Saturday, March 17, 2012
Mark Wilson/Babysitter's Song
In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s in Portland, the Nob Hill/Northwest neighborhood was the place to live if your quest included an absorption of or participation in the arts. Rents were cheap, a number of old-fashioned working-men's bars dotted 21st and 23rd Avenues, a 24-hour restaurant called Quality Pie sat at Marshall and 23rd, and so few cars crowded the streets that the place had a kind of eerie quality through their exclusion.
(I can recall two friends of mine hitting golf balls off the pavement on a Sunday afternoon along 23rd Avenue without concern for mistakenly hitting any parked cars; the street was empty.)
The neighborhood became gentrified in the 1990s and turned into a shopping mall, the traffic became unbearable, rents skyrocketed, and many of the "good old houses" that dated from the 1920s backward to mid-nineteenth century came under the developers' gaze.
Those old dwellings, sectioned into rooming houses or communal rentals, were a source of inexpensive living, places where artists and writers could practice their crafts while scraping by with a survival job, often in the neighborhood itself.
Many of the old houses were, regrettably, torn down to free the land for condo structures and the expansion of Good Samaritan Hospital during the rapid gentrification period of the 1990s.
Some survived however, as neighborhood activists attempted to influence the rapid change by demanding a voice in the process. A second wave of developers began to work with the old structures, remodeling them, and even occasionally moving the houses to new neighborhood locales in order to preserve them.
Things didn't remain cheap, but at least some of the houses with their beautiful architecture remained to please the eye.
Several of my best friendships in the neighborhood were sealed in the pre-gentrified Northwest in 1977 and carried on until 2000, when I finally moved out of the neighborhood.
I met Mark Wilson at the Breadline Cafe on 23rd Avenue during the summer of 1977. He lived in the neighborhood for a decade after that before relocating to San Francisco where he could find a larger pool of families willing to employ him as an Au Pair, his profession of choice after his dishwashing career ended in the early 1980s.
One of Wilson's truly endearing qualities was his love of babies. It was amazing to watch him around babies and, particularly, toddlers. I never saw a toddler take a dislike to Wilson; rather it was the opposite. The kids hated to see him leave for home in the evening, because Mom and Dad were such adult louts by comparison.
Wilson could play and teach and demonstrate joy all at once, a life babies covet.
Here is a poem by Wilson from At the Wire, published March, 1987 as a handmade, spine-stapled-sheaf first edition.
I take care of the child
and it doesn't matter who
I am. I take care of the child
since she was seven weeks.
Now she is fourteen months
(I am four hundred sixty-two
months) and I have shared
her months too. Such joyous months.
Such joyous months. Such sunny silence
in the neighborhood.
A wind comes up, shakes the risen
window, tosses the baby's bright hair.
Her tiny hands grip the world (the sill).
My only picture of hope.
Mark Wilson (1987)
A Wilson short story and two of his poems can be found in Cold Eye, published in 2011 by Round Bend Press.