The First Portland Apartment Porch Mystery

Good grief, it has been a long time since I have had the time to sit down and write. The last 2 months of the move have been one task after another. I enjoy feeling productive and genuinely enjoy the time I have spent working on our new home and planting the big ass garden in the front yard. Still, having the old Mt Tabor house off my list of weekly chores is a massive relief. For Sally and me, we are just now feeling like we can center in this new place. Our choice of Tigard delights us. On Sunday, we went to a downtown beer garden. Our first observation: no hipsters, just folks of all ages. Above my head right now is the whack, whack, whack of roofers at work. That is the last big thing as the water of our lives seeks equilibrium.

A couple of months ago, I wrote I had happy stories about my decades in Portland. One of those tales appeared from the bottom of my top desk drawer. Under the dust and detritus was a small, yellowed piece of paper with a mostly unrecognizable scrawl. Except, the second I saw it, I got a happy shiver in my chest.

I landed in Portland at the city’s northernmost edge, a strange summer sharing a houseboat at Jantzen Beach moorage. I would take trips into the completely unknown city looking for an apartment. Having a goofy, epileptic Labrador named Dobbsie has my constant traveling companion made the search harder. But as a friend told me, “You wouldn’t really want to live anywhere that didn’t allow a dog, would you?” Yup, he was right. Finally, I found a lumbering 1906 family home that had been carved into 3 apartments in the now fashionable Buckman neighborhood. Buckman was down on its luck, as was I. The place had a small backyard for Dobbsie. $145 a month furnished, heat included.

The kitchen window looked out on the yard and the house next door. When I moved in, a slightly older lived there. I met them and chatted sometimes. He was an engineer of some sort who designed the first Widmer Brewery. That connection got me an invitation to the opening of the plant, where I met the now legendary brewing brothers. With time, the couple had two girls with memorable names: Mahonia and Lanea. Looking out over my kitchen sink, I watched the girls grow up warm season by warm season as they first sat in child seats watching mom, then with wobbling steps.

The line between observer and voyeur is wavey. The family at rest in their yard was perhaps something a bit too intimate to watch. I felt that, but didn’t stop looking. My place has a wonderful multi-step stoop and a big porch. I often took my newspaper (newspapers… sigh) out to the steps in the afternoon. Inevitably, mom with a stroller and Mahonia wandered by. We talked, mom rolling the stroller back and forth. Everyone has seen the cute, shy little girl routine. Mahonia’s unabashed curiosity struck me about me. Mom said, “Jim is our neighbor.” The Jim didn’t stick with the Mahonia. But from then on I was Neighbor.

Many kids walked by the house on the way to Buckman Elementary School. Dobbsie delighted them by galumphing up and down the low chain-link fence. Dobbs, with her odd hopping, never gave off a threat. The kids caught onto that immediately. Mahonia was no different. She loved to see Dobbs and when she talked to me, she asked about Dobbsie. On demand, I brought my dog down from the apartment for a hug. 

Somewhere in this flow, little things started showing up on the front porch. The two other guys who lived there left the flotsam alone. A Rock. 3 Rocks. A pinecone. A wilted Dandelion flower. Some arranged leaves and sticks. I looked them over and cleared them away when I got home from work. A mystery. Finally, on one of their walks, mom said, “She is quite fascinated with you and insists on leaving you things.” Mahonia slipped behind mom. I looked at the little one and told her, “Thank you very much, Mahonia. I really like your surprises.” Mom mouthed ‘thank you’ and Mahonia danced away home.

One day, something new appeared on the porch. It was a stack of small papers stapled together. There were odd drawings and pages of, well, scribbles. The next time I saw mom, I asked. She said that one day Mahonia insisted on making Neighbor a book. People had given me books, but this was the first time someone made one for me.

Then, as now, I am a loner by nature. I have the urge to make and keep friends, but my wicked strong introversion makes that a fool’s errand. Even as a child, I stood back and watched other people’s lives. From windows and stoops and benches and car windows, I let my curiosity flow as I watch generations ripple by. There was that one time in my earliest days in Portland where my watcher bubble was neatly pierced by a little girl.

When I moved from that apartment, I realized how much I was going to miss the porch mysteries. Of course, there would be a day when Mahonia would shed her fascination with Neighbor. But on the day before I moved, still that guy to a little girl, I took over a couple of gifts, a fairy tale book and a collection of stickers that I had seen she applied liberally to herself. Mom thanked me and explained to Mahonia that Neighbor was moving. I am not sure the little one fully grasped what was happening. That’s fine. I think for both of us, I was leaving at just the right time. I thanked her for all the surprises and waved goodbye.

And so, in the bottom of my drawer was one more surprise. A note from a friend on which she had written my name.

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4 Responses to The First Portland Apartment Porch Mystery

  1. Ken Neubauer says:

    Super cool story


  2. Hannah says:

    Such a tender story, JB. Beautifully written.


  3. Em says:

    That’s precious. I love the warm fuzzies of the memory.


  4. Sally Blackwood says:

    A story I’ve heard but never fully appreciated until now. I’m so happy you’re sharing about your tender side.


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