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December 22nd, 2010 WW Staff | Cover Story
 

The True Meaning of Christmas

Holiday tales about a monk, drunks and a megastore flunky.

     
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OK, so maybe it’s not such a wonderful life.

You’re broke and don’t feel like holiday shopping, even for a refrigerator magnet. You hate the whole season as one more contrived reason to be happy. Or you’re depressed because you don’t have a secret Santa.

Relax. We’ve got three holiday stories from Portlanders who have unique viewpoints on this supposedly merriest of seasons.

One tale is about what the Christmas and New Year’s seasons look like when you’re working behind the counter of a liquor store. A second takes you through the holiday buying frenzy that is Target from the point of view of that most disposable of elves, the “seasonal temp worker.” And a third tale is a Upper West Side child model-turned-Zen monk/couch surfer’s take on the city’s “gift economy.”

As Clarence told George Bailey in that black-and-white TNT classic, “Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw this away?”

Let The Holiday Spirits Move You

“Baby, it’s cold outside…well, maybe just a half a drink more.” —Frank Loesser

By Stacy Brownhill
sbrownhill@wweek.com


RUTH DENTLER: “Even people without a lot of money have money to buy liquor.” IMAGE: leahnash.com

Remember that Christmas when you ran out of booze at 10 am and hustled to the liquor store rather than face your in-laws sober? Or that New Year’s Eve when you made three separate trips because your buddies’ livers morphed into sponges?

The holiday season is a gold mine for liquor stores. Just ask Ruth Dentler, a garrulous, no-nonsense lady in her 40s who’s worked the register at Uptown Liquor on West Burnside Street and Northwest 23rd Avenue for the past 20 years.

Better known as “Ruthie” to customers, she says Portlanders seek her advice year-round on everything from pet health to stocks. But during the holidays, family-drama counseling takes center stage.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a psychiatrist,” muses Dentler, “but I’m someone to vent to. I try to tell people as best as I can.”

Last Thursday, nine days before Christmas, a weary customer griped to Dentler about procrastinating on his holiday shopping.

“Don’t you stress,” she told him while ringing up his two fifths of whiskey. “It’ll be fine no matter what happens.”

A Portland mother of two adult children, Dentler couldn’t imagine doing anything else, even when the rest of us might snap at hearing holiday tale after tale from strangers. She got into the liquor business after burning out on bartending, a job in which “people weren’t as friendly by the end of the night.”

Dentler has a lot of stories from her two decades of selling booze around the holidays.

She recalls dealing with a sloppily dressed man in his 40s who made the mistake of sticking a bottle of cheap vodka down his pants one afternoon around Christmas. “I pulled it right out,” says Dentler. “He was shocked.”

She chuckles remembering the time a group of Santa Clauses from local department stores came into Uptown to stock up on an assortment of mini-liquors before their pub crawl. Why? They told her they needed it after having demanding kids sit on their laps all week.

And she’s fond of an old lady in Nob Hill who buys dozens of miniature liquor bottles, one of each kind, as glittering ornaments for her Christmas tree each year.

There are multitudes of the unemployed who seek Dentler’s sympathetic ear, a larger class this year as unemployment remains above 10 percent.

“It’s not a good thing, but they get their release here,” says Dentler. “Even people without a lot of money have money to buy liquor.”

Besides the free advice, people come to Dentler to witness her eclectic holiday costumes.

For Christmas she wears blinking lights or a Santa Claus outfit. For New Year’s she dumps glitter in her hair and dons a glamorous party shirt. (Dentler has been a basket of eggs, bunny rabbit and duck for Easter, and a pregnant lady for Labor Day.)

The woman clearly knows her hard stuff—small-but-mighty Uptown has been the No. 1 selling liquor store in Oregon for more than 10 years, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. The store hauled in nearly $8 million in gross alcohol revenue this past fiscal year alone.

