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May 2009 ...unlike the current May

This is Rose Festival weekend in Portland. The opening ceremony was last night, and the news this morning mentioned the “dozens” of people out to catch the traditional fireworks show. Heh heh. Local news images showed pale Portland people huddling beneath umbrellas and slogging through mud in the carnival area.

I should have gone last year. It was remarkable in that it was dry and sunny, and apparently it’s never dry and sunny during the Rose Festival. The rain is a particular Portland tradition for the Rose Parade. It was a light rain this morning for the parade, so not too bad. The bigger deal is that we have had nearly two weeks of steady rain, punctuated occasionally with gushing downpours.

There is standing water in my garden. Sigh.

And all this was ok until I took advantage of the cold wet weather to do some Web housekeeping. I have a personal webpage on which I keep track of our improvements on the old house in which we live. I’ve been doing some more brick work on our front slope, and thought it was about time to update my “landscaping” section of the home improvements pages.

This morning I browsed through the May 2009 photos and found the one above. I also found photos of our hydrangeas in full bloom, sunshine speckling the dirt beneath my garden plants bursting with life, lazy kitties napping in the yard, and… you get the picture. Basically, the weather was warmer last May. Whaahhhh, I want warmer weather. It’s almost summer for gosh sake!

I am not too impatient though. I recall that the typical Portland summer doesn’t begin until July. That means I need to wait it out another month.

Among humans there are no small acts; just as among plants there are no small leaves.

The quote is from the best of my recollection from reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I read the line the day before yesterday, as the author explained to me how seemingly insignificant tidbits in the news of 1817 were catalysts for larger movements among humanity. A change in fashion, an argument over the pronunciation of a word, a scandal among the elite… on the day you read it in the paper, it seems trivial. Forty years later, you may be able to see how it was an ingredient that constructed a great change.

the beginnings of beets

It helped that he added the part about leaves, and that it is the end of April. The first leaves that came to my mind were the tiny twin leaves sprouting from delicate red stems of what will become fat and juicy beets with a veritable hedge of greenery above ground. There is no path to the beet without the first tiny leaves.

the beginnings of peas

I delight in life.

Steps under construction

Steps under construction

My exciting news is that our newly poured concrete steps can be walked upon today. Yes, it takes little to make me giddy.

Little? Actually concrete for construction is a big freaking deal to some people. Like in the Gaza Strip. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Over the past week, I hired a crew from Patrick Masonry & Concrete here in Portland to build me some new front steps. The previous steps had been poorly constructed and were falling apart. The metal railing had nearly broken off, and I was growing increasingly concerned that the mail carrier or an elderly neighbor would slip on the crumbling steps and crack their skull.

Sidewalk alongside the house

Sidewalk

Steps

support for new slab

plastic

protection from rain

Patrick showed up within 30 minutes of my cold call. The very next day the old concrete was gone and the wooden forms were in place. By Thursday it was done. Friday morning they removed all their gear except for the orange cones and the temporary mailbox down at street level. Since it had been pouring rain most of the week, the concrete was drying slowly, and he suggested that we stay off until Sunday – today!

Ready for walking!

All week I thought of Palestine. Enduring warring civil factions, Israeli blockades, bombings and terrorism from multiple sources, increasing Egyptian border control, joblessness and the looming thoughts of despair always hovering and waiting for the chance to swoop in and devastate a family…  my steps are an example of the wealth and opportunity in the United States of America.

Gazans don’t have access to concrete, nor access to many construction opportunities. With the opportunity to pour this amount of concrete, they would certainly use it for something more critical. I am almost ashamed at my frivolousness in comparison.

We all seek our personal joys and life goals in the setting we are dealt. It is conflicting to think too hard on my achievements when others don’t even have the chance to try it. However, I think my job is to be the most I can be with what I have. Thus, I’ll continue to be thrilled at my new concrete steps, I’ll wallow in the joy of rebuilding my gardens on either side of it, since they were damaged during construction. I’ll savor the security of knowing my little girl, the neighbors, the mail carriers and everyone else will now have safe passage on my property.

slab and curved walk

Slab and curved walk

I will continue my awareness of the struggles of others, and be grateful when I am afforded opportunities. I will try not to squander my precious gifts.

