cafe mama

a domestic realist blog

concerned citizens: a story about free-range children in the city . 20 September 2015

monroe at Courier Coffee

The backdrop of the story is intense. I've been going through a divorce and in January things went badly, the judge ruled against the custody evaluator's report and gave my ex-husband the house I owned. I had to move out in a hurry -- I had thirty days -- and I found the first thing I could, a studio apartment across the railroad tracks from the very trendy Pearl District.

My ex-husband has been unemployed, so I also pay child support to him. I've been a bike tour guide for the past 18 months, a job I adore, but it's a job that's busiest on the weekends -- I have to work a full schedule to pay rent, child support, feed the kids, the whole deal. I can't take weekends off even though that's the time the judge gave me with the kids.

I've figured it out. My kids are really smart and resourceful. Everett, who's now 13, is fantastic with his brothers (who are really great at navigating the streets of downtown Portland). I've taught them how to get everywhere -- our favorite coffee shop, Pearl Bakery (they love the fontina and ham sandwiches; Truman, my ASD 10-year-old, loves the macarons), the urban parks (Jamison Square and Tanner Springs), Whole Foods, the bike shop where I work, Saturday Market, Powell's Books. They love Powell's and often spend an hour or so there reading manga. I'll leave around 8 in the morning for my tours, and leave them some of my tips for adventuring. $10 can get them two half sandwiches and a cookie. $5 can get them three chocolate chip cookies and a canele at Courier Coffee. They'll bring their electronics and use the internet. They go on bikes, on roller blades, on foot, whatever they want.

I'm a bike tour guide in this very neighborhood (and elsewhere), and most weekend days I'm leading tourists through the exact same streets the boys are running and biking and blading. I've even seen them a few times as I guide my tourists around the streets. I know so many of the people and stories behind this neighborhood and I know it intimately; I want my kids to, as well, if anything my work can leave them that. Knowing exactly where they are and the stories that went into this place. All the people that came before them and left or were made to leave. I tell the story of Nihhonmachi, Japantown, which thrived in the neighborhood where we walk from the 1890s through December 1941 -- 70% of the businesses, many of which are now empty, or homeless services, were owned by Japanese families. I love that they know so much about this city because so many people know nothing, so many people don't remember what we've done and who we've been, and we keep repeating ourselves.

Lots of times I'm narrating like I do with my bike tours when we walk around and sometimes they tell me to stop tour guiding them already but sometimes they listen. Monroe will say, tell me the story of this park. And I'll say, this park was designed as a visual history of this neighborhood...

They were on foot yesterday (I thought they were on bikes because of the way the officer worded his story). Everett and Monroe, the 13-year-old and 8-year-old. Monroe is brilliant at navigating around the city on his own and could go by himself, but we all know that wouldn't fly in today's world -- I've heard some of the sweet homeless ladies who camp under the Steel Bridge, right next to our apartment, cry out in alarm when they saw him run ahead of us past them (I was too far behind for them to have seen me yet). Truman often stays home because he's not into those sandwiches and he's old enough to be home alone.

So they were just walking, through Old Town/Chinatown (a very very quiet part of Portland) my quite large 13-year-old and his little brother, and a man on a bike stopped them and started quizzing them. Where were their parents? Where were they going? They answered, we come here all the time. My mom's at work. We're going to the Pearl Bakery. They walked a few more steps and a police man who had seen the interaction stopped them too, demanded they give him my phone number and call me. The message was confusing. I was on tour about a mile away, in the South Park Blocks. I was walking through the farmer's market when he called.

When I heard his message after my tour and called him back he told me, in response to, but he's THIRTEEN! (Old enough legally to babysit anyone, including his eight-year-old brother.) "But they look young." I was told I should tell my kids my work number too, for the next time they're caught out in public, walking to a bakery. I panicked for a little while and then reallized, it was fine. Later I asked Monroe what he thought about this. "Bored," he said. "Because you thought it was silly?" "Yeah."

Tourists ask me all the time, tell me about the homeless? They'll seem so concerned. I have a dozen stories about this and none of them feel quite right. "We're failing, we're all failing people every day," is what I want to say but I don't. The number of homeless people in downtown Portland is not out of proportion with any town of similar size; it's just more visible. Some days it seems like everyone is on edge, some days it seems that I see a half-dozen men or women with desperate eyes and bloody sores from fights or meth. I've never seen violence though, I've never seen danger to my kids. Just human desperation lived out in front of them.

There's a woman who sleeps under the bridge, ,the one who called out that day after my eight-year-old, "a baby!" who ran past her. She makes the most beautiful bed. It's elaborate, with a quilt laid out on the bottom and sheets that have a quilt pattern on them, two pillows, a comfy air mattress. It looks beautiful. She has kind eyes and I see her almost every day. Some days when I come through and it's obvious the Clean & Safe people have cleaned out her bedroom and her with it I feel a bit of panic for a minute, that she's gone. But she always comes back.

That's the story. My kids are safe here, but there are a lot of people who aren't safe. I'm worried about them, and I don't know what to do. I'm not worried about my kids though. They have somewhere to sleep. Money for chocolate chip cookies and ham and fontina sandwiches. They know what a canele is and how to get from 9th and Couch to Union Station and how to say "Couch" in Portland.

There's a lot of concern to be had, but don't have it for my kids in the city.

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