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.