Chapter 4

My story of how we arrived at this fearful point is a long one. (Sorry!) I am sure that for many people, financial insecurity is not the result of one factor. In our case, it was a dreadful chain of events filled with bad luck and bad choices. I’ve chosen to tell it in chapters. Today (October 2009), we are in negotiations with Wells Fargo that began around October 2008, and progressed significantly around March 2009, yet today remain unresolved. Will the three of us be forced to leave our modest little fixer-upper home? Right now, no one knows.

Catch up to this part if you like, by reading Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3.

Unable to sell my Massachusetts home the Spring of 2007, I found a renter. I asked for a rent that was reasonable for the blue-collar community the house was in, but didn’t come close to matching the mortgage amount.

12)       The problems with my renter began immediately. She was almost a month late for her FIRST month’s rent. After a few sporadic payments, she stopped paying altogether. She eventually stopped answering her phone, and when I called her workplace, they told me she was no longer working there. I began researching how to evict a tenant in Massachusetts.

We were living at The Uncles outside of Portland while we looked for work. Mark’s unemployment check went to rent at The Uncles, and the mortgage payment, and I continued to rob my 401K to make up the difference. We spent the summer of 2007 just trying to make ourselves get up and be productive each day, and not succumb to fright or despair. Mark couldn’t take the daily reminder of his perceived failure, and took off into the desert for awhile.

All summer I filled out applications till they made me numb. I was invited to only a couple of interviews, and was not offered a position.

13)       In September I got a job with the VA. Not related to my degrees, but it was at least employment. In October, Mark got a job.

14)       School loans came due. I went into forbearance on the greater sum, and began paying Sallie Mae. They required a huge fee for a short deferral, and it was simply cheaper to make my monthly payments.

With two incomes, we were in a position to have our own home. I was sent to Baltimore for training, and while I was there, Mark found a house he wanted to buy. (We love The Uncles, but after 8 months, were ready to be on our own)

15)       We still had faith that the Mass house would sell someday, and made an offer on the Portland house in January 2008. By the last day of the month, we owned it. It was a 1925 home, basement crumbling, roof mossy, stained walls and stinking of dog pee on the carpet, but… it was large and we could afford it! Well, we could as soon as the Mass house sold, which had to be soon. In the meantime, we made two mortgage payments every month.

16)      February 2008, my daughter’s father decided he wanted to move back to California and take her with him. I disagreed with the plan. Since we had no money left, Mark put the attorney’s retainer on his credit card.

17)       Still no communication from my renter, so I hired a Realtor in Mass to put the home on the market in March, and plunked down the credit card once again for a cross-country flight and got the lady out of my house with relatively little pain. I spent a few days putting the property back in order. The electricity had been shut off. She had drained the heating oil and the pilot light went out. The water was off. The toilet leaked. There were mountains of construction rubbish in the back yard. I hired a guy to pick up everything inside and out, and haul it away. I hired a landscaping company to take care of the lawn. $$$$$$$ I went back home about a foot shorter, shrinking under the weight of the world.

18)      June 2008, Mark lost his job. It was a shocking blow. Poverty hit hard. There was no way we could survive in the new home on my paycheck only. I was earning $42 K a year. We put up a clothesline. We washed and reused baggies.

19)      The custody skirmish was over only a few months after it began. We only spent $5000. That was a MIRACLE compared to what had happened to us in California. AND, for the first time the courts ruled in my favor. Barney moved to Cali like he wanted to, but our daughter came to live with me finally. For good.

