Sunday, October 26, 2008

(another chapter from The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage)

The Street Where We Live

As we pulled up to the curb near our house, Jannine saw Graeme close his eyes and fall asleep, in the rearview mirror. We sat there, considering our options, while the March sun illuminated a neighborhood bursting into spring.

We live in a nice, cozy, liberal enclave of Portland. The homes look like illustrations lifted from the Dick and Jane books we grew up on as first readers, before the days of “whole language” and “creative spelling.” The houses have white picket fences or smooth grass fronts kept that way by lawn care experts and expensive organic treatments done discreetly while the neighbors are at work. The doors are painted red, and the flowers seemingly always in bloom. The cars are different from Dick and Jane; instead of a station wagon in every garage, a sea of mint green minivans and muted gold SUVs line the streets and fill the driveways, the garages too full of bicycles, exercise equipment, and over-flowing outdoor gear to allow vehicular habitation.

When we first moved here, after a harrowing real estate purchase involving our real estate agent (who I came to fear) and the sellers’ real estate agent (who saved our bacon) I could hardly believe it was true, we were living in La-La Land. The houses are Hollywood pretty, and belong in the Father of the Bride movies, though it was Mr. Holland’s Opus that was filmed around the corner at Grant High, one block away. The house at the end of our street is referred to as “The K-Mart House” because a K-Mart Christmas commercial was filmed there several years ago, and every summer a couple nearby streets are blocked with trailers, trucks, equipment, and gawkers, as another director finishes shooting a feature film.

Not that our house belongs in anything but a feature on “do-it-yourself house projects gone bad.” The asbestos siding is broken in places, the paint could use a touch up (though our ebullient greenery covers most flaws), but to us, it is paradise, and we feel no pressure to hire lawn experts or add on a wing.

This house is a huge step up from our previous dwellings. Before this, we owned a house in Tacoma for which we have warm and nostalgic feelings, both of us drawn to houses resembling it: tall salt boxes with big windows on either side of the front door and asbestos siding. We lived there for only ten months. We bought it shortly after Duncan was born, sure that as parents we should provide him with a backyard, a picket fence, and maybe a dog. We were, however, suddenly living on a single income (when Duncan was born and placed, warm and purple, on my naked belly, I turned to Jannine and said, “I’m not going back to work,” and she said, “I know.”), and we needed to buy somewhere we could afford, which turned out to be Tacoma.

Our real estate agent was the mother of a friend, and she painted a lovely picture of the neighborhood, its history, its varied architecture, its nearness to schools and stores. During initial visits to the house, which had wood floors, yellow walls, and a large yard, it seemed like a “grandma house,” just right for our vintage furniture and garage sale lifestyle. We didn’t know that we would have a chained-up attack dog on one side, and a crack-addicted mother of three teenage boys on the other, as soon as the deal closed.

Four doors down from that house was a young man with schizophrenia who would go off his medication, hear God telling him to quit drinking and using cocaine, prompting him to saw off his arm and nose one night with a serrated bread knife. A neighbor heard thumping on the outside wall of her house and found the man’s bleeding, unconscious body spread-eagled on her lawn when she opened her door. In a feat of medical legerdemain, surgeons managed to reattach his nose and arm after he was airlifted via helicopter to Harborview Hospital.

Prior to that, we lived in that condominium in Kent with a stand on your tippy-toes view of Puget Sound from our living room, and a close proximity to Pacific Highway, known for its strip malls, fast food restaurants, and as the hunting ground for the Green River Killer. It had ugly carpeting, an even uglier fireplace, and was smaller than our previous apartment. We were proud as punch. It was ours.

Of course, when we first lived together, we were just out of college and had nothing. Our first apartment overlooked a gas station at the intersection of Pike Street and Broadway on Capitol Hill, in Seattle. The gay bar to the west pounded music into the wee hours. If you leaned out the bay window, you could see the line of motorcycles in front of The Wild Rose lesbian tavern to the east. The apartment had cockroaches and mice, and my purse was stolen while I was moving into the building. But it was a good place to be young, gay, single, and poor, which I was when I moved in.

Being not so young, still gay, happily married, and middle class, we are thrilled to live in our neighborhood, and don’t intend to leave it any way except feet first.

There is more to like about it than the architecture and the sense that if you had to walk to the store after dark, it wouldn’t be a life threatening situation. This is a seriously liberal neighborhood. This may have to do with education and socio-economics, but I think it also has to do with values. You see a lot of organic vegetables being delivered here. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a stay-at-home mom or a green space. And on recycling days, the homeless men come for miles to get the curbside pickings as every can, bottle, and paper product is rinsed, bagged, sorted by type, and turned into something other than landfill.

These are the kind of Portlanders who helped defeat the host of anti-gay measures that the Oregon Citizens Alliance has tried to foist on us over the years, the voters who had to make up their minds about what they really thought about gay people, and whether we had rights, too. And overwhelmingly, they believed we did.

These are the people in our neighborhood.

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