Irvington Neighborhood Yard Sale 2014

unofficial garage sale sign, Irvington neighborhood

This weekend was the 11th Annual Irvington Neighborhood Yard Sale, a Saturday-only sale with 34 official homes participating—meaning those families had paid a small fee in support of the Irvington School PTA—and also a few nonofficial participants who weren't included on the map but held piggyback sales. The sale ran from 9-4, with maps available at the local Peet's and Starbuck's, as well as at most of the houses themselves.

Bus 17 dropped me off a block away from Peet's around 8:45 AM, a little early, so I walked into the coffee shop, snagged a map, and treated myself to a large cup of decaf, taking the huge mug outside to sit on a wooden bench, plan our route, and wait for my friend Jeff. I kept watching people jumping out of their cars and running into Peet's, coming back out with their maps, and speeding off, as if it were a race.

Irvington butterfly bush

Because there were only 34 listings, the Irvington sale seemed much more manageable than Eastmoreland's, which is over four times larger. Sipping coffee on my bench, I circled words in the descriptions like bikes, art, antiques, vintage, and furniture, ignoring toys and kids; and on the map I colored in the bubbles of those sales that seemed especially promising. The thing about garage sales, though, is that no matter how much planning you do based on sale descriptions, you just never know—you might find something great at a sale you least expect, or vice versa. That's the joy of the hunt.

Jeff called and said he was on his way, so I used the café's restroom (no Porta Potties at Irvington, just restrooms at Peet's and Starbuck's or other nearby retailers) and then headed up NE 15th Avenue on foot.

cat on gray porch, Irvington neighborhood

At my first house of the day, I spotted a black short-sleeved summer blouse in a rack of clothes, unlabeled and so possibly handmade but well sewn, most likely from raw silk, maybe blended with linen. There were no prices or signs on the clothes, so I asked the twenty-something guy manning the driveway (for his mother, he said) for the price. He said to make an offer, suggesting their bathroom if I wanted to try something on. I handed over two dollars for the blouse and we chatted briefly about the World Cup Brazil game he was watching sheepishly on his phone.

sample Irvington yard sale tents, with parked Vespa

Jeff met up with me after only a couple of houses, and at his first house we walked straight into a moving sale and followed signs right up the front stairs and on into the house, finding a woman sitting on a sofa, saying, "Everything in these two front rooms is for sale"—even the couch she was sitting on and the coffee table she was selling gluten-free cookies from. Now that her children were grown, she and her husband were downsizing, having just sold the house, and soon would be moving into an apartment a few blocks away as renters. "But we're debt-free," she said, raising her arms above her head in victory. Across from her was a long pristine mid-century modular teak desk/bookcase with moveable shelving that they were currently using as a flat-screen TV stand, and which had been her parents'. She was asking $3,000 for it (!), claiming that was its worth online, though she was open to offers. Jeff and I kept giving each other eyebrows because though it was indeed a beautiful vintage piece, it was nowhere near worth that much at local retail, especially at a garage sale where people expect cheap deals. So instead Jeff bought a set of three MCM teak nesting tables at a much saner price, post-bargaining; he'll need to refinish them, but they have great lines. He carried them out to his Jeep, and we started walking north and west.

Irvington garage sale sign, reused

LEGO collection, Irvington Neighborhood Yard Sale 2014

vintage air-mail letter paper, Irvington Yard Sale 2014

On the west side of Irvington on NE 7th Avenue, Jeff found a vintage green-upholstered office chair in great shape for a low price to resell at his shop space at Hawthorne Vintage. Giddy, he treated me to a yummy 25-cent chocolate-chip cookie sold by yet more cute kids. We arranged to pick up the chair later and kept walking.

tiny-house yard decor, with marigolds, Irvington

Nearby at a different house, I discovered a silver diamond-patterned cuff bracelet lying by itself on a table with assorted other things, small enough to fit my child-sized wrists, and stamped .925 (meaning real sterling silver) on the inside of the bracelet, though the price was only 50 cents. Shocked, I didn't even plan to haggle for so little. But as I was pulling out my change purse, Jeff handed over a 50-cent piece from the 1970's to the woman, who said, "Wow, I feel lucky." I thanked them both for the gift, pulled off the price sticker, and slid the cuff onto my wrist, wearing it the rest of the day, feeling rather lucky myself.

rusty antique bike, Irvington Yard Sale 2014

At one house, I considered a Finnish women's bike, but it wasn't what I was looking for. (I'm seeking a vintage 54 cm men's 10-speed road bike with a dropped handlebar, preferably by Univega or Peugeot, if anyone local has one to sell.)

Picking up a compact vintage bathroom scale at another house, I was about to make an offer but quickly put it down and got out the hand sanitizer after Jeff said it was probably all rusty from sitting next to a toilet and getting urinated on for decades. Yuck. (I sometimes forget how gross men's bathrooms are from them standing up to pee because in my home growing up and when I was married, the males of the house sat down. Bathrooms stay much cleaner that way.)

old stove and trunk, Irvington Yard Sale 2014

In any case, the Irvington sale map was a good one, a large street grid with numbered bubbles on one page and accompanying numbered descriptions on the other. I did find later in the day during use that the bubble placements were slightly confusing compared to the more precise, hand-drawn dots on Eastmoreland's map, but that's a minor quibble from user error where I somehow got turned around and mixed up on a couple of east-side streets I was less familiar with.

But unlike last weekend at Eastmoreland, this time I remembered to cross off houses we'd seen. We ended up tracing an almost circular route shaped like Pac-Man, now that I think about it. We hit all but two of the mapped sales, including a few extras, skipping the last two houses in the southeast corner of the map only because we both really needed a toilet after six hours.