20)       I asked my family law attorney to recommend a bankruptcy attorney. Both of them were fabulous and I would highly recommend either! I was advised that bankruptcy wouldn’t work for me. My major expenses included $60 thousand in student loans, which I would still have to pay. One of the only things that didn’t cost me much was my car, and they would take it from me. They wouldn’t even wipe out my credit card debt… just rearrange it and put me on a payment plan.

We put our heads down and pressed on. We focused on getting my girl into school for 6th grade, settling in the house. Mark looked for work and tried not to sink into depression. We called Wells Fargo and explained that we were not going to be able to make our payments much longer. They told us that as far as they were concerned, our account was in good standing. We had paid every month, and on time, and our credit was great. “We can only help those people who have been delinquent for three months in a row or more.”

We began giving that statement some serious thought.

Chapter 3

This is a continuation of a brief history of what led up to our current threat of home foreclosure. We don’t have one of those crazy risky loans, and we found this modest home for a reasonable price. The problem mostly boils down to the fact that we managed to lose all our savings for other reasons (notably another home that sold for a loss), followed by Mark losing his job.

Catch up to this point in the story if you like, by reading Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

my new community, far away from the old one

Viola! I found myself in a Boston suburb in July 2004. All alone, didn’t know a soul there, and was 34 years old preparing to enter college as a sophomore transfer from California. People said, “Wow, you are so brave.” But I knew the truth is that I can go to extremes to run away from my problems. Left my career, ex-husband, and beloved Pacific Northwest behind, in order to start out on a new track and see where it would lead.

7)      As I mentioned in Chapter 2, I put my sophomore year at Brandeis on my credit card because I was scared they would kick me out if I didn’t pay. My financial aid package finally kicked in around November, but by then I had a $17,000 balance with Bank of America. (Thank you Rita Fine ’55 Memorial Scholarship people for keeping me from having a $34,000 balance!!)

Since my student loans were insufficient to cover the mortgage, the credit card payments, filling the heating oil tank (OMG!! New Englanders heat with OIL?!), buying monthly passes on the commuter rail train, etc. etc. Not to mention cross-country flights so that either I could go see my kid or she could come see me, I was constantly broke. Because of her young age, flights for her also required a ticket for another adult, or huge chaperone fees. Because of unresolved custody, my flights usually included a bonus payment to Family Law Court in California for one reason or another.

8)      I was forced to begin pulling out money from my IRA. Twenty thousand here, Fourteen thousand there.

By the end of my junior year, the infallible courts of California had decided that my daughter had to stay with her father as long as I was going to be out of state. I was crushed and angry, and forced with an awful decision: quit school and go dragging back with my tail between my legs so that my girl could have me more often? Or bear the continued separation another year, in hopes that being the first in my family to get a classy degree would be the key to pulling her out of the white trash sludge I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of.

OK, ok, yes. The whole truth also includes the fact that I did not want to go back to live in the same small town as her dad who drove me crazy, and also the fact that I would have zero chance of getting my old job back, so I would have to scrounge around for whatever job was available there.

9)      I chose to stay in Massachusetts.

For her part, my daughter seemed fine with it all. I talked with her about it in kid terms, and – in kid terms – she begged me to stay in Mass. She loved the house, loved her friends there, and seemed to be healthy and happy. Happier perhaps, without her parents’ unspoken animosity charging the atmosphere. Her winter visits afforded her snow vacations for the first time in her life since she was a baby in Vermont. She felt very grown up to consider cross-country flights a natural part of life.

I took advantage of my distress, and piled on the schoolwork. I got myself into a program wherein I worked on both my Bachelor and Master degrees at the same time. I lived and breathed school, every waking moment.

10)       I never did find a renter, but Mark, my Massachusetts boyfriend, eventually moved in and began splitting the mortgage payment with me.

11)       In my last year there, and especially the Spring of 2007, I tried to sell my home but it didn’t sell. Something funky was going on in the economy. The stock market was faltering, real estate values were actually falling, and people weren’t so interested in buying. I heard that one of my neighbors had to move because her home was foreclosed upon. This news was my first exposure to foreclosure. It was disturbing to have it so close to me. I knocked thirty thousand off what I had purchased my home for, three years earlier, and still no one was interested in the asking price. It was a beautiful, new home. What was the problem?

