LATELY I’VE STARTED referring to people like me and my wife, Kate, as "California refugees." You longtime Portlanders no doubt feel you’re bumping into our kind by the dozens. So allow me to offer myself and Kate as your case study in northern Californians seeking asylum in your fair city.
There we were, living in our cozy suburban apartment in the Bay Area hills east of Berkeley, paying $1,000 monthly for 600 square feet of carpet and linoleum. Both of us were nearing our 30s. I was, and still am, a novelist, which, unless your name starts with "Stephen" and ends with "King," does not make for a breadwinner’s lifestyle. Kate taught public high school, a rewarding career that … well, won us only the thinnest, shortest loaves of California bread. In the darkest graveyard hours, seven days a week, you’d find me behind the wheel of our Geo Metro, stitching along neighborhood streets, tossing newspapers to several hundred subscribers, a job I performed diligently so I could write in the daytime. By 7 a.m. I’d return home and settle into bed just as Kate left for work.
Though the public high school where she taught was only six miles from our apartment, in "reasonable" traffic the drive took her 40 minutes. The gridlock of those suburbs is said to be statistically worse than those of Atlanta and Washington, DC, combined. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the term "road rage" was coined there. Sometimes Kate got to work, parked and discovered that the murderous maniac who’d been tailgating her for the last 20 minutes of her commute was in fact the genial teacher from down the hall. People were always angry at each other in the Bay Area, but nobody seemed to realize it.
Kate’s school hadn’t been updated since the Kennedy administration, the era when it was built. Her classroom was cluttered with 36 decrepit desks and 38 unhappy teenagers (the two extras seated themselves at Kate’s desk and on the floor). The kids there were not nice to Kate. They, too, were angry and didn’t know it.
Kate’s salary kept us hovering just above the state poverty level. She did not receive benefits. Naturally, my newspaper delivery job did not provide benefits either.
While Kate was at work, I’d sometimes bike to the library, a drab Quonset hut also built during the Kennedy administration. I rarely found the book I sought. When I did, the copy would most likely be soiled, have a broken spine or lack a number of pages, sometimes all three.
At the end of the workday, Kate made the harrowing drive home. The modus operandi on the streets was: tailgate-honk-swerve-curse! Stopping at the grocery store, Kate would find the aisles similarly frantic: cut-in-front-scurry-scowl!