Nineteen Fifteen South East Twenty-First
This is the address in Portland, Oregon of the house my parents bought in 1940. It was the first house that ever actually belonged to us, and I lived there from the time I was nine years old until I was eighteen when I left home to search for my self in San Francisco. By the time I was back in Portland, about three years later, they had sold the house and moved to an apartment. I never entered the place again.
The years that we lived there were the most important coming-of-age years in my life, so I have many memories of the house, some loving and some painful. Hardly what you’d call a happy teenager, I was tortured by longings for unattainable love; I struggled over my love-hate relationship with the piano; I had my first sexual experiences; I absorbed myself in discoveries of great music and opera; I prayed with religious fervour; and, I spent a lot of time alone in the basement inventing things.
I often wonder what it would have been like to have lived the rest of my life in that house. There are people, after all, who have lived in the same house their entire lives, even as a part of a parade of generations, preceded by parents and grandparents and followed by children and grandchildren. Think of the wealth of memories and the comfort of the familiar. Perhaps even the absence of the ache of nostalgia.
Up to 1940, we had lived in five different places: Farragut Street, where I was born; Bryce Street, where at age four I visited Mrs. Markworth, whose cat to our amusement circulated around in the ventilation pipes; then Forty-first Street where I started school and fell off a cement wall onto the sidewalk, splitting open my chin (I still have a scar); from there we moved out in the country, 105th Street, two acres of walnut trees, potatoes, a garden, and chickens. We had a faithful German Shepherd named Sport. We were right across the road from the railroad tracks, and I came to know every train, whence it came and wither it was bound. If you waved at the people as the train sped by quite often someone would wave back. After this rural sojourn we moved to a wonderful old house on Tenth Street, very near downtown. Next door was a boarding house frequented by people like Cliff, a real cowboy from Eastern Oregon. My brother and I shared a double bed in an upstairs bedroom. I remember once that we strung some wires across to the boarding house so we could communicate with the kids there by means of our toy telegraph sets.
But all these adventures paled against 1915 S.E. 21st. For me, at nine, it was indeed a house of wonders. If you wanted hot water, all you had to do was to pull a chain in the dining room and the gas heater in the basement would ignite by itself. But you had to remember to release the chain in due time or the water would come boiling out of the taps. Suppose you felt a bit chilly, just adjust the magic thermostat, also in the dining room, and the oil furnace was soon pushing warm air up through the registers. There were also the brand new O’Keefe and Merritt gas stove (no matches required) and the Gilfillan refrigerator, our first real electric refrigerator. Imagine!, you could have ice cubes whenever you felt like it. I don’t know how my mother and father managed to pay for all this, but I suppose they assumed various debts and mortgages. (I think they paid $9000 for the house.) I know that my mother worked all the time at various money-making schemes: she sold Fashion Frocks and she did alterations on ladies’ garments. By the time I was eleven, though, she was working full time at Meier and Franks department store in Ladies’ Coats and Suits.
The consequence was that I spent quite a lot of time at home by myself. Every day, after school, I was supposed to practise the piano, but I rarely did, preferring to listen to opera records, work on my inventions, talk on the phone with Richard Griggs, or climb the cherry trees in the back yard. Another of my favourite things was to construct a small creek along the edge of the flower bed and, using the garden hose to create a current, let the one or two goldfish that we always seemed to have go for a swim. I figured it was quite an adventure for them. If I still lived there I probably would not make fanciful waterways, but I would certainly tend the flower garden and the roses that grew on four trellises against the wall of the garage.
Of course, summers were endless, and with little or no parental supervision, we came and went as we pleased. I don’t think we—and by “we” I mean my brother and I and the other neighbourhood kids—ever did much which would have displeased the grown-ups, but if we did, they never knew about it.