On the way back to Peet's, we ran across a woman standing in her garage by the sidewalk, announcing she was tired after selling all day and just about ready to make a Goodwill run. Three teachers, we chatted a while about the profession, and then Jeff bought her parents' partial set of vintage Dansk dinner and bread plates for half the asking price, plates he'll keep for himself to replace some lesser quality dinnerware. (I collect Heath Ceramics, while he collects Dansk.) So that was a mutual win since he got new plates and she got rid of another box of unwanted stuff.

unknown flower, Irvington

Feet tired, we headed home at three o'clock, after Jeff picked up the office chair. Prices overall were lower at the Irvington sale than at Laurelhurst's or Eastmoreland's. One of the Irvington sellers even brought that up herself, saying Laurelhurst's prices this year were much too high and not real garage-sale pricing.

But what most surprised me at this sale, compared to Eastmoreland's and Laurelhurst's, were how few people were actually walking the sale. Aside from a few groups of walkers like us, most everyone else was screeching up to a location and pouring out of the car. Though they did their shopping much faster—all done and disappeared by lunchtime—they also used up a lot of gas (even those in Priuses) and avoided the excuse for hours of fresh air, strolling around one of the loveliest neighborhoods in Portland, whose large old trees shade fancy historic houses with trimmed yards full of flowers and greenery. I much prefer yard sale-ing on foot, even if less efficient, because you see and feel more that way—and walking is the best exercise, what human legs are meant for.

Little Free Library box, Irvington

Oh, and for the record, like Eastmoreland, Irvington has its own Little Free Library, though according to the Post-it note on the door, it's lately been the object of wholesale theft: "Somebody has decided to empty out the LFL on a regular basis—kindly stop." Tsk-tsk. Maybe that's why a long time ago citizens formed public libraries stocked with librarians, anti-theft devices, and (downtown, at least) uniformed guards. But people can dream, right?

Mediterranean-style apartment building with potted red geraniums, Irvington

old columned Irvington house

vintage car in lush Irvington driveway

Irvington was my favorite neighborhood sale so far this year, even though I didn't buy much—only a shirt and a cup of Peet's coffee. It wasn't a hot day. The six hours of walking were unhurried, the views lush, the neighborhood quiet, traffic scarce on most streets, conversation pleasant, the day relaxing and full of the kind of small, unexpected, in-the-moment pleasures that make me feel most happy and glad to be alive. And though vendors had prepared themselves with tents and tarps at hand, it didn't even rain much (the forecast had been 50-50), except for a little afternoon mist and one short cloudburst. Plus, the overcast sky was actually better for photography. Visually, Irvington is one of the most romantic neighborhoods in Portland—old, lush, green, and secretive.

Positively No Trespassing sign, with roses, Irvington, Portland

I lived near Irvington when I first moved here six-and-a-half years ago and walked through the neighborhood often, to and from the Lloyd Center. Back then I never knew about its group garage sale—or any other neighborhood garage sales, for that matter. And that's something I love about Portland: small as the city is, it keeps surprising me, opening up new adventures like packages just when I'm ready for them.


Eastmoreland Neighborhood Garage Sale 2014

mannequin in sombrero and serape, Eastmoreland 29th Annual Garage Sale

Last weekend was the 29th Annual Eastmoreland Neighborhood Garage Sale, with 144 official participants, bigger even than the previous year. The Eastmoreland Sale is generally held the third weekend of June, running Saturday from 8-5 and Sunday from 10-4, though most of the sales are "S/O" (Saturday only). Most years, one or both days get rained out, but this year both days just happened to be clear and warm—a Portland-in-June weekend weather jackpot. So on Saturday, the big day, I met up with my thrifting buddy, Jeff, who happens to be living temporarily in Eastmoreland, which made this year's sale awfully convenient.

I got to Jeff's place around 8:30 AM by bus. We then set out on foot into the neighborhood, heading downhill, meaning southwest. At one of the first garages we stepped into, I discovered a huge handwoven fur-strip-and-wool pillow, which is so ugly it's beautiful, plush and textural. (I do feel bad for the little animals, but they're already long dead, and presumably the pillow was made from leftover fur-coat scraps, which makes me feel less bad about eating dinner now at the coffee table on top of a pile of woven skins.) There's just something about Eastmoreland and secondhand animal hides, I guess—my own call of the wild. My apartment's starting to look like I've been dating a fur trapper. Anyway, the older man said the pillow was handmade by a friend of his mother's, which begs all kinds of questions. That's all I know about it (though that's a lot more backstory than I ever get at Goodwill). Jeff's mother, herself an eBay seller, met up with us soon after, around 9 AM, so then there were three.

Family Circle magazine cover, July 1949

More couples and families attend these events than individuals because garage-saleing is a social outing, fun for the whole family. One thing I noticed this fourth year of Eastmoreland attendance is that the more people per group, the slower the group. Group members want to stop and look at different things. Jeff and his mom are both much more social than I am and strike up and hold longer conversations with strangers. Plus, people walk at different paces. So while, on the one hand, it was fun having a little group this year for chatting while strolling between houses, we did cover a lot less ground in a group of three than I did on my own last year or in the two previous years walking around with just Jeff. At times I found myself antsy to get moving along already, which is all part of the inevitable negotiation of wants and needs with others. As a result, I would guess we covered only half the sellers, though Jeff claims it was more like three-quarters. (I forgot to bring a highlighter to mark our route as proof.) But that's all something to keep in mind, too—quantity, quality, and striking some kind of balance.

yard sale at artist's studio, Eastmoreland Garage Sale 2014

I'd brought my old-lady shopping cart but left it back at Jeff's place since it's a pain to push around on bumpy sidewalks, noisy and awkward going over curbs, and hard to turn and negotiate in tight spaces or on stairs. Having a drop-off point back at the house over near Reed College for the fur pillow, for example, helped save a ton of time, compared to my solo venture last year, when I lost a few hours of the sale by having to tote purchases home on the bus halfway through. Most people, though, can just use their parked cars as a moveable drop-off point. 

