I moved to Portland in 1997 for heroin and art. A total Gus Van Sant cliché.
I had traveled from Florida to Indiana the year prior, but not beyond the Midwest. I daydreamed about living on the West Coast since I can remember. I equated the Best Coast with music, literature, art, counter-culture…and opiates.
Four of us piled into Rick’s beat-up sports car and trekked 3000 miles at the onset of the new year. Rick and Tyler-the-Square rotated the driver’s seat. January—my best friend at the time—went with me, even though she had a broken pelvis from a recent car accident. Her and I smoked copious amounts of dirt weed in the back seat and admired the bayous, mountains, deserts, and forests that rolled on.
January shared my enthusiasm to try Portland dope. Back then, neither of us were dopesick, but we were definitely dope fiends. I was also an art fiend and was eager to implant myself in the center of the country’s hidden mecca for creatives.
The drive took us three or four days. My only vivid memory of the journey was from when I was drunk, although I don’t recall how we got alcohol when we were all minors. We pulled over in the desert at dusk. I pissed on dusty rocks, and a bearded dragon bolted across the dirt in front of me.
I vaguely recall we also stopped in Dallas, Texas, where we shoplifted food and makeup, and January almost got us caught.
We were on our way to Rick’s mom’s house in Oak Grove, a suburb that was an hour bus ride and about 10 miles away from the city of Portland. She said the four of us could stay there. I ended up living in the same house when I returned to Portland the last time in 2009, after I lived back home in Florida for four years.
Lindsay’s house seemed promising, at first. The perpetually full, stank kitchen sink needed a desperate makeover, so I went to work. The least I could do as a gesture of gratitude for the hospitality. These people were absolute slobs, but I didn’t mind as long as I had a place to sleep. I scrubbed the dishes, even after meals that weren’t mine. If I didn’t, they’d all be crawling with maggots again. I tried hard not to complain and stayed constantly helpful instead.
After only living at Lindsay’s for about a month, I came home to January screaming at Rick and Lindsay. I still have no idea what happened, but I’m pretty sure it involved January wielding a knife. I apologized profusely and begged Lindsay to let me stay, ready to throw January out the window myself for ruining my laborious efforts to keep a roof over our heads. Lindsay drunkenly refused but agreed to let us keep our bags there until we figured something else out, but only if I hauled January out right away.
January doesn’t even remember how she got us kicked out, but recently said she was bored and wanted to go downtown for drugs. Honestly, I never got over her asinine impulsivity that cost us our safety net.
She was right, though. We had been in the Portland area for a month and still had not mainlined any of this allegedly legendary West Coast heroin that had us traverse one end of the country to the other. We hopped on a bus and went downtown, determined to finally score.
I think I shot heroin in Portland up to three times, total, although I only recall one time, with January and this dude Perry. He suggested we rob an apartment building’s storage basement in Northwest Portland, pawn the goods, and then use the cash to get more dope.
I was a druggie and a thief but had never burglarized a home. I had shoplifted beyond count from stores, but never robbed a person. We lifted a small television, a VCR, and whatever else we thought would pay us. We dropped the loot next to a cot under a window. We cooked tar in spoons, then shot ourselves up. Not too long after, cops busted into the storage basement. A cop flipped up the cot and found our needles under it because that’s where Perry hid them. I blurted, “What the hell, Perry? That’s not what you should do with needles,” and I think it won me points with the cop. Another cop descended the stairs and locked Perry in cuffs. January and I told the cop dealing with us our ages: 16 and 17. He let us go. We ran for blocks. I threw up all over myself. Tiny invisible fists wrung my guts. I had shot China White heroin, morphine, Dilaudid, Demerol, and Diazepam before and none of it had ever made me so sick to my stomach. I usually threw up once in the beginning; if the China White was stronger than usual, it was twice. I have no idea how much I puked the last time I shot Portland tar, but it was more than twice. I got so ill, I quit dope altogether. That was also the last and only time I’d ever give burglary a go.
My first week as a homeless teen downtown turned me into a skillful criminal. Perry was an initiator into street-drug culture. He taught us all kinds of crimes to help us survive. He instructed us to pick up Nordstrom receipts from streets around the Square and steal the listed items to return for cash. I tried it a couple of times, but the anxiety and paranoia strangled my mind too much for it to be worth the agony.
Living on the streets for the first winter outside of Florida damn near froze me to death. I drank beer to stay warm, not to get drunk. January and I slept in stoops, alcoves, and parking garages. We rode the Max light rail as far as it would go in both directions so we could sleep and stay warm. We’d meet young adults with their own apartments. We’d smoke lots of Oregon weed in locally-crafted, intricate, and often corny bongs to the worst music on the planet: Phish and Dave Matthews Band. I honestly preferred the grim streets over enduring West Coast hippies, but January always talked me into it.
We survived on daily full-meal feedings at various parks and churches listed in Street Roots. We spare-changed in the bus mall and on busy corners downtown. Half the time, I bought books, records, or fancy journals with the money. I didn’t have a drug habit anymore, but I did have a media addiction. The plethora of everything I loved was so abundantly available. I no longer had to mostly mail order music or hunt for literature. Cool shit surrounded me, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to consume.
January resented me more and more for giving up dope and all drugs except the occasional weed. I found out when she tackled me in the middle of SW Morrison next to Starbucks. “Fucking traitor!” she said, then she smashed right into me. She must’ve been high because I didn’t go down. I pushed her off . She swung; I ducked. I let her berate me about quitting junk, how she hated me, and that our friendship was officially over so I can “go be a goody two shoes” without her. We were done.
Around the same time January ended our friendship, a cafe/art collective/music venue called Thee O on West Burnside, which was the X-Ray and is now Liberation Street Church, took me in. My new friends there gave me a chance to volunteer at the cafe. I cooked and served rice and beans during the day and staffed the door at night. My creative friends there helped me get off the streets and into music and performance art. My closest friend at the time taught me to use my volunteer experience at the cafe to get a job. I ended up working at Taco Bell on Sandy Boulevard, which led to me renting a room in a punk house with a drummer who played shows at Thee O, who I happened to know from Lake Worth, Florida. All of these kindhearted people helped me get off the streets within a few months.
My new dadaist and anarchist friends also encouraged me to put together performance art for Smegma and A-Nat-Hema, play the Roland SH-101 on stage for an experimental noise collaboration with Jennifer Robin, DJ on KBOO, and roadie for the punk band Yankee Wuss around the entire U.S.
I shed my street skin for an armor of self-actualization. I went from My Own Private Portland to Finding Subculture, and became my own damn director.
This essay originally appeared in Exotic Magazine, August 2017.