Finally graduated in May 2007 with a BA in Cultural Anthropology summa cum laude, minor in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence studies. I also had an MA in Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on International Mediation. (Read this awesome profile my friend Dave Nathan wrote.)

For all the sacrifice, and the coveted sheets of embossed paper that apparently heralded my achievements… I was full of fear and doubt. I had so much debt it was staggering to think about it. Approximately $80 K in student loans, $230 K on my house, $26 K on credit cards. No job.

During my last year of school, my daughter and her father had moved to Portland, Oregon in hopes of finding a community that offered more job opportunities. He needed work and knew I would soon be needing work. It was a rare moment of cooperation. Approximately 72 hours after I graduated, I was moving West.

Portland seemed large enough to contain her dad and me together. It was exciting to anticipate my new town, my new career, new friends. I also was lucky enough to have a loving partner who had decided to leave his home state of Massachusetts and try out a new life on the West Coast with me.

Chapter 2

This is Chapter 2 of the story that led to our current state of not really feeling as though our housing situation is stable. Read Chapter 1.

3)      During the 2003/2004 school year I used the profits from the sale of my California home to live on, pay court fees, and to hire an attorney. The GI Bill paid for my classes, which were $11 a credit back then – nice!

I chose my classes so that I had a regular daytime, Monday through Friday schedule, for the first time in my life. It was great to be able to attend morning assemblies with my daughter at Ridgewood Elementary School before she started second grade classes each day, and to be home to meet her at the end of the driveway when the bus brought her home. I was free for weeknight book sales and free to schedule parent-teacher conferences at a normal hour. If for no other reason, being able to participate this way in her expanding life was worth giving up my well-paying job as a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service.

Other than that, I had my doubts.

I wasn’t rich, but up until then, I had plenty. The kind of comfortable life where I could go buy a new winter coat for my kid when she lost hers (that seemed to happen a lot). When I fell in love with some real leather, knee-high boots, I could take them home. We could go to the movies on the spur of the moment. On a particularly lovely Fall afternoon, we took a Humboldt Bay cruise on the Madaket just because we wanted to, and then stop for ice cream at Bon Boniere on the way home. It was a very good life.

After I decided to leave my job and go to school instead, I made serious cuts in my lifestyle where I could. But life can be expensive.

At the end of the school year in Cali I was able to move to Massachusetts. I had managed a painful compromise plan of physical parenting rights. We split her remaining years as a minor, and her father got the first shift. It shattered me to have to share at all, but making the best of it, it meant I could go to school anywhere. I considered living in Brandeis dormitory housing on campus to save money, but just couldn’t bring myself to rent after having been a homeowner for so long. And when my little girl was with me, I wanted her to have a real home.

4)      I took the gamble, which tends to be my personality. Big Chances = Big Gains (or Losses, as the case may be) I bought a house that was shockingly expensive for me, but I wasn’t worried. Real estate was shooting upwards like a rocket. Property values in the Boston area were DOUBLING every 12 months. Besides, this was my fifth home purchase, and I had learned that buying and selling a house was a sure thing. Once  I had lost $30 thousand of my investments…and in that same year I gained $30 thousand in the value of my home. There was no way to lose in Real Estate.

our Massachusetts house

I was a bit surprised to get the loan without a job. But… I put over 20% down, had thousands in savings, had thousands in retirement account that I could borrow against, I had a work history of 11 years of federal service, and my credit score was stellar. So it wasn’t that hard for me to believe a lender would take a chance on me. The lender asked me how I intended to pay the mortgage, and I said “with student loans.” I was serious. And ignorant. Everyone who goes to school gets a loan, right? At great rates right? In my mind it made total sense to get student loans to pay the mortgage.

