Look Me Up: Moving to Portland, OR

So I don’t bury the lede: I’m moving to Portland, Oregon and will be living there, starting in August. I will be working remotely.

Why do we make big decisions, though: Aren’t they always both inchoate and complex? I’ve been in New York City since I was graduated from college. I had my first real job here and made my lifelong friends in New York City, too. I came to New York to be a playwright, then went for my MFA at Columbia for screenwriting and directing. I paid for college and grad school myself. I worked on films and was on the staff of several consumer magazines. Mostly, I was broke.

But New York—or to be specific, downtown Manhattan—allowed me to be whatever I wanted. I lived in the East Village and watched the area go from a seeming bomb site to something shiny, perhaps a bit plastic, but still vibrant. I’ve been here long enough to see local kids who once played in the streets, now rush off to work. I still think the East Village has an unkillable life force.

But I grew up moving around, and people should never forget that about me. I was born in Korea and spent my childhood in Japan; my father was a diplomat. I wasn’t Japanese, but I felt as though I was from there. We moved every few years in Japan, and so did my friends. Then my family moved to Brooklyn, where we lived on Second Street, off Prospect Park.

I learned how to ride an adult bike in Prospect Park. I had a sled and went down that hill kids still ride down when it snows. The carousel there is the first one I ever rode. The little blonde girl whose name I can’t remember who lived across the street is the first girl I really liked. She helped me sell popsicles on our stoop.

We had the whole row house—even a library! —and in many ways, I still think of that building as my home. But then I moved again, to a small town in South Carolina to live with my grandparents, and then to Charleston where I was on Queen Street, near Logan after my parent’s divorce. Then to Ashley and Cannon, on to many dumpster-fire apartments in Boston. I also lived in some other places in-between—places that only sort of count, because I was there too briefly. I’ve moved at least 45 times my mother says, and I went to 18 different schools. New York was something of a relief after so much.

The point: I came here because I didn’t belong anywhere. New York is for people who don’t belong, and Manhattan is the Island of Misfit Toys. But I don’t really feel like a misfit anymore and I want to have a bigger place, a balcony that has a view of Mt. Hood, and a sunroom/office for work-writing and a tiny, windowed room for fiction writing. I also want a guest room and a bedroom where I can close the door and have no electronic screens at all.

Maybe I love New York too much. I can walk around and reel off trivia about many, most of the Manhattan blocks. If I’ve walked around with you and didn’t point out that that’s where seltzer water was invented, believe me in my head, I thought it. Portland won’t have that effect on me, and that will be a relief.

I’ll think of New York City often, probably like how I think of Charleston: When I’m feeling excitable and wanting to calm down, in my mind, I try to walk down Queen Street in Charleston, and I make myself remember every detail. Wasn’t there a tree there? What about that old house next to the grocery store that used to be called Burbage’s? I make myself remember every detail until I allow my mind to take another step. I’ll probably do that with Manhattan—after all, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else.

I had terrible jobs in New York. I was a waiter in a glorified sweatshop called Maritza on West 72nd. I worked at an employment agency that had no clients. I had a boss who showed up at my door, drunk on wine coolers, who told me I was sexy. I had another boss at a famous media company who was truly psychotic and prone to fits and rages. I remember that time she went into the wellness room, shut the door, and screamed. Every October 6th I celebrate leaving that company by giving myself an expensive present and cursing her name. I invite you to give yourself an expensive present on October 6 and curse the psychos, too.

I almost got married, here. I had regrettable romances and even once broke up in the storming rain, with her shouting, You’re my diary! You can’t break up with me, you’re my diary! That was a terrible night, on the corner of 7th and A. I’m not sure why neither one of us had an umbrella or why it had to happen in the rain, but we were 24, and I suppose it was in the script.

There were also the clubs: The Michael Todd Room at Palladium, Area, MK, the Pyramid, Body and Soul in the basement of the bar next door to CBGB, Kit Kat Club, Wah-Wah Hut, and warehouse parties at Orange. There were also shows at CBGB and elsewhere where I saw Sonic Youth, Big Black, Wire, the Butthole Surfers, the Circle Jerks, Flipper, Bad Brains, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Swans, the Cure, New Order, the New Pornographers, Aretha Franklin, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Aimee Mann, Manu Chau, and many more.

I saw the celebrities on the street, here—and because I’ve been here forever, they were iconic: Greta Garbo taking a walk on East 86th the year she died. Audrey Hepburn in Macy’s, Jackie Onassis shopping in the UES. And the fancy parties! I got in a lengthy conversation with David Byrne about My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I fought for the last slice of pizza with Eddie Izzard. My girlfriend got hit on by Iggy Pop. At film school, I met Willam Goldman and Jane Goodall and Robert Wise. And I hung out with childhood idol Micky Dolenz of the Monkees.

But mostly, there were the friends. Increasingly, I had to go to Brooklyn (the giant sucking sound out of Manhattan is accurate). There are so many people who I only know from literary parties. When I ran into them at parties, everything was better. We talked in some corner about personal things, not books or our careers. That kind of friend knows a lot of secrets about me. Many of them were also kind to me when I was unemployed and struggling in the awful years following 2008.

The city amazes me because of the unexpected. If you go on a long bike ride, you could end up somewhere with houses on stilts over a creek. There are eagles in upper Manhattan. I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop down and grab a squirrel and gnaw on it in Washington Square Park. You have chance encounters, like the one I think about while riding my bike: His name was Boozer and he was African American.

He wanted to ride with me so he could feel what it was like to be on a bike going fast, without police harassment. I gave him my phone number and told him to call so we could race down the streets of Far Rockaway again, but never called.

I’ll be in a touristy area of Portland because it reminds me of the West Village, the Alphabet District, a few blocks from Powell’s. The apartment I bought reminds me of something I’d see on the Upper West Side—theatrically old and a bit pompous. It’s not very “Portland,” in the raising-chickens-in-the-backyard sense. But the area has the density of Charleston. I feel like I understand this combination of the two cities that haunt me the most.

Look for me there starting in August. If you live in Portland, please look me up. I could always use more friends.

About Meakin Armstrong

Fiction writer, fiction editor, journalist, and copywriter.
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