Why We Left

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By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.

“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?

The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.

But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.

We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”

The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.

All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.

•••

Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.

Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.

Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”

And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.

Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.

“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.

•••

My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.

But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.

Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.

When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.

That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.

The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.

To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.

We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?

“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”

The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.

But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.

There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.

Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”

I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.

We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.

One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.

I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.

Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.

Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.

When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.

The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?

•••

SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

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37 thoughts on “Why We Left

  1. Loved your essay! It’s funny because I always notice the sign on the highway for “Marietta” and I think it’s the prettiest name for a town! When we drive my son from our home in Pittsburgh to OSU, I always tell my husband I want to stop in Marietta one of these days. We moved from a very small/white/old New England town to Pittsburgh ten years ago, and I share some of your feelings. Although money is not our issue, and I truly love Pittsburgh, I sometimes still feel like an outsider. When we go back to CT every summer, I feel like I am “home” the minute I step out of the car.

  2. I loved this essay. Such a complicated emotional mix that kept me reading and at times laughing.
    “While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone.” Great writing.

  3. As a 17-year Portlander, this really resonated with me. We moved here in ’98, when the 35K salary of a parks employee could pay the mortgage on a fixer off the now-trendy part of Belmont, and when the Division New Seasons was a skanky Red Apple Market with rotting produce. As we’ve watched the changes in this town, we’ve often wondered how people like us could possibly move here and make it anymore. While I love a lot about Portland, the hip city that’s grown up around us feels like something for other people a lot of the time, and I love the way this essay captures that feeling of outsiderness in the place you call home. Really, a terrific piece.

  4. Wow. WOW! This resonates so strongly as I’m currently living in one of those old-newspaper pots while I try to figure out where I can go to put down roots. Beautiful writing, and I’m glad you found a home that actually feels like home.

  5. Wow – what great writing…and the conflicts so beautifully conveyed.

    I live in Portland and as I’ve aged, I’ve noticed a longing to spend more time in Florida, the state where I grew up. People who know me would be shocked, as I spent my 20s and early 30s bending everyone’s ear about how much I hated Florida – and the politics, tradition, and provincialism of the South.

    What I’ve come to realize – as I suspect you have – is that home is not a place. You come home to yourself, and then you start choosing where you want to live based on who you really are rather than who you want to appear to be.

  6. Love this! Spent my childhood awakening in Oregon, my angsty teens in Ohio. I can relate to both sides…I hope you are well on your way to home ownership, and the American Dream. 🙂

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtful and heartfelt comments! I love Portland so much, and the media’s portrayal of it as this Capital of Quirk drives me nuts–there’s so much more to the city. Patty, Marietta is named after Marie Antoinette…it was founded by a bunch of Revolutionary War officers, and they were big on France. When I was a teenager, we called it “Marighetto”, but that’s because I’d never been in a real ghetto.

  8. Thank you, Sara. This is a lovely thoughtful, descriptive immersion.

    I’ve enjoyed visiting Portland, where our son has moved to be with other friends, and also where Nia HQ is, so I attend trainings and events there, too.

    I grew up in Cleveland, but attended OU (a long time ago) as a dance/art major….got married, lived the back-to-the-land life in the country for a while) got divorced and eventually moved to the Boston area (and married a small town Massachusetts fellow and we live in his hometown).

    I know Marietta fairly well, and am grateful that you have some Marietta College benefits…and I encourage some travels to Athens. I miss Athens, and many friends there. look forward to visiting again.

    Best to you on your journey.

  9. Beautiful. I, too, left my small town twenty years ago for city life, yet came back home three years ago. The place I had always wanted to leave became the place where I wanted to live. I am raising my children here. Like you, I take pride in saying, “I grew up here, actually.” Thank you for sharing the complicated, conflicted feelings we face in our Full Grown years.

  10. I remember your comment from several months ago and am glad to read the full-length version. Really good stuff. I would also happily read an entire essay on your experience as a public library employee. Coincidentally, I worked at the public library in my crunchy-haired Midwestern hometown before becoming a reluctant Pacific Northwesterner.

  11. Your essay made me so sad. I blame That Show, a mediocre at best comedy made by outsiders who promised hipsters a town where “twenty year olds go to retire.” It was an eden of sorts, but definitely not any longer. I miss the old Portland, but keep holding out hope that the ampersands and beards will leave eventually so I can have all the slugs to myself. Thanks for the essay.

  12. As one who has moved away and come back many times, I am obsessed with why people move. I ate up every word of this essay even though your experience was very different from mine – except for the fact that my soul truly thrives in my hometown (oh and the librarian writer thing. Cheers!). I’m fascinated by what home means to us and how home becomes a part of us and how we carry it with us wherever we go. In my next life, I will be a researcher and study this.

  13. This brought tears to my eyes, so powerful, so ringingly true. I loved so many lines in it I can’t even count them all. You’ve done a perfect job of excavating the sense of home and trying to fit in. And some how this line, “Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes” feels like it says so much about our country — the fact that we have to point this out to each other.

  14. Loved this. Dreams. Reality. Independence. Interdependence. Family. Money. The measure of success. And so damned well written.

    Given your stated leanings, your vote in the next election is needed more in Ohio than Oregon. That goes on the plus side too. 🙂

  15. Your article left me perplexed. Sorry, I’m a little fuzzy this morning. I was out late for dinner at a fabulous eatery in Marietta that boasts “home cooking ” staples such as pistachio encrusted Alaskan King Salmon, lamb, Turkish coffee and an amazing selection of wine and beer. I guess I’ll need to stop by one of the 7+ coffee establishments that I drive past each day for some coffee or a chia tea latte.