5)      I planned to rent out the lower level of the house. It was a spacious split level, and the lower level seemed like a decent space to rent. That would definitely help with the bills. But I couldn’t find a renter.

6)      I had some difficulty getting my financial aid into place. I got a threatening letter from the school that said something like, “If you don’t pay your tuition now, we will kick you out!” Having been out in the world long enough to think I had to handle everything on my own, I didn’t realize that the best option would have been to go to the Financial Aid Office and ask for help. Instead, I put my first year’s tuition on my credit card. Nope, not just a semester – the whole damn year. Duh.

Me on campus, Autumn 2004

Turns out, I didn’t get to live on student loans like I had assumed. (You know, there are a lot of assumptions to overcome when a person is the first one in her family to go to college) Turns out, there is a cap on how much a student can borrow. Turns out, owning a home is reflected as wealth when the Financial Aid Office crunches your numbers. Though I had a $1600 a month mortgage payment, the house was considered an asset, and thus reduced my ability to borrow.

My first bout with poverty struck, and it was a blow.

My spending continued to be outrageous, but I wasn’t getting much pleasure out of it. I ate Ramen noodles, but forked out the dough to purchase cross-country flights to continue my relationship with my daughter and to make my California court dates. (Still battling family law two years down the line. Little advice – never attempt to reorganize a family in California) I continued paying my attorney. I had to spend on basic upkeep of the home, landscaping, maintenance, snow removal, public transportation passes, and school books are expensive, even when you buy them used.

Needless to say, I began chopping away at my retirement account, which had recently made it above $100 thousand, but wasn’t destined to remain above. I was selling stocks to pay off credit cards. It just didn’t seem right.

It actually REALLY wasn’t right, as my financial advisor told me later. But… how does a girl learn good lessons without some pain?

the house we hope to remain in

Chapter 1

Buoyed in part by the courage of a couple in LA who have made their foreclosure worries public (as well as the fact that, despite the financial shambles they find themselves in, they remain happy and in love), I have decided to come clean publicly too.

Just reading Stephanie Walker’s blog has reassured me. No, everything is not all worked out, and no, we don’t exactly know what we’ll do and whether our home will be stable… but yes, everything is going to be ok. Well, hey, the Internet is not a place I feel comfortable telling this story, but the fact is that no matter how or where the story is told, it’s simply an uncomfortable story. Maybe one person who reads this will feel a little bit more courage in their own life, and the chance for that result makes this effort worth it for me. Here goes.

How do decent people get themselves into a mess like this?

It’s just not in my personality to blame others when I’m having a hard time. Deep inside, I maintain full awareness that I got myownself here. It was not speculators and hedge funds and risky assets that turned toxic… it was me. We made gigantic mistakes that any idiot could have identified.

Our future success was dependent upon these things occurring simultaneously: a) I would find a job immediately after graduating with my master’s degree, b) both of us would retain our full-time employment at all times, c) real estate would never lose value.

Since then, of course, we’ve readjusted our definition of success. And like Stephanie and Bob, we have also redefined happiness. It has much less to do with jobs, credit union balances, and real estate value than we had assumed.

But in order to catch up to that epiphany…. I need to back up and start closer to the beginning. Since my life today was shaped by every moment since I was born, it would be most accurate to go back to January 9, 1970, around 7:26 pm, Pacific Time. Neither of us has time to read all that, so I won’t. However, I still need to back up several years to set the stage properly.

1)      Stuck against a ridiculous glass ceiling and dragging my single mom butt through rotating shiftwork in my job as a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service, I decided to leave the job in 2003. Life was like a roller coaster that year. I got married, had surgery for a partial hysterectomy, accepted an invitation to attend University of California Berkeley, went to France for the honeymoon, sold my home that I LOVED for a huge profit and moved into a teensy apartment so that I could be ready to hit the road the moment I was able to go. My husband moved on to Berkeley to begin his PhD and to wait for me.

About right then, my whole world went wonky. I didn’t begin to recover until 2009. Which is recent. Which means I am not yet well.

