Readers write about Underground


We left them buried in the basement of the old house. Me, I would've taken them along, but D. made his disapproval of my grimy street rubbish very clear. It was one thing to have them sitting on top of the landlord’s pile of old paint cans and another to pack them away in boxes with our coats and linens.

Candlesticks are what you call those white plastic tubes that are screwed into the street to mark a perimeter, such as a separated bike lane. They are not particularly durable, as evidenced by the ease with which drivers routinely busted through them in our neighborhood. Sometimes the wreckage felt intentional, like motorists were playing a game of knocking down bowling pins.

Collecting them happened by impulse. Walking one day, I noticed two of them blocking a lane they had helped buffer just earlier that morning. Once in my hands, setting them back down felt like littering, while trashing them felt like complicity in destroying city property. So they came home with me.

But once I’d taken those, I began to see more, and once I saw them, I couldn’t leave them alone. As the collection grew, I began scheming. Maybe we could stealthily build a lane on a street in need of one. Maybe I would amass so many we could do a kind of art project: a pile of bollards like a pile of bones, representing all the injuries they failed to prevent. But before my little infrastructure graveyard could grow that large, we moved. Our landlord was of the more negligent variety; my guess is that they still live there in the basement.

I had almost wound up in a graveyard myself once, despite all the white paint on the crosswalk and a helmet on my head and the red light telling the driver to wait their turn. What my candlestick collection did, first, was to remind me that I was not alone, by sheer evidence of all the other “near misses” out there. But then, as someone who had often advocated for more bike lanes in cities, it began to do something else. The candlestick pile asked a question: Is this really what we want to build? Bowling pins for SUVs?

Presented like this, the answer seems like an obvious “no.” Who wants to scrap for a tiny piece of public space in which to exist, only to be threatened with death each day nonetheless? No one. But likewise no one, yet, seems to have quite the right answer for changing the public culture of how we live and move together on our streets—how we make room for everyone.

Still the need and desire for new and better answers is there, buried in that old basement.

Meg Wade, Portland


The Sunday Transgender Support Group

The support group met every Sunday in the basement of a coffee shop. I don’t even remember how I first found the group, but I went to almost every single meeting. On any given night I was usually the only man in attendance. Most of the time I was also one of the few under the age of forty except for when one of the other members couldn’t find babysitting. Most of those who attended were regulars; but, once a month or so, a new person would attend, although it was rare for them to come more than once.

We’d meet for an hour. Often less but rarely more. The topics trod the same ground—parents or partners who couldn’t shine to the idea of their loved one wanting to be called “she,” foul looks in public, hormone prescriptions that ran out too soon. Different people, the same problems, give or take a few details.

Sometimes, I’d go upstairs and order a cup of coffee. The baristas were a quiet, all-business bunch, but I’d wonder, regardless, if they were looking at me just a little too long to try and figure out what I was. Being in your early twenties and possessing a heady sense of gender incongruity can do  wonders to cultivate self-consciousness. No one would admit to doing so but if more than one of us went upstairs together, we’d stand apart.

Once, one of the other group members, a fifty-something-year-old woman who’d come out as trans less than a year ago, told me that the coffee shop used to be a funeral parlor. I never asked for specifics or even if it was true. But I was never again fully at ease in that basement, in case a corpse had once been under the site of my metal folding chair.

When the group would part for the day and when our rides had arrived, we’d return to the world above. Rarely would group members leave together. If we saw each other in public, we avoided more than a glance.

Only in the coffee shop basement did we voice what we shared. 

Byron Kimball, Salem


Excavating Grief

When I was twenty, I was three meters under our current ground surface, sitting in a large square with the dead. There I was, hovering over a desk on uneven packed dirt and sketching spindle whorls and shell bangles. And the dead were face up in rows, overlapping each other, next to me. Local elders squatted above and spectated over the square hole, exposing their bright pink gums from betel nut chewing. 

Archaeologists seek the former surface. The locked-up parts of the past are opened, temporarily becoming part of the current landscape, no longer hidden or protected. So vulnerable and fragile, we document, then remove it, leave it in place to be nurtured and visible to all, or hide it underground once again. We mull over how and why we see the unearthed, piecing together what we know and what we want to question about that knowledge. Ultimately, certainty feels like it becomes further away. We will play around with these multiple interpretations for years, even decades to come.

