by M.A. Baratta
I was once arrested in San Francisco for kicking a trashcan and screaming profanity in the General Hospital. I have committed small time insurance fraud. For nearly an entire year of my life I worked on both sides of the camera in BDSM porn. I have had many (too many) craigslist hook-ups with random strangers in hotel & motel rooms where I left without ever knowing their names. These aren't my secrets- in fact, there isn’t much about me that isn’t already public knowledge. I don’t quite believe in keeping anything private- I tend to air out my dirty laundry all too freely by my own free will.
That being said, there is a story I feel compelled to share that’s been one of my best kept secrets for nearly six years now. As the title goes, there was this one time in Portland, Oregon…
It was the final month of 2008; I had recently turned 18 several months prior and had been traveling around the U.S. after selling off my car for Amtrak Rail Passes with a single 70’s military Alice Pack and my Bianchi Pista track bicycle in tow. I had been all over the country several times, from California to Atlanta, Georgia to see Weezer play their last U.S. date on their “Troublemaker” Tour (Red Album). I had sold a drum set to a guy in a band who’s current manager was Weezer’s ex-tour manager (I was promised a backstage meet & greet that ended up never happening, but still saw the show from the bleachers). I had been to Philly to meet & stay with a 24 year old woman I met off Myspace who liked me simply because of my freshly inked flying “=w=“ Weezer wrist tattoo (I WAS 18…). From there I took a train from Pittsburg to Chicago, through across the top of the country to Seattle where I met up with a friend.
We rode from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon on our track bicycles in three days at the end of November in 2008. We arrived in PDX on the evening of Thanksgiving, having just rode nearly 300 miles in 3 days time with 50 lbs. worth of gear each and only a single riding gear, sans hand brakes.
Having both grown up in Orange County, California as crusty track bike kids, I felt as if we had arrived to this profound bicycle mecca that is to be called the City of Roses.
I absolutely fucking hated every moment I spent in Portland. Here’s some context: in 2008, at the beginning of December, the city witnessed an anomaly- it snowed, and baby, did it dump. In fact, it was one of the harshest winters Portland had seen in nearly a decade (for those of you who are unaware, it doesn’t snow in that region of Oregon too often for it’s actually a temperate climate zone, meaning it’s pretty close to rain forest weather with the humidity and moisture that’s always in the air). There was so much snow and only two whole snow plows that the city owned that the town, indeed, had shut down for several weeks. Nearly any and all small business, government businesses and even major banks were inadvertently closing up shop simply because no cars could come and go through the streets. I was also 18 years old with no fake ID, living in a city with knowing hardly anyone where the only thing to do when it’s snowing outside is go to bars.
One December day I decided to go ride my bicycle through the mostly snowy streets from Northeast (I lived in an attic off Alberta St.) to Northwest Portland clear across the city by nearly 9 miles. My intentions for doing so were to visit the oldest, as in the first, and quite arguably the most beautiful, United States Japanese Tea Gardens. Having already been captivated by the Japanese Tea Gardens of Golden Gate Park located in the iconic city of San Francisco, I had to go and witness the beauty those gardens held. Only there was one problem- the gardens were closed due to the amount of snow that had fallen in recent days. I was crushed, at first.
I had a sinister idea fill my mind. Not simply for being an angsty teenager frothing at the mouth for misdemeanor adventure, but because I was first and foremost a photographer, I had to take this opportunity to photograph something truly unique. Earlier in the day I checked the PDX Japanese Tea Garden’s official website to see what their policy on photography was- it turns out that even non-professional photographers had to obtain permission and pay a fee to be able to photograph the gardens. I rode with my Canon A-1 35mm film SLR anyway, and I’ll be forever grateful that I did.
I stashed my bicycle at the bottom of the driveway near some tennis courts behind thick bushes, hoping no one would see my bicycle and feel compelled to steal it (one crime for another I suppose is the result of Karma). There was a long, snow covered, steep incline of a drive way that I needed to hike up to reach the main garden entrance. It was mid-day, just after noon with plenty of sunlight left for an excursion. The air was crisp, but my adrenaline was keeping me warm. Finally after about 10 minutes of hiking, I reached the main gates- which made the entrance to the gardens look much like a Japanese Samurai Fortress straight out of a Kurosawa film.
At this point, I crossed the equinox- the point of no return. I began to scale the thirteen foot high wall- there was a “weak point” in the wall (if you will) where hopping over to the other side was made easy. Even though the park was claimed to be closed, I was unsure if any security personnel was inside keeping watch, not to mention if any security/surveillance deceives may be in place to thwart numb-skull idiots such as myself dead in their tracks.
In my mind I was James-Motherfucking-Bond. I walked with a light foot, channeling my inner Ninja from Southern California. To my surprise, not only were the gardens unmanned by security, but I never even saw a single surveillance device ANYWHERE. I truly was in the clear and had the gardens completely to myself. It was, for all intents and purposes, my playground for the day.
I did my best to be as respectful to the space as possible. I walked with an easy step. I photographed the snow covered beauty that surrounded me. I meditated, as best a stupid-fuck like myself imagined one would meditate.I was in awe for one of the first times in my adult life. I smoked some weed while overlooking the entire city of Portland, Oregon in one of the most breathtaking places in the world, as far as I was concerned. Then, I did something truly fucking stupid that I would live to regret.