Listen to this: The guy I married dumped me on our one-year wedding anniversary in February of 2004. Two days later a beloved friend of ours died at age 24. That same weekend, California courts said that if I chose to leave town to go to a University then they would award primary custody of my daughter to her recovering crack addict father.

(Can you hear the brakes of life skreeeettching to a halt?!)

2)      So, I enrolled in a local community college to earn an Associate in Science and an Associate in Arts while I dedicated myself full time to the insane California Family Law court system and to being the parent I had always wanted to be, but couldn’t previously, because of the rotating shift work inherent to the field of weather forecasting. I bagged the Berkeley idea because I no longer wanted to be anywhere near that guy. I accepted an invitation to attend Brandeis University instead, which was about as far away from all the misery of California as I could get. And then I asked for a one-year deferred enrollment so that I could work out my personal life and decide whether or not to move to Boston. Bite Me, California Family Law Courts: I will take charge of this despite you!

(Keep in mind I’m leaving all the details about personal life catastrophe out, but there are CHAPTERS I could write on what it was like to live through that. My intent is only to set the stage for financial meltdown.)

wealth

The veggies are still exploding with growth. It’s too much for our small family of three to eat on our own, and we are “forced” to give much away.

It makes me feel rich. And spoiled. We pull in heaps of dark red tomatoes several times a week. I’m plucking deep red and yellow peppers off the bush. Watching the watermelon and pumpkin mature.  Tossing fresh basil into the stir fry just because we can. Best of all, my daughter has been given no holds barred permission to eat whatever she wants from the garden, whenever she wants, so she does.

I am very grateful for the beauty and wealth in my modest, little slice of life.

When we first bought the house in 2008

We’ve had so much fun on a little landscaping project here that I wanted to show you our progress.

We live in one of those Portland homes that sits on a hill above the sidewalk. Ours is a rather steep hill, and it makes sense that the previous owners were happy to leave the hillside covered with invasive ivy. And leave it for oh, say, twenty years or so.

ugly & overwhelming

I spent many days last summer becoming overwhelmed with happy, healthy ivy. We live in the city, and we don’t have a truck. We get one trashcan-sized “yard waste” container, which is emptied for us once every two weeks. Last summer I had a continual pile of wilting ivy. Before all of the trimmed ivy could be picked up, I would need to trim again.

needs trimming

post-trimming

Mark remains unemployed and keeps looking for stuff he can do that keeps him occupied and doesn’t cost much money. We have decided that one good thing about the rotten economy is that our ivy is gone. Mark did all the most grueling hard labor parts while I was at work.

This stuff covered the entire hill from end to end and was 4 feet deep. The roots were well established. He quickly learned that clipping each ivy branch would take too long. He borrowed a chainsaw from The Uncles and chainsawed the stuff level to the dirt. That took two days. The next step was to pull out the roots, which was the worst.

Tara and I periodically helped. It turned out to be an easier job than we imagined, despite the hot and dirty work. The neighbors have been telling us horror stories about how difficult their own ivy removal projects were. They regaled us with tales of injuries and requisite, expensive, ivy-killing chemicals, and sheets of black plastic, which must cover the ground for a year before anything else can be done with the property. We used the elbow grease method, and it was pretty effective. If exhausting.

conquest of the ivy root!

We were left with MOUNTAINS of ivy and roots and no clear plan of what to do with it all. Mark started yanking stuff out in a frenzy when Mom planned a trip here, in hopes of using her truck to make a couple dump runs. We managed one trip, but Mark had wiped out his body pulling roots for a week, and was too spent to do more.