Fifteen years later, when my mother suddenly died, I was transported back to that spot, alone in the middle of an enclosed square, gasping for humid air. I stared at the layers in the walls looking for the signs to outline one scenario, then another, and another. I would stay awake all night running through the options. I mined the few recent photos I had of her for signs of illness. The rings around her eyes were darker: was that a sign her organs were failing? Was it her smudged makeup? Was she just cold in the Portland Christmas breeze after arriving from New Zealand’s summer? I checked emails for all the times she said she was unwell or tired. 

My grief manifested through the same questions that I had used to try to interpret an archaeological context: which lines had support and which ones fell flat? In reality, I wanted it to be random with no prior evidence. Aneurism, something of no fault. It took three months to figure out how to get out of Oregon and back to New Zealand during the first year of Covid. When I got there and found out her death was nothing like that, I felt like I had failed. I had seen all those bodies in the ground, but I never saw my mother’s.

Carmen Sarjeant, Portland


Signing a New Story

On the day our son was scheduled to leave the NICU, a technician entered the room, stuck small electrodes just above his ears, and ran a machine. My wife and I watched green lines zigzag across a screen but could not interpret its meaning. Then, it was finished.

“He failed the hearing screening,” the technician told us. When we asked follow-up questions, the technician went silent, the way that people often do when they become uncomfortable and need an excuse to pass the responsibility onto someone else.

We later received a diagnosis: our son had hearing loss. It was one of the first things we learned about him. Long before learning that he likes to play with cars and dance to the record player, we heard, wrapped up in a medical diagnosis, that his ears did not work like ours. Soon, we were inundated with waves of language meant to shape our understanding of him. We were warned of low reading scores, reminded ears on, brain on, and told to keep his hearing aids in during all waking hours. We were told that he was broken.

Eventually my wife and I rejected this understanding and gave him a new language, literally. We began learning American Sign Language and telling people that our son is Deaf. Instead of a diagnosis, he had a culture. Then, just as simply as a hearing child begins to speak, ours began to sign. It comes so naturally to him, and I wonder what it’s like, to perceive reality through the three-dimensional spatial plane of ASL, rather than the one-way linear scope of my spoken English.

 My childhood, too, was greatly influenced by language. I grew up in a deeply religious Southern Baptist tradition, with words like sin and atonement, and linear thoughts stretched from one singular point to eternity. My life was filtered through a story that said I had been cursed by original sin, an ancient act of disobedience that needed redemption. But eventually I chose to reject a story that would mark me as broken.

The premodern mystical world and the modern materialistic world both find ways to look at my son and say you are broken. In response, we point to him and sign two F-handshapes, moving towards each other: you are perfect.

Sam Bannister, Portland


Landmarks and Legacies 

All across Oregon rivers and streams have carved away at mountains, hills, rocks, and soil, forming canyons and exposing land that was once underground.

One such canyon, located in Jefferson County near Warm Springs, was carved by a small stream, named Campbell Creek. The canyon is now known as John Brown Canyon, but it wasn't always called that. Only nine years ago, in 2013, the Oregon Geographic Names Board voted to change the name from Negro Brown Canyon (although this was arguably an improvement from the name it was colloquially referred to before that). John A. Brown was the first African American homesteader in Central Oregon in the 1880s. Despite Brown's legacy of pioneering the land, historians more than a century later had to petition to honor his name on the map.

My family homesteaded in the same area around the same time. My great-great-grandfather owned and operated the stagecoach, and later a ferry, that ran between the Deschutes River, Madras, and Prineville. His name was John Ed Campbell. The very same Campbell that Campbell Creek, the one that carved what is now John Brown Canyon, is named after. I didn't have to fight to have the creek named after my family member. I didn't have to petition to have the name changed from something offensive to something that honors the efforts they put into the land. Why? Because the amount of melanin in my body, expressed as a skin tone passed down from generations, happens to match that of the people who wrote the original maps and named these landmarks.

Some may argue that changing the names of landmarks, streets, or football teams, no matter how offensive, erases or buries history. But is that the legacy that we want to leave our children? Or is that legacy better buried in history?

Hannah Brandsma, La Grande


Second Wind

The year Mom blew her brains out, our house on the lake went up for sale. Old, haphazard, all strange angles and secret cupboards and incomprehensible plumbing—she and the house had a lot in common. The latter sat atop a carpet of blueberries and black-eyed Susans and bumblebees that swept down to a beach that smelled of dead fish, cattails, and everlasting summer. Somebody else owns that beach now, that smell. Somebody bulldozed my silly house. Somebody sawed off my memories and yanked up my roots to make way for their tiered and terraced McMansion.  

