I lived lots of places when I was a kid, but during those three years my family spent in Portland, we lived in a neighborhood that is not that far from where I live now.  At least it is not far geographically.  Because I rarely have a reason to go to that part of town, it seems almost a world away.  When I lived in Southern California, it was no big deal to drive 15 or 20 miles to get somewhere.  Most people in Los Angeles don’t think in terms of miles anyway; distances are measured in minutes, even if the minutes add up to an hour and a half.  It was strange, once I moved to Oregon, to discover that going all the way across town was suddenly such a hardship, even if we were talking about a distance that was a third of what I used to go to see my dad, who I thought of as living practically next door, even though I had to cross the borders of three suburbs to get there.

I looked it up just now–it is 5.9 miles between my house and my childhood home of thirty years ago.  I drove there this evening, while it was still light out.  I had the two younger kids with me, and I just felt like going for a drive and didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, and I just ended up driving to my old neighborhood.  I thought I would go to my old elementary school and let the kids run around on the playground, but first I stopped at my old house.  It’s funny that when I returned to Portland as an adult, I didn’t have to look up the address or how to get there, that I just remembered, because I have a very poor sense of direction.  I often forget how to get downtown, for example, even though you’d think getting downtown would not be such a challenge.  I guess it’s because I walked and rode my bike over those streets so many times when I was young, I will never be able to forget where stuff is.

So I turned down the road where the school bus stop used to be.  I remember that when we first moved there, my mother was concerned about me having to cross a busy street in order to be picked up by the bus.  It’s astonishing to me now that this street could ever have been considered busy.  It’s not even a minor thoroughfare; in fact, it’s barely wide enough to accomodate two-way traffic.  Perhaps my mother was concerned about me having to cross any street.  It doesn’t matter.  I turned down that street, and down another, which curved into the dead end that was my old neighborhood.  Back then, the pavement just stopped and then there was this big field.  You could see that the pavement started again on the other side of the field, so it can’t have been that big a field, but it seemed big at the time.  My sisters and I used to play in it all the time.  It was just a bunch of tall grass and weeds.  Once we found an old black high heel someone had lost (or thrown away); we tried to find its mate, because it would have been awesome to have two black high heels, but we were not successful.  Anyway, adjacent to the field (such as it was) was what we called “the forest,” which was just a small wooded area with a lot of tall evergreens, so it was very dark in there.  We rarely traveled the entire length of it.  It seems to me now that at the far end there was someone’s private property where they kept a horse, but I could be mixing that up with some other place.  I just remember it was creepy in there.  And there were a lot of beer bottles.  I reckon teenagers probably partied there at night, though that never crossed my mind at the time.  We were only there during the day and it was only ever us.

Both the field and the forest are gone now; it’s all houses in there.  The street still dead-ends where it always did, but the neighborhood has been built up so that two streets dead-end into each other.  There’s just a paved walkway separating them.  My old house looks very different.  Back then it was a dark brick red color.  It’s some kind of beige color now.  Not beige, but…honestly, I can’t remember, and I was there only a few hours ago.  I just know that it’s light now, and the door is different.  There’s a stained glass window next to it now.  I pulled into the driveway of the house across the street.  We were friends with the family that used to live there.  They had a girl my age and another girl my older sister’s age.  They were Baptists, and they went to private school.  Their grandmother, who lived in a camper in their driveway, was a Mormon, albeit a lapsed one.  My friend and I would visit her in her camper.  She always wore a housecoat.  She talked to us and smoked cigarettes.  She had a twenty-volume set of the illustrated Book of Mormon.  That seemed odd to me at the time.  I guess if she bought them, she wouldn’t want to just get rid of them, even if she was living in a camper.  My friend’s dad had a big truck with a license plate holder that said, “You touch-a my truck, I break-a your face.”  We thought that was pretty funny.  That family doesn’t live there anymore, of course.  And the house has been repainted.  It used to be dark brown, and now it’s a very bright baby blue.  All the houses are painted much lighter colors now.

I had pulled into the driveway to turn around, and I paused before driving away from my old house.  “That’s my old house,” I said to Elvis and Girlfriend, even though I knew it meant nothing to them.  The older kids would have been interested, but not them.  I told them anyway.  “That was my bedroom, right there.”  There used to be a tulip bush in front of it.  That’s gone, too.  The yard looks good, though.

I drove out of the neighborhood and around the corner to my old school.  When I started going there, I was in the second grade.  It was a relatively new school.  The kids in sixth grade that year had entered as first graders the year it was built.  There was no kindergarten then.  The playground was relatively large, plus there was a very large field of grass on the property.  We weren’t allowed to go past a certain point during recess because it was just too much area to supervise.  My family used to go there in the evenings and on weekends.  There was plenty of space to fly kites.  They’ve since added on to the school, and perhaps they sold off some of the property at some point because the field is non-existent now.  The very far end of it is now a small baseball diamond, entirely removed from school property.  Some kind of construction is going on between where the school parking lot ends and the baseball diamond begins.  You can’t tell what it’s going to be or if it’s going to be anything.  It just looks like a mess.  You can’t see the playground from the street at all now.

Across the street from the school are houses that didn’t exist when I first started going there.  That was why I had to take the bus for a few months, even though our house was literally a stone’s throw away from the school–because it was just a big construction site.  The houses which were brand-new when I started third grade are now thirty years old.  They haven’t been kept up well.  The lawns are sloppy.  The school looks pretty run-down, too.  It looks like a bad neighborhood.  It might be a bad neighborhood.  I don’t know because I never have a reason to be in this part of town.  I live in a nice neighborhood in the affluent part of Portland, just shy of six miles away.  Our schools and lawns are pretty, and our strip malls are classy.  We have a Target, a Best Buy, a Trader Joe’s, several Thai and Indian restaurants, and a Jamba Juice.  My old neighborhood has a post office, a public pool, a Hi-School Pharmacy, and lots of beauty salons and day cares with handmade signs.  It’s a place that looks like it’s dying, but it’s not going to die.  Not for a long, long time, anyway.

The school is particularly depressing to me, especially with the construction going on.  Even with the chain-link fences blocking things off, it doesn’t look safe for kids to be hanging out there.  There’s a lot of debris at the periphery of the school property.  It occurred to me this evening that this school is where the poor kids go.  One of those schools where 70 percent of the student body speaks Spanish and 90 percent qualifies for free or reduced lunch.  My siblings and I might have still qualified for reduced lunch at that time.  My father was a post-doc at Oregon Graduate Institute.  I know we were better off financially at that time than we had been while he was in graduate school; I knew it then because I got a lunch box and my mother was finally sending lunch with me to school because we could afford it.  That pleased me very much.  I never sensed any stigma attached to the free lunch; I just wanted a lunch box.  And a sandwich.  I only remember having Caucasian classmates.  There might have been non-white students there then, but I don’t think so.  I just don’t remember any.  Every time I think there might have been this black girl or this Asian girl, I remember that was fifth grade, when we were in California.  I don’t remember taking note of the fact when we moved to California that there were so many more darker-skinned people; I guess kids just don’t think about that stuff.

I didn’t let the kids run around on my old school playground.  I didn’t get out of the car.  I just drove us back to our part of town, where we have lots of public parks with brand-new play equipment.

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