And it’s when candy canes, dreidels and relatives start to crowd your sanity that this 2,500-square-foot Uptown Shopping Center outpost really comes alive. The winter holidays increase the store’s overall sales between 70 percent and 80 percent, including bigger sales to nearby restaurants and caterers. The revenue from over-the-counter sales is double the usual—Baileys Irish Cream, Grand Marnier and vodka fly off the shelves.

Uptown store owner Russ Kelley has developed a few theories over the years as to whether quantity or quality raises sales around the holidays.

Both play a role. Christmas finds folks shelling out for pricier liquor. “You have family in town; you’re going to buy the best and show off,” says Kelley.

New Year’s, on the other hand, is about excess.

“People who usually buy Stoli will downgrade to Smirnoff because they’re just drinking with buddies,” he says, “and not necessarily trying to impress the family.”

Liqueurs such as Baileys, Frangelico and peppermint schnapps are big sellers this time of year and find their way into people’s hot cocoa or coffee, says Kelley. Flavored vodkas are popular and new kinds come out each year, including chocolate, pomegranate, blueberry, whipped cream and plum.

Any concern about contributing to holiday alcoholism does not keep Dentler or Kelley up at night.

“Potato chips, Coke, candy…it’s all not good for you,” says Dentler. “At least we’re controlling who buys [liquor]. People have the choice to buy it; we’re not holding a gun to their heads. After you walk out the door it’s your responsibility what you do.”


FACT: Uptown Liquor will be open on Christmas Eve till 6 pm and New Year&rsquos Eve till 7 pm. Pets are welcome.

A Very Target Holiday

My life as a megastore flunky dealing with “zombies.”

By Jessica Lutjemeyer
jlutjemeyer@wweek.com


IT’S A WRAP: Tales from one Target cash register. IMAGE: leahnash.com

As an unpaid intern at WW, I had to find a paying job so I could keep the journalism dream alive.

And, fortunately for me, Target goes on a year-end holiday hiring spree to handle the hordes of shoppers who descend on the store like zombies in search of flesh.

After three days of training in the Mall 205 store two weeks before Black Friday, I now wear one of the megastore’s shirts in the signature red, five days a week, as a temporary seasonal cashier at $8.50 an hour.

I’m often the last employee people deal with before they wheel their red carts full of oversized red-and-white bags out through the double doors, under the giant red bull’s-eye logo.

I’ve learned during this holiday rush that most customers—er, I mean “guests”—can be sorted into six groups.

  • The bespectacled hipsters who rarely make eye contact and whisper hello and goodbye as they’re scurrying away, bag in hand of DIY gingerbread-house kits and mini-bags of coffee from the dollar bin.

  • The mysteriously tan-in-winter, stroller-pushing moms with their Louis Vuitton wallets, Gucci purses and too-big diamond rings there to buy baby clothes, diapers, milk and multicolored Christmas lights and beaded garlands.

  • The strung-out meth heads with toothless grins, oblivious to the holidays while they split their bill for a cell phone with prepaid minutes between debit card and cash.

  • The geriatric patrons who demand a large plastic bag for each embroidered Christmas sweater they’re buying, afraid they’ll be accused of stealing by not having a bag.

  • The brazen bunch who try to pay almost entirely in coupons and are determined to get a bargain a few days before Christmas, regardless of whether the DVD of classic holiday movies is on sale or damaged.

  • The patchouli-scented hippies who I’m sure swear on their dreadlocks their contemporary-craft Christmas ornaments are locally handmade and vegan, and certainly not from Target.

Most guests are friendly enough despite the holiday frenzy. But one incident surely harshed my mellow in the run-up to peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

I was working alone at a check lane near the store’s mall entrance two days after Thanksgiving. A disheveled homeless man in his early 30s, with knotted hair, a salt-and-pepper beard, torn clothing and an overpowering urine smell, came through the line. The guests behind him pretended not to notice the odor. I didn’t breathe the whole time he stood in front of me.

He asked me if the juice he wanted was still $1.69. I nodded as I dizzily waited for him to count his change in pennies, nickels and dimes. I hesitantly stuck out my hand as he dropped one coin at a time into my cupped palm.