And yet I can summon the feel of the long, wet grass on my bare feet. I can poke at the bloodsuckers clinging to the garden hose. I can tightrope my way down the crumbling stairs Dad slapped together from old railroad ties, hurrying through the cold and buggy shade of the pines—where the bats live—to the dock, the water, and a cannonball of bliss.  

My toes remember: I’m at the edge of the dock, knees coiled, ready to dive. Dad says if I can swim all the way across the lake, I can take out the rowboat without a life jacket—the bright orange canvas kind that ties up under your chin and makes you look like a dumb baby. And now my chubby arms are churning, and my little lungs are burning, and I am swimming, swimming—like a shark is chasing me! Halfway across, I hit the wall. I can’t breathe. I can’t lift my arms. Not another stroke. Dad follows in the rowboat—lifts the oars and waits. I simply cannot be stuck wearing a stupid life jacket ‘till I’m as old as Grandma

So I begin again. Unstoppable. Unsinkable. A soggy little miracle. And when I can finally touch on the other side, it’s all weedy and swampy and strange. But floating above me, there’s Dad, like Zeus, blocking out the sun with his enormous, beaming smile.  

Even now that I'm as old as Grandma, that water-borne child sits just below the surface. My house, my lake, my blueberries—even my bloodsuckers and bats—weave themselves into a bright orange life jacket. And when I hit that wall, I know a second wind is right around the corner. I can keep swimming —no matter what—and I will make it to the other side, safely, before dark.

Rebecca McCroskey, Eugene


Love Hurts

I love River City, jah tentu. And just as surely, loving this place is new for people like me. I mean, while I’ve worked and worked in our nationally envied city, I didn’t actually fall in love with this place until I finally understood "Love Hurts,” the 1965 hit single by pop-country artists The Everly Brothers that I first heard after we fled our nascent nation’s civil warring. Love is like a cloud / Holds a lot of rain / Love hurts / Oh, oh, love hurts.

Sure, it sounds adolescent. But it remains prescient. Two years later, we shipped to New Jersey. Then we trained to this grand continent’s blessed Northwest edge; beneficiary of 8000 nautical miles of turgid Pacific waves, winds, and rain, rain, rain. Beautiful. Alhamdu’lillaah. Still, leaving love hurt.

Twenty years after resettling here, during times dark as now, we began a community law practice around the little back tables of Northeast Sandy’s Yen Ha Restaurant. There were revered doctors Trí and Kiệt, former Republic of South Việt Nam battlefield surgeons. While our crew worked school, government, and gang problems, they peered down swollen throats of Southeast Asian, East African, and East European refugee parents. They poked around buddha-belly babies. Everyone stayed late nights—weekends, too. 

We’ve never paused blending Anglo American law with our city’s successive boatloads of cultural and spiritual capital from seventy or so ethnicities. We did it through six mayors, five presidents, and nine US wars on families like ours: families ultimately resettling here. 

In short: A world of hurt and joy lives in Portland. Shared history, too. Por exemplo: Every work week of every new year, like everyone hurrying to City Hall, to county or federal courthouses, our crew must cross Lownsdale Park. A soldier statue stands in that square, expressing an Oregon relationship with one of America’s colonial subjects.

Our chatting always ends as we near him. Chins drop. Breaths hold. I ache all over. He memorializes sixteen Oregon sons who didn’t return to their anguishing families after warring on Filipinos, 7,000 Pacific miles from home. He marks America ending their nation’s Declaration of Independence. Maybe one million babies, handsome dads, and kissy-face aunties left life during that military mission. Their passing went undocumented. Pero, ask any community elder back home or right here, and she’ll say, near your ear, how they buried entire towns in shallow, unsanctified earth. People in places like Portland. 

Shared history lives here, because every mama grieves her soldierboy or her schoolgirl inconsolably. Indistinguishably. Anguish gets etched onto bones. Humiliation is passed through our DNA. Until we unearth this love story, my and your offspring can only act out, badly, this shared pain in our shared city. 

We’ll be okay if your family didn’t pack that Everly Brothers hit single into an attic box. Two cursor clicks will stream their treasure, lost then found. Love hurts. Then let’s cry and cry, together.

Ronault (Polo) LS Catalani, Portland




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Also in this Issue

From the Director: Grounding

Editor's Note: Underground

Healing Gila

“My Heart Belongs Where the Trees Are”

The Toxins Beneath Us

“We Are the Original Conservationists”

Purple Prairie

Long Live the Kings

Stretching Toward the Sun


People, Places, Things: Xmaash Tamaycht

Discussion Questions and Further Reading: Underground