal

Entry 1

(you see his image everywhere now. Ernesto “Ché” Guevara is hip. his face is on the little red journal i bought at Powell’s. i write in this book as i commute around portland on the trimet system.)

Having purchased this empty book, this potential journal, I find it isn’t blank. There is already a stain on the pages, a dictum inherent in the cover. Judge a book, even an unwritten one, by its cover. Ché demands something. Ché is a guiding spiritual force, a string plucked in a certain way sending out a note, underscoring my thoughts. There is a tune here. I won’t be able to be frivolous. I think Ché demands a certain concentration on the injustices of the world.

Think about this: the degradation of the environment contaminated with dioxins through human action is limiting the number of male births. Sometimes drastically. In Canada near Niagra there is a small reservation completely surrounded by a plastics, chemical industrial plant and the birth rate of male babies in that dioxin intoxicated place is 35%.

Male to female births are normally 106 to 100. A small percentage more males than females to make up for the life lost in hunting, fighting, machismo.

If all the women and all the men stay on this res and none of them are gay and none of them die and all of them want mates and choose to mate only with their contemporaries on the res, then only 35% of the girls will find a mate. If 10% of the boys are gay and none of the girls are then only 31.5% of the girls will find mates.

A certain number of those girls may be undifferentiated males.

Here’s a bit of irony. Niagara Falls used to be the honeymoon mecca of Northeastern United States. Marriages were consummated, babies conceived in hotels with heart-shaped beds. The roar of the falls, the “Maid of the Mist”, cheap power for Buffalo, cheap power for the petro-chemical plants–Niagara is a symbol of what is wrong, of what has gone deadly wrong with our relationship with the environment.

Love Canal is in the town of Niagara Falls, New York. It is where Hooker Chemical buried toxic chemicals beginning in 1942 and the City of Niagara Falls had been using the site since 1920 to dispose of its chemical waste. Ultimately, it is estimated that Hooker dumped 21,800 tons of toxic waste in Love Canal. In 1952, the company backfilled the dump because it had reached capacity.

Not long afterward an elementary school was built on the site and a subdivision for low-income families. The families who bought homes there were not warned that beneath their yards was a petro-chemical waste dump.

I saw the Love Canal neighborhood in the early 1980s after families had been relocated and the houses were boarded up. It was winter, cold, desolate, brown grass, leafless trees and it didn’t take much to imagine Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring.

Love Canal is still resonating. It was a watershed moment wherein Occidental Chemical (formerly Hooker Chemical) learned that you can’t dump dioxin in potential suburban neighborhoods. If you want to contaminate you have to make sure you do it where people have no power. The poorest of neighborhoods, the least powerful of people.

But back to baby boys. Diminishing numbers of baby boys is a phenomena that occurs where PCB’s and Dioxin contaminate the environment. It occurs in animal species, as well as humans.

What would a predominately female world look like? Women are not necessarily more peaceful than men. We may appear to be so because we tend to bear the brunt of war. All the rape and torture–no glory. Such is true for those parts of the world where battles are fought. The point of rape is ownership and genocide–seed supplanting, creating children of the conqueror. Kill the men and boys, rape the women and in a generation there is no enemy. In theory, anyway.

So if most of the world were composed of women, if women made up 3/4’s of earth’s population, how would that change the world? More killing, less rape?

But women do suffer this other thing–love for their children. Not that men don’t suffer it as well, but somehow it is different in its manifestation. Men protect their children’s psyche or believe they are protecting their children’s psyche by testing them and allowing hem to be tested. Men will also physically protect their children against invasion and harm, but honor is big with men. LIfe is big with women. We’ll deal with the whole honor thing after we’ve saved our children’s lives. And for the most part we are unwilling to send those children to do battle. We want a really good reason.

Oil ain’t it for most of us. Liars ain’t it either.

But women can be very controlling. We can be harsh with each other and greedy and the evils of the world aren’t gender-based. They are greed-based. I’ve got mine, I’m getting more, and you can’t have any–greed-creed.

Bus #9

(This was written before the Indonesian earchquake toll went up to 6,000)

So, 2,700, no 4,000, people died in an earthquake in Indonesia. And besides that there’s a volcano.

Lady on the bus says she was born in 1932. Makes her 73. I wonder if she has been speaking her mind all this time.

I wonder why the tweaker keeps looking back, looking back, craning his neck all the way round to look at me.

Marines killed 24 civilians. Among them women and children because a car bomb–a ”line of sight“ bomb–was detonated and killed one of their number.

Tweaker is getting off at 39th. Goodbye. Lady says she’s been married 51 years to a wonderful man. Good for her. He must be deaf. Another tweaker sits in front of me, nodding his head. Lady says her name is Carol.

A marine, a soldier might expect to be killed, who has at least put himself in the path of danger. Gone to battle, gone to war.

These who were killed in retaliation were people put in the path of danger by an enemy force. A force which claimed to be rescuing them from the evil ruler who put his foot on their necks.

The #9 is rolling side to side. A couple of guys are talking about dope in Ryder trucks and meth labs in semi-sleeper cabs. Prison sentences.

Once upon a time in a land far away young men moved from tree to tree, eyes scanning all the jungle for sight of the enemy who would try to kill them. Sometimes children were sent with bombs. Sometimes children were killed because they might have bombs. Sometimes whole villages of people were killed because someone there might have killed someone.

A volcano in Indonesia draws fire up its throat.