TOUR Day 9 - Portland and The Past / by Sophie Johnson

Portland felt like an emotional hotbed. We set up for the show at the Hawthorne Theatre (which we were sharing with like twelve metal bands on the other side of the building). In high school, I liked to ride the bus to this stretch of Hawthorne and go vintage clothing shopping; I would sit at the Oasis Cafe and eat pizza and watch people who were older and cooler than me pass by. That was heaven. I would look at the shows on the Hawthorne Theatre marquee and imagine what kind of music they played. (Based on what I learned about the Hawthorne last night, they were probably all metal bands. Exclusively metal. But it was fun to imagine that maybe sometimes a little twee band with a ukelele called “Dig My Way To Hell” might be taking the stage.)

When I looked out at the audience during my standup set, here is who I saw sitting in the nearest booth: My mom, my oldest best friend (we met in eighth grade and were inseparable for all of high school), my first boyfriend (it lasted a year and a half and we were sixteen-seventeen-almost-eighteen), and my sister (with her new boyfriend). It is very unusual, at this point in my life, to be in the company of a bunch of people who have known me for more than a decade. I guess that’s why people have high school reunions: because it’s a total mind-fuck and you gotta take every opportunity to get those.

Eli (the first boyfriend, who went up on stage to do an Air Sex routine as “The First Boyfriend”) sat and talked with me before anyone got there. I had this funny moment of recognition, then: it felt like we’d had that conversation before, when we were first getting to know each other. (“So what do you do?” “Blah blah blah blah blah. But what about you?” “Your thing is cool! Here is my thing!” “Your thing is cool!” Etc.) He was a whole new person, but at the same time Eli is relatively unchanged since we were seventeen: still simultaneously nervous and confident; still really into comic books; still wearing hats. 

On a Saturday in 2004, I went on a run with Ben Stevens (my second boyfriend; naturally, Eli did not like him very  much), and I remember very distinctly asking him which of our friends he thought he would still know in ten years. I remember exactly where we were: it was the shady low dip on Terwilliger, just as the trees start to get serious, just as the moss begins to creep onto the perpetually-damp sidewalk. He said he had no idea who he would be friends with in ten years. I told him I would still be friends with him. He said, “Oh yeah, well, I mean, you, obviously.” (Good catch, Ben. We are still close friends, for those keeping track.) I also thought I would still be friends with Jessica. I did not know who else I would still be friends with. I remember saying that if I was still close with him and Jessica, I would feel like I had done pretty well.

Today, I could not live farther away from Terwilliger Avenue than I do now. Well, I guess that’s not true. Geographically, it’s not true at ALL: there’s India, for example; and China; and, you know, thousands of other far-away places. I guess what I mean is that I never would have imagined — not in a MILLION YEARS — that I would ever live anywhere even close to New Orleans. Seriously: I would have guessed India or China first. When I moved to New Orleans, I didn’t know anyone at all. Now the people I know there are people I count among my chosen family. I do wonder, from time time, who I will still know ten years from now.

When Jessica and I hung out for the first time, we were 13. My mom picked her up in the family Volvo. She was so happy that I had a friend my age whom I had not met on the Internet, and she was willing to drive places to encourage it. After we got to my house, Jessica and I walked to the Fred Meyer grocery store with $10 in our pocket (that’s a lot when you’re 13), and bought pretzels, M&Ms, gummy bears, and chocolate chips. We baked pancake-sized cookies that contained all four of those things. They were inedible, but we were best friends after that. Last night, Jessica (whose taste in style is still the same: subtle red lipstick, long and loose braids, interesting secret jewelry) looked me in the eyes and told me she loved me, and I cried. 

I guess you don’t get to decide where you will be in ten years. You don’t even really get to decide where you will be in ten minutes. But ghosts certainly exist; in the teeth of the people you’ve loved, in the ancient glimmer that turns up towards the corners of a person's eyes that might look familiar even amidst all the reinventions. 

We are driving through the back roads of Washington right now to avoid a traffic accident. Cell phone reception is in and out. Ten years ago, I would sneak out to this area to make out with this boy I’d met at an indie rock concert. He called me on my birthday last year. He still called me “kid.”

It’s not so hard to be present when you’re in unfamiliar territory. You look at something new and take it in and chart it on your brain as The Thing That Is Happening Right Now. It’s not so hard to remain calm, either, when things stagnate and repeat: This Same Thing Every Day. It’s more complicated when you are with ghosts: when you have to look right in the eyes of the way things were, and you inherently wonder where they will go.

This all felt overwhelming as I walked out to the Portland waterfront this morning and took in the intersection of the water with the tented food festival with the Saturday Market with the Sunday afternoon protest for Gaza. I decided I would just be still. The Gaza people, wearing all white, walked past me carrying signs naming the dead. In chalk behind me, someone had written “1900 Lives. They Had Dreams.” The protestors were in good spirits, though, and even THAT felt familiar. My politics are Portland-grown, and I’ve been to lots of rallies like this. You don’t go because you think the world will change: you go to acknowledge the truth, and to hold vigil. You go to be a part of a community that believes in a better world. You go in lieu of church. In Portland, the rallies ARE the church.

I wept for Gaza. It felt pathetic and selfish and small, but it was all I really had just then. I took the people’s flyers, I nodded at the displays. The world is big and small at once. “The people of Gaza cannot leave. There is no safety. Homes, schools, emergency civilian shelters, hospitals, ambulances — all have been targeted by Israel.” Ghosts exist. And when I walked away, I signed the petition, as if to say, “I feel very human right now. I wish to stand on the side of humanity."