    I’ll try to read over this article more closely as I zip my Joseph Ribkoff dress purchased a one of the boutique establishments on Front Street.

    I hope all the individuals employed by the second largest branch of DuPont in the world (in our area )or the large branch of the US Dept of Treasury or Marietta College don’t slow me down. Oh well, my Toyota Hybird is a great ride. It will give me time to enjoy the beauty of the historic homes on the tree lined streets. There will be plenty of walkers/bike riders enjoying the outdoors.

    Nat Geo has named Marietta a top adventure community and Smithsonian Mag lists Marietta as a top community to visit in the US.

    AND Beehive hairdos? Oh, that was probably the High school kids doing “Hairspray ” for their Spring performance.

    The author needs to explore Marietta a little more….

    1. Hi, Tammy. I’ve lived in Marietta for a total of 24 years, on and off, and I love it here. But I’m not sure where all of the great coffee places you refer to are. Tim Horton’s, maybe? That drive-though place on the Pike, or the one on Putnam Street that’s only open like, 4 hours a week? Anyway, I think you are being a little defensive, perhaps because you love Marietta so much, which is a great thing. It deserves love. Maybe we love it in different ways. And yes, there is a totally a waitress at the Busy Bee with a beehive.

    2. I had the opposite interpretation. I felt the writer’s love for Marietta — what she described so beautifully as a craving for it. The essay helped me see exactly why, conflicted or not, she loves making it her home.

  16. I live in Salem, the ugly stepsister of Portland. I get weary of the look of pity on Portlanders’ faces when I tell them where I’m from, but I never get weary of the look of shock and disbelief when I tell them that I love it here. A few are mildly intrigued, especially when I tell them my background, having lived in gorgeous Santa Barbara and fantastically gritty and exciting San Francisco. But most of them are dismissive. Now I’ll just refer them to your essay. Some will get it, but it’s okay if they don’t. The longer that Salem remains the ugly stepsister, the longer it will stay cool. This is a great piece. Thank you!

  17. A very nicely written piece. I too, made a “loop” before returning home. Missoula, Seattle, Los Angeles & then back to Missoula. I too, felt a loss each time I left a city, although L.A. was the easiest to leave because I left shortly after the L.A. riots.

    The one thing I noticed immediately after leaving L.A. was that everyone in Montana, from store clerks, to neighbors to outright strangers you might meet driving down the road were just plain friendlier. I don’t outright blame all of the fine folks from urban areas for being a little more stand offish, I get it. They are protecting themselves. And also, I think with the crowding & pressures than an urban environment brings, people just don’t have the space or time to be decent, to be human to each other. Still, I never regret leaving. As the character said in “Grand Canyon”, “Yeah, we get used to it. But we don’t have to.There is a different way to live.”

    Cheers.

  18. If art is the realization of the self in another’s work then this is the best thing I’ve read in months, maybe a year. All my life I’ve been trying to move to “Portland” and every time I find it I want to leave, and soon, because life is not there, art is not there, art is in Marietta.

  19. Loved this piece. Wonderful writing! You capture so many rich details and strong feelings so clearly. I’ve never been to Portland or Marietta, but I got a strong sense of both from your words. Thank you for this beautiful essay.

  20. This sounds so much like conversations my husband and I have here in Denver. But we’re trying to stick it out, even if it means living on the edge a little longer (“home” for me is New York City so it isn’t an option).

  21. Thanks for your essay- I totally resonated. In PDX from ’06-’09, one of the self-admitted creative class migrants, and it’s a very rough place to be a poor grown up. To move to and enjoy the media version of Portland, you gotta bring your job with you from elsewhere. But man, what a lovely city…

  22. Imagine the horror of being a native Portlander, thrilled to call the city her own again after getting sucker-punched by L.A. and then inexplicably following your hormones to Iowa of all places, just to find out none of it matters and anything you love can be transformed from genuine and unaffected to a shallow, shrill caricature of itself. I hate That Show, too, because Portland was my Marietta and now I can’t afford to live there or send my kids to preschool there. We have moved to Colorado Springs, which is a very weird place where the incredibly majestic Pikes Peak is the backdrop for shopping centers and big box stores galore, but at least here there’s no pretense. People are plain, kind, rugged, and content to simply be themselves. I miss Portland, but the Portland I miss doesn’t exist anymore.

  23. I was almost you at one point in life! Around 2000, I almost moved to Portland. My Idaho-based friends considered it a mecca, but we all knew that it was hard to find good jobs there. There were so many young migrants from small towns in states nearby, competing for the same middle-of-the-road jobs (the ones just above burger flippers, that didn’t require much more than a liberal arts degree). Some of my friends went there. I opted out and moved elsewhere. Reading your article, I’m really glad I did. From what I’ve heard, I don’t think your struggle is unique. Portland is a fun place for people in their 20s, but it’s hard to make it there. I’m glad to hear you’re thriving in Ohio.

  24. I related to the misfit syndrome. I grew up in one of the most conservative counties in American (literally, it’s ranked), and found myself struggling to bond with people who were of the dominant culture in a bigger city that leaned liberal. What is there to debate when everyone thinks alike? Boring. I also felt like my beliefs, which were hard-worn by going against the grain in my hometown were more (I hate to say it like this but I don’t know how else to) authentic. When asking liberals in a dominant liberal city why they held certain values, they had little reasoning compared to those who hold liberal values in a conservative place. I was also more valued in my hometown by other liberals because of my values, and I was respected by conservatives because of my chiseled views. Still… as an adult, I find comfort living in a city that swings my way on most matters.

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