I don’t know how it was for all of y’all, but this is how it was for me.
THAT Summer. Portland, Oregon. First year of the Pandemic.
You know there’s something wrong with your living situation when you’ve had a Go Bag packed since May. And not in case of forest fires.
There were red flags much earlier. But I let my roommate stay on, because I didn’t think I could get through quarantine alone. For almost two months, he was the only person that I saw IRL, other than supermarket cashiers. We were close.
“She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge / She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College”
We watched movies together. He cooked for me.
We were friends. I thought.
I wanted to collaborate creatively. Specifically, I wanted to produce a parody radio play about being poor in Portland during the pandemic. I wrote the scripts for two six-minute episodes. The characters were diverse and multiracial. In retrospect the whole concept seems kind of hokey but at the time I thought it might bring people together and jolt middle-class listeners out of their bubble — give them greater empathy for people who’d just had the economic roof cave in on them.
I needed his sound editing skills to turn the scripts into something listenable. We recorded a run-through on my cell phone, but my friend lost interest when I wanted to bring in more voice actors than just the two of us. My Fred Armisen he was not.
That was all before George Floyd’s death. Poverty took a back seat to race then in the national dialogue, as maybe it should. It’s not for me to say.
This is not a victim narrative.
This is not a victim narrative because nothing particularly bad happened to me. Sure, I got groped. Yes, he had angry outbursts. Yes, I slept with my bedroom door locked every night. But I doubt I experienced anything worse during those first few months than your average day as a waitress at Hooter’s.
More to the point, I always had the option to leave. Not great options, sure. No health insurance on the East Coast and it would have been career suicide. But these are better choices than so many women have, who are in so much worse situations. Better choices than a shelter or a tent. There is no comparison.
“If you called your Dad he could stop it all, yeah / Never live like common people”
When it was clear that I wasn’t interested, something shifted between us. Quarantine had eased up by then. He stopped spending time at the apartment. He barely spoke to me. He paid a few hundred dollars each month to help cover expenses. It felt like a more typical roommate dynamic. Except I couldn’t get him to leave.
In the summer of 2020 in Portland calling the cops on a Black man was absolutely not an option. I wasn’t happy with the situation. I knew things would deteriorate when I started dating someone new. But until about a week ago, I didn’t have the cushion to cover staying at a hotel until it all got sorted out. So I smiled and made nice. I figured it was better to stay nominally friends and take his money than force a disruptive confrontation I could not win.
This is not a narrative to absolve or justify my actions.
I had always felt confident that he wouldn’t hit me or rape me. Until a certain Monday morning. He was mad because I went into his room after he left for work and stopped a video from rendering. I thought he just left Internet radio on. The sound was driving me nuts. In the past, this was the kind of conflict that would blow over, but not this time. When he held the apartment door shut on me for several minutes so that I couldn’t get inside, the rules changed.
Luckily, no violence. I got a restraining order, but he left of his own accord before it was served. When we came back this Friday afternoon we had no idea what to expect. But he was gone, and he’d cleaned out his stuff. Took my HD video camera with him. As far as I am concerned, he is welcome to it.
Locks have been changed. Police never had to show.
A bunch of people have told me I don’t need to feel sorry for him but it’s not that simple. I caught him lying to me multiple times. I also know that he cared for me. I had Thanksgiving dinner at his mother’s house a year ago. He believed in my business and my artwork, at least early on. Not that many people did. He wanted to be a part of it.
I remember working on my laptop at a club in Buckman on a Tuesday night last summer, while his friends performed. I felt like a boss — more hip and underground than Neo in the first scene of Matrix. I am glad he is out of my life but truly sorry that it had to end this way.
I don’t think he wanted to live here past June or July. He just didn’t have a better option. That’s what poverty does. It erases freedom and control.
“You will never understand / How it feels to live your life / With no meaning or control / And with nowhere left to go”
He worked full time at UPS as a package handler. Made $15 an hour. Only job he could get with a high school diploma. It didn’t go far, and it was murder on his body. He put everything he had into his music and his films.
White guilt is toxic and embarrassing.
I don’t have a lot of it, because I’ve spent much of my life under the poverty line. To some extent that was by choice. When you don’t have children or other dependents, you can go out on a limb financially. You can follow your dreams. You can travel. You can try a new career and see what shakes out.
What’s that you say? Entitlement?
The nonprofit gig I have right now comes solely through a personal connection. The funny thing is, I didn’t meet my friend in boarding school or at my elite Northeastern liberal arts college. I met her at a party thrown by a friend I made at the People’s Pint in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He worked at the local food co-op, as did his roommate. He had a college diploma. His roommate was a high school dropout.
That was more than a decade ago. It sort of boggles the mind.
That town was super unusual because it was a place where you could make $11 an hour and sort of get by. A lot of serious money settled around the Pioneer Valley, precisely because it wasn’t the Hamptons or Northeast Harbor. They could blend. My joke was always that you could go to the local bar and have a millionaire sitting on one side of you and a bum on the other side, and not know which was which. That town was one of the least class-segregated places I have ever encountered. Bohemians ruled the roost. Very different from Boston, or for that matter Portland, Oregon.
I don’t know where my roommate is right now, but the ease with which he was able to move suggests that he will be ok. He was only spending about four nights a week at my place the last two months — wouldn’t tell me where he was the rest of the time.
As a white woman, it’s very hard to know how to engage in the battle for racial justice. We are told all the time that we need to be silent and fall back. That the most valuable contribution we can make is our financial support.
The only problem being, we make only $0.81 for every dollar a man makes. Kind of slims down the margin for altruism.
Over 170 years ago, Abraham Lincoln said the nation could not survive half slave and half free. I would paraphrase to say that our democracy cannot survive with 22 million Americans unemployed and sinking into poverty.
It feels pompous and callous to move from somebody else’s personal misfortune into pontificating about policy issues, but dammit, this is one of those times when the personal is political. If we’d had affordable housing in Portland, or universal basic income, or a better economic safety net, the situation between us never ever ever would have gotten this bad. We stayed in the red zone for months, because financially no one had a better option.
Power dynamics poison a relationship, each and every time.
Unless of course that’s what you’re into.
It’s weird to think no closure. That someone who was part of my life for most of the past two years is now gone forever. I wanted to stay friends. I wanted to find ways to work together. But short of me deciding I wanted to be with him despite the fits of possessive rage or him finding some other woman to focus his attentions on, it wasn’t going to happen.
Incredibly unlikely that you find this post.
If you do find your way here, I hope you’re doing ok. I hope that video camera serves you well.
Some regrets, but plenty of good times too.
Previously published on Medium on November 21, 2020