Reed College Place, Eastmoreland Garage Sale 2014

This, however, was the first year organizers put up a PDF map on the Neighborhood Association Web site—go Eastmoreland!—an improvement over previous years, only I'm not sure when the map was actually made available for download. It appears from their public Facebook posts that it didn't go up till early Saturday morning. Having access to the map ahead of the sale allows you to read descriptions of sale items per house and plan accordingly. Viewing the map the morning of the sale doesn't leave much time for planning. I suspect sale organizers want to try to fit in as many participants as possible on the map, and maybe this also makes things more democratic, so professional resellers can't scoop up all the best items. I didn't see a cut-off application date on the site for sellers, but presumably there would be one because the paper maps need to be printed and made available at certain houses ahead of time. I snatched a map off a table right away and started taking notes with my new pen.

children's clothes on lawn, Eastmoreland Garage Sale 2014

One big tip I've forgotten to mention in previous garage sale posts is that unless you're in the market for kid stuff, you can usually skip the houses with children's clothes and plastic toys sitting out front, easily spotted by masses of pink and primary colors. Parents of young kids don't usually have money or time for anything else (even in Eastmoreland). So typically a yard selling kid stuff is only selling kid-related stuff. So unless you want children's items—and upscale garage sales are great places for barely used children's clothes, books, and toys—avoid the houses with kid stuff. (This is basically a natural yard-sale law.)

toy sale, Eastmoreland Garage Sale 2014

I was tempted by a forest-green-with-orange-diamonds Pendleton Beaver State wool blanket at one house, but the sellers were asking a firm $65. I overheard them tell a potential customer the blanket was new, when it actually looked a bit pilly around the edges. Moving on. . . .

fern bench

modern-day milkman

Around midday we ran into a friendly sales guy dressed in a white milkman costume—with a retro hat and printed hoodie, shouldering a sample insulated bag—taking orders for a new delivery company, Local Farmers Delivery, which delivers locally produced Alpenrose dairy, Franz bread, Pacific Almond milk, fresh eggs, Portland Roasting coffee, and more. The fact that Western-staple perishables like milk, eggs, and bread once arrived magically on one's doorstep is a convenience that explains the contemporary success of Amazon. Since the milkman business was killed off by mass car ownership, it's fascinating that grocery delivery has lately reincarnated itself via the Internet as a modern convenience for busy American middle-class professionals. (There's actually an old delivery box between my apartment entryway and the exterior hallway that once presumably held polished shoes, fresh milk bottles, postal packages, and whatnot in the tiny unfinished room now all locked up tight on the hallway side for safety, made deliberately defunct by the landlord.)

oldest house in Eastmoreland, 3814 SE Martins Street

But the highlight of the sale for me was following a big sign on SE 39th Avenue in mid-afternoon and then walking around a tall hedge and into the enclosed yard of the oldest house in Eastmoreland, a large multi-story white house with a curved front porch on top of the hill, which presumably used to overlook farmland—a local fiefdom. The house is now owned by a pleasant woman who used to operate the Eastmoreland Market, which all came out in conversation with Jeff, since he noticed she was selling restaurant equipment alongside a slew of antiques and old costumes. He spotted a vintage rimmed Heath bowl on one of her tables and offered to let me have it, but since I have plenty of bowls and not enough plates, I let him take it, though I did the bargaining. Why she didn't sell the bowl on eBay or Etsy instead for a lot more money, I don't know (other than avoiding more hassle), but Jeff was grateful, and the bowl's in good hands.

atypical Eastmoreland home

For the record, sellers tend to start packing things up around three, well ahead of the five o'clock wrap-up, most buyers having already begun to trickle away at lunchtime. The sale is definitely an early-bird sort of event, although afternoon is usually when the sun comes out in Portland (if it does), making things all rosy and warm. Carrying one's shopping over to Sunday is also an option, except that only about a quarter of the houses set up again on Sunday, which means Saturday is really it for the sale (and a bummer on years like 2012 when Saturday gets rained out).

vintage turquoise Lincoln Continental

Here was this year's haul on my end:

$40.00 large handwoven fur-strip-and-wool pillow
    2.00 large framed, signed black-and-white food photograph (of patterned squash)
    1.00 two like-new Italian canning jars (.5- & 1.5-liter)
    1.00 pair of small wooden salt cellars (gift)
      .25 weak lemonade (passed off on Jeff)
      .50 vintage Hall Mack Hide A Line indoor retractable clothes line
      .10 five vintage wire screw-in hat-and-coat hooks
      .10 large 3" loose-leaf book ring  
$44.95 total

Eastmoreland, I suspect, is still the biggest and best yard sale in Portland, though I have started branching out this year to test that hypothesis. The Eastmoreland Sale is well organized, and the map, as always, is actually a map, with participating houses numbered and described. There are Porta Potties readily available down at Duniway School and lots of little food and drink stands manned by adorable children, like the two young girls who admitted that no, they didn't make the cookies themselves but, wait!, they did stir up the (packaged) lemonade. The only real issue I had with this sale is that it's just so big, with so many participants, that it's virtually impossible to see all the houses in one day—by car, maybe, on foot, no.

