My favorite summer wasn’t when I was 13 at a summer camp. It didn’t involve a first kiss with a boy, or even some amazing vacation. My favorite summer was when I was 29; the summer of 2002.
I had been living in Portland for a little over a year and a half, and since I had lived there I had already moved four times. I had moved more than 20 times before I graduated from high school. It wasn’t too surprising that the pattern had not not broken, not even today. I remember places and time frames based around the names of houses, and houses’ names are either based on the street, the neighborhood or the color. This summer took place in the Harrison house. A two story house on a busy one way street in SE Portland. Due to a crazy chance of coincidence a friend of mine from the Garmisch days happened to be living in Portland at the same times as me, and she just happened to need a roommate, and I just happened to need a place to live.
I need to stop the record here and back track a moment in time in order to give a background on the small cast of characters in this story.
From 1998 to 2000, I lived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a place I used to refer to as living in a postcard. It was a pretty country valley in the Bavarian Alps. A small farm town with cows that wandered the streets, old farmers, and small clubs that had names like Peaches, Evergreen, and of course the Hausberg disco that all of us Garmishers called the Dirty Disco. I had worked for AFRC, the Armed Forces Recreation Center. In laymen terms I worked for the U.S. military at a resort for military. While there I was housed in a former Nazi hospital that the Americans had taken over after WWII, and now it was filled with young and a few middle-aged Americans. I made incredible friends while in Garmisch; people I am still close with today. One of those friends was Lisa, and another was Sue−sweet sue.
In 2002, after a short life in Prague and a short life in Denver, I seemed to be settling in Portland, Oregon. I ended up in Portland on the advice of my friend Sue, who had also left Garmisch. Sue literarily drove from Oregon to Chico, California where I was staying with a friend, and drove me to Portland, where she dropped me off with her friends, and then she immediately left for Eastern Oregon to her home in Cove. Sue did things like that, she was a driver. She loved driving. Moving. Traveling. Exploring. She was always leaving.
It was nearly six or seven months after I had moved to P-Town when I learned that Lisa was also living in Portland. At the time I was living with my soon to be ex-boyfriend, and I needed to find a place to live. As happenstance would have it Lisa needed a roommate. I moved into the Harrison house, and it was the second time Lisa and I had lived together and it wouldn’t be the last, but that’s in the future, and not in this story.
Portland is a transplant city. It is difficult to meet people who are born and raised in Portland. By the time I moved thirteen years later 85% of my friends were Portland natives, but it took me a couple of years and one retail store called Presents of Mind, to find them. I was from California, and so was Lisa, and our other roommate Rita. We were a California house. I noticed a lot of people moved like this or some how met up with and lived with people from where they came from originally. I called them state contingency houses. My ex-boyfriend’s house was from South Dakota, Sioux Falls. My ex was friends with a guy named Elliot who lived in a Chapel Hill house, although he was really from New York state. The only woman that lived in the four person household was Amy who was actually from Chicago. They had all met in North Carolina, Chapel Hill and had decided to move to Portland together.
The Chapel Hill house and the South Dakota house were in the North East, and I lived in the South East. At the time there wasn’t much on Alberta where we had all lived (I had moved from NE to SE when I moved into the Harrison house) except two or three bars, a couple of Mexican restaurants, a huge latino church, a barber shop, and a Chinese pizza parlor that seemed more like a front for something. Today, a person would never recognize the Alberta we had lived on. Portland has changed a lot in the past fifteen years. It’s now considered one of the most livable cities, and Alberta is filled with trendy shops, expensive Ice Cream, and a pricy but a tasty Indian restaurant. Portland has been cleaned and polished. I’d say white washed, but it’s always been white. Alberta was a predominately black working class neighborhood when we had lived there, and most of the white and latino families living there were also working class, or artists, or dirty clowns (yes clowns) and new house owners. It was right before the house flipping that would be the beginning of the changing environment of Alberta. Harrison and 12th in the South East was a main thoroughfare with one restaurant bar and residential homes that you could tell were built before the road was planned. Our house and the houses on either side of us were similar rickety run down houses that shook when large trucks drove by. Behind the houses were warehouses. It was a little dirty and a little gritty like a lot of Portland was during this time, but this was right before the Pearl was built.
One night at a tiny bar on Alberta in a little bar called “Whatever”, I went to to the SE side to visit Elliott and the ex. Sue was in town visiting and we were sitting around the juke box talking about music. Amy’s boyfriend and all of her roommates were in a band. Most of Portland was in a band because Portland was a music place. At some point Sue brought up that she played the guitar and had been playing with a couple of musicians in Cove. Amy mentioned that she played bass in an all girl metal band called White Zinfandel when she was living in Chapel Hill (or maybe Chicago). I mentioned that I had played drums in a band in Chico, a band called Rumor Mill. We even had two newspaper write ups in the local paper. I still have those and feel really proud of my short amateur experience as a drummer.
