When a man loves a daughter

She lives in a teeny apartment in a scary part of town. What's a dad to do?

Published February 7, 2003 8:25PM (EST)

Only two hours after landing in Portland, Ore., my daughter and I are fighting. She's armed with her twentysomething, live-for-today, no-one-understands-me attitude. In my arsenal is a list of "Practical Life Items That If Not Addressed Can Bite You in the Ass." Health insurance. Car insurance. Community college application. Oregon driver's license. Boyfriends. Tattoos. Untreated depression. Lack of flossing.

My trip to Portland from my Midwest home can best be described, in law-enforcement vernacular at least, as a "welfare check." Three years have evaporated since my daughter graduated from high school. In that time she has lived in so many different apartments with so many different phone numbers and roommates that my address book has several messy pages just devoted to her. "Next time write in pencil," she suggests when I complain.

College didn't take. A semester living with her boyfriend ended poorly, and a forced semester in the dorms was a disaster. No wonder. She rarely slept a night there. Grades? Well, let's not discuss grades. So, after investing the remainder of the college funds in my retirement account, I finally let go of my unrealistic expectations and cut her loose to her own devices. Once again I have a bounce in my step.

My daughter has been supporting herself, more or less, working as a personal care attendant -- cleaning, feeding and wiping unresponsive quadriplegics. And I am proud of her. Really. To see her care for people in such need is heartwarming. She's even talking about someday enrolling in nursing school. For now the goal is Certified Nurse's Aid (CNA) training. In this newest stage of our lifetime relationship we both seem happier.

But I'm not pleased with her latest address. Aside from being 1,800 miles from my purview (and constructive nagging), I see a dangerous vulnerability she cannot see. She knows no one in this city and is not known for making new friends easily. She is living without a net. She is straying from the safety of my dreams and expectations -- and doesn't seem to mind.

My daughter moved to a Portland neighborhood not far from a freeway, an area without a view of the mountains. It is a diverse neighborhood filled with Tibetans, Hispanics, Chinese (much to the horror of newly arrived Tibetans), Vietnamese, Russians, Bosnians, Koreans and kids like my daughter, who gravitate to Portland; Seattle; Boise, Idaho; Denver; and Eugene, Ore., from small feeder towns in the West where their parents met, married (usually outside under aspens or oaks), gave birth, divorced, remarried, sometimes gave birth and divorced again, and then simply got old.

From an early age, kids of these unions enjoyed tremendous freedoms in their little Western Main Street towns, going back and forth between two homes and a cocktail of parents, stepparents, half-, whole and quarter-siblings, Mommy's partner, Daddy's special friend. Teacher-parent conferences at their grade schools were (in hindsight) like a vaudeville bit. Teacher: "So Dylan is your former partner's sister's half-daughter by your third marriage?" Parent: "No, Dylan is my Irish setter."

We (and our counselors) worried so much about the kids. Will they resent us for going back to school to study haiku? Is that cigarette smoke I smell? Will they sleep around as much as we did?

"I don't know why she doesn't talk to you," we whispered in the basement to new soul mates. Guilt propelled us to cave on every demand, every disposable hamster, gerbil and kitten. We consented to sleepovers that lasted entire weekends at the houses of kids we didn't really know. We may have never even met their parents. Who had the time? Or the energy? But all the time our kids were having a blast, always getting together with friends from other blended families, trading war stories, and planning their getaway.

My daughter's efficiency apartment in Portland consists of a bathroom no larger than a broom closet, and two rooms joined by a kitchen island. The rent is $500 a month, plus utilities -- the cheapest place she could find. (When she answered an ad in the Willamette Weekly to rent a room in a house, my daughter was asked by the landlady if she would mind sharing a room with the landlady's 16-year-old son.)

So my daughter lives alone with three shedding cats, rows of DVDs and CDs, an idle computer, a foldout couch (that I share with the cats), a chrome table and two chairs. Her neighbors in the next apartment are Cuban men who leer at her. One will eventually ask for her hand in marriage (she refuses and threatens to call the cops if he keeps knocking on her door at night), but this comes later -- around the time the INS swept through and cleaned out the apartment complex. My daughter's second-floor apartment has two windows with inspiring views of "Inter Asia Fingerprints," "Hubcap World," and what I fear is a meth lab. One of the windows doesn't lock. Only one exit. No fire escape, but there is a dishwasher.