We took only a short lunch break in the two-o'clock hour back at the friend's house, but then used up most of the hours from three to five picking up and loading into his trailer all the mid-century furniture and other vintage items Jeff had bought. And he bought a lot: a vintage glass-topped metal dining set from a former architect who walked with a cane and offered free career advice on the benefits of self-employment; a teak dining table with three non-matching vintage 1970's dining chairs; a rolling Coleman Igloo cooler; a red vintage jerry can; a vintage turntable; a cheese wheel; a small aluminum café table; a vintage Sony radio; a large rectangular vintage beveled mirror; a vintage Irish mohair plaid blanket; a woven basket; and a vintage Heath Ceramics bowl. A few of those things he's keeping for himself, but most will be resold. The teak dining table, for example, has already been refinished and sold over at his shop space at Hawthorne Vintage, delivered to a customer this afternoon, in fact.

tub of free 1940's magazines, Eastmoreland Garage Sale

The concept of a neighborhood yard sale is simple and brilliant. Instead of individuals wasting gas and time driving around town every summer weekend to a bunch of isolated garage sales all across town, about 30 years ago Portlanders realized that banding together per neighborhood could provide bigger rewards for both sellers and buyers by offering more goods for more buyers all at once. Sellers pay a fee to their neighborhood association on sign-up and in return get free marketing and a yard sign. (Similarly, many antique or vintage shops lease along the same street or even the same block, sending each other customers looking for something specific and giving niche buyers more to choose from.) As a result, I almost never do garage or estate sales the old way, where you mark off a route on a map by way of ads in the newspaper or on Craigslist. That takes up too much precious weekend time. Far superior is the neighborhood yard/garage/rummage sale, especially when it all happens over a single month of Saturdays. It's one more way Americans are realizing that some things are just more efficient and fun when done in community. 

How many neighborhood association-hosted annual garage sales does Portland, Oregon, have? Know of others? Let me know, and I'll add them to the list!

Hollywood Annual Neighborhood Clean-up (5/17/14, Sa 9-3, Archbishop Howard School parking lot)

Sumner (5th annual: 6/7/14, Sa 9-dusk, 7 homes)

Laurelhurst (29th annual: 6/14/14, Sa 9-3, 130 homes)

Maywood Park (27th annual: 6/13-15/14, Fri-Sa 9-4/Su 9-2, 40 homes)

Eastmoreland (29th annual: 6/21-22/14, Sa 8-5/Su 10-4, 144 homes)

Irvington (11th annual: 6/28/14, Sa 9-4, 30 homes)

Sabin (6/28/14, Sa)

Overlook (4th annual: 7/19/14, Sa, 50 homes, free share at curb on Su 7/20)

Roseway (7/19/14, Sa)

Sullivan's Gulch (7/19/14, Sa)

Concordia (16th annual: 7/25-27/14, Fri-Su, 75 homes?)

Kenton (2nd annual: 9/6/14, Sa)


Cross pens, old and new

Cross Classic Century pens: vintage 12k gold-plated & new chrome-plated

When my maternal grandfather died, I somehow ended up with his gold-filled Cross pen, which was probably a retirement gift because I don't remember ever seeing him use it. My notes say, "Grandpa's Cross pen: 1970, 12kt gold-filled #6602 (needs refill)." He had worked as a power company lineman and so was more of a working-class gentleman pottering around the yard in his retirement uniform of long-sleeved plaid shirts, green khakis, work boots, fedora, and chamois-leather work gloves—not a gold-pen-in-business-suit-pocket kind of guy. I remember my slender, white-haired, balding-on-top grandfather, who was sensitive to sun from once being blown off a power pole, using pencils and carrying a shovel, not a gold pen. But still, it was his pen. And now it's mine. And I remember him through the object.

I stopped buying disposable pens years ago. In fact, one day I gave away all my cheap plastic ballpoints to Goodwill, hand-me-down pens, promotional pens, pens I never wanted in the first place and somehow had inadvertently collected. I had enough cheap plastic pens in a drawer, organized, most of them blue, to last a lifetime. But I figured, Life is too short for cheap pens. I did keep one red pen for editing and two Uni-ball gel pens, one gold, one silver, for gift-packaging. The handful of Japanese fine-point Uni-ball Vision roller ball pens I've been slowly using up and then throwing away, husks for the landfill. (I like pens that create thick, dark black lines, which probably means I shouldn't ever be using a ballpoint at all.) So instead I have just three pens (aside from the special-occasion red, silver, and gold ones): the Uni-ball and two reusables, an inexpensive stainless-steel Zebra F-301 ballpoint and my grandfather's gold Cross. I carry the Uni-ball with me in my purse because it's capped, while the Zebra is a clicker that could start scribbling all by itself inside my accessories bag, and because the Cross pen's sentimental value means I wouldn't want to lose it, toting it around. But I'm on my last of those nonrefillable Uni-balls. So I needed a new travel pen.

But good pens are not things I find when thrifting, though I do occasionally come across brand-new ballpoint refill packages at Goodwill. One does find packages of cheap ballpoints like those I myself gave away, but that's about it, other than once when I found an unused vintage pencil-and-pen set from the 1960's, steel and blue plastic in its original box, then given away as a gift.

