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Once Upon a Time in NW Portland

   I wander Northwest Portland and look at all the things I can’t afford—cars, Victorian houses, fashionable clothing, beer, girls, hope . . . I wander Northwest in search of someone who can sympathize.

   A friend of mine recently moved to Germany to begin working as an analyst for an English securities firm. He’ll be making $55,000 a year which sounds like a fortune to me, considering I’ve only got two dollars in my wallet and some change in my pocket for the bus home.

   I go to Brian’s apartment on NW. Irving. Or “Oiving” as the Boston native calls it. Brian is always good for a laugh, always listens and soothes if only because he knows what I am going through. I doubt he’ll be in this early in the afternoon, but I’d rather wait on his front porch than head home and face my parents and their questions, their disappointments, and their unwelcomed advice on how to get a job.

   I walk up the rickety wooden steps. I fell down these steps a year ago when I was drunk and cracked my skull on the sidewalk. I sometimes wonder if I did permanent damage.

   To the immediate left of Brian’s place is a shabby halfway house for mental patients. The windows are covered with a filthy film of neglect. In each window hangs a different set of mismatched curtains from the Nixon era or soiled sheets draped across to conceal the depravity within. Though many of the patients seem content to sit on the porch day after day in a lithium-induced daze, there are others bursting with energy; one paces back and forth like a caged animal, another is prone to outbursts of profanity. We have come to call him Pally.

   I twist the aging ringer on Brian’s door.

   “Goddamn cock-sucking sons of bitches!” shouts Pally next door.

   I give the ringer another twist. The door has a large single diamond-shaped window in it that is cracked. The building is in an appalling state. Paint is chipped. The floors creak. The carpets are stained and funky.

   Across the street all the houses have been bought up and remodeled by not-so young anymore, but definitely upwardly mobile professionals. Before long, this side of the street will also be cleaned up and both Brian and his roommates, as well as Pally and the rest will be told to shove off.

   Brian appears at the top of a flight of stairs that rises just behind the door. He waves me up.

   “Yus! What’s up?” He says as I’m climbing the stairs, and then noticing that I’ve gotten my hair cut exclaims, “Yus! What happened to you?”

   I had been growing my hair out for over two years, but this morning went and had it all whacked off.

   “You look like a human being! Respectable, even. What’s with the suit? You gone Mormon on me, Yus? Cuz if you have, you leave NOW! None of that missionary crap in here.”

   “It’s worse than that, Brian,” I say as I plop down on a third-hand couch that came with the apartment. Dust billows up. “I had a job interview.”

   “What for, Yus? President? Yus for President, ninety-two! Yup, it’s Yus! How about that for a campaign slogan? ‘Yup, it’s Yus!’”

   The doctor is in. A smile cracks across my face. All you have to do is listen and laugh your cares away.

   Brian sits down on the floor next to the TV. “So? You had an interview?”

   “Yeah, with my exploratory committee. President of the U. S. of A. I’m running, goddamnit!


   “Small company,” I lie, too embarrassed to tell him the truth. “It’s downtown . . . Didn’t expect you to be home.”

   “Oy gevalt, Yus!” he exclaims, wiping his weary eyes with his thick, short fingers. “Uncle Milt was in a historically bad mood today.”

   Milton is my former boss on “The Hill”, the medical university and its related research facilities. It was on The Hill that Brian and I first met, experimenting with mice while we were still students. The two of us continued to work there after graduation despite Milt’s choleric disposition, which kept all of us research assistants constantly on edge.

   In many ways, I did enjoy my time in the lab, I even liked Milt on his good days. But it was exhausting watching out for the old man’s wild mood swings. Add to that the suspicion that my chosen career, Medicine, wasn’t for me, and well I felt I had no choice but to leave when my contract was up. Brian remains, though, working part-time. Until he can find a full-time teaching position, that is.

   “Yus, I was trying to do the experiments that you did, and failed, because Yus doesn’t take very good notes. See, I’m reading Yus’s wonder lab book: ‘Page forty-two. And the method for extracting the protein from the cell is as follows:’ I turn the page, page forty-three. And, it’s BLANK, Yus!!! You didn’t write down any notes, Yus. Let me tell ya, Uncle Milt was really happy about that one. Oy veh, he yells at me and he’s shaking and red in the face. He says, ‘Chemsz, did you have your head up your butt?’”

   Brian starts laughing and I can’t help but laugh too.

   “Yus, you know what I say? I says, ‘You’re right, Milt, as a matter of fact I did have my head up my butt. See, I was only following Yus’s brilliant notes right here on page forty-three. Yus, I’m tellin’ you, I’m sending your lab book to Stockholm. That’s Nobel Laureate material you did on The Hill.”

   We laugh hard and the darkness of that dim living room lifts as if the roof has been torn away from the rafters.

   “Yus, I sometimes feel I ought to be next door with old Pally. After today, I almost went there instead of home.”

   “Well, the way I’m going, me too, Brian.”

   Brian’s apartment is a mess as always. None of his roommates seem to care. The Escape from New York pizza box with a half-eaten peperoni pizza is still on the coffee table where I saw it three days ago. The grease has congealed, the cheese has grown hard. There are plastic cups with flat beer in them. The Oregonian is scattered in piles throughout the room. Finding today’s paper, I pick it up and open up the classified section.

   “By the way, Milt said if you want, he’d hire you back on, but only part-time, like me, Yus.”

   “Great, Brian, but what’s the catch?”

   “No catch,” he says, chuckling. “You only have to work just as much as the full-time staff, but earn less. See how that works? Uncle Milt, gets two people to yell at for the price of one.”

   Accountant, Accountant, Accountant, Accountant . . .

   “Actually, Yus, you’re the only one who knew how to do all the paperwork on the hill. Now he’s got poor Anne doing it and of course she’s making all the same mistakes you used to make, but does Uncle Milt yell at her? Hell no . . .”

   Attendant . . . Appliance Salesman . . . Appliance Serviceman . . . Appliance Technician . . .

   “No, Yus, he yells at me. Me! What did I have to do with . . .”

   Barber, Barber, Barber, Barber . . . Bartender, Bartender . . . A friend of mine was laid off from Paramount Pictures and became a bartender. Good money, he said. Good tips and you can meet girls . . . Then again, his car was repossessed. Maybe the money’s not so good after all . . .

   “Yus, you listenin’ t’me? Yus never listens to me. All he hears is blah, blah, blah, blah.”

   “Sorry,” I say, putting the paper down, but spread out on the pizza box so I can still see it. “Reading the classifieds has become an exercise in futility lately. At times, I just want to give up and say, Fuck it! You heard back from any schools?”

   “Nothing yet,” Brian says, lying down on the floor. “The subbing has been pretty irregular. Good money when it comes around, but it’s only September, so I’m stuck up on The Hill until then. Why don’t you come back? Not with Milty, of course, but in a different lab. It is a job.”

   “Thanks, Mom.”

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