By the time I had a weekend free and Mark was rested, Mom was gone again. So we left our piles of roots until one day a neighbor that we hadn’t met yet stopped by. They live kitty-corner from us across 86th and Morrison. She asked if we would like to borrow their truck. Mark said it would be great if they parked the truck out front. Then we could load it and take it to the dump, put some gas in and give it back to them. We were very excited.

ahhh, dirt sans ivy

The next day, Mark looked out the window in time to see the elderly couple finishing the job and driving off. Tara and I baked them corn muffins and took them over the next day. The man told me his named is spelled with only one O. (“It’s Bob, not Boob,” his wife explained.) He is retired Air Force and between him and Gigi (also at 86th and Morrison) who has completed her active duty but remains in the AF Reserve, they’ve been calling it “Air Force Corner.” They were thrilled to hear I am also an Air Force veteran. Bob is 90 and Louise is 86 and they are amazing. I can’t believe they would load up all those roots themselves. But they insisted that’s what neighbors do, and besides, says Bob, “We get the SENILE discount at the dump!”

I thought at first it would be ok to leave the hillsides of dirt. We can’t afford to landscape now, but maybe next year. My plans were changed because it turns out that I live with an 11-year-old, who has 11-year-old friends. Bare dirt hillsides are a great place to play. As the days went by, the dirt spread farther across the sidewalks. I would hand rakes and brooms to the kids and tell them to put it back, and they did a pretty good job. However, I began to think it could be a long warm season if it required hollering at kids to clean up the dirt every few days.

Mark working hard to prep for a wall

We did a little research on wall-building bricks and found the least expensive and most reusable (in case we change our minds). For only $112 we purchased enough bricks to build a bit of a wall to keep the dirt off the sidewalk. Home Depot (which is about 1 mile from the house) rented us a truck, loaded the bricks on with a forklift, and within two hours we had a pile of bricks in front of the house and a bit of eager excitement to get to work again.

Mark began by digging a trench for me. Pretty soon the neighbors came out of the woodwork. Everybody had to comment. People we had never seen before. They would walk their dogs on this side of the street in order to be close enough to give advice, critique, or ask questions.

materiel

A couple driving by stopped their car. “We live in the house with the deer on the porch.” I knew the house, but thought it was a funny way to say hello. The old man continued, “You know, most people put in three levels and terrace it.”

“Yes, we plan to put in three levels as well. But we can’t afford it. We will only do a little bit till we save up our money again.”

“Ok, well, some people put a couple of different levels.” He persisted.

“Thanks for letting us know!” I answered cheerfully.

our wall

“And that wall would probably look better if it were a little higher,” he added.

“I think you’re right,” I agreed.

He then took a good, long look at the other side of the stairs, where we weren’t done pulling out roots yet. “You should do both sides though.”

“Yes, sir. We plan to. Like I said, we can’t afford all that right now.”

“Well, ok,” he says in a friendly way. “Nice to have you in the neighborhood!”

If you build it, neighbors will come

Perry, an elderly Chinese guy on the other side of us, got home from work and came right over. “You use dirt? I have the dirt?”

“Sure, Perry, take what you need!”

Twenty minutes later, Perry’s brother David comes down the sidewalk in a work shirt and gloves and a sun hat. “I take dirt. Perry no have wheelbarrow. Ok I take dirt?”

“Knock yourself out, David!”

“I’m sorry? Knock?”

“Yes, take the dirt!” (I couldn’t help but smile) Perry came over soon after. Mark shoveled it out of the hillside, while Perry, David, and I filled the wheelbarrow over and over.

Anyway, you get the picture. It’s been a real neighborhood affair with the ivy and the dirt and the wall.

With the trench dug, I nabbed a couple of levels and started to work. I carefully leveled the 12 inch bricks front to back, and leveled them side to side, and leveled them according to the brick before. Mark finally commented after awhile, “This job is perfect for you.”  I think it was a polite way to call me anal-retentive. The first row took about an hour. My excessive leveling paid off because the next three rows took twenty minutes.

cleaning up after I finished the wall

We pulled down the dirt to fill against the wall, and realized that prime planting real estate had just been created. We’ve been talking about a garden, but were discouraged because the only real yard space we have is in the back, which is always shady and damp. The front is in full blasting sunlight all day long. Viola! Vegetable garden.