Because a private-clinic student had given me a gift card several months ago, I figured I could either save that $20 for future copy-paper or printer-ink needs (how boring and unsentimental!) or I could buy a travel pen that would evoke memories of that student, a sunny-faced middle-schooler. So one day after dropping a bunch of unwanted stuff off at Goodwill and selling some books at Powell's, I walked down to Office Depot and asked to see their Cross pens. An older clerk pulled out a plastic tub from under the counter, and when I said I specifically wanted a Cross Classic Century pen in chrome (having looked all this up ahead of time online), he helped me dig for it saying, "Ah yes, the pen everyone gives graduates." There was only one left, it being June. I said it was a shame that everything was made in China these days, and he said, "Yes, especially this pen."

new Cross Classic Century chrome pen with logo

You see, Cross is an American company founded in 1846, the first American writing implement company and one that later challenged European domination of the world pen market for decades. The Classic Century is their mid-century anniversary design from 1946, which currently comes in a range of finishes and prices from low-end chrome plate to chrome-and-gold to sterling silver to 10k, 14k, and even 18-karat gold—if a person happened to want a ballpoint pen costing $2,625. Most pen designs nowadays are fat instead of slim, but I dislike feeling like I'm five years old and writing with a chubby crayon. I'd rather have a classic, sleek modernist design with history (even if Cross is now owned by a private equity investment company based in New York). Cross pens still come with a lifetime warranty.

vintage gold Cross pen logo

vintage gold Cross Classic Century pen circa 1970, made in USA

Unfortunately, though my grandfather's gold pen was made in the U.S., the current Cross crop is made in China, like everything else these days. My new chrome-plated Cross pen feels solid enough but less weighty than my grandfather's gold pen; and though gold, of course, weighs more, that by itself doesn't explain its smoother, quieter retracting twist compared to the new Chinese-made pen. The Amazon reviews of this design all essentially say, This is a good pen, but it used to be even better.

new Cross Classic Century chrome-plated pen with box, made in China

But who uses pens anymore, anyway? Everyone these days uses a touchscreen for notes except the older generations, and even they no longer send letters but e-mails. I've seen comments online to this effect: Who needs pens anymore? Like paper, pens seem to be going the way of typewriters: quaint technology collected and used only by antiquarians. Most people write with pens so infrequently now that even a cheap one lasts years. No wonder Cross had business troubles and moved production to China in the 2000's, though, still, as yet another loss for American manufacturing, this makes me sad—the end of the fedora, the end of the pen—unless we bring them back.


two cents, or thoughts on wages

U.S. penny backs, old versus new*

I've been thinking a lot about money lately, or rather that it seems I never have enough. And before you roll your eyes or label me greedy or lazy or inept, let me just state I have a full-time job making less than I made when I was 27 (which wasn't a high-paying job), even though between then and now I earned a master's degree. For two years, I've had near-12-hour days most weeks, leaving at 6:45 AM and getting home between 6:15 and 6:45 PM, depending on traffic or train delays or whether I get off the train early and walk a bit longer after sitting on my rump all day as required by the job. I live downtown but work in the suburbs in two different locations, one of which is actually in another state. I don't eat out or go to movies in theaters. I don't use credit cards. I buy most everything secondhand. I attend free cultural events like book readings and museum nights and concerts in the park, nothing with a fee. I pay for basic cable I don't watch, only because the bundle is cheaper than Internet alone. I never travel anymore. I read library books instead of buying them. In fact, I practice most of the tricks suggested by simple-living proponents like Vicki Robin and Janet Luhrs who argue for thoughtful life choices, reuse, saving instead of spending, and scaling back lifestyles, and I'm still not getting ahead. In fact, I'm barely getting by. Something is wrong with this picture. And it isn't just me.

Portland City Hall vegetable garden

For the record, if a person doesn't have enough money in the bank to cover emergency expenses for six months, she is considered living paycheck-to-paycheck as one of the "working poor." Over three-quarters (76%) of Americans are living this way, so I'm certainly not alone. We are not all over-spenders, however, or debtors. So why should a well educated person like myself working full-time be poor at all and able to save very little each month? Back in my late 20s, I owned a used car; now I can't afford a car at all. Back then, I paid more in Bay Area rent than I do now on Portland rent, but food, gas, health care, and utilities are more expensive than fifteen years ago, and with the state of the California drought, food and other prices are only going to spike.

yellow Julia Child hybrid tea rose, South Park Blocks, Portland

ladybug on yellow Julia Child hybrid tea rose, South Park Blocks, Portland

ladybug hunting aphids on Julia Child hybrid tea rose, South Park Blocks, Portland

For thirty-five years, the American middle class has been shrinking, turning poor, their economic gains swallowed up by the robber barons at the top who have a larger percentage of the income pie than at any time since 1927. Prices on almost everything are rising (other than clothing, toys, and electronics, which are essentially built to self-destruct in planned obsolescence)—inflation has been rising—racing with paycheck raises, which are barely keeping up. And if you aren't feeling the pinch, well good for you, but that means you aren't paying attention. Take a longer view of economic history.

red rose garden with bronze Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider statue, South Park Blocks, Portland

Consider this. My parents earned high-school diplomas with mediocre grades. My father liked sports and my mother liked boys with nice cars. Neither considered college—they didn't need to. My mother had taken secretarial courses in typing and shorthand in high school and so began working as a secretary (the human word processors of their day) even before graduation. At age 18 in the mid-1960s, she paid cash for her first car, a VW Karmann Ghia, which she threw everything she owned into the back of before driving down to the Bay Area to make her mark. She found her own apartment, with no roommate, and drove her own paid-for car, all on a secretary's wages, with enough left over to buy a closetful of matching new dresses and kitten heels in colors like pumpkin, lemon, and watermelon. She dated, dined out, driving back and forth on the freeways past the South Bay orange groves that no longer exist. Within a couple years, she'd become a secretary at IBM.