“We should start a band.” Amy said.
Ted or one of the other boys agreed. The Harrison house had a garage, and Ted agreed to let me borrow his drums in exchange for the storage space.
It was the beginning of Summer. Sue would be moving to Japan in August. She had gotten accepted into the Jet program so we knew it wasn’t going to become something serious it was just going to be something fun for us to do over the summer, a good excuse to spend time together and drink wine. During our first session Amy brought a book of illustrations by an artist whose name I no longer remember. One of the illustrations were of a white rabbit dressed in a suit being carried on the shoulders of other anthropomorphic animals. The name of the drawing was “Our Hero George”, and that became the name of our band.
I don’t know how many days a week, Our Hero George practiced, but I felt like we spent the entire summer in that garage on SE Harrison and 12th street. We’d open the garage and leave it open while we practiced. It was summer and the cars were always busy passing drowning out the sounds. We would share a large bottle of wine and talk and make music. At first we just planned on doing some covers. The first song we learned was Dear Prudence by the Beatles with Sue singing the lead and Amy and I singing back up. Our next cover was You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore, only we changed the arrangement a bit, and both Sue and Amy sang.
During this time Amy was taking classes through the Oregon Tradeswomen’s center. She was learning electrical engineering. She came to practice with a story about one of her teachers.
“Penny Painter. She’s a real task master.” Amy had said.
Sue loved Penny’s name, and the phrase task master, and from that we wrote our first song, Penny Painter is a real task master. Our second song also came from a story by Amy. A story about her temperamental cat Polly. We eventually began writing our own music. Songs about task masters and mean cats and rain falling like tears.
The summers are rarely hot in Portland, and the summer of 2002 was no exception. Beautiful, mild summers with maybe a week or two of heat. We kept the garage open not because we were too warm but because the days were too beautiful to miss, and because of the busy traffic and that we practiced during the day none of the neighbors ever complained. In the house next door to us there was another band. A good band. They were called The Exploding Hearts, and they were a young up and coming 70’s punk revival band. Occasionally, Adam or Terry the, two boys from the band, that lived next door would sit outside smoking cigarettes, and offer us kind words of encouragement.
At some point during the summer once we had created five solid songs, we decided we should have a show. We couldn’t spend the entire summer writing music and playing songs, and not have at least one show. Sue would be leaving in August for Japan, and Amy’s birthday was coming up in July so we planned for July 27th, 2002. It would be the premiere and final performance of Our Hero George. We would celebrate Amy’s 29th birthday and Sue’s going away party.
Lisa had always been the queen of parties. Every party she ever had was decorated and decked out in a kitschy sophistication. She strung lights all through the backyard of the Harrison house and set up tables and chairs. We set the stage on the back porch. We had created invitations and handed them out to all of our friends. The three of us had friends from different parts of our lives coming together for this one night, along with friends that Rita and Lisa had invited. The night of the show we had more than thirty guests. As we played, people from the street heard the music and came into the backyard to watch. The boys from next door watched the show from their own backyard; always smoking cigarettes. When we finished we had cheers and calls for encores. From a random conversation in a now obsolete bar in NE Portland we brought Our Hero George to life−for one night.
In the summer of 2003, nearly a year from the date of our show, The Exploding Hearts were driving back from a show in San Francisco. It’s believed the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The van flipped and three of the four members died. Adam our neighbor was one of the guys who died. In February of 2008, Sue was driving from Florida to Portland when somewhere in New Mexico her car flipped and she was killed instantly.
It had been a year since I had last seen Sue. Soon after the show she moved to Japan where she lived for two years. After Japan she went to graduate school in Vermont. Over that time period her letters and her e-mails became less frequent until it would be years in-between our communication. I saw her one or two times during the six years she was gone. The last time was at a coffee shop on NE Alberta. It was a short visit, but a dear one because I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last time I would see her alive.
Sue’s death tore a hole in my heart. Such a huge, huge loss of life. She was a beautiful musician and a beautiful person from the inside out. During the days of our summer band sessions I had a small tape recorder and I recorded all of our conversations and practices. We had also wanted to make a small music video. It was filmed on Super 8 but we never did anything with it. I still have these cassette tapes and film footage stored away waiting for me to find a way to make them digital and put them together. This is something I’d like to do. It could be something I could share with Amy, who ended up marrying Ted and having two boys, something to share that was ours. A special time that we had shared with a tremendously amazing person. It’s something I would really like to do. To see that one summer one more time.