Photo credit: Eli Haan
The kid in front of me was scuffed-up at the edges, young but weathered. The book he most wanted from the street library was a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
, but he hesitated.
"I’m hopping a train tonight to get to the Rainbow Gathering in Washington,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t take this because I just don’t know when I’d be back through to return it."
"But you have to take it,” I told him. “Given everything you’ve just described, I’m pretty sure you’re the reader it’s been waiting for."
In 10 years of running a bicycle-powered mobile library in Portland, I met thousands of readers like him. One of them was Ben "Hodge" Hodgson, the coauthor of our book. In Loaners: The Making of a Street Library
, Hodge writes about waking up in Old Town having sunk to the bottom of the barrel, then "seeping on down through the cracks." I tell the story of how Street Books
began as a 3-month art project that never ended. It’s the story of our chance encounter at Skidmore fountain, our friendship, and the events and characters from the streets over a decade.
But when I look through the pages now, I see that it is also a love letter to the city of Portland.
At 17, I made a pilgrimage on a Greyhound bus from my rural Idaho town to Portland. I had addresses for two destinations written in my journal: The 24-Hour Church of Elvis and Powell’s Books. I found Stephanie G. Pierce, self-proclaimed “Arteest to the Stars” at the Church of Elvis, where she welcomed me in and asked if I’d tend the store for her while she went to get a used Stairmaster. She told me that she’d like to hire me, but that she had an exceedingly low overhead. Later, at Powell’s Books, I sat at Anne Hughes Kitchen Table Café (rest in peace, dear Anne) and looked out the window onto Burnside. The city was a revelation: grit, shine, art, record stores. It felt like anything might be possible in a city like Portland.
It’s where I would move with my boyfriend Ben in 1998, and where we would get married the following year in a meadow in the Hoyt Arboretum ($89 to rent for the day). It was the place we launched Ben’s brainchild, Gumball Poetry
, a literary journal published into gumball machines with a poem and a tough piece of pink bubblegum in each capsule. These machines were hosted in all the best old Portland spots: Reading Frenzy, Rimsky-Korsakoffee House, Looking Glass Bookstore, PNCA, Café Lena, and Powell’s Books on Hawthorne. A few years on, I would begin to experiment with social practice art projects including the one funded by the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which became the Street Books library. And now, so many years later, it’s the place where I’m lucky enough to launch our own book at Powell’s Books.
The story of a city is always deeper than a headline.
There’s been plenty of press devoted to the demise of Portland during the pandemic, the protests for racial justice that were met last summer by federal agents dispensing expired tear gas on demonstrators, the broken windows and spray paint, and bleak scenes of people living outside with few resources. But the story of a city is always deeper than a headline, and amid the violence and ruckus there came a flourishing of mutual aid and grassroots organizing. Snack Bloc fed people at demonstrations and activists set up hygiene stations around the city so that people living outdoors could wash their hands to avoid Covid-19. Street Roots
newspaper vendor Raven Drake set up a medical tent near Interstate Avenue for unhoused folks to visit and created a Coronavirus Action Team composed of other vendors. Ground Score hired people living outside to pick up garbage and the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association established regular showers for people living in tents in the neighborhood. Mxm Bloc formed to focus on food justice and equitable housing, an effort led by Black and Indigenous mothers. These efforts by so many organizations are ongoing, whether the headlines reflect the work or not.
People shake their heads sadly about how bombed-out Portland has become, how it used to be such a beautiful place. But it’s worth remembering that it was never a beautiful place for everybody. The Portland where my partner Ben and I made art and worked and saved to buy a house is the same place that razed homes in Black communities and practiced redlining that prevented those families from building generational wealth. It’s where “Keep Portland Weird” runs into Donovan Smith’s provocative “Gentrification is Weird.” When I read that our city had plummeted in a ranking of Best Cities to Live
, fallen from the heyday of the Portlandia
show and glowing features in the NY Times
, I didn’t shake my head in sorrow. I thought instead: Maybe now we could build back a city where there was a place for everybody to live and thrive, not just a city where young people go to retire, as Portlandia
suggests, while others live outside in tents.
episodes begin with a sequence which includes a quick shot of a man with a gray beard, smoking a cigarette. During the years I ran the library shift at the square outside the art museum, he would come down from his apartment in the south Park Blocks to talk about books and show me the latest walking stick he’d carved. Several years after I recognized him in the Portlandia
montage, I saw him on an icy winter night at an emergency warming shelter, where Street Books librarians were set up with books. He shuffled behind a walker and looked for a space to lie down. It was a stark contrast to see this person’s image used for a television show and then absorb the real-life version of where he’d landed in the end, with no apartment in wintry conditions. But that evening at the warming shelter was also a collective response to humans in peril, its own story about people and organizations working in concert to support those living at the edges. These are the stories that rarely make the news, but they are happening every day.
Hodge and I do our best in Loaners
to capture these stories, the conversations between street librarians and patrons, and the kindness we often witnessed between strangers on the street. A lot may be different in Portland since I first made a pilgrimage on the bus as a teenager, but these stories offer proof that even amid hard times, the most essential qualities of a city never change.
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is an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark College and leads residencies in high schools for Literary Arts. Over the years she has taught writing in public schools, prisons, and teen shelters. Moulton is the founder of Street Books, Portland’s bicycle-powered street library. Loaners
, cowritten with Ben Hodgson, is her first book.