Meanwhile, my father, who'd grown up in San Jose but wasn't quite talented enough for professional sports, took a job in the mail room at IBM, where his mother worked as an executive secretary. IBM was not where my parents met, however; they happened to be living across the street from each other. My mother washed her car in the driveway while watching him shoot hoops over in his driveway. I imagine there was a lot of bending over hoods and such. "He had," she said, "a nice back" (as if this were something to found a marriage on).

Their marriage lasted 14 years, but back when they moderately liked each other, before kids, before she moved everyone back to her small Oregon hometown to live next door to her parents, they bought a brand-new ranch house in San Jose. My father drove a baby-blue, paid-for Mustang that matched his eyes. By then, they were still only in their early 20s. On a personal level, the rumbles and tremors and cracks in the foundation of the marriage had already begun, had existed from the beginning, but monetarily they were doing fine. They even took road trips to Mexico with my grandparents. My paternal grandmother, the IBM executive secretary, bought a vacation cabin in the Sierra Nevadas, a second home. It was altogether a different age, and that leveling of wealth is long over. If my parents had stayed in California, their no-frills, no-swimming-pool, cookie-cutter 1960s ranch house would now easily be worth a million dollars. But so what? The point is that in their early 20s with minimal education, my parents could afford to pay cash for new cars, new clothes, and a new house in the heart of Silicon Valley by working as a secretary and a mail clerk. How times have changed.

designer birdhouse, Cultural District, Portland

By contrast, today my close friends all have master's degrees, if not Ph.D.s or a B.S. from Berkeley. The few friends I have who actually own houses have large mortgages they'll be paying off for 30 years. Typically, they were also helped out with the down payment by their baby boomer parents, either as a loan or a gift. Both spouses must work to maintain a bare middle-class lifestyle. They usually share a single car. They pay half a salary for day care alone. And they don't take fancy foreign vacations. Yet most of my other friends, a larger portion, only wish they were lucky enough to strap on a 30-year mortgage, being single, underemployed or precariously employed, and often living with roommates to share expenses.

Obviously, if my close friends and I had serious aptitude for number crunching or computer coding as accountants or engineers rather than being artist types, the story would be different. Those good with numbers tend to have plenty of houses and cars, good salaries, plenty of savings, retirement accounts. My friend Jeff, a fellow English major and former high school teacher, has several friends from high school with mere bachelor's degrees who are now making between $100-200,000 a year over at companies like Intel as engineers and programmers. But as I've written about before, some of us aren't naturally good with numbers and instead have other talents like writing, teaching, wood-working, or handyman skills. Should we not be able to afford a lower-middle-class lifestyle and instead be forever impoverished, unable to buy a home or support a family? Single-income lifestyles are also very different from double-income lifestyles these days, I can assure you from personal experience as I watched my standard of living plummet after my Web engineer husband took off with his comparatively fat income. Surely my well educated and underemployed friends and I are not the only people facing such issues.

Many comments to articles I've read about scaling down expenses to save money are full of self-righteousness, like Well, I can save money easily. Everyone else could, too, if only they weren't so lazy and entitled, too good to flip burgers. This blames the victim rather than spotlighting crucial social factors—low wages combined with rising costs—impeding the ability to save money and plan for the future rather than living paycheck-to-paycheck. Educated people shouldn't have to flip burgers, by the way. That's why they went to college. They have other skills that should be useful to civilization.

blonde mannequin robot hawking mattresses at Glen Echo and McLoughlin

I've also had well paid people in computer-industry jobs tell me, "Oh, but teaching must be so rewarding." Well, teaching is inherently rewarding; it feels good to help people learn and grow, but it's also frustrating as hell at times, and why should working in private education mean I don't get to buy a house unless I have a working spouse, but you can afford one on your own salary? Why do I, who am more educated than most people, have to remain poor just because I work in education? We can all comfort ourselves with the truism that Life isn't fair, but that isn't the whole story. Society isn't built to be fair. That's the whole point of capitalism. Socioeconomic factors are firmly at play, creating vast disparities in wealth that many people don't want to face because that would mean making large changes to the system—and change is scary. Real change disrupts the status quo. But I've been offering up anecdotes, which can't be trusted, so here are some more facts.

Although people in low-wage jobs are "far more" educated than they were in 1968, the Federal minimum wage is 23% less (adjusted for inflation), despite productivity having more than doubled (see also: family anecdote above). Corporate profits and productivity are way up, but wages haven't kept up over the years, so inflation has negatively affected standard of living for all but the top social classes. This is exactly why a socialist politician in Seattle, Kshama Sawant, recently led a successful $15 minimum wage campaign, despite having to bend by spreading the increase over seven years (by which point inflation will likely have eaten up much of the increase). The $15-wage idea, if not yet the implementation, has been spreading to other left-leaning places like San Francisco and Portland. To put this into a more global perspective, Switzerland recently considered but rejected a $25 minimum wage, though some businesses began voluntarily offering that wage increase because of the union-led campaign. Australia's minimum wage is $16.37 an hour and rising. Even the International Monetary Fund is now arguing the U.S. must raise its ultra-low minimum wage or growth will suffer. Let me repeat: even the IMF says we have a wage problem. Chew on that.

blonde mannequin robot with mattress sale signs, side view

To return to the personal—ever yoked to the political—my medical doctor advises that I need a different job, one that doesn't require twelve-hour days while paid for only eight, one that allows more time for exercise, for mindfulness (meditation), for performing random acts of kindness, for more sleep—for a less-stressed heart and a healthier life. Mind you, that's my doctor talking. What I want even more than money is time.

