“I remember…” is a series of posts about places from my childhood where I sometimes find myself today. I will be performing a solo show in one of these places, Eugene, OR, on Wed. March 30 at The Shedd Institute for Arts.
Noah, a recently graduated harp student at the University of Oregon drove me through Eugene yesterday after a masterclass I gave. We passed the YMCA where I once took tumbling lessons, and pulled into a student housing complex.
I used to live here, in this same complex, 50 years ago, in 1961.
Noah parked, and we walked a little ways through the complex. I realized I was looking for things that aren’t there, that a different time is a different place. And I don’t want to lose that place I remember.
We moved to Eugene from the Sierras, my mother, new stepfather and new baby brother in 1961. They were students at the University of Oregon, and we lived in the Amazon Housing project. Rows of pale green wooden apartments, each pair of buildings – housing maybe 30 families or so – sharing a common lawn. The common space was fenced, so kids could go freely out any back door and roam this rectangle of grass.
My parents were newly married and both in school. Money was tight, so we stopped using the car and rode bikes. My new brother slept in a drawer on the floor of my room, and my main complaints in life were the growing pains in my legs, the forced-wearing of saddle shoes, my growing chubbiness and the constant skinned knees I had from falling of my bike.
At that time, Oregon had a subsidy system, called “Commodities,” for low-income people (listen to me: “Low-Income People” — what I mean is poor folks). Unlike Food Stamps, to get commodities, you’d stand in line and receive a ration of flour, butter, sugar, honey, etc.
This, my stepfather would not do. Stand in line for food. Demeaning. Absolutely not. “I will never stand in line to be handed food.” Never. So we bumbled along on the cheapest of store-bought food.
Not that I knew any different. I just remember his contempt. The sense that accepting this handout was a kind of humiliation.
One night, my parents went out and left me in the care of a younger couple: a tall, gangly white kid and his small, Asian wife. They’d carpeted their own tiny apartment with samples from a carpet store, like a multicolored checkerboard — and we sat on the floor to eat, with a candle and a low wooden table.
I waited for dinner in this exotic room. I don’t remember exactly what we ate, until she – this unusual and haltingly-spoken woman – pulled something out of the oven and brought it to me on a plate. A huge, white, steaming biscuit. On the floor between us, she placed a small bowl of butter and another of honey. The steam rose from the biscuit and played in the candlelight. I could see the irregularity of the crust, the biscuit flaking apart from itself, the delicate bronzing of the edges. I poured the honey on the biscuit. Golden. Pure. It was the most exquisite, elegant, aromatic, magical meal of my life. The biscuit, the butter, the honey.
“How did you make this?” I asked. I think I was whispering.
“Oh, it’s wonderful!” the young wife said. “It’s like a gift,” she said, “I made it free – all with these marvelous ‘Commodities.'”