We are fighting because I know the bottom line doesn't add up. Her meager paychecks will not cover the rent, the hundred-dollar phone bills from calling friends back in Idaho, the inevitable car- and cat-repair bills, her own medical needs, and, yes, food. I make this assessment after noting the empty cupboards and fridge. I trudge down to the Food 4 Less store and buy the following: toilet paper, nonfat milk, kitty litter, cat food, canned refried beans, white flour tortillas, salt (!), a spatula, raw broccoli, carrots, veggie burgers, fries and one cookie sheet.

I lug four large plastic bags down 82th Avenue, past Value Village, which the Portland Mercury, in its 2000 "Best of 82nd Avenue" edition, awarded the "Best Place to Ignore Crazy People." I rest near the Unicorn Inn, the "Best Place to Film Kiddie Porn," according to the Mercury, which finds at the Inn "mysterious black burns on the carpet, smoke stains on the walls, a weird shred of toilet paper somehow stuck to the back of the door, a clump of black, curly hair in the bathroom, rust-colored, magic-eye linoleum in the shower, a bed seemingly padded with newspapers, two lawn chairs reupholstered in New Southwest-patterned material."

Farther down the avenue is the Eastgate Theater -- "Best Place to Kill Someone" -- which is closed all the time. Writes the Mercury, "Nestled between an abandoned movie theater, an abandoned hardware store, and a home for the elderly, it's the perfect place for illicit drug deals, hot-rod speed trials, testing of homemade explosives, or any other noisy, frowned-upon activity that one should never do."

My daughter, who I sat in front of the radio to listen to the soothing tones of NPR liberalism, who went without television the first seven years of her life, to whom I read Dr. Seuss, who ate organic whole wheat pasta and brown rice scooped from a co-op bin, who has toured Italy (I haven't), whose self-esteem was propped up from the moment I cut the umbilical cord (home birth, of course) -- this daughter lives here. (Well, of course she does, I quietly concede in a moment of elucidation. Much to the chagrin of my own expanding inner conservative child, she is walking the walk of a free spirit liberal. If I still believed in karma, I could laugh about this.)

The decision to move to Portland from Idaho was my daughter's. I had left a year earlier for the Midwest and two years ago her mom left for California. Like so many of her friends, my daughter had been brought to rural Idaho so her parents could fulfill some back-to-the-land fantasy. (I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I thought urban parks were wilderness areas.) In the end, her mother and I left. After all, it wasn't really our home. Our children stayed because it was.

But divergent migratory paths should not diminish my authority as a parent. It is still my duty to tell her (again) that she needs a plan of action and, more immediately, a second job. She has a more pressing goal. Moby is playing at the Gorge and she has somehow finagled four days off from her new job. She still needs $50 for a bus ticket (my stomach flip-flops at the realization that my daughter rides Greyhound), but she gets her first paycheck next Friday.

"I'm not going to sit here alone on my 21st birthday!" she yells. When I suggest that losing four days of pay is impractical, she asks me to remember what I was like at her age. I assure her that she knows nothing of my youth.

But she is right. At her age I was even more of a mess. I survived on air, Jackson Browne eight-tracks, and the charity of friends. My attainable goals: to fill up the pages of my journals; to avoid all moneymaking opportunities; to make fun of kids my age who were working toward a career; to play Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" on the guitar; and to read everything ever written by Kerouac and Hesse and then pretend I shared their same angst, their same unrelenting quest to life's elusive questions.

I must realize, I remember writing in my journal, "It's all about the journey, not the destination." Ideas of home ownership, insurance, retirement or even two years in the future were as foreign to me as being responsible for the care and feeding of a child. The fog of adolescence didn't lift until I became a father.

The conversation deteriorates even further as my defiant daughter points out that all her friends are in the same leaky boat -- broke, depressed and underachieving. (Why can't she hang out with the overachievers?)

"How much money do you have?" I ask.

"I'm not sure," she answers. Translation: She is penniless.

I finally tire of arguing. I go into the bathroom and count out how many doses of BuSpar I have left. I have become a big fan of anti-anxiety drugs. "A half tab as needed. Possible side effects that may go away during treatment, include dizziness, lightheadedness, nervousness, excitement, headache, drowsiness, or nausea."

I pop half a tab and collect my thoughts. My heavy-handed approach is not working. This feels like a rerun of her teenage years. I tear up the list, and plunge back into the tiny living room. "Why don't we ride the bus around the city?" I suggest. And off we go.