tomatoes, hens, chicks

We have cherry tomatoes, regular sized tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, yellow peppers, zucchini, cilantro, chard, carrots and beets. Of course, very few of each because there is only one row of dirt (unlike those other people who put in three levels…) We had a bunch of neglected strawberry plants under the brush in the back yard, which had produced one berry last year. We dug them all up and brought them out front. We thought with love, sun, regular watering and some fertilizer, we might coax them to make more. I built a shelf of dirt at the top of the hill because I thought ripe strawberries at sidewalk level might be TOO tempting to people walking by. The berries can only be reached from the top of the yard.

beet sprouts

In an attempt to keep the dirt from slipping between cracks in the walls, I have planted Hens and Chicks all along the wall. Rich said, “Those things will just spread!” “That’s what I want.” “No, they’ll spread all over.” “Well, if there are too many, I can pull them out.” Neighbors.

As you can see, the other side is not yet done. But Mark is still unemployed, so I imagine that will be taken care of soon! If you stop by, we will be happy to share.

Happy dance

it snowed a little more last night

Hey! No more apologies from this girl for not having a snow worthy of note. This is a snow that would get even New Englanders excited. Day NINE campers, and this baby hasn’t given us a break yet.

Only, might I please say once again, that Portland is just not set up for this kind of winter. If the city even owns plows at all… they are either at the airport, or in emergency centers, or at the very least downtown. We saw a news clip of guys with shovels sitting in the back of a city truck heaped with sand. The truck drove slowly, and the guys shoveled grit onto the snowy street. There are not even enough sand spreaders here!

brooms are not the tools we need right now

The airport is totally shut down. Well, basically. 90% of their flights appear to be cancelled. I can’t believe parts of the city are still functioning. But it is! Good on ya, mates!

My supervisor called me last night to say that work would be opening at 10:00am. I checked the federal website this morning (http://oregonfeb.us/) and it told me what I expected to see: Department of Veterans Affairs Benefits Office – closed. Yipes. So glad I didn’t have to get out there and try to hustle myself to work. Moseying around in the snow for fun is one thing, but it would bite to be trying to get to work on time this morning.

Cookie girl is the smart one

Yahoo TriMet! You guys are the champs! Still, busses are getting stuck in snow, even on their snow routes. It’s certainly a noteworthy storm.

Our kitty Pumkin, whom we affectionately call “Big O” has finally decided that it’s yucky out. He’s got a case of cabin fever which actually is worse than ours. He tries going out every hour or so….but can’t find a good route. The snow is now much deeper than him. I tried to shovel him a path to get underneath some hedges, but that’s not exactly what he’s looking for.

snow girlie

No one owns snow shovels, so we’ve been shoveling with heavy old metal dirt shovels. and BROOMS! We’ve been clearing snow with brooms. And when it’s freakin’ 15 inches deep, that’s simply ridiculous.

We’ve decided we’ve been trapped in the house too long. We are going to head out this evening. We’ll bundle up and take whatever busses might arive, and go downtown and take photos of the Made In Oregon sign in the snow. We’ll find a coffee shop open and check out the lights downtown and just soak up the feeling of EVENT, you know? When storms happen, people get a little giddy.

People have been bringing food and helping out travelers stranded in Union Station, and stranded at the airport. That is really lovely. My daughter and I baked piles of cookies because that’s what you do at Christmas. But we don’t need them all. She suggested we take them downtown and give them to homeless people.

remember back when this was impressive?

It’s an excellent idea – which will help us get them out of here. Maybe we’ll pack our backpacks with cookies tonight, and hand them out in town. Where I work, there are so many people who sleep on the streets. I can’t imagine how they’ve survived this week. It must be horrible.

OK, well that’s the current news from Lake Woebegone– um, I mean from snowy East Portland. Love and smiles!

shoveling a path to the cars with a regular metal shovel

Big O surveying his domain yesterday

One of my many guises

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