By Mykle Hansen
Illustration by Allison Bruns
In December of 1988, you could find me most midnights killing time at the 7-Eleven on SE 28th and Steele, exchanging the very last of my dollars for quarters and plugging those into a coin-operated video game called Altered Beast. I was supposed to be writing a book but I didn’t know how, and anyway, the Reed College library where I used the computers was closed for Christmas break. I didn’t have a job so I couldn’t go to work, and I couldn’t go home because a rabbit in my house was trying to eat me. I had just moved to Portland.
Portland was not always the cute and friendly town it is today. In 1988, it was downright creepy. The Reagan Revolution wasn’t quite happening; the timber economy had fallen over, tumbleweeds and schizophrenics blew through downtown in equal measure. Instead of gentrification, we had crack. Instead of hipsters on fixed-gear bicycles, we had skinheads kicking people to death. Instead of food carts, we had mildew. There were beaten-down, boarded-up buildings on every street, and the newspapers were full of unsolved murders… The city had a mild post-apocalyptic vibe that excited me, in a punk-rock sort of way, when it wasn’t kicking my ass. I had no job skills to speak of, but that didn’t matter because Portland had no jobs. I arrived in the fall, just ahead of the darkness and foul weather, and commenced burning through my meager savings as I filled out forms and took typing speed tests at every temp agency in town. I was a crap receptionist, but no one ever found out because they never called me. Mostly, I just hung around.
Until earlier that year, I had never heard of Portland, or even Oregon. In spring, I had dropped out of the University of California to Become a Writer, and in summer, a girl I knew, a Reed student, had invited me to join her and her Reedie friends in splitting a house in Eastmoreland. I wanted cheap rent, and Portland had just that: $110 per month for my “room,” a tiny upstairs closet just long enough to lie down in. There I would compose my breakthrough first novel, a thoroughly modern twist on Catcher in the Rye. Mine was to be a frugal but dignified existence, a necessary first step for a young genius still awaiting his MacArthur grant. I would haunt the library of a respected college campus, maybe audit some classes. In Portland, I would live the life of the mind.
We crammed a lot of life into that little periwinkle-blue house in Eastmoreland: me, my three Reedie housemates, their three live-in boyfriends, and a small menagerie of pets. Someone owned a motionless snake, someone else had some nervous gerbils (and then, one day, there weren’t any gerbils). I tried to adopt a cat from a student who lived in pet-free campus housing, but the cat figured me out pretty quick and escaped back to campus after I spent all the cat food money on video games. Stephanie, the girl I knew, had adopted a profoundly disturbed shelter dog with cleanliness issues, a German Shepard who ran from brooms, howled at vacuum cleaners, and viciously attacked our neighbors’ garbage cans, strewing trash all over their lawns and dragging it home into our living room, inevitably trailed by the neighbors themselves. Our neighbors hated us: they belonged to a community under economic siege, defending their property values like a realtor militia. We were deeply irresponsible teenagers with a lease, a massive oversight on the part of some landowner. If I were a landlord in Portland, I would sign a lease with Dry-Rot itself before I rented to Reedies.
And then there was this white angora rabbit, the one that tried to eat me. Property of boyfriend Fred, it lived in a breadbox-sized wire cage lined with wood shavings and newspapers, where its state of rest was a sort of low tremble, like the unsteady hand of a drunkard. It had such extremely long and messy hair that you couldn’t tell which end of it was the front—some slight discoloration around the mouth and ass were how you could tell its ends from its sides. It scuffled about in there, occasionally, and made quiet beeping sounds. To me it seemed unhappy, but perhaps I was just projecting.
Days got shorter, fall turned to winter, and I still could find almost no employment or income or anything to sustain myself. I sold my records and my books, shoplifted food, and scrounged meals from the Reed cafeteria, picking half-eaten sandwiches off of serving trays in the dish bay by the trash. Dinner there became my breakfast, as my internal clock reversed and I found myself awake every night, sleeping through the shorter and shorter daytime hours. In November I recall sleeping through a presidential election and waking up to discover that George Bush, Sr. was partially my fault. That month I hardly saw the sun at all.