As I counted his pennies, I noticed he was fumbling with his heavily stained and ill-fitting black trousers. I looked up and saw him touching himself beneath his sagging, unzipped pants. With a growing line of guests, I prayed he wouldn’t do what I thought he was going to do.

I quickly counted the rest of the change, shoved the juice into his hand and, relieved, watched him as he shuffled away in his no-longer-white sneakers.

I felt like an insensitive creep for exuding so little compassion, but this definitely wasn’t your happy holiday scene. In fact, it now ranks with a family Christmas dinner when I was 11 and my grandfather’s dentures clacked and his hearing aids rang the whole time, unbeknownst to him.

Truth be told, though, working in a big-box store hasn’t been as dispiriting or brainlessly commercial as I imagined.

In the weeks before Christmas, I’ve rung up a basketball, a soccer ball and two Barbies for a twentysomething couple who intended to donate the goods to a toy drive.

And I’ve rung up $360 worth of toys, clothing, toiletries, food and decorations for a couple in their 30s who wanted to donate all that to needy children.

While I’ve encountered other generous guests, perhaps the most memorable act of benevolence occurred when two women in their early 70s entered my check line about 10:45 pm on Dec. 14.

It was an hour and 15 minutes before closing, and they had four shopping carts filled with microwave ovens, blenders, coffee makers, portable grills and other kitchen appliances.

My manager had just finished explaining to me that Target policy doesn’t let guests buy more than two or three of certain items, as Target isn’t a wholesale store.

So I called my manager over to get his OK for the $500 purchase. He asked why they wanted to buy so many of the kitchenwares, and they explained they planned to donate them to veterans in the Portland area.

They seemed pretty nice for zombies.

Presents Of Mind

Satya Vayu knows the reason for the season. It’s not under the tree.

by Christina Cooke
ccooke@wweek.com


STREET MONK: Satya Vayu (right) serves food he’s collected and prepared at a Food Not Bombs gathering at Colonel Summers Park. IMAGE: leahnash.com

Satya Vayu and I are sitting across from each other on floor pillows in the sparse living room of the house where he’s staying in Southeast Portland. His legs are crossed and his feet are bare, the bottoms calloused and dirty from walking around shoeless outside.

He’s telling me how he’s gotten by without working for an income or spending a substantial amount of money for almost two decades. He calls his way of life voluntary simplicity. “We already have what we need and it’s time to enjoy it, instead of trying to get more and make more,” he says. “The more you do it, the more you realize there’s joy just in attentiveness in and appreciation of each detail of life.”

The 41-year-old ordained Zen monk thrives on practically nothing. He lives where he is invited, crashing in the spare bedrooms, basements and backyards of acquaintances. He finds all of his clothes, including the billowy wool pants and chunky wool sweater he’s wearing now, in curbside free boxes. He collects food from the dumpsters and the throwaway piles of bakeries, grocers and farmers markets. And he walks or bikes everywhere he goes, even if it’s in Wyoming. On top of all that, Vayu spends hours a day in meditation, often outside, even in the rain.

During this holiday season, as most of us elbow our way through shopping malls, the simplicity of Vayu’s life stands out in especially stark contrast.

“The beauty of the holidays has to do with community and sharing, and commercialization and buying things is completely opposed to that,” says Vayu, an Oberlin graduate with striking blue eyes and a close-cut beard. “Sharing comes from giving away your time and attention and energy, not material objects.”

Vayu, born Matthew Seltzer, was raised in a 15th-floor apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. At the age of 5, his mother secured him the highest-paying job of his life, as a child model. He appeared in a Macy’s ad in The New York Times and on the packaging of a toy football player that punted when you hit its head. “It was $50 an hour,” he says. “It’s kind of funny, because now I think advertising is one of the darkest, most harmful forces in world culture.”

Though his parents were atheists of Jewish descent who only halfheartedly celebrated the holidays, he remembers waking up extra early on Christmas morning to open presents. He also remembers thinking, when his parents gave him underwear and socks, “It’s a scam!”