If I were still there, I would want most everything to be the same, though by now I would have replaced the Gilfillan and the O’Keefe and Merritt. The oil furnace would long ago have been supplanted by gas, and the buried oil tank in the back yard removed at great expense.. Maybe I would even have air conditioning. In the 1940s, air conditioning was an unimaginable luxury. But I would certainly have the heavy and ornate dining table and chairs, the table draped with the crocheted cover my mother made for it, and against the wall, under the window would be the buffet piece, or “side-table” as my mother called it. Because the front leading edge was rounded, she said it was of “waterfall” design. Always on display, there, was the silver-plated coffee urn on its tray, flanked by the cream and sugar. I never knew that glorious appliance to be used, but its presence was as appropriate and necessary as the draperies and curtains on the windows. We even had Venetian blinds, the height of 1940s domestic fashion. In the living room (we called it the “front room”), there were three curious objects that would certainly still be there: a bronze statue of an armoured warrior swinging a battle-axe which could be slid out of the warrior’s grasp and held as an object of wonder. Another was a small detailed model of a sailing vessel, its starched sails permanently wind-blown. And, the strangest of all, a sepia-coloured, three-quarter size bust of George Washington. One time, my brother and I arranged this, with pillows for its body, in my parents’ bed. We were convulsed with laughter when we heard them being momentarily taken in, thinking it was one us in an alarming state of illness.
The family “den” which adjoined the kitchen was where my father kept his books and where we spent most of our spare time. The living room was used rarely by the family, well, except for me because that was where the piano was. Even though, to conserve heat, it was kept closed off during the winter, I alone was allowed to turn on the heat so I could practise. I freely admit that when everyone else was out—and this was fairly often—I opened the glass doors, turned up the heat and the record player—Pagliacci, Il Trovatore—and revelled in solitary splendour. It was also there on one of these occasions, without the music, that I confessed to a startled Bob Shields that I was in love with him. I was, what?, thirteen. Such occasions are still alive and secure within the wood and plaster bones of the house.
I should mention, though, that the front room became the focal point of family activity around Christmas time, what with the tree, the crèche, and various other decorations which my mother, usually with my help, created. I know I would have continued over the years to observe Christmas in this way. Getting back to the den, there was also the desk at which my brother and I did our homework, and, even more important, there was the telephone. I probably used that device more than anyone else. As I mentioned, Richard Griggs and I would talk for hours. One time, we were on the phone when my brother went out to attend a movie, and we were still talking when he came back. Beside the phone was that wonderful old stained glass lamp. How can I describe it? It was one of those with a heavy round shade composed of suitably curved pieces of streaky milky light blue glass. If I lived there, it would definitely still be in its place.
The den. There was a time, around 1943, when my father quit drinking for a while and took up painting again. As a self-taught painter, he was pretty good and created a number of canvases during those few months. On Saturday evenings, my mother would read aloud while my father painted and my brother and I listened and built things with our Meccano set. There was always a point in the evening when we would have a special meal of homemade hamburgers or Stidd’s Tamales. Precious evenings, when the house was warm and everything seemed at rights.
The memories come flooding back. If I still lived there, I would be surrounded, immersed, in the richness of the past, the people I knew. I’m pretty sure that, by now, no one in the neighbourhood in the 1940s would be there any longer. Bob Smithson, who was my age, moved away while I was still living there, as did Morry Reisbeck, a favourite playmate who was younger than me. Delores Kangas, the first girl I ever “necked” with, lived next door for a while. Pat Miller and Sidney Mills, who were older, are probably long gone, as would be Mrs. Bennett, with whom I spent many hours listening to records: the Grieg Piano Concerto, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, Tchaikovsky Symphonies and, for sure, the B-flat Minor Piano Concerto. My other grade-school friends and playmates were David Miller, Danny Ventrola, and Joe Galarneau. Whatever lives they have lived or are living, I imagine that they have long since moved out of the neighbourhood. My highschool friends—John Fairbanks, George Ryan, Richard Griggs—lived in other parts of town. The houses around ours would by now be inhabited by other people, unless some one person, perhaps an offspring of a 1940s neighbour, is now permanently situated in his or her ancestral home.
I’ll bet, though, that I alone would now be an established 21st Street presence. Known to those around as That old guy that has lived in that house for over seventy years.
The last time I walked that street and saw the house was in 2002 during a visit to Portland. I walked the route I used to take to Saint Philip Neri School, and I walked up the hill to Dickson Janowski’s house, where I used to wait at night for him to come home so I could spend even a few minutes with him, treasuring those moments when I could imagine I was one of his friends. Those were the sidewalks I knew best when I was a teenager. And, you know what, they have hardly changed at all. The house that was our house looks very much the same. As I stood looking at it, a woman came out of the front door, checking for something on the porch. I brazenly approached her and asked if she lived there. Yes, she did. I told her that I had grown up there and had always loved the place. I wonder, I said, if it has changed very much. She didn’t appear to be at all interested and went back in, closing the door. I think that I had had a faint hope that she would invite me in. No such luck.