The rest of the week improves when we reach an understanding: I collect job applications for her knowing she won't fill them out. She doesn't mention my past. I still slip in a few questions from my list, but I do it while we're out, where she has the space to maneuver. We ride buses and the light rail to upscale neighborhoods like the Hawthorne district and the groovy Belmont neighborhood, yet they seem less interesting (although safer) than 82nd Avenue. We eat pasta with fresh ground pepper in a downtown cafe, browse Powell's massive stacks, tour the historic Union Station, and hike in the gorgeous 5,000-acre Forest Park, the largest forested urban park in the nation.

In the evenings, when she is at work, I listen for the cocking of a gun or the metallic scrape of a switchblade fumbling at the door lock. I hear loud Spanish voices in the weedy parking lot. Univision soap operas screech from open doorways. Children scream and run between the buildings. The fenced used-car lots announce "Se Habla Espanol." A sign in a nearby residential street warns "Mexican-only parking." I feel like I'm camped out in Ciudad Juárez. I calm down by turning on the DVD player to watch "The Fight Club" and "L.A. Confidential." My daughter calls in the middle of her shift and asks if I'm all right. It's a sweet gesture, a peace offering of sorts.

Our happiest day is at the Oregon Zoo, where we negotiate battalions of strollers, often controlled by men in their 40s (my age and even older) on their second -- third? -- marriages, their pretty young wives in tow, carrying juice and Baby Wipes. The men have phones, pagers and PDAs strapped to their belts. (Not a good look for a man, by the way.) I could tell them a thing or two about what awaits them as parents. How the terrible twos are child's play compared to the turbulent 20s. How no matter what your best intentions are, children have to find their own way. And how your pharmacist becomes your best friend.

But for this one glorious day we are once again father and daughter marveling at the elephants, boas and big cats. I adore my daughter, her spunk, her humor, and, perhaps most of all, I adore her unrealized potential. One day she unexpectedly throws her arms around me and says with unusual enthusiasm, "I'm so glad you came." There is no better sound than those five simple words.

I buy snacks and souvenirs, and on the way back to southeast Portland, I even break the law by buying a book of rail tickets from a homeless woman for half-price. After a week, I begin to prefer the spiciness of southeast Portland to the generic and predictable pleasantness of the more upscale and white parts of the city. The Cubans no longer seem so sullen. They even begin to greet me with the universal language of charming smiles. I sleep through the night with the window open. Viva diversity!

As the week ends, I am also no longer as angry as that first night. Instead, I am envious of my daughter's youth. This age-old struggle to sort out all the opportunities in this country, to listen to your own guide, to take risks when you still sleep (as my daughter does) with stuffed animals -- this is what creates the architecture of a life. As my life drifts more and more toward the paunchy and comfortable, I crave my bohemian past. The fight to survive can be crushing -- it can also be exhilarating.

But each generation has it harder. The world is less patient with the necessary time needed for young adults to find themselves as it was when this boomer was spinning in place during his slacker years. So, although I am exasperated with the concept of choosing Moby over pay, my sympathies are with my daughter and her generation. I once chose Mexico over summer school, and I'm glad I did.

That's why I'm barely keeping it together on the way to the airport for the flight home to the Midwest. My daughter drives much too fast in her 1968 VW. I suppress tears while praying for a safe deliverance from this tiny, jagged-steel death trap. She drops me off in front of the terminal.

"I love you," I tell her. "Be safe," I remind her, while thinking how vulnerable she is, how dangerous the world really is and how there isn't much anyone can do about it. (Except to avoid watching "Dateline" and "America's Most Wanted.") As we say our goodbyes, I am teary. She is not. She gives me one of her better hugs and dramatically peels out, serenaded by the thumping bass of Dr. Dre from her stereo. I won't see her again for a year.

Off she goes, driving back to southeast Portland, back to the apartment without a fire exit, back to her hungry cats, her empty checking account, the circling bill collectors, and, most important, back to her dreams.

As for this fortysomething, twice-married dad, I'm still searching for answers, but the questions keep getting smaller. As in, where did I put that bottle of BuSpar?

By Stephen J. Lyons

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of "Landscape of the Heart," a memoir of single fatherhood. He lives in Washington state.This week he received a rejection letter that described his writing as "unfocused and full of broken glass." It actually made him feel good.

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