Hard knocks - listening to true stories of life at Albina Press (Hawthorne)

The Albina Press on Hawthorne is much hipster than the AP on Albina. Maybe it is the neighborhood, maybe it is the café space itself, or maybe it just happened to be the day I was there, but I stepped inside the café and quickly felt at home in the café.

The coffee bar is unique in its arrangement. Instead of having the bar up against one wall of the café, as most cafés do, at AP Hawthorne the bar is located in the center of the café. The cash register and espresso machine take up two sides of the rectangle, and an L-shaped table for seating form the other two sides. The open space allows patrons to check out the baristas’ operations from all sides.

AP Hawthorne

My espresso, served in a sunny yellow demitasse, was solid. AP is a Stumptown café, and every day I grow more and more accustomed to the Hair Bender blend. If I ever leave Portland, I’ll probably look back with affection on my time in the city, when I could get Stumptown’s tangy, chocolaty blend in nearly every part of the city (I never would have imagined saying that, based on my first impression of the blend, which was not favorable).

Although I did have a couple good shots of espresso while I was at the café, the enduring memory from my visit will be my conversation with “Ron” (not his real name). I was sitting at a window table, writing the next “great American novel” (more accurately, the next CPDX blog post), when to my left, I sensed someone staring at me. For a while, I avoided looking over, but the person didn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. Finally my resolve to avoid looking faltered and I lifted my eyes from the screen to figure out who it was staring my direction.

A gentleman in his late forties or early fifties, with a round build, a round, balding head and a scraggly beard was standing about five feet away holding a latte in his hand. He looked like he wanted to talk, and I apparently looked like a good person to talk to. Generally, I don’t mind listening to people. A lot of times they just have things they want to get off their chest, and you never know when they start talking what kinds of interesting things you might learn. My only hope is that they don’t end up asking me for money.

Ron’s first question, breaking the ice, was to ask me how to look someone up on the computer. According to him, he didn’t have any computer experience and he was trying to find his kids. It had been about 15 years since he had seen them. He and his wife had divorced years ago (on bad terms, I presume) and he had lost contact with them. Since they were now adults, he could contact them without any legal repercussions.

I vaguely gave him some advice on how to use Google, unsure if it was any of my business to help him find someone who had not seen him in over a decade—someone who might not want to be found. I thought that my advice would be the end of our conversation, but I was wrong. Ron was looking for someone to share his story with.

The story he told me was a sad one. Ron had been in the Navy for 12 years, and while he was there he met his wife. They married and had two kids, but then he had an accident on duty and his injuries made it impossible for him to perform his service, so he was discharged. His wife stayed in, and was deployed to the Persian Gulf during the war to liberate Kuwait. While over there, she fell prey to loneliness and the temptations of war, coming back pregnant with someone else’s child. When Ron found out, he “took off his ring, handed it to her and left.”

Out of the service, Ron tried to find a job, but the stress he was under and the alcohol he was drinking (heavily, in his words) weakened his heart to the point of having “four heart attacks.” His condition led the state to take away his driver’s license, making it impossible to keep a job, so he “retired,” going on state disability insurance and VA benefits to support himself. It was during these tough times that under duress (according to him), he signed over his parental rights, agreeing that he would not try to contact his sons until they were adults, with the threat of jail time for violating the agreement. Now that they were both over 18, Ron was hoping to contact them one more time to see if they would be interested in rebuilding some kind of relationship with their father.

It wasn’t easy to listen to the story, as I could imagine some of the struggles he has had over the last decade and a half. He did not seem as downbeat as he might have, though there was a lot of loneliness that came through in his voice. He probably was just looking for someone to listen to him.

During our conversation, Ron pulled out a blue folder and showed me a couple pictures of his sons and some other things that he had in his bag. He also showed me a copy of the birth certificate of one of his sons, his old marriage license and a copy of his VA benefit application from twenty years ago.

The stuff he carried with him was revealing. When our lives are filled with uncertainty, we cling to concrete things from our past that are unchanging—memories, documents and photographs that remind us of times when we thought we had life figured out. When life seems to slip from our grasp, our instinct is to find something to hold onto, an anchor that gives us a sense of stability. This can lead us to hold tightly to possessions that help us feel normal. At least that’s the impression I got from listening to him and seeing his documents.

After leaving the café, Ron’s next stop was going to be the coin store that was next door (he was looking for some collector quarters), and then it was on to the VA and the library. At least that was what he said. You never know with someone like Ron how much of their story is based in reality an how much has been elaborated in his mind. Watching him leave, I could only hope for the best for him as I resumed my writing.

By and large, I enjoyed my visit to the Hawthorne incarnation of the Albina Press. The café is large, with ample seating. You can comfortably gather with a large group or you can hide yourself in a corner with a good book or your laptop if you don’t feel like talking to anyone. Then again, you might find yourself in an unexpected conversation, ready or not.


Address: 5012 SE Hawthorne, Portland, OR 97215 (map)

Coffee: Stumptown

Free Wi-Fi? Fast

Recommendations? Sitting outside and enjoying the last vestiges of summer, coffee in hand

Website: nope