One of the key takeaways from Your Money or Your Life is that "money is life energy," the amount of life given up to accrue that handful of green bills or the stuff bought with it. It's a dilemma because everyone must make enough money to cover expenses with some left over for savings. I do need a job making more money, money to sock away for emergencies, for insurance, for travel, for possible (though unlikely) future retirement. But I also need more time in my day and weeks to create a fulfilled, contented life.

planter pansies, downtown Portland

I left a roommate situation last summer that was making me miserable after four years in favor of living alone, but solitude has come with the price of flat-lined savings. I'd been starting to see my savings jump right after giving up the car when still with the roommate, but now that amount is instead going directly to the apartment, a small one-bedroom in an old, worn building, nothing fancy, nothing extravagant. The one-bedroom was chosen instead of a studio in the same building because the studio had even less light, light being crucial to health and mood in an overcast climate. (The one-bedroom doesn't cost much more per month than the studio, anyway.)

And it's not the living downtown per se that's the issue, either. Living downtown in an older building is no more expensive than similar apartments in other parts of Portland, as many falsely assume. When I was apartment hunting last June, prices for apartments were the same regardless of neighborhood, unless a person moves out to the farthest suburbs of the metro area, meaning Gresham or Hillsboro, which is the opposite of a compact walking lifestyle. (I recently learned an acquaintance just bought a condo in Gresham for $60,000. I didn't know any real estate in Portland was that cheap, but then it's also way out in Gresham, so there's the rub.)

The problem is that without a roommate or live-in partner, I'm paying well beyond the recommended 30% of my income on housing (rent plus utilities), which is a budget no-no. Yet this is the reality for many Americans these days as rents are up and availability down for affordable units across the country. But that's exactly why I gave up the car: to live alone. I love living alone. And I love living downtown: everything's within walking distance here in the city core. I can stumble upon social events I'd never have known about if living farther out. Plus, daily walking is good for you. Cars aren't. Neither are long commutes on a train or bus. But I'm not saving money. And I have very little time to myself for anything other than eating and sleeping and showering and cooking and cleaning up and prepping a lunch for the next workday, meaning the bare minimum. It doesn't feel most weeks like much of a life, only survival—unsustainable.

strolling guitarists, South Park Blocks

To better my mood, I've been trying to get out more, like attending free cultural events after long workdays, attending the Rose Festival, going summer garage sale-ing. It helps, but it's not enough.

So this week I've taken off work, unpaid, for a real breather between my two-job school year and before the back-to-back client summer schedule starts up next week and continues till September, at which point school starts again. This is my one summer vacation—a staycation, rather—but mainly it's a calculated chunk of time to start a serious job hunt. I either need to land a different second job by September—which was my choice, an individual statement of protest against the insanity of daily commuting for two-and-a-half hours between home and two different job locations—or else an entirely different full-time job downtown, doing administration—modern secretary work—for someplace like an insurance or legal office, where I could at least walk to work. Guess which choice I'd prefer? Good-bye, teaching. And since more of those silly dancing sign-holding jobs on busy suburban intersections are being taken over by busty blonde mannequin robots who work for free and never complain about working conditions, that's at least one job I won't bother applying for. They're already taken.

mannequin robot worker, SE McLoughlin

*Is it just me or does the latest design for the back of the U.S. penny, which I only recently noticed after picking up a stray penny off my apartment stairwell—since nobody bothers to pick up worthless pennies anymore—remind you of a police shield filled with prison bars, sign of the growing police state?

Are you or your family better off financially than five years ago? What about compared to 10, 20, 30 years ago?


recipe: Spanish-style baked rice

baked rice with salad on thrifted Heath Ceramics

Since the weather's been mostly gray and wet in Portland this June after being quite summery in May, I've been cooking more wintry things again lately, using the stovetop and oven to help boost the heat level in the apartment without actually turning on the heat: miso soup, mushroom pizza eaten with undressed baby kale, a casserole. I was a child of the 1970's and '80's, so I know casseroles—giant rectangular Pyrex meals busy women or their preteen children could whip together in a jiffy, things involving canned soups, frozen potatoes, and ground beef. Casseroles are true comfort food: baked savory, melty goodness.

But the only real casserole I make today in my contemporary childless working life is one my great-aunt Mary made for me when I was a houseguest sixteen years ago. I suppose it may have been one of those What do I serve a vegetarian? moments, but she was rather casual about the simple meal: baked rice with a salad. She cooked easily, naturally, like her mother, like my grandmother, like my own mother. We ate at the round oak kitchen table, she and I, plus her quiet fourth husband. It was a tasty dish, so I asked for the recipe. I have no idea where she'd gotten it from, probably some magazine or cookbook. (It was she, after all, who passed along to me her hardcover copy of Anna Thomas' classic Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two.)

pre-baked rice ingredients in thrifted Le Creuset casserole

Over the years, I've tweaked the recipe a bit. It's always taken longer to bake than the stated time and also needs more water than called for to avoid crunchy-rice syndrome (ick). Adding a can of chickpeas, for example, boosts the protein level up to main-dish status. One could omit the cheese to make it vegan (but why?) or skip the beans and use it as a side dish to accompany a chicken breast or something meaty. Black olives can substitute for green, if desired. The spices and herbs are flexible, too, according to preference. I now chop the onion instead of slicing it, so the onion cooks more and better stays on the fork. I'll add garlic sometimes. I add cumin if using garbanzos. I often dice the cheese instead of shredding it to save on dishes. And if my green olives aren't stuffed with pimiento, I might chop up a little canned roasted red pepper. It'll work, regardless.