In college, Vayu studied creative writing, but he was more interested in drumming in an improv band with no actual songs except for Talking Heads or Rolling Stones covers. He was outgoing, but not around women and not in front of large audiences (as a DJ for the school radio station, he often played half-hour Tibetan chants to avoid having to talk on air).

Once he discovered meditation, it became an all-consuming passion that led him to the Berkeley Zen Center after graduation and then on a near-decade-long journey between Zen centers in the U.S. and monasteries in Japan and Korea. His contemplative practice, and seeing the happiness of the “poor” cultures at the end of a 30-day walking pilgrimage across the Himalayas, inspired him to begin the process of “joyfully renouncing” his material possessions and actions he views as damaging to the earth. He was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1995 and changed his name to Satya Vayu, Sanskrit for “Truth Wind.”

After returning to the States for good in 2000, Vayu lived a transient life for a few years. He settled full time in Portland in 2002 and has since devoted himself to running a meditation community and collecting throwaway (but still good) food for Food Not Bombs community-building gatherings in Colonel Summers Park.

“I think some people see him as too arrogant or strong or stuck in his ways, and maybe they feel intimidated because he has a very strong personality,” says Sara Monial, 28, who stopped using money and has lived alongside Vayu since meeting him at a full-moon gathering three years ago. “He knows how he feels about things, and he says it, and he’s uncompromising.”

For a brief period last year, Vayu, Monial and others began setting up a meditation community called “Flourishing Clouds Hermitage” in a half-torn-down house with no heat on Southeast 50th Avenue near Woodstock, but that fizzled after a neighbor reported them to the city for not having electricity.

These days, he leads Sunday meditation sessions from wherever he’s living.

Vayu leads me downstairs to check out the space that’s his in his current house. Turns out, it’s a foam mat on the concrete floor of the single-car garage. Surrounding it are all of his possessions: a camping mat, sleeping bag and stack of wool sweaters, and, in boxes on a shelf, the remains of his monastic robes, Buddhist books, a rocket stove and some pots. Not much, compared with what’s in most people’s houses.

Many people would label him a “freeloader,” but Vayu challenges that word. He explains that in a “gift economy” of the Buddhist tradition, people give what they’re able—in his case, his character, practice and contemplative teachings—and naturally receive what they need without having to concern themselves with who is getting how much of what.

“To me, that’s completely ridiculous, this idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to be responsible, following the trend of what’s expected by society,” he said. “That’s not interesting to me.”

Sometimes, Vayu says, his housemates grow resentful of him for getting for free what they’re paying for. “I’m very clear, I would love anyone who feels that way to join me in my privilege,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Stop paying rent. You won’t be able to stay here, but both of us will go somewhere else.’ People don’t want to.” If they argue that it would not be sustainable for everyone to live like he does, for free, he counters, “If we all decided to stop working for money, all these houses would belong to all of us. The whole culture would change.”

He says there are times when he wants things, sure—like now, a tambura (a long-necked lute)—but he’s not willing to compromise his principles to purchase them. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed anything I’ve given up,” he says, explaining that because his process has been so gradual, he’s felt ready for each renunciation. “With each step of simplification of my life, there’s an incredible sense of release.”

Simon Walter-Hansen, a 32-year-old former software developer who is also in the process of simplifying his lifestyle said Vayu recently lived in his basement for four months and, while there, led daily meditations and introduced ideas such as the Humanure compostable toilet. (Some of the housemates resisted the idea, although Walter-Hansen eventually embraced it.)

“He’s probably the most outspoken person I know on the idea of alternative lifestyles,” Walter-Hansen said. “I think of him as being someone who has an awareness of the connections in the world and in the universe, and is living in that presence. I see him as a beacon of information.”

This holiday season, Vayu will continue living as he does each day, modestly and deliberately. He plans to spend time with friends and run a five-day silent meditation retreat in honor of the winter solstice.

Oh, and one more thing: “I would like to go caroling,” he says.


FACT: Though Vayu still follows the spirit of Buddhism, he is reluctant to identify with the institution because he dislikes the divisiveness of formal religious groups.

 
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