I've been back in the good old USA for two weeks now, and so far I haven't gone completely broke. Living off the kindness of my friends and whatever cash I could claw out of the Republic of Korea prior to my premature departure has been less stressful than I'd imagined. Part of it is the comfortable surroundings: being back in the old college town, eating at all my favorite places, and luxuriating in the glorious ease of my native language. You can forget yourself in a little "vacation" like this, which is a shame because in a week I will pull up stakes once more and try to get my feet on the ground with my folks in San Diego.
For better or for worse, living in Eugene, Oregon has more or less shaped my understanding of what adulthood is like. That understanding probably includes a lot more sitting around in basement apartments that smell like weed and cats while watching anime than what some other people might pick up. It's certainly included a lot less gainful employment. But eight years in this town have definitely affected my expectations of where I can go and what I can do. Despite growing up in Southern California, and visiting home for Christmas and summer breaks, Eugene has come to feel like a more natural environment.
As I am about to hit the road again, however, I can't help but notice how Eugene has changed in such a short time. When I left Eugene last summer, downtown was undergoing a major phase of gentrification. The area around Kesey square had sprouted new restaurants, brewpubs, and other businesses, often in spaces that had been vacant or under construction for a very long time. I'm a little too politically aware to call this an unambiguously good thing. A cursory glance is enough to tell that "improving the neighborhood" has not solved Eugene's homelessness or unemployment problems. Installing trendy shops and increasing police presence is not the same thing as giving people a place to sleep.
The city's transformation has accelerated since I've been gone. However, I find it hasn't been limited to downtown. More and more apartments for University of Oregon students have popped up in all directions. New construction is everywhere. And amidst all the new business are a few empty units where old businesses died and none have dared to take their place. Eugene is growing, "developing" as some might say, but I wonder how much of it is actually getting "better".
As a young white man with a few dollars in his pocket, Eugene's new face certainly holds attraction for me. Since I took a break from booze, I can't derive quite as much enjoyment from the seemingly dozens of new breweries and beer supply outlets that have seemingly sprung from the very Earth itself. But I have a weakness for the Golden Needles at Townshend's Tea House, and I bought myself a going-away tin today. The new downtown Bijou theater is showing Stop Making Sense this week, and I think I'd be disappointed in myself if I didn't go and see it on the (biggish) screen before I left. The most gentrified areas of Eugene just feel like a pleasure to walk through, more so than they were a few years ago.
But if I take a step back, I see that the charms of the new Eugene don't far exceed the charms of the "old" one. We already had tea shops. We had art theaters. We still have the same embarassment of lush parks and walking/biking trails. More nice things is fine, but where's all the investment that could be going toward finding shelter for the guys in sleeping bags over by Circle K? For that matter, how fares poor Springfield next door?
Like I said, I'm out in a week, at least for a good long while. I can't begin to imagine how little Poway has changed in nine months, but I'll see for myself soon enough. When I find myself in Oregon again, I don't know what I'll find. But I wonder if, as the time passes, the spirit of familiarity that binds me to this place will become unrecognizable.
Maybe it will, but nevertheless I had a very Eugene sort of encounter today. Walking through Kesey square while munching on a wrap from Pita Pit, I was suddenly approached by a man who asked if I were a fan of good poetry. I told him I was, and he offered to compose a poem for me on the spot, in exchange for a little money. It sounded fair to me, so I agreed.
He asked me to come up with four words to get him started. I told him I couldn't really think of any, which wasn't strictly true, but most of the words I was thinking of were sandwich-related and I didn't want to insult him. So he suggested I give him a phrase instead, and the first, most poetic thing that popped in my brain was "the bead on the necklace".
I can tell you, this streetcorner poet was no bullshitter. His flow and his meter were all on point. In a way that I (a fairly terrible improviser at anything) can only marvel at, he unspooled a structure and and loaded it with meaning, as though it were a perfectly natural thing to do. He modified my phrase somewhat into a refrain, and spoke about "the beauty of the bead" as a timeless property, undulled by wear and use.
I couldn't quote any of it to you (I have a bad memory for phrases), but I can tell you the immediate effect it had on me. Bright as it was today, watching this man speak poetry made me feel like I had to take my sunglasses off. I felt painfully aware from the first few lines that I was walling myself off from him by hiding my eyes. And I felt ridiculous for holding a pita wrap in my hand the whole time, but there wasn't much I could do about that.
I didn't know much about this guy. I didn't know his name or where he came from or what he did when he wasn't hanging around downtown in the afternoon. I knew he was black and I was white. I knew he had a passion for poetry. It seemed like he could tell I had more than a passing interest in it too. I knew he was talented, and that he tended to spit a bit at the really emphatic parts. But I didn't really know what to pay him when he was done.
So I opened my wallet, and I ended up settling on four dollars. He smiled and said "thanks man, that'll help me get a slice". Then he walked over to Sizzle Pie to purchase said slice, and I went back to eating my wrap.
I thought about what he and I had in common. We both wrote poetry, but he did it for money: despite my recent financial misfortunes, I was the one in a position to pay him for it. It was an ordinary occurrence for him, but a rare and singular experience for me, the sort of thing a person with no real understanding of how the world works might go home to blog aimlessly about. I'm still trying to work out what exactly I should take away from the experience, how I should handle the memory. It just seems really important to me that I heard spontaneous poetry in Kesey square, addressed directly to me from a poet who wasn't just fucking around.
I think there was something of the spirit of Eugene in that interaction. It was fun, pleasurable, and possibly expanded my consciousness. It certainly made me feel more self-conscious. But it didn't make me any more articulate: even now, all I can really do is point emphatically and insist that it was very, very important that it happened. Only in Eugene.
That's how I started my last week in my second home. Already, I'm apprehensive about leaving it. I don't think I'm done with this town yet, but I can't be sure I'll ever really "live" here again. I just hope I'll carry some of its beauty with me when I leave.