Aunt Mary's Spanish-Style Baked Rice

1 cup brown rice, rinsed
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 can (14.5-oz or more) diced tomatoes
1 medium onion, sliced or chopped
1 or 2 cloves garlic, chopped (optional)
2/3 cup green (or black) olives, sliced
1 can garbanzo beans (optional)
1 cup shredded or finely diced cheese, such as cheddar or Jarlsberg
1/4 cup olive oil (or less)
spices and herbs to taste (e.g., dried mixed Italian herbs, cumin, red pepper flakes) 
salt and cracked pepper

Add the oil to the casserole first, swirling it around to coat the dish. Then mix in the other ingredients. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit with lid on for an hour, taking the lid off for the remaining half hour or forty-five minutes of cooking. (The original recipe calls for 30 minutes covered and 45 minutes uncovered.) When done, the water will have absorbed into the rice, the rice will be tender, and the top layer will have some color. Let it rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4-6 as a main dish.

Spanish-style baked rice in green Le Creuset pot

(If anyone knows the original recipe source or can link to a similar version, do let me know.)

What's your favorite casserole?


repaired Birkenstocks

Birkenstock Hunter Brown leather Gizeh sandals, footbed replaced

Here I go again about shoes, but I really do have trouble finding walkable, sexy footwear that doesn't punish my feet. And the Birkenstock Gizeh sandal works for that, as far as the word "sexy" can be used in the same sentence as "Birkenstock." Gizehs, like most Birkenstock styles, look like something Roman gladiators might have worn, but we all know from movies that gladiators were hot (if male). Regardless, at least my Gizehs, purchased through Zappos four years ago, don't give me blisters. They've been my default sandal ever since. They've even gone camping in the mountains and survived long walks in the rain. I also own a pair of comfortable, classic tan Greek-made leather toe-ring sandals purchased like-new last summer from Goodwill for $5 that are walkable and don't give blisters (which I'm prone to) but offer less arch support. But other than a pair of clunky Keens for outdoor sports, that's it for my entire sandal collection, which means I've been wearing these Gizehs out.

cracked Birkenstock Gizeh sandals

So this spring, when I hauled my Birkentstocks out of the closet and wore them a few times on warm days, I found that the cork-jute-suede-and-latex footbed had started to crack in one place at the inner side of both shoes, while the crack in my right shoe was actually rubbing into my skin, creating a red sore, which is why I noticed the cork cracks in the first place. So I figured I'd have to fork over another $120 for a new pair. Consider that $120 divided by 4 is only $30 a year. (By the way, I know people who'd never spend that much on a pair of shoes, but cheap shoes fall apart quickly and aren't worth repair costs, meaning they'll cost more in the long run, replacement after replacement.)

worn Birkenstock Gizeh sandals needing repair

But Birkenstock is no longer making the dark Hunter Brown leather version from four years ago and has also been experimenting with bright rubber soles. (Ugh.) There's an oiled leather version available, but oiled leather reminds me of motorcycle boots, and who wants to think about boots in the heat of summer? Plus, there's no dark brown anymore, only a range of medium browns. I prefer the dark brown because it can almost pass as black, which makes it more versatile. Birko-Flor synthetic fabric versions come in a wider range of colors for $90, but I didn't want a half-vegan sandal, though the black patent, silver metallic, and red shades are cute.

What to do? Then I remembered reading that Birkenstock footbeds can be repaired or even replaced. A little googling uncovered a local repair source also serving the wider online market: Footwise, a family-owned Oregon shoe store specializing in Birkenstocks with locations in Corvallis, Eugene, Hood River, and Portland. Footwise and their online Birkenstock-only store, Birkenstock Express, offer a range of Birkenstock repair options at different price points. Mine needed a total footbed replacement, though the leather uppers were fine. So one weekend I walked into the Footwise shop on NE Broadway, dropped off my sandals, paid $75, and picked up a half-new pair of Gizehs two weekends later.

Birkenstock Gizeh sandals, repaired

This is what made in Germany looks like, folks, and I couldn't be happier with my decision. More of us should be choosing repair over replacement whenever possible for environmental reasons and to support local businesses—but first by purchasing items even capable of repair. This might mean paying more upfront for a green product made by an ecologically friendly European company than for a cheap Asian-made knockoff, but that choice will prove worth it in the long run. Earth's resources are finite while population is expanding exponentially. Remember the long run.

For those who've never owned a pair of Birkenstocks before, do buy the narrow version unless you have extra-wide feet (I've since revised my opinion on this and support the regular size for most people) and also go with the original footbed rather than the soft footbed unless you have ultra-high or flat arches. Reading scores of reviews on Zappos revealed those tips, which I'm passing along.

And if you're still on the fence about buying "hippie shoes," Birkenstock sandals appear to be making a fashion comeback—or so say fashion editors every summer—particularly the classic, fugly Arizona design, but I'm not interested in trends revisited from the grunge era. I'll keep wearing my resoled Gizehs—gladiator shoes made for walking. Now, time for some red nail polish!

Update 11/2016: The brown leather Gizehs looked and felt just like new after the repair, but after about a year, the glue came unstuck from one side where the leather attaches to the side of the cork footbed. Grrr. It doesn't affect functionality and isn't even that noticeable but annoys me. I would just take them back to that same local shop, complain nicely, and have that part re-glued (a much cheaper repair than a resole) except that I've since realized I shouldn't be wearing the narrow size at all because my feet have widened since I was younger. So next summer, I'll probably go talk to Footwise about whether it's possible to have those narrow uppers attached to a regular/wide footbed, rather than the narrow one. If so, I'll pay for a new footbed again, though I'm hoping they'll knock the price down because of the glue problem. (I did also buy a pair of black leather Gizehs in the regular/wide footbed, and they fit better, but I wear more brown in the summer, so I'd like to keep the brown ones operational.)

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