Since relocating to Portland, OR last August I have been asked two questions most often (I think it’s a tie): “What are your plans tonight?” and “Why did you move here?” Both make me nervous, like a new therapist’s waiting room kind of nervous. Both are imminently probing. And, on most days, I don’t have a concise and confident answer for either one.
In my last city I was asked “Where did you go to school?” and “What do you do [for work]?” because that’s the kind of place Boston is. There people flock to one of the 50+ colleges in the area and then scramble to outdo thousands of other recent grads for a semi-relevant job that can almost cover the bloated rent of a studio apartment. The responder can gauge the asker’s approval (or disapproval) relatively fast—wince once for a state school, twice for food service, etc.
But here’s the thing: although the questions are different, the effect is the same. There is a motive behind the asking, a curiosity that defies the laws of polite conversation between two strangers. I want to tell the askers that they don’t need to ask. I know they aren’t (at least some of them aren’t) genuinely interested in my plans or my backstory.
I want to say that I see your city–my new home–and all of its rapid changes. I see the income disparity, the unjust evictions, the loss of old skylines. And although I have tried my best to avoid being associated with the causation, I catch myself almost apologizing to folks who have lived here their whole lives. It feels shameful to want a slice of ‘the good life,’ especially when it’s a portion that used to belong to someone else.
In the absence of my response I have thought a lot about how one goes about expressing their truth in a way this is both respectful and meaningful. My honest answer, my backstory, is: I moved here to seek emotional asylum from the intolerable living conditions of another city that gentrified itself many years earlier.
So far, I haven’t found the words, but perhaps some of these photographs will speak on my behalf.