While making my way full circle back to where my journey began at the main gates of the pseudo fortress, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. What looked like a tiny little bird house on a pole, about the height of my chest, was in actuality a small wooden donation box. Without thinking much about it, and definitely not before checking my moral compass, I took a rock that laid at my feet and broke into it. What I found inside was a wet & moldy $41, mostly in one dollar bills. I left behind a broken but-mostly-in-tact wooden box and pocketed the money. I never saw single soul through the entire time there, and from what i know, no one saw me.
I eventually made my way back down the driveway to find my bicycle was still there. I rode back home but stopped at a sushi restaurant for my first good meal in a while (I had Chicken Teriyaki, for those of you wondering- I don’t do raw fish)- compliments of my freshly committed petty theft. I made my way back to my home’s attic, and eventually left Portland for good a week or two later.
Let’s flash forward to one year later- December of 2009. I was a freshman in the BFA Photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute. Things had been going well for me in San Francisco for several months- until mid December, around the same time as when I was living in PDX. My apartment on Haight St. that sat next to the vintage clothing store Wasteland and above an Indian food restaurant (my address just so happened to be 1666 Haight St., not a joke) caught fire at 3:30A.M. while I and my roommate was asleep and I woke to the sounds of her screaming my name (I remember it vividly, in her peruvian accent). On the third and top level of the apartment complex, the flames were in our living room and smoke filled the entire apartment. The fire department kicked our door in, I threw pants on, grabbed my leather jacket & my Hasselblad 500CM and was ushered out of the building by way of several SFFD fire fighters. That morning, I watched my home burn along with my roommate & downstairs neighbors (an entire family & a palm reader who had a business open to the public) for over three full hours straight.
Hardly a week later in the new apartment I started living in, I had one of the sliding glass doors to the shower come off the hinges and pierce my right foot, causing me to have a puncture wound spurting blood, forcing me take a trip to the E.R on New Year’s Eve. I was supposed to work for the SF Weekly Marketing Team at The Warfield on Market St. for a concert with The Roots. I was fired when I called my boss to tell her I couldn’t make it. Apparently losing your home to a freak fire and having to go to the hospital on a work night all in the same week made me “unreliable” in my employer’s eyes. It also just so happened that my finances were dwindling and a relationship with my current girlfriend was circling the drain.
In February of the following year, a few short weeks later, I decided to take a trip to Portland, Oregon to visit a friend of mine who was in her first year at Reed College. I needed to clear my head- but in all honesty, I felt that I had to correct one of my major wrongs from the year before. While in town one evening, whether being compelled by my own dirty conscience or just paranoid from smoking too much pot, I rode out at 11P.M. from Southeast all the way across to Northwest Portland, back to the point of origin of my string of bad luck- the Japanese Tea Gardens.
Remembering how I did it the year prior, I retraced my steps with my bicycle and did everything I had already done, except for this time it was much colder and much darker than the first. I carried with me a single white envelope that contained $60 cash (I was hoping the added interest would help clear me of anymore bad luck I may encounter in the near future).
The bike was stashed. I hiked up the long driveway by way of starlight. I scaled the weak point in the wall. I made my way inside the Kurosawa-esque Forbidden Fortress. The gardens seemed quite daunting in the pitch black of night in comparison to the beauty I once saw one year prior. Admittingly, I was frightened. Something felt off; something wasn’t right. This time, I soon found, I wasn’t alone.
Walking around in the dead of night I couldn’t quite remember the path I had taken before to find that wooden-bird-house-looking donation box. While finding my way through the dark, a faint shadowy figure appeared directly in front of me, no more than forty feet away. As quickly as I noticed the figure, the figure noticed me. We both froze in our tracks, dead. Two deer staring at each other as if we were both each other’s headlights. Scared shitless for getting in even more trouble than I was already in, I took the ultimate chance and uttered the broken word “hell-o?” No response but silence. I began to pace forward with trepidation. The figure seemed to come closer on its own- making its way towards me as well. As the shadowy figure’s features began to show, my heart dropped. Who was this person? What was going on, I wondered.
They were just some random stranger, like myself. When I asked this strange male figure what they were doing in the closed Japanese Tea Gardens in the middle of night in the middle of winter, they turned the question around on me. Their response was because of the serenity, the peacefulness of the Gardens that can only truly be attained when the park is vacant. When they asked me what I was doing, I proceeded to honestly recount the tale from a year before and that I was there to correct my wrong.
We both said our peaceful goodbyes and walked our separate ways in the dark. I found the newly implemented donation box that had far greater security measures in place (thanks to yours truly) and made my drop. As I left the garden grounds I didn’t see the stranger that nearly killed me by means of a heart attack- and to this day I still wonder if they ended up doing anything in regards to trying to obtain that $60 for themselves, continuing this vicious cycle of bad Karma for the next shitty soul to experience. All in all, I feel that my action ultimately counteracted my previous crime- but I will always wonder how that night ended for the other party I encountered.
Five years later, I still struggle with making ends meet and keeping on my feet financially. Perhaps my crime had a seven-year-sentence of Bad Karma. Ultimately, the moral of the story is, don’t steal from donation boxes. It’s just a shitty, fucked up thing to do.