Back from the Plunge. This completely fails to sum it up properly, but it was a really great experience. Needless to say, I learned a lot and made a lot of great new friends. I especially bonded with Sarah (the Plunge coordinator) and Clare (another one of the day leaders), both of whom were closest to me in age. I really enjoyed hanging out with all the kids too: they were all really positive and enthusiastic, especially in my group. We did all kinds of different placements during the week, like cooking and serving lunch in the Clark Center (men’s shelter), weeding in the community gardens at the Oregon Food Bank (we did a lot of weeding this week, it feels like), and working at Sisters of the Road, the downtown cafe on 6th and Burnside that I had heard about but had never visited. I highly recommend it: there’s a really great community atmosphere and the food is good and cheap ($1.25 for a meal and a drink). They have an interesting system where people can get barter points for meals by working at the cafe, so it’s a much different atmosphere but the traditional paternalistic church-charity handout.

I think I did a pretty good job as a leader. Our group name was “The Sensational Six Power Plungers Exclamationpoint!” (in our cheer, I got to say to “Exclamationpoint!”, in a style reminiscent of Kool-Aid Man). I got us lost basically every day (thank you trimet for telling me to “walk southwest” when I have no idea what that means). We also burned everything we cooked for dinner the one night it was our turn to prepare it: the pancakes were black, the hashbrowns were gray (apparently a result if the potatos are wet; my fault for washing them beforehand), and the sausages were raw in the middle. The only thing we didn’t ruin was the soy yoghurt and granola for the vegan girl. We had a great time together, though. There was one afternoon where we all panhandled down by Powell’s and Whole Foods, and this girl from my creative writing class gave us all the change in her pocket. When she saw me holding my little “LEARN TO LOVE BEFORE IT’S MADE ILLEGAL” sign slumped against the wall, she was like “JULIE” and I was like “hey, I graduated from Reed!” because it all seemed a little too complicated to explain right then and there. I’m sure I must have seemed like an excellent epitome of the post-grad lifestyle.

Apart from the small group placements there were some activities that we all did together (25 kids–I mean, students, in total), like a tour around Old Town to see where all the differents services, or our last placement, a visit to the Volunteers of America men’s rehab shelter, where they send men who just got out of prison or rehab and need to learn how to be members of society after spending thirty-forty years being addicted to drugs or a life of crime and so forth. I was pretty nervous about going there because I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of guys there had been sent for prison for certain acts of violence; namely, rape. But it turned out to be the best experience we had all week: we participated in a neighborhood clean-up with the guys, picking up dozens and dozens of cigarette butts off the little side streets stemming off of MLK, and then had a giant BBQ together. It was really fun. I got asked for my number twice so that was a little uhhno. But it was really interesting, getting to spend a day talking to people whom society has basically told us to completely give up on. Everyone I met was really sweet and polite and I enjoyed talking about football and basketball with them. I even got offered a job by the VOA program director, who told me “if you’re thinking about a career in social work, give me a call if or when you get back.” That felt pretty good.

More than anything else, what I really enjoyed during the week was walking and taking the bus around all the Portland neighbors I am so unfamiliar with: all of NE and N Portland, basically. We were staying in St. Francis, the church with the big park on 12th and Oak. I remember hanging out there summer freshman year at the VOZ office but I completely failed to make the connection that it was the same place until I got there. Basically, this was the first time I felt like a Portlander rather than a Reedie, and it was really nice. Also, I know I told everyone beforehand that the point of the Plunge was to “live like a homeless person” but I really need to correct that and apologize for it right now. Basically that was a really offensive statement on my part: it wasn’t a week about trying to “understand” or “know what it’s like” to be homeless or poor or recovering from addiction or mentally ill in Portland, it was more about getting a clearer picture about certain issues that have to do with urban poverty and getting to hear some stories that could be pretty intense at times and meet some people, most who were nice and some who were mean but all who were worthwhile. There are a lot of really lonely people out there…

So it was a very interesting week with a lot of intense conversations but I feel bit deep contemplative-out right now. It was really nice to sleep in a bed last night, and it was great seeing Corey again. We have a lot of packing to do: basically, everything. And so much laundry. And I have to return all those overdue library books. Plus this computer. And e-mail people who aren’t here and see people who are in order to say goodbye. I don’t like goodbyes, I like see-you-laters.

I feel it’s fitting to end with the closing words from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which I used in the group discussion/reflection I had to lead on Thursday, with the theme of social justice:

“My story ends here. It is a fairly trivial story, and I can only hope that it has been interesting in the same way as a travel diary is interesting. I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless. Some days I want to explore that world more thoroughly. I should like to know people like Mario and Paddy and Bill the moocher, not from casual encounters, but intimately; I should like to understand what really goes on in the souls of plongeurs and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty.
Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”

I like beginnings!

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Filed under Portland Plunge, poverty

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