Writing, meanwhile, was a wash. You don’t just decide to write a novel and then write one. There are intermediate steps. I didn’t know what they were. Maybe someone at Reed could have told me, but I was always terrible at accepting instruction. I sent some poems and stories out to the rejection mills, and I wrote a lot of letters to my penpal in New York about how I was living this cool, punk, creative life that inspired me to find the deeper blah, blah, blah in the blah, blah, blah of existence… When really, I was damn miserable. Stephanie had once shown me a good time in Los Angeles, but that attraction was gone, and I was very hard up for affection—or warmth of any kind. I neglected to dress for the weather; I didn’t understand what the word meant, coming from California. I had no hat and no umbrella. The rain soaked through my canvas shoes into my cotton socks, and I was always, always cold. I developed a horrible wracking cough, yet I believed I needed only to toughen up and try harder. I recall once taking the #17 bus downtown in a severe rainstorm when a long-haired young lady boarded the bus wearing no shoes at all—just a hippie ankle bracelet, and no hat, either. She was dripping wet and pale as a fish, somehow just ignoring the presence of winter, and beautiful for it. I thought if she could do it, I could, too. But she was born here.
My housemates were usually working hard at school, but sometimes we ate meals together or did chores, or watched a rented movie, or snorted meth and did homework, or searched the neighborhood for the runaway dog. Reed College was my world, even though I didn’t attend classes. So when Christmas break came and the whole student population decamped from Portland for warmer home fires elsewhere, I found myself alone and isolated. I had to stay. I had no money to spend on travel and no desire for my family to see how poorly I was doing. So I remained behind to watch the rabbit.
I wanted desperately to bring some joy into the life of that poor imprisoned fuzzball. The first evening I awoke alone in the house, I decided I would allow the rabbit to roam freely indoors. But when I threw open the prisoner’s cage, it just cowered against its food bowl, trembling like a vibrator in a hat. So I left it alone and went to brush my teeth. When I peeked back into the living room a minute later, the rabbit had vanished.
Very well, I thought. Welcome to the world, little friend. Have an adventure. Expand your horizons. Maybe when your owner returns, you’ll decide to make a break for freedom and return to the wild…
It bit me.
A little snip like fingernail clippers, right over the tendon of my ankle. The little beast had snuck up quietly behind me while I shaved, and nipped me hard. I jumped and yelped in pain, and it fled with speed I’d never suspected it could muster, kicking both its feet against the floor, the doorjamb, the couch, leaping like lightning toward its little wire enclosure, as I clambered after it in angry amazement. It dove into its cage and slammed into the back of it, skidding across the living room floor, hitting the hinged cage door with a carefully timed double-kick in such a way as to cause it to bounce open and then slam shut, latching itself, locking in the rabbit, who now cowered against its water bottle and food dish, beeping and trembling and bouncing up and down a quarter inch—perhaps watching me as I sat on the couch applying a Band-Aid to my ankle, perhaps showing me its ass.
I thought I must have stepped on it, or frightened it or wronged it accidentally. But I knew it would forgive me. I believed in the kindness of small furry creatures. I left the cage ajar again so it knew there were no hard feelings, and I left the house to perform my nightly rounds of aimless wandering, video games, dumpster diving, and Not Writing.
By then—late December—I hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. I’d gone full vampire, waking at sunset, taking long, squishy walks in the moonlight through the densely wooded neighborhood streets or through abandoned yet strangely unlocked campus buildings, scribbling half-formed thoughts in my little notebook, doodling in the margins of manuscripts, digging through dumpsters for food. I had fashioned a poncho out of a 30-gallon trash bag so I could stay somewhat dry and be seen in public, but there was nobody around to see me. Hollow, empty buildings stared at me with black, rain-streaked eyes. Portland was a quieter town in 1988. The only thing in the Eastmoreland/Woodstock area to interact with after 4 AM was that 7-Eleven, the silent, ash-faced night clerk, and the video game Altered Beast, in which the player controls a pixilated Roman centurion who mutates into a big scrappy animal whenever something bad approaches him. Every night I would hack away at ancient Greek harpies, zombies, giant ants, and chickens with my giant pixilated ax…until I ran out of pocket money, and then I’d shamble warily back to the house and the bloodthirsty rabbit.
The second time it bit me was entirely premeditated. I was innocent, had done nothing wrong. I was sleeping, in fact, when the little bastard climbed all the way upstairs and into my closet to sink its teeth into my toe. I screamed, of course, and it thumped away downstairs. I listened to the rhythmic beat of its feet against parts of the house, ending with that metallic crash as it rocketed into its cage and double-kicked the door shut. I staggered downstairs to confront the thing… But how do you confront a tribble?
It was midday. In the blinding, exhausting light of the sun I looked at the slovenly condition of the home; at the little rabbit shits in the corners; at the aquarium with the possibly-dead snake I’d been instructed not to touch or feed; at the mess of books and newspaper everywhere; the mismatched, dog-chewed furniture; the bleak, damp, mean universe out the window and the soul-chilling emptiness of the refrigerator; and I began to wonder if the writing life was for me.
Some small number of days later, things were looking up. Not that I had found a job, or any other income, or had any kind of writing breakthrough—but I was definitely reaching new heights of Altered Beast achievement, exceeding my personal best, opening up new vistas of video-game possibility… I was, in fact, face-to-face with Evil Neff, the big rhino-nosed Top Boss uni-taur himself, and bashing his ugly face into an unassailable record high score—making history, basically—when the power went out. My whole game dwindled to a dot on the screen and died.
A moment later, all the lighted signs in the window went dead. The night clerk came out of the back room, eyeing me nervously.
“Shutting it down,” he said.
“Man!” I whined, “that was my last quarter!”
“You can’t close,” I said, “you’re 7-Eleven!”
“It’s Christmas,” he said.
So it was: Christmas, 1988, Portland. I was 19 years old, fighting off pneumonia, totally alone, desperate, hungry and broke, sucking at everything I did, except Altered Beast. Not thriving, not even quite surviving, wishing I’d never left sunny California, and living in mortal fear of a rabbit. It had caged itself up again by the time I got home, but the pathos of its prison existence tortured me, as always. I couldn’t bear to see it trapped in such a tiny cage, made even more pathetic by the way it kept locking itself back inside. But whenever I left it free, the little fucker shot away and lay in hiding—under the sofa, or behind the toilet, or even under my blankets—waiting for the moments when I’d let my guard down and expose my juicy foot flesh to its gruesome cravings. By then I had rabbit bites on both ankles and several toes. Band-aids wouldn’t stay on. My damp socks were always spotted pink with blood.
I barricaded myself in my tiny room for all of Christmas, listening to my Husker Du cassettes and plotting my escape. Immediate departure would not be soon enough. I had to get out of that house before the rabbit ate me. It scratched at my door, making little gnawing sounds on the wood and beeping satanically, and pissed on the carpet.
Between that day and New Years, I made dozens of phone calls, borrowed some money from a concerned friend, got a bus ticket, organized a final month’s rent, and wrote a long, sloppy note of miscellaneous apology to Stephanie and the other housemates. At the pet store I bought one frozen mouse for the snake. I packed my duffel bag with every wet belonging I cared to keep. Whenever I was home during those last few days, I wore a pair of Stephanie’s L. L. Bean duck boots. The rabbit tried a few exploratory nibbles but was unable to pierce the rubber soles. I tried to kick it, but it was too quick. It resigned itself to following me from room to room and menacing me from under chairs. I never sat down.
On New Year’s day, I locked up the house with the white monster inside and pushed my key through the mail slot. The rabbit stared out at me from inside, beeping at me with what might have been loss, showing me for the first time its teary pink bloodshot eyes. But I was out of sympathy.
I went back to California and got a job and lived in a warm, dry building and nursed my failure. In April of 1989, I defeated Evil Neff in a 7-Eleven on Ocean Street in Santa Cruz, but it was a hollow victory. I had lost all my lives back in the game of Portland, because I hadn’t been able to hack real weather or real writing or problems. I was done with this town. I swore I would not return in a million years.
One million years later, here I am again: living in my own house in Portland, writing actual novels, making a living, keeping my feet dry. If I had only had some help in 1988—some good advice, some more realistic ambitions, some wool socks—I might have survived the winter and found something to go on in the spring. On the other hand, if I hadn’t left, I might have ended up one more homeless boy selling blowjobs at the Galleria. I remember what a miserable thing it can be to be alone on Christmas, forgotten by the world.
Wikipedia tells me the life expectancy of a rabbit is no more than 12 years. I still haven’t been back to Eastmoreland, but I think it’s safe now.
The citizens of Portland have a long tradition of offering hospitality to those in need. This holiday, please consider supporting the many local organizations who provide food, shelter, medical care, and good advice to Portland’s homeless youth, such as Janus Youth Programs (janusyouth.org), Outside In (outsidein.org), or any of the youth services organizations listed by Rose City Resource (http://www.rosecityresource.org/resources/youth-services).